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Raising the Bar: How to Hire like Amazon

“I’d rather interview 50 people and not hire anyone than hire the wrong person.” - Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Amazon is obsessed with hiring the best people. This obsession with talent has helped the company survive the dot-com crash of 2000, (where the NASDAQ fell by 75% and countless hot-shot startups filed for bankruptcy and vanished) and has powered the company’s growth ever since.

Perhaps you’re thinking: lots of companies talk about hiring top talent — what’s so different about Amazon?

Well, they have been known to ask their fair share of strange interview questions:

  • “Why are manhole covers round?”
  • “How would you solve problems if you were from Mars?”
  • “You are Amazon, and Samsung offers you 10,000 Samsung Galaxy S22s at a 34% discount. Is that a good deal?”

The goal here is to understand how candidates tackle complex problems, but this is something that other Silicon Valley powerhouses like Google are also well known for.

It’s Amazon’s concept of “bar raisers” that makes them a little different:

“Bar raisers”

In the early days of Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos identified six cultural values as critical to the success of the company:

  • Customer obsession
  • Frugality
  • Bias for action
  • Ownership
  • High bar for talent
  • Innovation

Values always look great hung up on the wall, but Bezos wasn’t satisfied with decoration. He wanted to find a way to make sure that every new hire bought into Amazon’s fledgling culture.

To reinforce the idea of a high bar for talent, he borrowed a concept from Microsoft’s hiring process —the “bar raiser.”

A bar raiser is a skilled evaluator who is already employed by Amazon and plays a crucial role in the company’s hiring process. The bar raiser represents the final hurdle for incoming candidates. They conduct the last interview in the process, making the final judgment on applicants.

The overall goal of this program is that with each new hire, the bar is raised for every candidate that comes after them.

Amazon uses employees that have proven themselves to be intuitive recruiters of talent. At least one bar raiser is involved in every interview process and has the power to veto a candidate that doesn’t meet the goal of raising the company’s overall hiring bar, even if their expertise is in an area that has nothing to do with the applicant.

No one can overrule the bar raiser, not even the hiring manager.

It sounds like an extreme system, but it’s Amazon’s way of ensuring that their hiring standards never slip.

How to raise your own hiring bar

Of course, rolling this out across your organization might be tricky. You’re asking employees to devote a huge chunk of their week to hiring, and you’re not taking anything off their plate. It’s a big ask.

Quality of hire is certainly worth investing in, but you don’t have to go the whole hog and refactor your entire recruiting process to include bar raisers.

Here are a few other ways to raise your hiring bar:

1. Culture add, not culture fit

“Culture fit” is a term that has been an important part of the hiring process for a long time. Companies don’t just look for candidates with the right skills — they want someone that matches their company DNA.

But there’s a problem:

It’s easy to fall into the trap of hiring people like everyone else in your company as a default. Adding people who are just like you can create a culture where diversity is not prioritized — which is not typically an environment where ideas and innovation flourish.

Instead, look for people that add to your culture. Hiring candidates that bring something different to the table gives you a diverse workforce that can approach business problems from different directions.

It’s also a far more inclusive way to evaluate talent. Instead of focusing on what a candidate lacks, think: what can this person bring to the table?

2. Look for intellectual horsepower and curiosity

Is a candidate capable of getting the big picture? Are they a good communicator? Do they have cross-functional skills and interests? These are some of the best markers of intellectual horsepower and potential. They’re indicators that a candidate can grow beyond their current skillset and become a leader within your organization.

Every new hire should have the drive and determination to advance both the company and themselves. You should be hiring for growth.

How do you measure this?

Well, human interaction is the best way to grade potential, so the interview is a great setting to evaluate a candidate’s curiosity and communication skills.

As an interviewer, ask yourself these questions:

  • What questions are the candidates asking?
  • Are they interested in the big picture?
  • Are they trying to understand what makes your business tick?
  • Do they care about how their role will impact the company?

These are all clear signs of careful thinking and effective communication. It’s not a foolproof way to gauge potential, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

3. Don’t get desperate

Hiring speed is always on a recruiter’s mind, particularly if their performance is rated on time-to-hire.

In certain situations, this can lead to hiring decisions being made around urgency, not quality. A hiring manager needs someone to fill the open role, and it’s the recruiter’s job to fill it. This is an issue that all organizations face, but it can lead to serious problems down the road.

Building a great team means not compromising on your hiring bar. It’s the very reason Amazon uses “bar-raisers” — to ensure they keep their standards (increasingly) sky-high.

Align your recruiting team around the goal of hiring the right person, not just hiring quickly. Think about the long-term impact of hiring the wrong person. There’s a financial impact: some put the cost of making a bad hire as high as $240,000, but there’s also the risk of a number of poor hiring decisions snowballing into employee disengagement and lost productivity.

This hiring principle takes root best if it comes from the executive level. It’s their job to remind the talent team and hiring managers that they shouldn’t be in a rush and that they shouldn’t settle. They’re building a company for the long term, and they need the best people.

This has a trickle down effect that empowers recruiters to hold out for the best-fit candidate.

4. Diversify assessment

Would some version of “bar-raisers” work in your organization? Can you diversify the group of people that assess each candidate to weed out people that aren’t a good fit for your company?

The time commitment that Amazon expects from its bar raisers is pretty significant, so if you’re interested in testing the idea out, it might make sense to start with a few senior, mission critical roles first.

At Beamery, our final stage interview usually involves a presentation to a panel of different stakeholders. We always try and bring someone in from a different part of the business in that final stage (e.g. product team for marketing candidates), to make sure we’re as thoughtful as possible with our final decision.

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