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The Amazon Hiring Process - We Want Missionaries not Mercenaries

Today’s employment market is extremely tight.  Most of us are looking for concessions and other inducements to encourage prospective employees to join our teams.  And yet, we can’t afford not to be choosy about the folks we hire.  The cost of turnover, even if you welcome the departure of the employee, is too high in terms of dollars (typically at least $20,000) and opportunity cost of adjustment time to compromise in our hiring.

The first thing to look for is, as Jeff Bezos said, is missionaries, not mercenaries. We have all encountered mercenaries in our career. They are working for themselves, motivated solely by personal benefits such as money, resume building etc.  They are not committed to your company and are most likely to depart during challenging times.  Missionaries are people who embody your company’s ethos – mission, vision and leadership principles.  Those employees are likely to retain longer and be more effective during their employment as their productivity is closely aligned with your goals and delivery ethos.

The stakes of hiring most of your employees, including front-life customer-facing people, are high. Your employees execute strategy, embody your brand and create franchise value for your company. Putting more rigor into the hiring process to improve your success ratio of effective hiring is a good investment. 

One can develop a hiring process that is particularly geared toward hiring missionaries.  Amazon certainly did early in its life and has generally stuck with the process since that time.  The process avoids several pitfalls endemic to many hiring processes:

  • Urgency bias – hiring out of necessity since the open position is critical (banks practice that particularly with teller hires)
  • Interview questions that lack specificity and purpose
  • Confirmation bias as the interview process unfolds (we all tend to focus on the positive elements that others identify and downplay negative and contradictory signals) and groupthink
  • Personal bias (surrounding yourself with people who are like you), which overemphasizes superficial similarities and underemphasizes diversity and original thinking

What makes the Amazon process effective and applicable to all my readers? It has several features we can all implement to improve our hiring results.

  • Assigning a seasoned interviewer (Bar Raiser) for the final interview, whose job is to ensure that only quality hires are made.  Their success is not defined by the number of hires they have or by vacancy factors.  The specialist interviewer receives unique training, and also participates in every interview loop to continue to raise the bar and constantly improve the process.  They also have veto power on hires at Amazon.

  • Have a meaningful job description.  It is the hiring manager’s job to write the job description, and it needs to be clear enough, specific and focused, for any applicant to know what is needed to be successful in that job.

  • Review resumes.  Once the recruiter has a good selection of resumes, the hiring manager should review them.  If the selected prospects are off target, the job description needs to be reviewed and adjusted. 

  • Phone screen.  Phone interviews are often used to screen a large pool of prospects into a culled candidate group.  A set of questions should be generated by the hiring manager that will solicit examples of the prospect’s past behavior.  The interviewed then takes 75% of the time allotted to follow these questions, leaving the candidate 25% of the time to ask their own questions.  All too often interviewers spend most of the time talking about the job and the company rather than listening.  Setting clear expectations on the interview flow can stave off this tendency.

    The hiring manager decides after the detailed phone screen whether the candidate should be invited for a broader interview.

  • In house interviews.  The in-house interview process is a loop that takes nearly a full day to complete, and therefore is an expensive process that requires much advance planning.  Amazon discovered that 5-7 interviewers is the optimal number, with diminishing returns for both more and fewer participants.  In addition to the hiring manager and the Bar Raiser, the other interviewers must posses a number of qualifications to participate in the process.

    • Trained in the company’s interviewing process (Amazon provides a half-day course on the topic) plus conducting one real interview under the tutelage of an experienced interviewer
    • Interviewers cannot be more than one level below the position the candidate is interviewing for
    • Ensure a direct report isn’t interviewing potentially their prospective boss


There are a couple of distinguishing features to the Amazon interview process:

  • Behavioral interviewing.  The goal is to assess how well the candidate’s past behavior and work style match with the Amazon leadership principles.  The typical information we gather about candidates does not correlate well to their cultural or work style fit.  The interview is focused far more on how the candidate achieved specific milestones rather than what’s those were.  A good example is this question: “Give me an example of a time when your team proposed to launch a new initiative and you pushed back on the proposed path”.  

Skilled interviewers will then follow up with probing questions to get to the root cause and the actual role the candidate played in achieving the goal.  That process is acronymed STAR:

  • Situation - what was the situation?
  • Task - what were you tasked with
  • Action - what did you  do?
  • Result - what happened
  • Written feedback. Written feedback is an essential communication tool for the entire interview team.  It should be specific, detailed and filled with examples from the interview, particularly when addressing the Amazon Leadership Principles.  At the conclusion of the feedback, the interviewer votes on the candidate.  “Undecided” is not an option.  Their four options range from strongly inclined to hire to strongly not inclined to hire.  A clear position must be articulated.

  • Debrief.  Once all previous steps have been completed, the interviewers get together.  The Bar Raiser leads the meeting which typically occurs within a week of the interviews.  Everyone reads their written feedback first, then the Bart Raiser asks for additional feedback now that everyone has heard everyone else’s perspective.  There is no shame in changing your vote at this juncture.  The Bar Raiser often assembles a pros and cons list during the meeting, using the Socratic method to elicit critical thinking discussions and yield a group decision.  While the Bar Raiser has veto power, they rarely use it.

    Interestingly, the purpose of the meeting is NOT for the hiring manager to sell the room on the candidate, but rather to help the hiring manager make a fully informed decision with all perspectives on hand.

  • Reference check. This is often a mechanical process, but it does offer opportunities for gleaning further insights.  A good question to ask while checking references, for exam,ple, is: “If given the opportunity, would you hire this person again?”  Or “of the people you’ve managed and worked with, in what percentile would you place this candidate?”

  • Offer through onboarding.  At Amazon, the hiring manager makes the offer, not the recruiter.  One should not assume the candidate has chosen your company, hence it is important for the hiring manager to cement the relationship with the candidate in advance and get them excited about the opportunity to join the team.  At Amazon, after the offer is made, the hiring manager also checks with the candidate weekly until the final decision is make.  An example of a checkpoint is an email reiterating their excitement about working with the candidate, or a book recommendation.  The goal here is to deepen your knowledge of the candidate and identify pertinent factors to their final employment selection decision.  Last, an email from a very senior person in the company carries a lot of weight with most candidates.

As I describe this process it might appear lengthy, almost bureaucratic.  And yet, when such important decisions are at stakes, it makes sense to invest upfront to reduce the likelihood of making a bad hiring decision.  The sole purpose of this process is to reduce hiring error rate, increase employee retention and identify upfront what works and what doesn’t in the recruitment process by involving a Bar Raiser with deep experience and discipline in the process.

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