Lessons in hiring: How Ryan Gosling helped in Hulu’s battle with culture vampires.

Culture vampires plague many teams from within, creating unpleasant working conditions for their peers. This is a story about how “Ryan Gosling” helped us defeat them at Hulu.
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One of the biggest decisions you make as you’re building a company is who you hire. But hiring can be a serious drag.

You have to figure out what you’re looking for, write job descriptions, read resumes, schedule interviews, and take the time to evaluate candidates – all on top of the million other things demanding your attention. And when you feel pressure to grow quickly, it can be tempting to offer the job to the first person who sounds like they could do it.

But in your rush to fill a seat, you might just fill it with a culture vampire.

To be fair, a culture vampire can totally do the job you’re hiring for. They probably perform really well on the things you can measure objectively. They may even seem like they’ve got the smarts to help you succeed in a big way.1

But subjectively… they suck.

Culture Vampire

Even though they’ve got the skills for the spotlight, culture vampires still spend their time lurking in the shadows. They slowly drain the life out of your team. With a snarky comment placed here. A pissed off customer there. A spreadsheet tracking the mistakes of another coworker “accidentally” left on the copier over there.

Culture vampires feed on morale. And they like it fermented.

Before you know it, they’ve infected other employees and their strain of vampirism is spreading. And because they do so well on all the objective parts of the job, it can be really hard to justify getting rid of them. Believe-you-me.

For the first three years of its existence, I ran the customer support team at Hulu. I helped grow it from nothing into a team of 100 superstars. We had people with extensive backgrounds in helping customers, masters degrees in various fields, entrepreneurs, stand up comics, and even a former semi-professional hockey player.

It was a truly amazing team. But building it wasn’t easy.

When the department was first started, Hulu had already been available for two years and had over 30 million active users. And then Hulu Plus happened. And we started taking payments. And we started launching apps. And we started offering phone support. And we started having outages. And we started offering promotions. And we were quickly inundated with more contacts than we could handle.

So, of course, we felt serious pressure to grow the team as fast as possible. But since almost none of us had experience hiring, we had to learn everything on the fly.

We got stupid-lucky with most of our candidates. They were attracted to the cool stuff Hulu was doing, and wanted to help. They were people with exceptional customer focus, great people skills, and the kind of attitudes that any employer would be lucky to have on their team. They were no-brainers to hire.

On the flip side, some candidates were no-brainers in the other direction. Some were incapable of stringing words together to form coherent sentences. Others spoke openly of how much they hated talking to people (yes, really).

But it was the group of candidates that fell in the middle that was the toughest to know what to do with. They would sound great on paper – having extensive technical expertise, experience doing a similar job, solid writing samples, and great references. But in person, they wouldn’t give us the warm and fuzzies.

Most of the time, this would be subtle and hard for us to describe. They would just rub some of us the wrong way. For instance, denying that they’d been 10 minutes late to the interview (when they were), jokingly referring to customers as “Code: ID 10 T2, or answering “because you’re hiring” when asked why they wanted to work for us. By themselves, these examples sound bad here – but when they’re in the middle of an otherwise OK interview, they didn’t sound that bad.

So, we weren’t always sure what to do. Did we suck at interviewing? Are we reading too much into one thing they said? Should we assume the best in everyone? Can we teach them to fit into our culture since they have solid skills in other areas? Or is it better to risk it being another few weeks before we find a candidate that seems nicer?

At the time, our overriding desire was getting help (yesterday), so we’d often take the chance these people could “learn how to culture”.

Big. Mistake.

When we took these chance, we were almost always rewarded with fresh bite marks on our asses.

We got stuck with a couple resident vampires who wouldn’t leave, and seemed to delight in sowing discord around them. But, at the time, we couldn’t justify letting them go because they did fine on all the things we could measure. In hindsight, the negative impact they had on the people around them far outweighed any benefit they provided. And my second biggest regret as the head of that department was not getting rid of them sooner. But that’s hindsight for you.

Anyway, it eventually dawned on us that the most effective way of dealing with culture vampires was to never hire them in the first place.

Enter The Goz

We started iterating on our hiring process, and tried to figure out how to identify potential vampires in the interview. We experimented with all sorts of things and were having mixed results. But then one of our leads started asking a really interesting question in his interviews.

“If you had to choose between spending the afternoon with Ryan Gosling or a bunch of Golden Retriever puppies… which would you choose? And why?”

If you’re thinking this is ridiculous – you’re right. But it was also perfect for us.

Customer support is a painful job even when you do everything right. Terrible companies have trained customers they’re going to need to fight to cancel a service they no longer want. Or the only way to get anything done is by demanding to speak to a manager. So, customers are often aggressive, degrading, and rude to support agents from the moment they get on the phone.

We knew this, knew it sucked, and went to great lengths to mitigate the impact it would have on our team. And one of the ways we did that was by building a fun atmosphere where everyone was “in it together”, and encouraged to be a little ridiculous.

