Toolkit for hiring staff

Hire well and you will save yourself a lot of problems later on. ArtsHub looks at the key steps in recruiting arts workers.
young woman with blue hair in an interview

Career advice is largely tilted towards the hopeful employee or freelancer – the person hoping to snag a new gig. But getting through the interview process can be just as challenging for employers. Learning how to hire staff – how to read between the lines of that pile of CVs, and how to ask the right questions to find the right fit – is key to building a strong workplace environment.

As arts organisations, we don’t always have the luxury of a HR (human resources) team to manage this process. So ArtsHub has pulled together this handy toolkit of advice and tips to help arts managers through the recruitment stage.

And a bonus tip: this is also a great read for those applying for roles, to help gear themselves up for the process ahead.

Work out your recruitment strategy

When a position is vacated, the go-to response is to fill it. Rather, use this opportunity to rethink the position, so that it best fits the organisation’s needs and growth at this moment – not when the last person was hired.

This means working out what your goals are for the next 12 months to five-year period, and consider the skills required to reach those goals in your hiring process.

The same goes for the job description – these often bump along for years with little review. You need to ensure that it conveys your expectations for the role, along with the required skills and desirable experience.

Take a look at a few from other similar organisations to make sure you are on point with the current jobs market. Don’t be shy to pick up the phone and ask your colleagues for a copy of theirs – this also doubles as a great way to spread the word across a peer network.

Next in planning your recruitment strategy is understanding timing. If an employee is leaving, will there be any overlap time? This is ideal, but if not, how do you plan for that transfer of knowledge?

Hiring new staff takes time – first, to get your head around the position, then there’s the advertising of it and getting the word out (both intuitively and to widen the pool). These stages are followed by shortlist applications and conducting interviews – taking into account that your intended new employee may have to give a period of notice before starting.

Some government appointments – often common in the arts – take even longer, so remember to work that into the recruitment time frame. Also consider, if there is a gap period, what your expectations are for other staff in the team to pick up the slack during the interim. Or do you hire a temp?

It is often a good idea to publish your timeline of the recruitment process with the job posting, which means candidates come to the table with questions and you are left with no surprises after the offer.

Set salary parameters

Before posting a job, know what you can spend on talent. And be transparent. Research the landscape for similar positions currently hiring, and gauge how competitive the market is. Simply, recruiting under- or overqualified candidates is a waste of time.

While the arts are notorious for underpaid staff, if it is a particularly specialist position, you will need to pay commensurate with that skill.

In her article ‘We need to talk about money in the arts‘, Rochelle Siemienowicz reminded us that transparency around pay is one of the Federal Labor Government’s changes to the Fair Work Act.

Since 7 June 2023, pay secrecy terms can no longer be included in employment contracts, and employers who do include them could face penalties.

And, regardless of how good you think the offer is, prepare for some negotiation on salary and employee benefits, and put a bit of time aside to think of what you could offer – ahead of the interviews.

Targeted recruitment

We all know the arts are “specialised” – not only from a skills perspective, but also in that we are a rare breed that often gives way more than the job description asks. While not endorsing this as a healthy workplace practice, there is something in the fact that arts workers carry a passion for their work, which often bleeds into the other parts of their lives. For example, is going to see exhibitions on the weekend work or pleasure?

The point here, is that – as with any job placement – you want to find the right fit. Often a candidate will sound wonderful on paper, but will not have the energy and/or temperament to fit with the rest of the team. How you promote a job opening then is key.

You may choose to initially advertise the job internally before posting an external notification, so get that job description ready early. You may also want to have your current employees tap into their networks, because, as they say, word of mouth is everything, and news of job openings in the arts can spread like wildfire.

ArtsHub started as a job noticeboard, and for 23 years has been matching organisations and arts workers. You can sign up to receive weekly jobs news. Testament to the platform’s deep history is the number of people who have found not only their first job, but their second and third through ArtsHub.

While the hiring process can be lengthy, you need to make sure you find the right candidate for the specific job you are hiring for – and to not settle for the best candidate in the application pool.

If you interview six candidates and none fit, there will be pressure to just pick the best one. Resist that pressure and keep the long picture in mind.

Read: 9 tips for writing the perfect job ad

Understanding portfolio careers

Today, a good track record may not necessarily mean job security demonstrated by five years with company X. Portfolio careers – which pull together a diverse mix of backgrounds and experiences (often as short hires) – can also bring to a position a demonstration of being nimble and seasoned at working with many different scales, personalities, budgets and conditions.

This kind of cycle of short hires is not necessarily a demonstration of a lack of focus or commitment, but rather can be a boon for a small arts organisations where employees work across many roles.

