Death to the labor-intensive memo for prospective hires

I still remember an email I got 20 years ago, from a prominent editor at a well-known magazine, asking me if I had a minute to talk about a potential job. We hopped on the phone and he described a dream: working on features, maybe front-of-the-book too, bringing in new writers, etc. I was a junior editor on the books section of The Nation. This was a big deal!

The next step was: Write a memo. But not just a memo: a front-to-back critique of the magazine, in addition to 10 story ideas with freelance writers attached and 10 story ideas for specific staff writers.

Reader: This memo took more than two full weekends to put together. I took time off work. And you know what? Not only did I not hear from the person who requested this work from me for six months — there wasn’t even an actual job, which I only learned after badgering! It was a fishing expedition. Perhaps I’d have been reeled in if my memo and ideas had been better. But perhaps not!

The dumbest thing is when they approached me again six years later, I did it all over again. For the second time, it was not a job that was ever actually filled, to my knowledge.

More recently, I know of a search for a top job where after a single conversation, 10 (ten!) people were asked to do a memo, answering a series of questions provided by the publication. That’s 10 people doing a lot of work they aren’t being compensated for!

As you can tell, I’m against both of these things: the overly long job memo, wherein candidates are asked to spend countless hours sharing analysis and ideas, as well as the wide-casting of questions to a large group just to see what comes back.

I declare: These practices must die in 2023.

Let me be clear: It’s not that the memo as a whole should go away. Memos can be incredibly useful for the hiring manager and the potential hire to ensure there’s alignment over the expectations of the role, whether to get a sense of ideas, of editing taste and skill, or quick thoughts about coverage.

At Slate, the leadership has focused on streamlining what we ask for and from how many people. While our requests look slightly different depending on the role, we have landed on the following guidelines:

Only ask 2 or 3 finalists for a memo. Meaning: The memo should inform the decision, not be an early-stage blanket ask of a wide range of folks to see what “hits.”
No broad critiques. During the interview process, we cover a lot of ground about Slate, candidates’ familiarity with the magazine, and what they think of it. We do not ask for broad critiques or “thoughts” about Slate generally to be written down.
Memo questions should be practical. Memo prompts should be deeply relevant to the job (i.e., pitch three ideas in a few sentences, what story would you have skipped this week, etc.) and standardized across similar roles as much as possible.

We acknowledge that memos are labor, but for many roles, there’s value in asking for written work to help make a decision. (I can’t imagine hiring a copy editor without administering an editing test, for example.)

But as a whole, as newsroom leaders address equity, fairness, and labor concerns, they should extend their consideration to prospective hires as well as to employees. Our asks for special work to land a role should be useful and limited, and something we look forward to receiving to make our best hire — not to peruse at our leisure, or just in case.

Hillary Frey is editor-in-chief of Slate.

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