What if Hiring Didn’t Have to Hurt?

What if Hiring Didn’t Have to Hurt?

Building more human-centered hiring practices at WP and beyond

By Sara O’Brien


New hires at WP

WP’s newest hires from left to right: Kellyn Baez, Naomi Lowinger, and Jackie Brenner

What comes to mind when you think of recruitment and hiring? Most of us go quickly to the worst-evers and the might-have-beens: the most painful job interview, the most ridiculous power games, the salary negotiation we wished we’d pushed a little harder on. We seem to see hiring as a process that we just have to grit our teeth and survive in order to grow our careers or our organizations.

A few years ago, the Willamette Partnership team recognized a need to make our recruitment, hiring, and onboarding processes more consistent with our organizational values. How can we expect folks joining our organization to bring joy to their work, invest in collaboration, and center equity if their very first interaction with our team doesn’t demonstrate those values? We set to work – all of us! – to build a better system. We leaned a lot on help from external partners —especially TREC (Training Resources for the Environmental Community) and Vu Le’s (incredibly awesome) Nonprofit AF blog.

At first, we just wanted to defuse some of the power and formality that drives traditional (ie. dominant culture) hiring practices. But we quickly found that just removing that structure can actually reinforce inequities. Imagine a hiring process where your potential future boss just wants to “sit down and have an informal conversation” instead of a formal interview. Does the power gradient lessen? Or does it just get driven underground, where you need to be even more attuned to culturally-specific behaviors and relationships to manage it? 

As a result of this shared work and learning, the WP team has made some significant changes in our last few rounds of hiring that we think have resulted in a more transparent, equitable, communicative, and fundamentally human process. Here are a few things that seem to be working well for us right now.

1. Build a strong hiring team. We approach hiring as a collaborative effort. Typically, a team member who will be working closely with the new hire will take the lead and work with our executive director or program director to form a hiring team with diverse strengths, identities, and tenure with the organization. This team will work together to define their roles, map out the hiring timeline, and collaborate and communicate from the beginning to the end of the hiring process.

2. Develop outreach materials that feel good to engage with and meet the applicant where they are. For us, outreach materials are not written for the benefit of the supervisor or the organization, they’re for the candidate.

A good job description helps candidates decide whether they’re a good fit and get excited about the organization and the position. We always include a friendly intro and organizational information like our core values and a description of our work culture.

Recently, we’ve also hosted webinars to give prospective candidates, who can ask questions anonymously, a deeper understanding of the position and what it’s like to work at Willamette Partnership. We try to include a specific example of a project that we’d expect the hire to work on, and details on what their daily work might look like.

“Applying for jobs can often be a vulnerable, not to mention time consuming process. I really appreciated Willamette Partnership’s consistent communication that made me feel they understood and valued that effort, whether or not they were going to consider me for the position.”

Naomi Lowinger, recent hire for WP


And of course, we always post the salary range and offer to share additional details on our compensation approach. We are as clear as possible about what we’d like to see in a candidate’s application materials, including which criteria we’re flexible on and which we’re not. To reduce bias and recruit for strengths, we emphasize the skills and experience we are seeking over specific educational background or degrees.

3. Post the job and share it widely. We want to make sure as many people as possible see our job posting outside of our immediate network. This means we not only share the job on our website (in multiple locations) but also through our social media channels, newsletters, job boards, and with partners who can help spread the word.

“Thanks so much for the information! I really appreciate your efficient and transparent hiring process.”

– Applicant 2022

4. Use structure to reduce bias in initial application review. We have a staff member who is not reviewing resumes collect all the applications and redact any information that might bias our hiring team: the applicant’s name, address, and anything that would identify their age, race, gender, etc. Next, we review these applications using a scoring rubric to help ensure that each reviewer is looking at the application materials through the same lens of questions and qualifications that were listed in the job description. Finally, and importantly, we ask one member of the hiring team to loop back through the unredacted applications to make sure that our redactions didn’t cause us to miss any lived experiences that could be relevant to the position. The highest-scoring applicants are then invited to interview, and we try to err on the side of including more candidates at this point to make sure we’re not over-emphasizing written materials. We often do an initial round of virtual 30-minute screening interviews if this approach lands us with more than 5 or 6 well-qualified candidates.

5. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. How many times have you applied somewhere and never heard back? Or got left hanging for weeks while the organization made a final hiring decision before they let you know where you stood?  We never want an applicant to feel forgotten or lost in the shuffle. Our goal with every hiring process is to:

  • Send a timely, friendly personal note to every applicant we don’t interview.
  • Let folks that are interviewing know up front when they can expect to hear from us next. Whenever possible, we aim not to leave anyone hanging for more than about a week. If our process gets delayed for some reason, we’ll let them know.
  • Share appreciation and substantive feedback to candidates that interview but are not selected for the position. Once folks have provided us with written materials and an interview or two, we know they’ve invested a lot of time and emotional energy in us. If we choose not to hire them at that point, they deserve a heartfelt thank you and whatever level of feedback they’re interested in.

6. Interview with intention. Traditional interview techniques tend to favor candidates that prefer to think fast, process out loud, and, well… can make up stuff that sounds good on the spot. Most of the time, that’s not really the primary skill we’re hiring for. We structure our work so that folks with different processing and communication styles can excel, so we aim to structure interviews that way, too. This is a place we’d love to hear tips from others.  

We do this by sharing our interview questions with candidates 24 hours in advance of their interviews. We only read those interview questions in the same order in every interview. This approach enables applicants to prepare ahead of time and to know exactly what to expect. We’ve particularly heard back from applicants who use English as a second language and those who are more internal rather than external processors that this creates a more equitable and inclusive interview space. 

We also leave space for our interviewees to ask us questions. To be a good, lasting match, the connection has to be mutually beneficial, and the candidate has to be as excited to choose us as we are to choose them.

7. Making our pitch. After our final reference check and before we send out a written offer letter, our executive director or hiring lead reaches out with a friendly email and/or phone call to share how excited we are to offer them a position. We offer to answer any additional questions, connect the candidate with other staff members or partners for informal conversations, and outline our proposal for compensation. This includes detailed information on all of our salary ranges, how we ensure pay equity among employees, exactly how we reached our offer, and what criteria are used to make decisions on future raises and promotions. We’re currently working on a data-driven approach to cost of living increases, so we’ll include that in the future.


“Interviews are supposed to be a conversation to determine a good fit for BOTH parties. Willamette Partnership providing interview questions in advance, position webinars, and detailed job descriptions with example projects showed me they valued applicants’ time. Their process allowed me to bring my best self to the interviews because I had a clearer vision of what I could be signing up for.”

Kellyn Baez, recent hire for WP

Another tip: For the first round of interviews, we try to leave our executives out and make sure we include at least one staff member that’s newer to our team. This helps reduce the power gradient and hopefully creates a more comfortable space.

We’ve gotten really useful feedback from candidates and our own staff, and we’ll continue to improve the process with each new team member we hire. Let us know what changes you think we should make next!

In her role as Executive Director, Sara O'Brien, is Willamette Partnership’s chief strategist, lead conductor, and biggest fan. Under her leadership, Willamette Partnership is helping to build a future in which people build resilient ecosystems, healthy communities, and vibrant economies by investing in nature. Most recently, Sara was Willamette Partnership's Director of Strategy and Business, helping to refine its business strategy and identify opportunities for growth. She previously worked at Defenders of Wildlife, the University of Arizona's Institute of the Environment, and the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia. Sara holds a B.A. in anthropology and linguistics from Grinnell College and an M.S. in natural resource management from the University of Arizona. In her spare time, she enjoys relaxing with projects such as managing a farm, building a straw bale house, and raising children.


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