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Hiring the Right Person: Screening Your Applicant Pool

Hiring the Right Person: Screening Your Applicant Pool

This post is the fourth in MRSC's series on the hiring process: Hiring the Right Person

You are a busy manager trying to fill a vacant position. You’ve designed a recruitment plan to attract the strongest candidates available. You advertised the job and you’ve received applications. You are now ready for the next step: screening applicants.

Keep in mind your ultimate goal: hiring the best candidate available. And also the specific goal of the screening process: narrowing the field to a manageable number of candidates for an on-site hiring process.
Hopefully you developed an “ideal candidate” profile prior to beginning your recruitment.  If not, this is a good time to create one. This profile provides a good framework to evaluate applicants.

If you have a human resource (HR) professional available within your organization, they can be a tremendous help in the screening process.  If you don’t have HR staff available or if you have not yet met with HR staff to determine the screening process, here are a few key steps to consider:

  • Eliminate candidates who don’t meet the minimum qualifications.
  • Narrow the field of qualified applicants.
  • Don’t make assumptions about overqualified candidates.
  • Develop additional screening criteria as needed.
  • Determine your next steps.

Screening for Minimums

The normal first step is to screen all applications to eliminate applications not meeting the minimum qualifications in your job description. If available, this task is best performed by HR staff. A candidate not meeting minimums should not be considered.

Meeting minimums can be a “grey area”—the most important action in these cases is to treat all applications consistently. If you interpret an experience requirement in a certain way for a candidate, it’s important to apply that same interpretation to all similarly situated applicants.

Narrowing the Field of Qualified Applicants

Once the pool is narrowed to qualified applicants, it makes sense to include hiring department representatives in this next phase of the process.  The focus is identifying applicants with the most valuable, relevant combination of skills and experience for this job.  Who best matches your overall needs, including the ideal candidate profile? If you included additional screening materials in your application process (for example, supplemental questions), it’s important to include these materials in your evaluation at this stage.  Again, it is critical to apply judgments consistently to all applicants.

Overqualified Candidates

Often your qualified pool contains applicants who far exceed minimum requirements. A word to the wise: do not make assumptions about this person’s expected level of job satisfaction, their long-term commitment to the position, or anything else that may make you eliminate them because they are overqualified for the job.  These types of assumptions (even if true in individual cases) can be just a baby step away from age discrimination.

Why is age discrimination a potential issue here? Because if you eliminate a candidate based only on a guess that their additional years of experience or advanced degree make them unsuitable, and you instead hire someone less qualified, you may find yourself on a losing end of a challenge by a highly capable (and typically over age 40) applicant. Instead, you should give these applicants the chance to demonstrate whether they are the best match for your job and not arbitrarily refuse to advance them at this stage of the process.

Develop Additional Screening Criteria as Needed

Once you have identified your top tier applicants, you may discover you need additional screening prior to an on-site process. The most common reason: the pool is too large to invite to an on-site process. At this point, you have a limited amount of information—typically just the information provided in the application process. Often this information is strong on technical skills, but weak on critical thinking and people skills. You need additional information to narrow your pool.

There are many options for gathering this additional information. Some examples:

  • A brief, preliminary interview using scripted questions. This is typically 30 minutes or less, via telephone, skype, or in-person.
  • Supplemental questions. Applicants provide written responses within defined time and/or word length parameters. Don’t use this option if you required supplemental questions with the application.  Supplemental questions may be more useful at this step rather than earlier—you can better tailor the questions to specific information needs and you have fewer answers to review.
  • Testing. Applicants perform actual job tasks that are as “real” as possible for the job. This option is generally conducted on-site. Certain jobs lend themselves to effective testing better than others. For example it is relatively easy to develop short, effective, job-related tests for many administrative and field jobs.
  • “Typical” work assignment. Applicants complete the assignment within defined time/word/information source parameters.  This option can be conducted either on-site or remotely and is more often used with a professional job. A variation is to have the applicants submit an actual example from their prior work (for example, a writing sample).

Determine Next Steps

Your next steps will depend upon the quality of the resulting pool of candidates. If your initial screening process has produced a strong pool of candidates, then you are ready to proceed to an on-site process. At times, however, the top candidates are insufficiently strong or numbered to justify the time and expense of an on-site process When this occurs, evaluate your options, including re-advertising the job. (Your top candidates can be asked to re-apply or to be held for inclusion in the ultimate on-site process).  Remember, in the long run, it’s better to take the time to find the right employee instead of settling for a mediocre one.

Stay tuned for future posts in our Hiring the Right Person series where we will explore the basic components of a recruitment and selection process, including a few ideas about how to make your processes more successful and more creative. Are there specific questions you’d like answered or topics you’d like to see covered about the hiring process? Let us know in the comments below.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Marci Wright

Marci Wright writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Marci Wright retired in 2014 after over 16 years as the City of Shoreline’s first Human Resources Director. Previously, she worked for Thurston County as Director of Employee and Administrative Services (1987 - 1997) and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney (1980 - 1987). Currently volunteering for MRSC she continues to be interested in the full range of human resource issues, especially training, facilitation and problem resolution.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.