You’ve just posted a job ad and you’re seeing hundreds, if not thousands of applications rolling in. You’re thrilled to see so much interest, until you sit back and think – someone has to go through all of them and find the best person for the job.
Sorting through the noise and finding all-star performers among your candidates can be rather daunting. How can you know that an applicant is really the right fit for the position and that they will fit into your team? You screen them before making any decisions.
Here are some of the most common methods for screening candidates, some tips to on how to get them right, as well as their pros and cons.
The number one priority for most employers out there is simply – whether the candidate can do the job or not. However, this is not something that you will be able to tell from resumes, reference checks (not entirely, at least) and looking up your candidates online.
Many employers use pre-employment tests in some shape or form to determine if a candidate is a good fit. In fact, this is precisely the reason why Toggl Hire was created, to test applicants for real-world skills and their job, and not rely on other screening methods to make hiring decisions.
At Toggl Hire, we use a skills test at the very beginning of the application process. In this way, all candidates who do not know how to do the actual job are discarded at the very start. Our candidate selection tool has saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars for companies such as Mooncascade and Listonic.
Pros and Cons
Pros: You get to see candidate performance. There is no bias of any kind. When done right, they can eliminate lots of bad applicants in very little time.
Cons: Skills tests lend themselves more to certain roles than others. For example, Toggl Hire is great for hiring developers, marketers, and sales people, but at the moment doesn’t support designers or accountants (though more roles are always being added!)
2. Resume screening
Next on the list – a more old school technique. Going through resumes is the oldest method of determining if someone is the right fit for the job, and it starts with the resume. Although resumes aren’t the best indicator of a candidate’s skills, they’re one of the key elements hiring and they don’t seem to be going away any time soon. Here’s some of the information you can get from a resume while screening candidates.
- Length – If you get several hundreds of applications per position, you don’t have time to spend half an hour on each. Ideally, the resume should be 1-2 pages long, with the most relevant information about the candidate.
- Design – Even the perfect resume length doesn’t cut it if the info is scattered around and it’s difficult to view. While not everyone is a PhotoShop master, most people can organize their resume to be readable.
- Language – As a writer, I cringe at seeing grammar and spelling mistakes in resumes and they’re usually a sign that a candidate is not very detail-oriented. However, don’t be too quick to judge, especially if the position has very little to do with writing and language.
- Previous work experience – Ideally, the candidate should have relevant work experience listed, along with months and years spent on each position. An applicant for a web designer shouldn’t list working as a math teacher as relevant experience. Speaking of which…
- Resume fit – One of the biggest mistakes candidates make is sending out the same resume to all job applications. Every job has different requirements and the resume might need smaller or bigger tweaks to make it relevant. Needless to say, this takes time and many candidates don’t bother – but it’s also a way for them to show dedication and desire to get the job.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Resume screening is the most thorough method of screening. You get to take a look at individual factors and create an image of the candidate.
Cons: It’s very time-consuming, especially for jobs with lots of applicants. You rely on candidates to tell the truth in their resumes and you don’t get to find out anything about their actual skills. A possible element of bias, based on gender, age, work experience etc.
3. Cover letters
Resumes are a great way for candidates to present themselves, but they can be rather limiting. If you want them to tell more about who they are early on, you can ask for a cover letter along with the resume as part of the application process. Besides showing off their writing skills, here are a few more things you can find out about applicants from the cover letter.
- Following directions. When asking for a cover letter, you can just simply leave it at “send in your resume and cover letter“ or be specific and ask for something more. For example, you can ask candidates to explain why they’re the best person for the job, what makes them excited about working at your company, how their previous experience relates to the position, how they can contribute to your team etc. Whatever the instructions, the candidates should follow them. If they can’t write a cover letter according to your instructions, they may have a hard time following them on the job as well.
- Length and organization. A cover letter should be one to two pages long at most. By keeping the letter short (and neatly organized), candidates show respect for the recruiters’ time.
- Personality. Would you want to hire someone who seems as dull as watching paint dry? While you can’t expect candidates to go all out and crack jokes – the cover letter is a great way to show off a bit about how they think and what makes them tick.