And that’s why this question was so brilliant. We didn’t really care what their answer was – we cared about how they played along with the absurdity of it.

Pretty soon, each interviewer was asking their own variation.

“Ryan Gosling or an iPhone?”

“Ryan Gosling or a box of chocolates?”

“If you had to either quit, or fire Ryan Gosling, which would it be?”

Some candidate’s faces lit up with surprise and curiosity, and then they came up with elaborate answers.

One wanted wanted to spend an afternoon with The Goz because she would find it interesting to talk to him about life, love, and how he approached career goals.

Another went so far as to send us thank you emails after the interview – complete with his face photoshopped onto famous Ryan Gosling movie posters.

These people were exquisite fits for our culture.

But some showed signs of vampiric infection. They would scoff at the question. They’d shrug their way through an “I guess I’d choose an iPhone… because I can download apps on it” response. Or were clearly irritated that it wasn’t a way for them to showcase their technical prowess. A couple even had the gall to respond like little homophobic nitwits3.

These people would have been culture vampires. And The Goz knew what to do.

Obviously, we didn’t run a stake through anyone’s heart. Nor did we evaluate people based on their answer to a single question (as tempting as that was). We had an entire process to evaluate several other core skills that were necessary for the job, and this was just one part of it. But it was an important part.

If you ask typical interview questions, most candidates will be able to tell you exactly what you want to hear. But by asking these silly ones in our interviews, we were able to see how people actually reacted to our special brand of fun. And it told us a lot about whether or not they’d fit in.

I get it – it’s really hard when your team is under a lot of pressure, and you’re the one responsible for getting help. Explaining to your stressed team why you said no to a “qualified candidate” can seem like a daunting task. And the thought of having to wait for another candidate can wear on your soul.

But nobody wants to work with a culture vampire.

We were lucky and had laughably low turnover, but culture vampires can often destroy a team from within. By allowing them into yours, you’re taking a chance you’ll push out true superstars. Or worse yet – letting the superstars be infected too.

Nobody wants to become a culture vampire either.

It’s important to keep in mind that just because someone might be a culture vampire on your team right now, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. They may be perfectly delightful outside of work. Or may be a superstar at another company. Or, ironically, a great fit on your team… two years ago.

But if you bring a potential vampire into your company, and they start infecting others around them… whose fault is that? It’s tempting to blame the vampires (I did, for a while). But, ultimately it’s your responsibility.

You may think that if someone doesn’t exactly fit your culture, you can just teach them how to.

Spoiler Alert – you can’t.

So don’t spend any time trying – you will regret the wasted effort. Instead, spend your time cultivating the superstar on your team, and finding ways of cloning them. And do yourself a favor, identify and get rid of any culture vampires you’re already stuck with.

As for us, we continued maturing our hiring process and eventually stopped asking Ryan Gosling questions in every interview.

But his influence never left us. In fact, he became somewhat of a mascot for the support team.

There were random pictures of him on the walls. There was a cake with his face on it at one point4. And we even named one of our bookable video conferencing carts after him – so we could always invite “The Goz” to our meetings.

While we didn’t always use the questions, every once in a while during an interview, something wouldn’t feel quite right. There’d be a chill in the room. An oddly worded response. A hint of infection.

We’d return to The Goz. And he’d never let us down.

Ryan… Mr. Gosling… if you ever read this… I’m actually serious when I say thank you. And lunch is on me.5

Footnotes and junk.

1. While I wish I could claim credit, Eric Sinoway and Howard Stevenson coined the term “cultural vampires”. You can read more about the other employee classifications they developed over on the Harvard Business Review (there’s even a zombie employee 😮).

2. If you’ve never heard “Code: ID 10 T” before, it’s a subtle way of calling someone an idiot (id10t). When this particular candidate came through, only one of us was put off by this joke because it had been said “in such a joking way”. But, in my opinion, if you think your customers are idiots, they’re not the problem. You are.

3. I actually did have a couple guys respond with scorn, referencing the fact that they are “not gay”. So, it made their prejudice pretty apparent, and they quickly became #HellNo candidates. However, one of the reasons we eventually transitioned away from using the question is that Ryan Gosling is generally regarded as a pop-culture sex symbol. And even though we tried to be conscientious of the way in which we asked it for some candidates (using a Rachel McAdams variation), it was still risky. In the long run, it was just better for us to use more generic questions that accomplished the same goal in a more inclusive way.

4. The cake is a true story. It was to celebrate my last day on the team. It was an ice-cream cake, and it was delicious.

5. Seriously. I know parts of this ridiculous article sound a little “creepy fanboy”, but it was all in good fun. The brand you’ve created for yourself helped us do a hard job a little better. So, feel free to have your people call my people6.

6. By “my people”, I mean me.

Disclaimer: The opinions in here are entirely my own. Nothing in this post should be construed as a confirmation by anyone at Hulu that vampires are real. Nor, for that matter, is anything I have to say worth reading.