How to shortlist candidates for an interview

Professional woman preparing to shortlist candidates for an interview

Recruiting and retaining talented employees is a great way to create a competitive advantage for your company. That’s why HR departments are always looking for ways to refine their hiring process to make sure they’re making the best hires possible. One way to do that is to increase your efficiency by optimizing your shortlisting method.

It can be a struggle to spot the right candidate who has the skills you need and fits your organizational culture. Not to mention that most job openings attract a large pool of applicants, which makes it even more difficult to spot the right candidates for shortlisting. However, most of the recruitment challenges can be solved with the right tools.

By finding an easier and quicker ways to shortlist the most qualified candidates, you can:

  • Reduce your time-to-hire, which means the top candidates will be less likely to have accepted another position before you make an offer
  • Give yourself more time to spend on qualified candidates because you’ll spend less time sifting through resumes
  • Expend less resources on unqualified candidates during the interview process

One of the primary ways to realize these benefits, it to use screening tools or online skills assessment software during the candidate screening process to spot the right candidates more easily.

In this article, we will discuss how to shortlist candidates for interviews, why you should automate when possible, and the best tools to use.

Shortlisting statistics

What is shortlisting?

Simply put, shortlisting candidates involves coming up with a ‘short list’ of applicants you want to invite to the next step of your recruitment process (in most cases, that’s some form of an interview). This is normally based on specific criteria you set before you post the job. Then, based on how well each candidate meets that criteria, you’ll determine who qualifies to go to the next step of your recruitment process.

Shortlisting candidates takes what can be an overwhelming process and makes it more manageable by removing unqualified candidates right off the bat. Instead of poring over hundreds of applications to get to the select few who might be a fit, you can focus on the best available talent from the start.

How to shortlist the right way

Of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to shortlist candidates. The wrong way will lead to mis-hires and open you up to lawsuits. The right way will make your hiring process more efficient and help you find the best person for the job.

Step 1: Develop shortlisting criteria (before posting the job)

To decide which applicants qualify for your shortlist, you need to develop a set of criteria you’re looking for. This criteria will encapsulate the essential and the “nice-to-have” qualifications or traits you’re looking for in the role.

There are a few reasons that it’s important to determine the criteria you’re looking for in advance. First, you’ll want to include it in the job description. That way applicants will be better able to highlight their qualifications, which will ultimately make your job easier.

Second, by developing the criteria in advance you can ensure that you don’t lose sight of what you were initially looking for in the role as you start looking at the available candidates. Sometimes you’ll find yourself charmed by a candidate and beginning overvaluing the qualifications they do have, even if they don’t outweigh the qualifications they don’t have. Or, if you’re struggling to find the right fit, you might convince yourself to settle for someone who won’t be able to perform the duties of the job.

Finally, having your shortlisting criteria before posting the job will reduce the probability that bias or discrimination will creep into your hiring process. By using criteria that correlate with job performance and the needs of the specific role you’re looking to fill, you’ll be less likely to be accused of discriminating against a qualified individual based on factors that are prohibited by law. If you do find that your organization is the target of legal action, you’ll be able to point to the process you have in place to guard against discrimination.

Some factors to consider when setting your criteria are:

  • Education level
  • Skills and knowledge
  • Work experience

One final thing to remember: it’s important not to set criteria that are so strict that they will dissuade quality candidates from applying, and not so open that they will attract a large pool of unqualified applicants. You have to strike the right balance.

And be realistic about your expectations. It would be nice to have someone who’s a ten out of ten on every metric, but depending on the compensation, location, and other factors, that might not be possible.

For example, if you’re going to be paying a salary that’s in line with what entry-level employees receive, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to persuade someone with senior-level experience to accept the offer you can afford to make. If you ignore that consideration, you’ll probably come to find that you’ve reject a lot of good candidates who would have been excited to take on the role. Then, when your selected unicorn candidate rejects your offer, you’re up a creek without a paddle.

What is the difference between essential criteria and desirable criteria?

When you’re deciding what you’re looking for in an ideal candidate, you’ll typically have two types of traits, skills, or experience you’ll be looking for: essential and desirable. They’re also referred to as “required” and “preferred,” but whatever you call them, it’s important to know where each of your shortlisting criteria fits.

Essential criteria

These are “must-haves” that a candidate needs to be qualified for the role. An example of an essential criterion is whether or not an applicant is legally allowed to work in the country. Or if you’re hiring for a Salesforce administrator, Salesforce certification may be required.

In the recruitment process, whether a candidate meets these requirements can be determined with knockout questions. If the candidate meets these criteria, they move forward; if they don’t, they are screened (or “knocked”) out.

Desirable criteria

These are secondary requirements or “nice-to-haves” that may give an applicant an edge over other candidates. If you have a wealth of qualified candidates and you’re looking for a way to narrow down the list of candidates who will move forward, these qualifications can help.

For example, you might have a lot of great Salesforce certified applicants, but a few of them are certified in Marketo as well. If Marketo certification is one of your preferred criteria, then this can help you decide which candidates to invite to the next round of the hiring process.

It is important to mention that desirable criteria can sometimes become de facto essential criteria. For example, if a recruiter listed a minimum of five years of experience in a certain role as one of the desirable criteria, and most of the applicants turn out to meet this qualification, the recruiter may decide that this is now essential. This means that all the other applicants who do not have at least five years of experience will be screened out.

Step 2: Create a scorecard

To make it easier to rank applicants, create a shortlist scorecard. With a scorecard, you can assign a rating for each candidate.

This scorecard serves two major purposes;

  1. It helps you apply every criterion consistently and fairly across all candidates.
  2. It allows you to rank applicants from the weakest to the strongest. This way, it’s easier to know which candidates to invite to the second round of the process.

