How to hire creative people

In this guest post, Xander Hough, HR Manager at Wolff Olins explains how to hire creative people.
April 8, 2021
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This is a guest post by Xander Hough, HR Manager at Wolff Olins.

Every day people stop me in the street and ask, “Xander, how do I hire creative people for my organisation?”

Actually that’s a total lie.

They don’t but I really wish they would because so many organisations want to put creativity at their heart but peddle the same old tired recruitment practices. And thenat the other end of the spectrum you have companies adopting rather crazy techniques which don't get results either. I wonder how many companies blindly adopted Google's bizarre scenario questions before they themselves scrapped them. (Imagine I've been shrunk to the size of a penny and dropped in a blender? How about we imagine I've just slammed you in the face with that blender for asking me a stupid interview question).

I don’t subscribe to the view that in order to hire creative people your approach must be creative – in fact, most of what I advocate are subtle changes to widely adopted practices. Here are some approaches for how to hire creative people:

Offer opportunities, not a job

The thing that creative people want to do at work is create (duh!) so employers must provide opportunities to create. Don't just say you want creative people when you've given no thought to how they will actually do this in the job. Creative people get excited about opportunities. What do those look like? They are opportunities to build things, change things, make something out of nothing, make something out of something, tear things down and build from scratch, work with new tools or technology, tweak things, work with different stimuli, hack things and work with different collaborators. Do your roles allow people to do that? Does your management style? Are you effusive about that? When designing roles or writing enticing copy about a vacancy, ensure you can clearly articulate the opportunity or opportunities.

Millennials have been said to differ from their ancestors in wanting to develop a ‘portfolio career’. Now, I believe this term was meant to convey the idea of moving from organisation to organisation picking up skills and experiences on the way but what if you could find a way of making it so that your candidates didn't have to go to several organisations - they only had to come to you? Would-be employers should consider in what ways the organisation can provide a portfolio of meaningful, engaging, developmental experiences. Providing pathways through these experiences will give people a sense of a career, rather than a job and if you can provide options or menus of these experiences allowing individuals to create their own portfolio, all the better.

Use Personality and Behavioural Assessment

Creativity has its roots in personality. Employers can get a lot of rich information about their candidates beyond a simple gut feel if they are prepared to use psychometric instruments. Creativity can be predicted by scoring highly on personality dimension such as openness, group affiliation, positivity and well, yes, creativity. If you use psychometric questionnaires which score candidates against these kinds of personality dimensions you can establish whether candidates have a predisposition to thinking creatively. You can also hire according to your organisation’s values. Research I did at London Southbank University showed that personality dimensions could strongly predict the extent to which an employee thought and behaved in accordance with an organisation’s brand. If you hire people who, by virtue of their very personality, have a natural affinity with your organisation they are more likely to behave in positive, constructive and creative ways (unless of course, your organisation’s brand is not at all creative!). If you want to know more about that research, reach out!

Even if psychometric tools seem a bit of a stretch for some, you can still use practical assessment sessions designed to assess creative behaviours. Presenting the candidate with a relevant business problem or scenario and asking them to work with others through it with specific resources they can transform, use or leverage is an ideal way of seeing how a person will operate in your organisation. It will also tell you all you need to know about how comfortable they are with creative thinking, both from themselves and from colleagues.

Hold a conversation, not an audition

One of the things I get on my soapbox most about is employers who still insist on making hiring some kind of audition process. The candidate is expected to jump through a series of hoops, processes, formulaic questions, speak when they are spoken to and if they are lucky, they’re permitted to ask questions briefly at the end. This says a lot about an employer. I wish organisations would think about the recruitment process more like dating. Who wants to have a relationship with anyone who says, “I think I’m the catch in this relationship” or “I don’t care what’s important to you, describe how you meet my needs”?

True an employment relationship remains transactional (we pay you and you do the job) but the way we make choices about our careers are much more emotion and relationship led. And to make a sweeping generalisation, creative people are even more emotion and relationship led in their decisions than most. Therefore, you have to make your recruitment process human. Even if you don't agree with me on that, believe that creative people thrive on 'talking things through', generating ideas and testing them. A Q&A interview structure will never get the best out of them. By all means have your criteria and your set questions but make sure you allow for a meeting of minds. Make time for discussion that can go down a number of routes.

If you want to know if someone is creative ask them to show you things they have created. That could be a portfolio for more traditionally creative roles but it could also be about taking through experiences they had where they showed creative thinking – that is, where they invented something, where they applied learning from one environment into another, where they used resources in a novel way, a time when they had to do things on a shoe-string budget, a time they did something for the first time and had no guidance, an example of when they played or had fun with something, when they attempted something that hadn't been done before. All these experiences, I would say, point to a person who is creative.

Let your talent bring you talent

It's a bit of pop psychology that we tend to hang out with like-minded individuals (or indeed people of a similar level of attractiveness which totally explains why I'm constantly surrounded by supermodels) and creative people generally like to hang out with other creative people.

If you're lucky enough to have creative people in your organisation already, engage them in the hiring effort. Treat them so well that they become ambassadors for your organisation from every channel from word of mouth to social media. Help them to create content and raise their external profile so that other creative people swimming in that big ocean out there, flock to see them (wait - my metaphors got confused there - but you know what I mean). Be ready to reach out or approach the people that are engaging with them. Offer incentive programmes for people to refer in candidates for vacancies or simply ask them to share or re-tweet and re-post your job adverts. You could even go as far to help your staff hone their networking skills and equip them to talk about job opportunities with people they meet in creative pools.

Know the market rate

There’s a good reason why good HR teams spend so much time benchmarking and pulling together data from respected industry sources on salaries. It is a no brainer that in order to secure the best talent you will have to pay for it. Knowing what the current market rate is for a role (emphasis on current) is the first step in making a decision about what to offer. If you do not know what the market rate is, specific to the role, industry and geographic location, you cannot quantify to what extent your chosen candidate commands above the market rate. I would encourage you to forget what they currently earn and forget what they are asking for. Come to your own determination of whether their skills, experience and potential is worth the market rate and anything you might pay beyond that. If you can’t match the market rate then make sure you can articulate the value of the experience (both professional and personal) and other elements of the package clearly so that candidates always get a full picture of what working with you will be like. Actually, always be able to do that!

You can, of course, stop me on the street and ask me how to hire creative people. As an HR celebrity, I expect that kind of thing...but please, no photos.



Xander Hough is an HR business partner and freelance consultant on a mission to change how people think about the HR profession, banishing negative stereotypes – sometimes by being sensible and insightful and sometimes by being provocative, flippant, cheeky and down-right naughty.

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