Applicant screening is the process of initially reviewing job applications to determine which individuals are qualified to move on to the next phase of the recruitment process. Generally, this phase begins right after candidate sourcing; and it involves reviewing a number of factors, such as the resume and cover letter, to find candidates that most closely match the qualifications, experience, and skill sets outlined in the job description. The objective of screening is to eliminate applicants that are poorly suited to the position and retain only the best potential candidates.
When looking to make good hire, there are several methods that one can use to screen candidates. Deciding which method is adopted will largely depend on the role, the recruitment process outlined by the organization, and the individual conducting the search. Regardless of the specific preferred process, all of the techniques involve an assessment of the applicant in comparison to the needs of the role.
1. Use Applicant Tracking System to Filter Through Candidates
An easy way to eliminate under-qualified candidates even before seeing their application is to use your Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to auto-reject applications based upon predetermined criteria. If a role has a specific need, it is possible to add mandatory qualifying questions to the application and, more aggressively, the ability for the application to even appear before the screener can be contingent upon the answers to those questions.
Mandatory questions that have the ability to exclude an applicant from a role are called knock-out questions.
One of the benefits of knock-out questions is that every candidate that does not provide answers appropriate to the necessities of the role will be automatically excluded, thus making the candidate pool denser with qualified candidates. Additionally, this method reduces bias as the auto-filter mechanism does not have the capability to make determinations based upon identifying factors like gender, age, and ethnicity.
Still, recruiters and hiring managers should be aware that under-qualified applicants that may have other redeeming qualities will not appear within the candidate pool at all and, if for some reason there is a desire to view these applicants, it would generally have to be done via a manual search.
2. Perform Drug Testing & Background Checks
Usually done a bit further along in the interview process, drug tests and background checks are great tools to help confirm you made the right decision. Employers typically hire a third-party to perform both. Drug testing typically just determines whether the applicant has recently used an illegal substance; it’s very helpful for detecting individuals who have a drug problem vs those who just use once in a while. Background checks can include details about a candidate’s criminal history, driving violations, credit review, and so forth.
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3. Do Phone Screening
Another common way to weed out unqualified candidates is to conduct phone screenings.
A phone screening is used to narrow down the candidate pool by learning more about an applicant and assessing how suitable the applicant is for a role. This step in the process usually occurs after a hiring manager has manually looked at a resume and/or cover letter and before an in-person interview is scheduled. Although generally conducted over the phone, having a phone screen via video has become more common.
Phone screens usually last anywhere from 15 and 20 minutes and within that time, common topics of conversation include:
- Employment history: What has been the applicant’s experience/career progression?
- Skills: Applicant’s possession of specific skills, certifications, degrees necessary for the position
- Role description: General description of the role and the team that the role will work closely with
- Salary expectations: Pay the job candidate wants
- Candidate’s job search: If the applicant is actively searching for a role and how far along the applicant is within that process
- Any next steps: What happens after the screening? When will the candidate be notified that they made it to the next stage?
Phone screenings provide an opportunity to learn more about an applicant before committing to an in-person interview. It also allows an applicant to learn more about the company, role, and team that they would possibly join, should they be hired. Although typically shorter than an in-person interview, phone screenings should still be approached with the same professionalism as other interviewing techniques.
4. Do Pre-Employment Testing
It is not uncommon to encounter resumes and applicants that are chock-full of impressive skills and experience. It is also, unfortunately, not uncommon to determine that some applicants exaggerate their level of expertise and skill.
In order to avoid unpleasant surprises, many organizations have made it common practice to provide pre-employment skill tests and personality assessments before hiring a candidate. Skill tests can range from typing (generally for administration positions) to copywriting (commonly for positions that require writing) and code writing (typically for software developers) and can serve as an excellent way to see a candidate’s skills in real time.
In order to avoid unnecessary legal woes, be sure to note that every candidate for the role has to be given the test at the same point within the recruiting process. More intricate skill tests are commonly reserved for final candidates that have already had at least one round of in-person interviews, while some tests are given before any official interview in order to eliminate unqualified applicants from the very start. Which process an organization chooses to go with is less important than ensuring that each candidate is given the test at the same point within the process, for the same role.