If your criteria are mostly skills-based, certain online skills assessment platforms will negate the need for a scorecard. For instance, in TestGorilla, every candidate is automatically scored in the platform so all you have to do is sort them based on their test results.

Step 3: Determine the maximum number of candidates for your shortlist

A shortlist should be short. When it comes to the maximum number of applicants to be shortlisted, most hiring managers have a pre-determined number. For example, if they need to hire one candidate, in most cases, only four or five applicants will be interviewed.

For high-volume recruitment, where a larger number of people are needed, you might shortlist any applicant who meets the essential criteria.

If you have the data available, the best way to determine the number of candidates to add to your shortlist is to analyze the conversion rates of your past recruitment for the role.

If you don’t have that data, here are some recruiting benchmarks:

  • Interview to offer conversion: 17%
  • Offers accepted conversion: 89%

So if you plan on hiring one person for the role, you’ll want to interview at least 12 qualified candidates and make an offer to at least two of them. Of course, these are just benchmarks. Until you have more data, you might want to err on the side of caution by interviewing more candidates.

Step 4: How to shortlist candidates more efficiently

According to industry benchmarks, 75% of people who apply for a given role are unqualified for the role. This leaves hiring managers with a lot of work to do in order to identify the small percentage of applicants who are qualified. This explains why shortlisting is often the most time-consuming part of the recruitment process.

Traditionally, hiring managers used manual methods to screen and shortlist candidates. This was possible because there were not as many applicants as there are today.

Today, any job opening attracts 250 resumes on average. Considering that 75% of the applicants are unqualified, manually screening each resume and rating the candidate using a manual scorecard is almost impossible.

This is why recruiters have turned to technology to automate as much of the candidate screening process as possible. This where an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) comes into play. The right ATS can improve the hiring process in many ways, including;

  • Organizing all applications received in an easy-to-read format
  • Tracking recruitment metrics such as application-to-interview ratio
  • Using knockout questions to automate part of the resume screening process
  • Ranking applicants based on keywords
  • Allowing recruiters to search for applicants in their organization’s resume database using keywords

In spite of its benefits, ATS resume screening has its flaws. Not the least of which is that applicants have now devised ways of manipulating resume screening software by keyword stuffing their resumes.

That means that if resume screening is the main tool you use to shortlist candidates, you will often move unqualified candidates forward to the next round just because their resumes had enough of the right keywords. Not only that, but you may reject skilled applicants just because they didn’t have the right keywords.

To avoid this problem, you can supplement your ATS with more reliable screening tools. Two options to consider are online skills assessment platforms and artificial intelligence (AI) tools.

AI-powered candidate screening platforms

AI-based screening tools look for the skills and experience you need without anyone on the hiring team having to look at a single resume. According to Tammy Cohen, Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of InfoMart, “Automated artificial intelligence systems can look through resumes faster than a human can and flag the ones that might be of interest.”

These platforms may save you time, improve quality of hire, and sometimes even make communication with candidates easier. On the other hand, there are some potential drawbacks.

First of all, while you would think relying on a machine would reduce this risk of hiring discrimination, this isn’t necessarily the case. For example, the team working on Amazon’s AI recruitment software discovered that it “learned” to be biased against women. The software was trained on data from 10 years’ worth of resumes, and that led the AI system to “build patterns based on past biases.”

“The result was a top-notch AI system that taught itself that male candidates were more suitable,” said R Krish, Digital Marketing Manager at Lynx Analytics.

Companies in the AI-based candidate screening software industry are attempting to avoid this issue, but then other problems can arise. For example, as Mireille Hildebrandt, research professor on “Interfacing law and technology” at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels and general co-chair of ACM-FAT*2020 Conference, explained: “People of a certain age behave differently from people of another age. If you take the age out in the data, that means the system will simply use those other data that correlate with this prohibited data in order to be effective. In the end, it will still give you the same outcome.”

Hildebrandt notes that since many of these tools are built on protected information (e.g., trade secrets), there’s no way for independent researchers to test them.

Additionally, the jury is still out on whether or not these tools are more accurate or reliable. “Since these systems are shortlisting resumes on a YES/NO scenario based on pre-defined factors such as keywords, formats, etc., the reliability of AI-based tools for candidate screening is still an issue,” Krish says.

AI-based screening tools are still very early on in their development, so there may still be some kinks that need to be worked out.

Online skills assessment platforms

Online skills assessment tests can help recruiters ensure that job applicants have the required skills to perform the job advertised before calling in selected candidates for interviews. And, unlike AI-based screening tools, skills assessment tests have been the subject of decades of research.

One of the most important studies in this area is Frank Schmidt’s meta-analysis of a century’s worth of workplace productivity data. The table below shows the results of this study:

Most effective hiring selection practices

Based on this research, you should include tests that assess a candidate’s performance in a number of different areas in order to yield the most predictive results. That means you’ll need to find an online skills assessment platform that offers a number of different test types. To that end, TestGorilla offers a growing library of over 115 tests that allow you to assess a variety of skills.

These skill assessment tests offer a formal, scientific, and standardized method for evaluating the skills of job candidates so you can objectively define, measure, and evaluate candidates’ abilities and qualifications, and then rank candidates based on their scores.

Better shortlisting will save you time and help you make better hires

By improving the way you shortlist candidates, you’ll improve your overall hiring performance. After you optimize your approach, you’ll should find that you’re making better hires faster—not to mention saving yourself a lot of headaches!

And thanks to the latest online skills assessment tools, you can easily identify the best qualified candidates to interview in a matter of minutes so that you can complete the hiring process before your top candidate accepts an offer from a competitor.

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