The tip: don’t forget to look to the side and at the edges of the pile of top-priority candidates. Further reading:

Reading between the CV’s lines

Perhaps you are like me? I read well on paper, but am totally underwhelming at job interviews. For others, it is the reverse. When you are faced with culling that pile of applications, trust your instinct to read between the lines a little.

Remember what it is that is your priority, and don’t get sidetracked by the gumpf that is well-polished – but may add little to your organisation’s team.

Our tip is: if communication is the key part of the position, read the cover letter first. If they can’t sell themselves well, how can they effectively sell your organisation? If it’s a skills-based position, then focus on the gongs and deliverables. You want to be able to sift through perceptions of greatness and the realities of deliverables. Helpful to read:

Hiring remote employees

Young girl with white shirt in video conference
Video interview. Image: Canva

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, how we work and where we work from has changed dramatically. It is no longer unusual to hire someone out of state for a company based in Sydney or Melbourne, for example. Of course it depends on the type of work involved, but for administratively heavy roles this is a new norm.

COVID also forced us to become comfortable with video conferencing. So interviewing remote candidates no longer means a hefty recruitment budget to ensure you are being equitable.

Read: How to nail a video interview

If a remote worker turns out to be your key candidate, then you may consider bringing them to your organisation for a second interview. This works two-fold in the sense of being sure the fit is right with the team, but it’s also an opportunity for the applicant to walk through the premises and meet key people with whom they may be working.

Essential interview questions

Candidates often prepare responses to questions that they believe are likely to come up during the interview. The best outcome for an interview process is to have a suite of questions that are presented to each candidate, so you have a point of comparison. Don’t go off-piste. If you are interviewing as a panel, then mix up who asks the questions. This, again, will speak to how a candidate can build rapport .

Asking candidates a creative, unexpected question often helps you to learn more about them as they’re encouraged to think quickly. Spend a bit of time to include one – it may be as simple as ‘talk me through the most recent show you have seen that made an impact, and why?’

And did you know, that there are some questions you cannot ask a candidate legally? Examples include:

  • Are you in a same-sex relationship?
  • How old are you?
  • What’s your ethnic background?
  • What religion are you?
  • Are you pregnant or planning to start a family?
  • Who do you vote for?
  • Do you have a physical or mental disability?

You can ask how they may deal with a stressful situation at work, but you need to be careful not to tip over into asking about a person’s mental state. Further reading:

Conduct a skills tests

There are some positions in the arts that require very technical or specific skills – such as a theatre lighting technician, a conservator or an IT specialist. It is not unreasonable when interviewing for these positions to either conduct a skills test as the final stage of the recruitment process or to write into their contract that they have a short probationary period (one month) to demonstrate their talents and learn new knowledge on the job.

Indeed, when it comes to any skills-based employment, it’s a good idea to write a three-month probationary period into the contract of the onboarding employee.

Do the homework

Don’t fall victim to the halo effect of a glowing CV and interview. Always pick up the phone and talk to their designated referees (which, given their name has been put forward, will probably be positive). Nevertheless, you can ask about any doubts you may have in terms of the candidate delivering in the position.

You can also get in touch with peers you may have relationships with from their past employers to see if they can add any recommendations.

Onboarding the successful candidate

The final step of the hiring process is to onboard the successful candidate. This may feel like a “no-brainer”, but you need to remember this is the first impression you are passing on to your new staffer – and that it speaks to all sorts of office protocols, and respect. It is much more than paperwork and computer logins.

There is no standard way to do this, but we offer the following considerations as ways to best help your new team member settle into their role:

  • Walk them through their contract, including any non-compete or conflict of interest agreements, their probation period, hours and so on. Get them to sign an acknowledgement.
  • Introduce them to the team they will be working with and the general office orientation.
  • One of the first things they will need is their logins and computer set-up – have this all sorted in advance so you can walk them through this stage seamlessly.
  • Prepare an employee handbook that outlines everything from your strategic plan, goals and code of conduct, to finer details like style guides and important information pertaining to their role.
  • Give them a starting project. New staff will feel lost, so give them something to anchor themselves, which may feel like a menial task to you, but will allow them to get through first-week jitters.
  • Assign a mentor in the team, or a go-to person. As a manager you want to be available and approachable, but you also need to get on with your work (especially after the disruption of the recruitment process).

While first-week activities tend to focus on paperwork, the real value of onboarding is what happens in the next 30 to 90 days, and the effect of this period going forward. Again, know what tasks you are going to set them to deliver over this first month, and also how you are going to track and evaluate their success.

We suggest a weekly check-in to step through progress and questions that may arise, and to take the pulse on their well-being and happiness in the role.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina