Job market Layoffs Startups

How To Hire While Avoiding Future Layoffs

Illustration of man shaking hand of woman on monitor.

By Alisa Cohn

Tech layoffs are on the rise once again. Yet at the same time, some companies like Salesforce 1 (which laid off 10% of its team earlier this year) are announcing massive hiring sprees.

As an executive coach for more than 20 years, I’ve had to advise business leaders at startups like Venmo, Etsy and The Wirecutter about laying off staff, hiring (sustainably) and navigating downturns.

Because startups move so fast, they often lack structure and process. But to hire well — and avoid rapidly reversing course — you have to hire with restraint and foresight.

Don’t hire

Executive coach Alisa Cohn

It may sound strange, but when you feel ready to ramp up your hiring, don’t do it straight away. Instead, assign someone to assess whether there’s any duplication of effort within teams. They should review whether an employee can be moved from an existing role into a new area, or whether any of your processes can be automated.

Enacting this kind of hiring discipline is easy when you have no choice but to run lean. But make sure you carry this habit into the “fat” years too. Institute processes to help make employees’ tasks easily repeatable.

Create frameworks to identify when it’s truly necessary to increase a team’s headcount. These new rules should always come from the top down and be communicated respectfully to staff.

Identify the most important skills

Once you’ve determined that you definitely need to hire someone, get specific about the most important skills you need in that new role.

A generic job description suggests you haven’t determined what success looks like for that new employee — and that usually means you’re overhiring. It also makes it harder to pinpoint the right candidate to fill that position for the long term.

Map out the key wins your new hire will deliver in 90 days and in one year to move the company forward, and identify the specific capabilities they need in order to deliver. Include those accomplishments in the job description itself.

Gather evidence

I’ve seen startup clients fall in love with people’s resumes because they worked at prestigious companies, but because they didn’t test their practical experience it quickly led to them parting ways.

Make sure all your interviewers really understand the practical qualities that candidates need to have. Assign each employee two qualities they need to look for and train them to elicit clear evidence.

For example, rather than asking: “Tell me about your most successful marketing campaign,” instead ask: “How do you design a marketing campaign? What happens when you launch it and things don’t go according to plan?”

Don’t forget onboarding

It’s astonishing to me how many companies leave their new hires to sink or swim for themselves. Startups – with their characteristic lack of hierarchy – have to work extra hard to provide clarity for newcomers.

Regular contact is key: Make sure managers are talking to new hires one-on-one two or three times a week. Quick check-ins help ensure employees are focusing on the right things, getting the necessary resources to advance, and are clear on expectations. Think about giving them an “onboarding buddy” to help them understand and interpret the culture, especially if they work remotely.

You may need to hire key new employees now, and you certainly will once the current macro situation is replaced by a new cycle of growth. When you start the process of hiring, follow these principles to build an efficient, productive workforce that will endure in time.

 Alisa Cohn, a prominent executive coach, has spent 20 years coaching global business executives at leading startups and Fortune 500 companies including Microsoft, Google and Pfizer. She is the author of From Start-Up to Grown-Up and the creator of a podcast for business leaders.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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