How To Screen Candidates Well
Screening and evaluating candidates well is key to building a good hiring pipeline. As soon as you post a job, you start getting hundreds of applications, many of them great, many of them not-so-great. It can be daunting to look at them at first, but you can use a few techniques to move through those candidates pretty quickly.
Before we start, it's important to note that a screening process works well only when you have a clear end goal in mind. That means a clear, well-written, and detailed job description that lists the job's requirements is a must. If you're working with a team, it's also important to have everyone on the same page.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the best candidate screening techniques that can help you make better, more informed decisions.
Resume screening is perhaps the oldest, most tried and tested way of screening candidates. A candidate's resume has (almost) all information you need to decide whether they match the job's requirements.
A good resume will list a candidate's education, their work experience, and their skills. That is often enough to make an informed decision.
Resume screening is particularly effective if you have a lot of binary choice questions that a candidate's resume can easily answer. For example, if you need a certain amount of experience, or if you need a particular certification, a resume will generally have that information.
However, it may not be the best screening technique for when you want to assess a candidate's skills in some depth. A resume is a summary of a candidate's professional life and while it does tell you a lot, it may not be enough for certain roles, or at certain stages of the pipeline.
It's best used as the initial screening screening step, and it really does excel there. As far as manual screening techniques go, it's probably the least time consuming and most effective way of screening candidates at the earliest stages.
What should you look for when screening candidates by their resumes? It's a good idea to create a checklist of requirements for that specific job. Here are a few ideas:
- Do they have the required education, certifications, and the right amount of experience?
- What does the career graph look like? Has the candidate been promoted recently? Has the candidate been working on an interesting project, or is with an interesting company?
- Is the resume well formatted? Is it clear? Is it concise? A lengthy resume isn't always impressive.
- Are there any references? Some resumes may have these, but it's more common to get references at a later stage when you actually ask for them.
- Is there anything else that stands out? There are candidates who may have an unusual career path but they may be standout performers in the right environment. If there are skills on the resume that stand out otherwise, that may be worth looking at.
In the recent years, applicant tracking systems have evolved to offer automated resume screening, a technique in which these systems look for certain keywords in a candidate's resume and automatically reject them if they don't find those keywords.
In theory, it sounds great: it saves you a lot of time and you don't get any irrelevant applications. In practice, it doesn't work so well. As a technique, it isn't perfect. There are a lot of false negatives, a lot of false positives, and you end up losing a lot of good, well-suited candidates too.
It's also very easy for these techniques to be gamed and an approach like that encourages candidates to fill their resumes with the right keywords, neither of which is healthy. It's a better idea to create a resume screening scorecard yourself, listing down the criteria to qualify for the next stage, and rate each candidate using the same metrics.
Good cover letters are a recruiter's dream. They offer you so much more insight into a candidate's work, their experience, and their way of looking at things. A candidate has the opportunity to tell you what they bring to the table. You also get to understand their thought process, their writing skills, and, of course, their career path a little bit better. A cover letter also gives you a little bit of a peek into a candidate's personality.
A combination of resumes and cover letters has worked for recruiters for decades, and for good reason: it gives you all the information you need to make a good decision.
What should you look for in a cover letter? For starters: does it look like it's tailored to your job description? A lot of cover letters are generic; they just summarise what the resume already tells you in plain English. A good cover letter is one where it's clear that the candidate read the job description, understood the role well, and crafted the cover letter keeping that specific role in mind. A cover letter should complement the resume.
The cover letter is also a good opportunity to understand how a candidate communicates. Good communication skills obviously aren't all that you're looking for, but they do help a candidate stand out.
Video screening is almost an evolution of the traditional cover letter. In your application form, you can ask candidates to record a 60 second (or longer) video of themselves explaining their work experience and why they are interested in this role. It has several upsides: it can tell you a lot about a candidate; it's available for everyone on your team, and reviewing it is usually pretty quick.
Having said that, asking candidates to record a video in which they are talking to a computer isn't exactly the most humane thing to do. On one hand, you're trying to personalise everything, every communication point, and on the other hand, you're asking a candidate to talk to nobody in particular and be comfortable doing it. To use video screening effectively:
- Understand if it can be helpful for a particular role. For some roles, candidates might be comfortable recording a video of themselves speaking, and for some other roles, it might be a complete no.
