How we do hiring & HR at PostHog
Our main selling point as a company is transparency. Being an open-source company, this isn’t surprising: our code, designs, and content are all largely available online, for free, even while still a work in progress. This transparency also extends to HR functions from our salary ranges to our employment processes - all of which you can view in our company handbook. Such openness has attracted candidates from all over the world who believe in and want to build on this level of transparency.
As of writing, a third of our staff is based in the US, another third in the UK, and the rest spread out across the globe in places like South Africa, Brazil, Belgium, Poland, Congo, and Estonia. This is deliberate, as diverse backgrounds contribute new viewpoints, generate fresh ideas, and unearth new ways of solving problems with our product, marketing, and community-building.
Charles, our Business Head, is famously enthusiastic about admin, and has done a fantastic job of managing our systems so far. These include our payroll, leave system, share grants, IT onboarding, and other critical tasks that ensure a smooth onboarding experience for each new candidate. Eltje took over the HR function and now sets up meetings with candidates, guides them through the interview process, and sets up their benefits and perks.
It takes about 2 weeks to go from receiving a candidate’s application to sending them an offer letter. This timeline may vary based on the time zone they’re in, how many people on our team they need to meet, whether or not we already have salary benchmarks in place for their country, and other factors.
For every new role, Eltje works with the hiring manager to generate a job description that closely describes what the role will entail. As an early-stage startup, roles at PostHog are fluid and can evolve over time, and our job descriptions are more of a wishlist than a set of directives. We then run the job description through a gender decoder (like this one from Totaljobs) which analyses the words and suggests non-gendered alternatives where necessary. In an industry like ours, it’s easy to attract (and write JDs for) predominantly white males, but part of our DNA is about encouraging diversity of thought, life experiences, and backgrounds. We also tweak the ‘location’ of each role for every hiring round; partially for diversity’s sake, but mainly because we’re a fully-remote company and don’t actually have offices anywhere.
A common mistake companies make is targeting their job descriptions at unicorns - candidates with perfect communication skills, project management skills, a stellar work record, glowing reviews from every previous job, and probably a Grammy or two. But such unicorns are usually either expensive (by definition), or uninterested in stretching themselves too thin. For example, we once tried hiring a mobile engineer who could build on both iOS and Android, but quickly discovered that most good engineers specialised in just one platform, and the ones skilled in both weren’t trying to manage code on two platforms.
Avoid red flag phrases like ‘crunch time’ or ‘we work hard and play hard’ - these indicate a culture of poor work-life balance. You also don’t want to give off the impression that your startup embodies a typical ‘tech bro’ culture, as this might turn off people of a different gender, background, or personality type.
Lastly, companies love playing up their ‘benefits’ - but some of these benefits might be mandated by law and can’t be called ‘benefits.’ For example, if a pension plan is required by your country's labor laws, you can’t tout that as a benefit for new hires - they expect it.
To summarise: go easy on the requirements and KPIs, watch for biased language, and improve the benefits you offer.
We use Workable, a lightweight, low-cost HR tool to track applicants and post to different job boards like LinkedIn, Google Jobs, Indeed, and Glassdoor. We don’t just spray and pray, either - certain jobs (e.g., design) might only be published to Behance or Dribble. We also sometimes reach out to candidates directly on LinkedIn, WorkAtAStartup, and other platforms to see if they’d be keen to work with us.
Once we start receiving applications, the HR team (Eltje at the moment) manually goes through each application. She sometimes ropes in another team member to weigh in on candidates who might be a good fit. A GitHub, Behance, or Dribbble portfolio makes a candidate stand out, and will play a role in the final decision to move forward with them or not.
We get a lot of under-qualified candidates for our roles. This is mainly due to the nature of remote working - when you open up access to everyone, the numbers of good (and poor-fit) candidates both go up. We also have to be careful about our phrasing depending on which location we’ve placed a job ad in. For example, a 'marketing executive' in the UK is essentially an intern fresh out of school, while a 'marketing executive' in the US belongs in the C-suite. Ultimately, if they’re not a ‘strong yes,’ they’re a ‘no.’ And if we keep getting poor-fit candidates from a particular platform, we cease all ads on that platform.
For those who look good on paper, the next step is an informal 30-minute Zoom call with Eltje.
The first thing we’re looking for in a candidate is energy: a function of passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to ask all the right questions in an interview. Sure, not everyone is extroverted, but curious intelligence can substitute for high energy where needed. Eltje makes notes about this stuff in initial interviews - in addition to notes about a candidate’s motivation to work specifically for PostHog. Many candidates write generic cover letters when applying to different companies, but a better way to stand out is to reference a section of our handbook or a pull request we recently published on our GitHub repo.
We want candidates with transferable skills and a core set of personality traits: communicative, curious, fast learners who are able to work well with other people. You can teach new skills, but altering someone’s personality is a lot harder. We pick someone who has worked in a similar role, company, or product before, if only for the prior exposure that’ll prove useful to their new role at our company.
We’re also big on autonomy. A candidate who isn’t comfortable with autonomy over their role and output is a poor fit for us because we don’t believe in micromanagement, death by meetings, or asking for permission to do what’s best for the company. We also pivot a lot, choosing to run lots of mini-experiments to see what works. New hires need to be comfortable with this fast pace of change.
For engineering roles, the next step is a 2-part interview. This includes a 30-minute chat with Tim to learn more about the candidate's experience and motivation. The second part is a 60-minute technical interview with one of our engineers. For design roles, there will be a portfolio interview, while marketing candidates might chat to James, Mo, and Joe.