- Tailored for the job. Just like the resume, the cover letter should be unique for the job. If the cover letter sounds like a template where all they changed is the recipient’s name and date of sending, it’s clear that the candidate hasn’t given enough thought to the letter.
Pros and Cons
Pros: You get to find out more about the candidate, without a test or an interview. You can see how the candidate presents themselves.
Cons: Wading through hundreds of cover letters can take lots of time. The only skill you test is how well somebody writes – nothing more. Because they take more time to write, you may get fewer applicants, as they can’t bother to write a cover letter to apply.
4. Applicant tracking systems
At some point in time, HR professionals realized that going through resumes manually just takes too much time and work, and applicant tracking systems came to be. These software solutions automatically run through resumes and find the best candidate on your behalf. They’re an essential element of the hiring process in enterprise businesses that get a large volume of applicants per position. However, research states that only 40% of all employers use applicant tracking systems.
Pros and Cons
Pros: They make screening candidates extremely fast. You can go through a pile of resumes in a matter of minutes instead of weeks.
Cons: They rely on keywords too much and you can miss great applicants because they simply used the wrong terms in their applications. Furthermore, they don’t tell you anything about candidate skills. Finally, they can be rigged if the candidate knows which keywords to use.
5. Reference checking
Another old-school candidate screening technique, reference checking is an essential part of making an educated decision about your new hire. After all, what better indicator is there of how a candidate performs than checking their performance with previous employers?
If you think that reference checks are a relic of the past in the HR world, you’re very much mistaken. In fact, 8 out of 10 HR professionals conduct reference checks for new job applicants. Interestingly enough, the more senior the position, the more likely they are to do a reference check.
There’s more to doing reference checks than just shooting an email or hopping on a call with the candidate’s former supervisor. Here are a few tips.
- State who you are. Let the former employer know why you’re calling, which company you represent and that you’re calling to get a reference.
- Have patience. The former employer is doing you a favor and taking time off their schedule for a call. Be flexible about the time of the call and give them ample time to respond to your questions.
- Tell something about the position you’re hiring for. If the former employer knows what the candidate is applying for, they’ll be able to give more relevant questions.
- Ask the right questions. Go in detail and ask about how the candidate performed, why they left the company, how they handled feedback, what their weakest points were and what they brought to the table. Finally, ask the former employer if they would hire the candidate again.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Best way to get information about previous candidate performance.
Cons: Relies on the previous employer’s objectiveness. If there is a large time gap, they might not remember the candidate well. It’s not always possible to reach employers for reference checks, and some employers treat this data as confidential and won’t reveal it. Finally, reference checks are pretty time-consuming.
6. Checking online
When was the last time you googled yourself? You’d be surprised how much data we leave about ourselves online, and this is one of the easiest candidate screening methods that you can do.
According to a (rather dated) research, about 77% of all employers google their candidates before making a decision on whom to hire. By doing a simple search, you can find out if the candidate has a website, public portfolio, social media profile or if there any relevant articles about them online.
Speaking of social media, candidates can expect prospective employers to snoop around on these platforms too. In fact, 70% of all employers do background checks on social media. While going through someone’s Twitter won’t tell you whether they can do a tax audit or not, it can tell you a thing or two about what kind of person they are.
Unfortunately, plenty of HR managers use online checks as a way to get dirt on their candidates. If the applicant ever made any odd statements or did anything that may have damaged their reputation – their social media history will show it.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Very easy to do, tells you if there’s something wrong that wouldn’t make you hire a candidate.
7. Paid trial projects
Once you have your best candidate(s) picked out, you can give them a paid trial projects at your company before you turn them into a full-time employee. Even after a thorough resume reading, reference check, a test and an interview, the candidate can prove to be a bad fit for your team. After all, who can guarantee that they will keep the performance from the test task all the way throughout their time as an employee?
As a CEO of one company says, only one in three new hires worked out before they implemented trial periods. Once they started with trials, they hired 3 out of 7 people who started the 30-day contract period.
