Why We Won't Hire Anyone Without a Staff Consensus

Last Updated Dec 10, 2010 12:45 PM EST

By Bill Witherspoon, The Sky Factory, Fairfield, Iowa.
The Sky Factory, which creates and sells custom nature-themed ceiling art, has no managers and no hierarchy. We operate the company in a way that gives all employees an equal voice, and grants everyone access to information about all aspects of the business. Further, all decisions are consensus-based. We use an employee profit-sharing and ownership model, so all of our 37 employees have a stake in the company's success, and make the decisions that decide its future.

When it comes time to hire new staff, a cross-section of the company interviews the candidates - and, because we operate by consensus, if one person disapproves, we don't hire. In this and other matters, our business relies on both the intuition and discriminative decision-making power of its people.

No surprises
When the company was founded in 2002, we hired staff the same way everyone else does: I'd interview a few people, then several other employees would speak with them, and then we'd make a decision. Unfortunately, it would turn out that some people simply didn't fit into our company culture, so we had significant turnover. On average, we'd lose a third of our staff each year.

Three years ago, we had to ask an employee to leave. We all liked her, but we had to ask her to go because she just wasn't working out. At the all-company meeting that week, we were talking about it, and one employee said it wasn't a surprise.

When questioned, the rest of the staff all said they were not surprised either. Then I asked: "Remembering back when she was hired, based on your first impression of her, would you have been surprised at this outcome?"

Once again, everyone said no.

In fact, we then ran through a list of all our former staff members from the past several years, and no one was surprised that any of them had left. The important point is that on some intuitive level, we all knew that there was a good chance that someone would or wouldn't work out at the company right from the start -- from our first meeting. So we decided to put our intuition to work in our hiring practices.

Red light, green light
Our new approach involves narrowing candidates for a position down to three or four prospects based on their resumes, applications and recommendations. Next, we ask them to come for interviews, where they will meet with four or five potential co-workers.

In these interviews, we pay careful attention to the intuitive information we get within the first few seconds of meeting the prospective employee. As soon as we meet someone, we look into their eyes and make a mental note: green, yellow or red light. We don't think about it or change that decision later. Then, we also give them a number rating - from one to five (five is best) based on the rest of the interview in which we carefully assess their skills, experience and other relevant qualifications for the job.

If, after four or five such interviews, the candidate hasn't received any red lights and has strong, high numbers without reservations, they are invited to come back and interview with more staff members.

Still More Interviews
The next round of 11 interviews is conducted by a cross-section of staff from throughout the company so there may be less focus on specific skills and more investigation of team-experience, work habits, attitude and personality. Because our company culture is different from most, our staff wants to know about the candidate's values so they use their intuition and investigative skills to determine how well the candidate would fit into the company. Everyone uses the same rating system, and we collate the results at the end of the day.

If a candidate receives a single red light in any of the 16 interviews we don't hire that person. No one has ever suggested overruling that decision.

The entire process takes approximately 40 hours of employee time. True, it's a far more time-consuming process than our old interviewing procedure was. But it's paid off: Since we've put it into place, we haven't had a single new employee quit or be fired.

It works for us
Our team now works so well together that we've been able to grow our company successfully and in keeping with our standards. Despite the recession, we've grown by approximately 10 percent over each of the last few years, reaching $3.9 million in revenue last year.

That we are successful does not mean our approach would work for every person or every business. Many highly effective people are great employees in a more traditionally structured work environment. It's just that they might not be comfortable working in our culture. Many candidates are already friends, and everyone becomes a friend once they are hired. It is our responsibility, to them, as well as to ourselves, to ensure that we don't place them in the wrong situation.

At The Sky Factory, we rely on the collective intelligence of the group. Every notion, including mine, must achieve consensus to go forward -- sometimes my ideas are shot down, and that's okay! Our goal is for everyone to know everything, so no one has a reason to hold back information or refrain from asking for information. We empower every employee to give their input into all company matters, and together, we make powerful decisions.

Before becoming a serial entrepreneur, Bill Witherspoon lived in a school bus in the remote Oregon desert, where he painted images of the sky.
-- As told to Kathryn Hawkins