Some organizations will require that candidates take a test home and return it within a particular time period. Best practice, however, dictates that tests should be given within the interview time period on-site, as it is difficult to determine the personal circumstances of a candidate and the process could inadvertently eliminate candidates who have greater responsibilities after work hours or on weekends. When scheduling an interview and/or a skill test, remember to inform the candidate of the additional time commitment so that they can prepare accordingly.
5. Try Before You (Permanently) Buy
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average cost for each bad hire can equal 30% of that individual’s annual earnings, while other agencies estimate the cost to be higher.
One low-risk way to mitigate the challenge of hiring the wrong person is to employ your final candidate on a paid trial basis. In this model, the candidate would work alongside the team and be placed on a project for a finite period. In addition to determining whether or not the candidate has the skills and competencies to do the job well, paid trials also give insight into team dynamics and greatly mitigate the risk of hiring an employee that isn’t the right fit.
A typical trial period lasts around 30 days before making the determination to hire on a full-time, permanent basis. Although highly effective, this method isn’t for everyone, as training for a potentially short period is time-consuming, and paying candidates for 30 days before committing can be costly.
6. Review Resumes
One of the oldest (and most time-consuming) applicant screening methods is reviewing each resume or application manually. Although not the most efficient way to screen candidates, there are many things to learn about a candidate from their resume. Some of the insights to glean can be realized by looking into:
- Resume length: How much work experience does your applicant have and how skilled are they at conveying large concepts into succinct explanations?
- Grammar, vocabulary, spelling: How detailed is the applicant and are they willing to go the extra step to conduct a spelling or grammar scan of their resume and/or cover letter?
- Personality: What does the resume tell you about the personality of the applicant? Especially in creative or design roles, the cover letter and resume could be an accurate reflection of the applicant’s work product.
One thing to be aware of when reviewing resumes manually is the possible tendency toward unconscious bias. Be sure that anything you’re reviewing and making determinations about is directly aligned to the responsibilities and expectations of the role and not a reflection of personal preference. You might also consider implementing a blind hiring process by having all names, gender, ethnicity, etc. removed from the application before the review.
7. Do One-Sided Video Interviews
Some organizations are taking an extra step to get to know their applicants better—even if it is a bit one-sided. One-way video interviews, different from traditional video interviews, are sometimes called asynchronous interviews, because only one person, the job candidate, is present and talking. These types of interviews are typically conducted after an initial application review in order to get a bit more familiar with the job seeker.
The pre-determined interview questions are presented in a text or pre-recorded video form. The candidate will have an opportunity to answer the interview questions via video, which will be uploaded and sent to the hiring team once submitted. The hiring team can limit (or not) how many attempts a candidate will have at answering any particular question and can determine a deadline for when the final recorded video interview is due.
Although one-sided, an asynchronous interview allows the interviewer insight into the candidate’s personality, working style, and experience with very little pressure or awkward moments if there is no desire to move the candidate along to the next steps in the process. The downfall is, of course, that although the process may feel personal to the person viewing the video, it feels considerably less personal to the candidate.
8. Perform Reference Checks
A reference check is when an employer contacts a candidate’s previous employers, peers, and other sources to learn more about their on-the-job performance, employment history, and qualifications for a job. The contacted parties are generally provided by the prospective employee and reference checks can be conducted via email or telephone through a series of relevant questions about the experience had with the candidate.
It is best practice to request 3–5 references that can be contacted directly either right before an offer is made or following a contingent offer. For executive positions, requesting six (6) references is common; you should consider conducting these via phone instead of email, as it is easier to ask additional questions and have thoughtful conversations using this method.
Reference checking can provide lots of insight into a candidate’s work ethic, scope of past work, and ability to build and maintain relationships. Because references are reflections of experiences had with the candidate by individuals in various roles, a holistic perspective can be gained.
However, this process can be inherently biased, because there is much reliance upon the subjective opinions, memories, and experiences of folks who have interacted with your potential new hire. Still, since many times references are only familiar with the candidate and not with each other, it’s a fantastic way to look for patterns and similar experiences that they may have had with your prospective new team member.
Conducting efficient candidate screening is a critical step in the process of finding a great hire. Whether your organization decides to review each resume with a scrutinizing eye, utilize skill tests to make sure that only highly skilled candidates are considered, check references to verify your prospective new hire’s reputation, or use some combination of the above methods, thoroughly screening and eliminating unqualified applicants is the first step in curating a powerhouse team!