While bigger companies can allow themselves an occasional hiring mistake, small teams and startups can feel the effects of every new hire, good or bad. Trial periods allow you to take a glance at someone’s performance before making a full commitment, lowering your risk of making a larger mistake.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Being able to see real-world performance as part of your team. Being able to see work ethics and culture fit immediately. Low risk.
Cons: Training candidates for trial periods can be time-consuming and costly.
8. Phone interviews
Before video became big, phone screening was one of the major ways of communicating with candidates before calling them in for a proper interview. They’re still common to this day, and they’re a good method to learn more about someone without hassling the candidate to come in and worry about commuting and missing out from their ongoing job if they have one. To get the phone interview right:
- Be consistent. Ask all candidates the same questions. Don’t get sidetracked and lost in the conversation – you’re in the lead.
- Have a worksheet. Unless you’re recording the calls (if you are – do let the candidate know about it), you have to write down the candidates’ replies to your questions. You can type them out or simply have a worksheet standing by, where you can tick the appropriate boxes for each question.
- Schedule the calls. Most candidates will be happy to know that they’re going to the next round of the hiring process. However, they probably won’t appreciate being called at any random point in time – you may catch them at their current job or in their leisure time. Schedule the call ahead so the candidate knows when to expect to hear from you.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Relatively easy to do. You learn about candidates’ communication skills and availability.
Cons: Scheduling a phone call can be a logistics nightmare. Phone interviews take a lot of time to do right with very little to show in return.
9. Video interviews
Next to a live interview, a video interview is the second-best thing for getting to know more about the candidates. Thanks to a host of video tools available at the moment (Zoom, Skype, GetVoIP, Appear.in…), you can schedule a video interview fairly easily. Here are some steps to do it right:
- Prepare the questions in advance. Have a list of questions you want to ask each candidate and try not to stray too far from it. You can take notes or tick off a checklist with relevant points.
- Pay attention to the presentation. How does the candidate behave? What is their body language like? Do they smile a lot, are they confident? There’s a lot you can tell from the way someone presents themselves during an interview – and this is especially important for customer-facing roles.
- Mind the environment. Is the candidate having the interview in their living room, with children playing in the background and Discovery TV on full blast? Ideally, the candidate should pick a quiet place for the interview, without clutter, trash or background noise. In this way, you can see how seriously they take your company and the position. Likewise, you should have a professional-looking background as the interviewer as well. We’ve got a whole article on conducting an effective virtual interview, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Easy to do. You can find out about body language, communication and presentation skills. Candidates can have an interview without commuting to your office.
Cons: Scheduling can be difficult. Great presenters aren’t necessarily great performers.
10. One-way video interviews
If you don’t have the time or the manpower to do a large volume of video interviews, you can simply ask the candidates to interview themselves for you. Once you have a list of candidates to interview, send them a list of questions to respond to and ask them to send in the video. This way, the weight of the interview is on the candidate, while you can sit back and see what they have to say. You can also check out our tips on how to personalize the one-way interviews.
Pros and Cons
Pros: Quick and effective. You can watch videos as they come in, without worrying about scheduling, time-zones, HR team availability etc.
Cons: The more you require from your candidates, the higher the chances that they will give up mid-way through the application. Your candidates may not be willing (or able) to record a video interview and send it in.
The best method for screening candidates is…
Ideally, all of the above. Of course, it’s not necessary to do phone, video and in-person interviews for one and the same candidate. However, it would be good to take a look at the candidate’s resume, cover letter, ask them to do a test, invite them for an interview and a paid test week and make a final call.
However, doing all of this requires a lot of time, resources, and manpower and there are very few companies that can do it all.
To single out the best all-around method for screening candidates, it would be using pre-employment testing tools as one part of the hiring process. By taking a quick pre-employment skills test, a candidate can show their ability to get the job done. When using Toggl Hire’s skills test at the very start of the hiring process, companies can eliminate the bulk of unqualified candidates before they even take a single glance at their resume or ask them in for an interview.