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How to work out the best way to shortlist candidates

What are killer questions?

“What are killer questions and what else can I do to shortlist candidates effectively?”

A customer who’s looking to improve their recruitment process asked me this question recently and I thought I’d share my answer with you.

Effective shortlisting means sifting out unsuitable job candidates as early as possible in your recruitment process. So only suitable candidates reach interview or assessment centre stage.

It’s a way of saving time, money and resources.

But how do you go about working out:

  • when in the process to sift
  • what you’re sifting for
  • the best sifting tools to use
  • how candidates feel about being sifted?

And what the heck is a killer question (it’s not as dangerous as it sounds!)?

Why sift?

Think of your recruitment process as a funnel. A funnel which is divided into stages. At each stage the applicant is tested or assessed in some way and those that don’t make the grade are selected out of the process.

Each stage works to filter out a few more people so that only the best quality candidates reach the final stages, e.g. a face-to-face interview.

The more automated your funnel the less labour-intensive the process – an important consideration if you don’t have enough resources, time or budget to do things manually. However, too much automation or too many stages can be off-putting for candidates.

Here’s what you need to consider when designing your recruitment funnel:

1. How many vacancies are there and how many applications do you expect to receive?

If you’ve got one vacancy and wouldn’t anticipate receiving more than 50 CVs then it is feasible to do a manual sift, perhaps by looking through each CV and covering letter/email.

Anything over 100 applications and you’ll need to use a sifting tool to get that down to a more manageable number. Each sifting stage is likely to reduce the candidate pool by around 30%.

2. What are killer questions and when to use them?

First off, you want to rule out anyone who doesn’t meet your basic, essential criteria. What must your new recruit have in order to fulfil this role?

This is where killer questions come in.

Killer questions are those that can only be answered with a yes or a no. There are no grey areas or answers that need further clarification or qualification.

It could be candidates must have a driving licence, a certain qualification, certification, are chartered etc.

For instance, graduates are often asked whether they are nationally mobile. Asking this question performs two functions: it lets candidates know in advance that you need them to be nationally mobile and it enables you to quickly sift out any that say no, they’re not.

You should ask these killer questions right at the beginning of the recruitment process, at the widest part of your funnel. You don’t want to be offering the parcel delivery job to someone only to find out they don’t have a driving licence (sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this happens!).

3. What are you trying to measure?

Having filtered out anyone who doesn’t meet your basic criteria, you may then want to ensure candidates have sufficient capability in a key skill or attribute before they reach interview stage.

What is the most important skill, ability, attribute, or behaviour for the role in question? Is it key that your candidates:

  • have the right values
  • fit with the culture of your organisation
  • have the right behaviours
  • are really good with numbers/words etc?

Then consider whether there is a test you can use to measure this capability. For instance critical thinking tests, verbal or numerical reasoning tests, situational judgement tests. Select the right one for you and build it into your process.

4. What about the human factor?

Most tests can be completed online, which makes for a fast and efficient process. They can be done remotely too, which keeps costs down.

But that means candidates may have so far only had contact with your organisation via a machine. There’s been no human interaction. And that’s important. Here’s why.

You could use a sifting tool that facilitates more human interaction – like a telephone interview. But this will demand more of your resources and time. Consider how many telephone interviews you can reasonably do in a day and factor in the time it will take to score them.

Video interviews are another option – and are a little easier because they’re pre-recorded. But consider whether you have the technology (or budget to purchase the technology) to do these properly. And you’ll still need to build in extra time to mark them.

5. How will sifting affect time to hire?

Candidates will not put up with a process that takes too long. Think about how you might make your process as swift and efficient as possible.

Automated sifting, like online tests, will obviously be quicker than manual sifting. But too much sifting – or sifting techniques that take time to set up, execute and evaluate (like telephone interviews) – will impact on how quickly you recruit.

Take too long about it and you will lose people.

6. How much testing will candidates tolerate?

Another important consideration when deciding how to sift applications is how tolerant your candidates will be about being sifted.

While graduates and applicants for unskilled roles tend to be pretty happy to jump through a number of hoops, those applying for mid-level or specialist roles are less willing to put up with lots of stages and tests. Senior level candidates expect a degree of assessment but they don’t expect to have to complete an application form, for example.

The more stages in your process the more candidates you’re likely to put off applying. You need to find a balance between good practice and what people will tolerate.

Sifting candidates effectively is about striking a balance between:

  • the resources available to you (time, budget, personnel)
  • what you want to measure
  • the quality of the candidate experience.

Get it right and you’ll have a super-dooper swift process that puts quality and engaged candidates in front of your interviewers.

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