- Keep it optional. Give the candidates who aren't comfortable recording a video the option to apply.
Video screening can also be a good second step of a screening process. You can use resume screening first to bring applications down to a reasonable number and then schedule a quick 10 minute call with a candidate over video. There are many tools that can help: Zoom, Google Meet, etc.
Ideally, like video screening, phone screening is the second step of your hiring process, after you have screened candidates using their resumes and cover letters. Like resume and cover letter screening, phone screening has also been around for a long time, and, again, for a good reason: it works!
A quick ten minute phone call is a great opportunity to understand a candidate's experience, their skills, their interest, and hopefully their suitability for a particular role. It's often your first personal contact with a candidate, too, so it's also a great opportunity for you to make a good first impression.
What should you ask the candidate in a phone interview? That depends on what the role is, what you already know, and what you're looking for. Phone interviews can help you fill in any holes you might have in terms of the information you need about a candidate.
Here are a few tips to conduct a good phone interview:
1) Prepare ahead of time. A phone interview doesn't need to be an ad-hoc chat with the candidate… it's better if you know what you're going to ask.
2) Introduce yourself, the company, and the role. The candidate already knows these things, of course, but it's still a good idea to take a couple of minutes to repeat it.
3) Ask the same questions to each candidate. Prepare a checklist of questions if you can. It's very easy to let a conversation flow naturally, but asking the same set of questions helps you keep bias out of interviews.
4) Take notes. It's easy to forget a good part of the conversation once you've done a few phone interviews, so it's important to take good notes while you're doing the interview.
Skill tests, also known as pre-employment assessments, are a fantastic candidate screening technique. Not only are they efficient, they also give you a great insight into a candidate's actual skills and thus their suitability for a job. They are also applicable for just about every job you can think of.
Depending on the job, the industry, and what you want, there are several skill assessment tools in the market today. You can use a preset test that covers a specific skill, or you can create your own tests for what you need.
Here are some tips for creating skill tests that actually help:
- Keep them short and relevant: skill tests should be about testing specific skills. You shouldn't use them to ask every single question you need answered. Just ask enough to make an informed decision about a candidate's actual skills.
- Make sure the questions are clear. Explain the questions in good details, and if they are technical questions where you're expecting answers in code, make sure there are examples (input cases).
- Use an online software to manage your skill tests. Doing this manually is inefficient and beyond one or two interviews, it just won't scale.
- Do not ask trick or trivia questions. Just don't do that. They don't tell you much, if anything at all.
Take-home tests are becoming increasingly popular. Like skill assessment tests, take-home tests give you the opportunity to test the candidate's skills using a project.
Although still a small project, a take-home test gives you a more complete picture of a candidate's skills, especially all the small things that a resume or a couple of questions can't really clarify, such as the ability to break problems down, communicate with the rest of the team, etc. Take-home tests also give you an opportunity to do a small test run of actually working with a candidate. No amount of screening and interviewing can substitute for actually working with someone in real life.
With take-home tasks, it's important to be mindful of a candidate's time and their current job. Keep your take-home tasks short (2-4 hours at best) and give candidates ample time to answer them. Remember that most candidates aren't going to be able to start on a task like this immediately.
It's also a good idea to actually pay candidates for these tasks. You're asking them to invest their time in an actual project, however small it is, so it's only fair that they get paid. Also: take-home tasks aren't for candidates at any stage of the job pipeline. You should send these to candidates who have been through your entire job pipeline first.
Here are some tips to create a good take-home test:
- Keep it real. Take inspiration from the day-to-day work of someone else performing that role. Make sure the task is relevant and doable within 2-4 hours.
- Communicate what you are looking for. If you're looking for the candidate to document their work, if you are looking to evaluate their communication skills… it's a good idea to set expectations upfront.
- Have a review call after the take-home test. That's the time where you can discuss all the decisions, the tradeoffs made by the candidate. It's also a great way to understand how they think about things.
That's it. Those are some candidate screening techniques that you can use to make your life easier at different stages of a job pipeline. No single screening technique is going to be enough; a good pipeline will have several if not all of these.
It's just as important to track your interview pipeline, see where you are spending the most time, get feedback from your interviewers (and candidates!), and optimise your pipeline as much as you can. Over time, you can get to a near-perfect candidate screening process for your company.