The final stage of the interview process is the PostHog SuperDay, which is a paid day of work that exposes the prospective hire to our team, workflow, and some of the projects they can expect to work on once hired. We understand that taking a full day off for an interview can be difficult due to familial, professional, and personal obligations, but we’re flexible around time zones and willing to accommodate a candidate’s schedule. During the SuperDay, we’re specifically assessing a candidate’s communication skills and how they document their day, their findings, and any problems they encounter and solutions they try.
For those who don’t make it past the interview stage, we give them personalised feedback. Feedback is part of our culture at PostHog, and we’ve dedicated an entire section in our company handbook on how to give good feedback. We may choose not to move forward with a candidate for reasons related to their skills, (lack of) speed, (in)ability to deliver, or poor culture fit.
For those who successfully pass their SuperDay, we make them an offer. Every prospective hire gets an outline of their role, how it’ll evolve in the near future, how their pay will improve, etc. However, despite a generous offer (which we’re continuously improving), a candidate might refuse an offer for any of the following reasons:
1. They dislike autonomy. We don’t micromanage - but that doesn't work for everybody. Some people crave clear directions and rigid structures to do their best work, and that’s ok. It’s just not our style.
2. They dislike remote working. We’re a fully-remote company, but some candidates still miss office interactions with colleagues. We don’t plan to get offices any time soon, but staffers in the same location occasionally meet up to catch up or work together. We also host annual company offsites at a random city each year (2021: Porto). Maintaining our remote-first culture helps reinforce the idea that you’re free to work from wherever you like, and that no one is going to watch over your shoulder.
3. They want more money than we’re offering. Our salary calculator is public, but some candidates demand more than our already generous packages, which is essentially San Francisco plus 20% (with the total localised for each country). We use PayScale, the Economic Research Institute, Glassdoor, Linkedin, and other sources to benchmark our salaries. We adjust for a location’s cost of living, and also adjust for a change in location if a staff member moves to a new country for more than three months. Our salary models and compensation data are still incomplete, however, so if you’re reading this from Fiji, Sudan, or Papua New Guinea, please send in your application so that we can add your country to our database!
Our approach to recruitment and retention is simple: take care of people.
We aim to pay top of market in whatever country a candidate is based, and we offer a whole host of perks and benefits that make PostHog a genuinely great place to work. These include medical aid and free, anonymous mental health counselling.
Medical aid is pretty standard for tech companies in the US, but medicare in the UK (via the NHS) is largely underfunded and overworked, and can result in long wait times for doctor’s appointments, surgeries, and other critical procedures. We thus provide private medical aid for all our UK-based staff to ensure they get the best treatment possible. Staffers in other countries currently have to pay out of pocket for medical aid.
Burnout affects many employees worldwide. Eltje herself suffered major burnout at her previous job and had to take four months off to recover. When she joined PostHog, one of her first moves was to introduce the mental health service, Spill, to the company. Spill is a UK-based startup that provides remote mental health support via Slack. They offer reading materials, guided meditation, and one-off anonymous sessions with a qualified therapist, details of which are kept confidential from your employer. This service has proven particularly useful over the past year, as staffers have needed someone to talk to after the death of a loved one, a COVID recovery, the arrival of a baby, an illness, and other major life events.
While we fly our team to a random city each year, not every company can afford that. There are plenty of things those companies can still do to foster team closeness, such as virtual 1-on-1 coffee chats among staffers or 30-min weekly group check-ins where you can’t talk shop.
Representation matters. We’re working on building one of the most diverse teams in tech, and this starts with our recruitment process. From time to time, Eltje expands her LinkedIn searches to include more women, for example, or runs a ‘tech bro’-heavy job description template through the gender decoder to make it more inclusive. We deliberately hire from different countries, educational backgrounds, and socioeconomic backgrounds using a version of the Rooney Rule, a concept borrowed from American football. Our version states that for every role being advertised, we need to interview at least one person from an under-represented group.
But diversity requires inclusion, and we undertake this through generous parental leave for everyone (regardless of gender), an all-remote hiring process that lets us hire from anywhere, generous and transparent pay, sponsored visas for those who need them, and health insurance for those living in countries that do not provide it freely. You can read more about our diversity and inclusion efforts in our handbook.
As an open-source company, transparency is par for the course for us, but this level of radical transparency isn’t necessarily good for every company. For example, a startup that can’t afford to pay top-tier salaries might not benefit from pay transparency as that would limit the number of applicants it gets. Likewise, sales-based organisations might offer commissions that constitute a substantial part of a salesperson’s package, so publishing base salaries might not provide full context.
For companies looking to ease into a more transparent culture, start by sharing your investor updates, hiring metrics, or sales data with the world (or more widely internally) before moving on to total pay transparency.
As a young startup, you want at least 8% of your staff to be employed in a people management capacity. Bringing on a good ‘people person’ within the first 10 hires - specifically a generalist - pays off handsomely as they’ll be able to help you to:
- Set up a streamlined hiring workflow
- Save money on recruitment agency fees
- Onboard new candidates faster
- Set up performance review processes
- Maximize employee engagement and minimise turnover
If the budget is tight, consider bringing on someone in a part-time capacity or as a consultant.
HR professionals need to maintain a healthy work-life balance if they are to properly represent their companies. As a self-proclaimed workaholic, Eltje is working on instituting better boundaries in her day-to-day role to avoid another burnout. These include stopping all work after 7pm, never working on weekends, and truly being absent during her days off. She has also used Spill to manage her mental health, a process that led to her getting more comprehensive therapy afterwards.
Another way companies can support their HR teams is to lead by example company-wide. For example, the CEO or head of HR can post the results of their own performance reviews, and staffers can be encouraged to check in with each other regularly.
Write more inclusive job descriptions, hire for traits over skills, pay people well, foster closeness often, encourage diversity (of people and ideas), and push for more transparency in your organization. That’s our secret sauce.
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