Buying in a Seller’s Market: 5 Expert Tips for Startups Hiring During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is set to wipe out the equivalent of 195 million jobs around the world. While the statistic is sobering, this large pool of job-seeking talent has the potential to enrich the startup ecosystem if emerging companies are able to adjust and attract candidates who were previously unattainable.

At the same time, many people are now entering the job market for another reason – they are seeing the current crisis as a time for a change. Some may have lost confidence in their sector, or feel like their career development has been stagnant for too long.

Competition is fierce in recruiting top talent right now. The remote shift means people are no longer restricted to applying to positions near their location. Likewise, skills are being prioritized over experience, allowing employees to switch careers and transition into new industries, and notably tech.

While the new demands of the employment market pose a challenge for startups – who can’t usually offer salaries that compete with big tech companies – it’s also a huge opportunity to prove to highly skilled candidates that they can offer a whole lot more than paychecks.

Being flexible, creating an environment where employees can grow, and encouraging a learning culture are often synonymous with startup culture. In such uncertain times, these qualities attract candidates that are looking for a place to nurture their untapped potential and reach long-term professional development, in a way that corporations can’t. If used right, startups have the tools at their disposal to bring on board a loyal, highly-skilled workforce.

Here’s how to harness those tools to snag the best talent during and after COVID-19.

1. Be open to career shifters

Layoffs, furloughs, and a general period of isolated self-reflection has many people reconsidering their general career paths. A recent UK survey found that 7 out of 10 workers are more likely to change job sectors in the near future, while 1 in 5 people unemployed as a result of the pandemic are planning towards a new career.

Though it may initially seem counterintuitive, career shifters can be hugely beneficial to your company. They offer a background, network and soft skills that give a much-needed alternative insight into finding solutions and growing your startup. Put simply, they’ll broach issues in ways you and your team might never have even considered. Career shifting is also psychologically enriching, meaning you’ll likely be onboarding an employee who’s more professionally and personally satisfied (and productive).

It’s harder for recruiters to spot the relevant skill set in a career shifter, as they usually try to find candidates that can tick the standard boxes – criteria career shifters won’t meet if assessed in a traditional way. Startups need to shift their recruitment approach in a way that identifies potential, rather than proven experience. So if and when you find applicants coming out of left field, take a good look at what part of your jigsaw they might fit into. We know the case of a journalist who became a great UX designer because, for example, she knew how to interview customers in a way that tapped into how users would engage with a product.

Some of the biggest names in business were career-shifters: the CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos was a computer scientist; the co-founder of Buzzfeed Jonah Peretti was a teacher; and fashion designer Vera Wang was a journalist. 

2. Embrace remote hiring opportunities

Recruitment data shows that applicants for remote positions rose by 105 percent in a single week in March. Being in sync with job seekers means moving your hiring process online and using virtual events, networking, software and hiring platforms to connect with talent.

For instance, HackerRank is hosting a two-day online career fair in September where candidates can browse tech companies from across the US. There is also a whole host of virtual recruitment events happening for specific states. Hiring software like SkillSurvey, LinkedIn Talent Solutions and Greenhouse are optimized for sourcing, tracking, and automating the hiring journey. 

There are also digital tools to maximize what you’re getting out of the remote interview process, for example by integrating tests with programs like CodinGame, which generates gamified coding assessments. 

To onboard foreign talent, you can facilitate the transition by using tools like Remote – this acts as the employer of record, so startups don’t have to set up international entities to hire people overseas. 

3. Focus on skills, not job titles

Traditional recruitment practices make you think your next executive has to be a ‘X specialist’ with ‘X years of experience,’ when actually, those specifications are restricting your search horizons. What you’re more likely to need at a time like this is a trailblazer, someone who keeps a cool head in the face of adversity, who can communicate calmly and act compassionately. If you advertise for a compartmentalized role, your chances of finding the right person are also boxed in.

Start by reviewing your job descriptions. Try writing a listing that details the problems to be solved, not merely the duties. And rather than a checklist of concrete requirements such as qualifications, specify the competencies needed to excel at the job. That can include soft skills like empathy, time-management, and flexibility. Encourage applicants to submit portfolios, not resumes, that show their achievements in action. 

At the interview stage, get personal without being unprofessional. Ask people how they have coped with the pandemic, how they innovate, and what skills they want to learn in the future. Pay attention to how they interact with you and how they think on the spot. Consider if they’re a culture fit and mentally note the ways they could elevate your team as a whole.

4. Drive diversity

Boosting diversity isn’t you doing a service to society; it can benefit your company in multiple ways. Better morale, higher productivity, positive brand image, and higher profits are just a few of the impacts of a more diverse team. 

The remote revolution has flung open the door for more diversity-conscious recruitment, as distance teams eliminate location bias and reduce the pressure and judgement of in-office environments. Not to mention, remote work allows caregivers to accelerate their careers, as well as accessibility for people with disabilities. This inclusivity means the level of talent potentially coming your way has reached new heights. 

Before you can fully harness the diverse candidate pool, you need to take an honest look at your startup and see if you actively welcome and respect people from all backgrounds. Is diversity a known, core value at your company? Do you regularly host discussions, workshops or external training about diversity? Is there a prevailing commonality in the management team? Do you have mentors for people from disadvantaged backgrounds? Do all of your employees share a sense of belonging at your startup? Pose these questions to your team and use their feedback to determine the areas where you’re falling short in diversity and inclusion.

5. Sell the dream

Talent isn’t going to fall into your lap because people are scrambling for jobs. You need to sell your startup in a way that separates you from the crowd and gives you a competitive edge. Though product-wise you’re probably still only blooming, you can start by selling a powerful vision and culture.

Make sure you’re reacting to what employees and future hires truly expect from employers. A study by LinkedIn revealed that the number one trait employees want in leaders is a ‘purpose-driven and caring mindset.’ Candidates want to be assured that you care about their wellbeing and cater to people’s different situations. That means, flexibility is crucial (consider unlimited vacation days, flexi-hours). They also want to know that they’ll be trusted to be autonomous in their work, and grow with the company. You could therefore advertise that your startup has goal-oriented rather than time-oriented workflows.

For these ambitious candidates, growing personally and professionally (and not getting bored at work) also means discovering and nurturing their skills – perhaps skills they didn’t even know they had. Consider offering educational courses or mentorship programs that support people who want to upskill or reskill. See this as investment in bettering your team that will benefit your startup in the long run. Tech-centric skills in particular are set to be in high demand.

Employees also want a workplace that will thrive in a remote environment. If possible, assume the costs of hardware, accounts, and subscriptions that enable employees to work efficiently at a distance, and run frequent social events such as team lunches, virtual quizzes, and off-site meet-ups after the pandemic.

Remember, top candidates today are seeking security, but also the opportunity for self-realization they lacked elsewhere. In selling your startup, you want to emphasize that you’re a place where both the company and its people can grow together.

Dina Bayasanova

Dina Bayasanova CEO and Co-founder of PitchMe, a skills-based talent marketplace for career development and job search. PitchMe presents job profiles anonymously to let candidates’ skills and expertise do the talking, creating a fairer hiring process.

  • Originally published September 1, 2020, updated May 5, 2023