Hiring Decisions: Are Amazon’s Three Hiring Questions Realistic For All Companies?

A few weeks ago, I read Mashable's article, Three Hiring Questions to Steal from Amazon’s CEO and was inspired by the hiring questions Jeff Bezos wants considered throughout the organization. I started learning the importance of good hiring decisions in my first part-time job as a 16 year old working in a fast food restaurant and have continued to see the value of hiring the right people in other companies I have worked. We’ve all likely been there in being either very happy about a new employee or questioning why certain characteristics were not caught in the interview process. How can we prevent the latter?

Bezos suggested that management consider:

  1. Will you admire this person?
  2. Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness to the group they are entering?
  3. Along what dimensions would this person be a superstar?

A key takeaway from my MBA experience is that new ideas are almost always executed more effectively when discussed with a group of people with experience in the area. Even if I feel like I have a good grasp of the topic and how it would work, there are almost always areas that I didn’t consider. Remembering this, I talked with management professors Kevin Henderson and Liz Welsh to learn their opinion on whether or not we should all copy Amazon’s hiring plan.

Will these questions work at all companies or for all positions?

Henderson: These questions are most likely to work with companies that have a low selection ratio and thus have the ability to be a bit pickier about who they hire.  A company like Google for example frequently has thousands of applicants for each job opening they have.  When you have so many people to choose from, you can afford to set the bar high and only hire people 1) you admire, 2) who will raise the average level of performance, and 3) have multiple superstar qualities.  If you're a smaller company with a higher selection ratio or you're already severely understaffed, you might not be able to be so picky about who you hire.  As a result, these questions might not be as useful.

Welsh: The questions are not bad to think about when making hiring decisions. However, the values of the organization will make a difference in whether or not they would be effective. If used, those hiring need to go in with a good idea of how they would define a “superstar” in the position. That is different depending on the organization. For instance, at a technology company being a superstar in programming may be more important than at a customer service company where strong communication skills may be the superstar quality. Similarly, understanding what qualities are admirable within the organization is important to understand. This will also likely align with the organizations values.

What would you add if you were to make a list of areas to consider when making hiring decisions?

Welsh: First and foremost, the candidate must be screened for whether they have the skills needed to do the job or could be trained. At Microsoft, interviews often included people from other groups within the organization. This was to help answer the second question about raising the average level of performance of the group. By doing this, they provided a non-threatening way to find the most talented people to add rather than those who will be most like the group they are entering. Those within the group are less likely to hire someone who is more skilled than they are.

What do you like about this list?

Henderson: Overall, I like the last two questions better than the first.  To me, admiring or respecting a person is something that takes years to cultivate.  In the vast majority of cases, you're not going to personally know an applicant well enough to know if you admire him/her by the time you have to make the hiring decision.  I see the point Mr. Bezos is trying to make, but I think it sets a really high bar that very few applicants will be able to hurdle.

The other two questions are quite strong and echo some of the things I've heard about from other technology companies, like Microsoft and Google. For example, Microsoft back in the 1990s had a default "do not hire" policy.  They were very keen on resisting "settling" for an average or satisfactory candidate and would only hire if they could identify a clear reason to do so.  To me, the second and third questions get at this point, but in a different way.  Both approaches have the purpose of avoiding an "average" employee.  Bill Gates noted that the problem with these types of employees is that they are unlikely to be weeded out by the performance management system and thus they would take the spot of someone who could be above-average for your company.