Recruiter's Guide To Shortlisting Candidates

More than 50% of talent acquisition leaders say that shortlisting candidates is the toughest part. We've put together this guide to help you out:

Recruiter's Guide To Shortlisting Candidates
Shortlisting Candidates

The holy grail of hiring involves finding a quick and straightforward way for automating candidate shortlisting. But is it as easy as it seems? That is a tricky question!

Here is a scenario: You have defined your candidate persona and posted your job description to various recruiting platforms. The applications have started rolling in. Exciting. But now what? Finding talented and committed hires to invest in remains the core challenge for HR teams.

In fact, more than 50% of talent acquisition leaders say that shortlisting candidates is the toughest part, even more so than sourcing. That is why we have put together a handy guide on separating the wheat from the chaff and bringing in the best potential hires to the interview table.

What is shortlisting candidates?

Shortlisting candidates refers to the process of identifying candidates from your applicant list who meet the job criteria best for the purpose of moving them forward to the next round in the hiring process.

It comes after the talent sourcing process and often takes place simultaneously with screening, as you (or your applicant tracking software) may go through an applicant’s resume and choose to move them forward or eliminate them.

By shortlisting the right candidates early on, companies can invest time and resources in the applicants who deserve it most and also reduce their time-to-hire. Shortlisting, therefore, literally involves creating a ‘short list’ of good potential hires.

Shortlisting candidates process

Typically, a comprehensive process for shortlisting candidates — from receiving job applications to inviting candidates for a final interview — might look like this:

1. Initial candidate shortlisting

This is where the recruiter chalks up a list of skills, competencies, qualifications, and character traits that the ideal candidate will have. These are then used to filter out the most qualified applicants from the candidate pool (we will go into more detail about this later on).

2. Screening questions

Screening questions are an excellent way to remove obviously unsuitable candidates from the mix. Choose questions related to minimum must-haves, such as whether they know how to use critical software, whether they are legally authorized to work in your company’s location, and whether they are willing to travel frequently for work. Try to keep these as yes/no questions as far as possible for simplicity and swiftness.

3. Resume screening

The next step is to look more closely at applicant resumes to determine who would be a good fit. While your screening tool will already have shortlisted the most relevant ones, here are two crucial things you can look for:

a. Cover letter

These allow candidates to get more personal about why they applied for this job and why they are a good fit. Cover letters indicate that the candidate has taken more of a personal interest in your company, rather than simply mass-applying to jobs. Therefore, it is a good idea to shortlist those who took the time to write one.

b. Keywords

Keywords allow you to see whether the candidates possess the attributes that will be the best fit for the job and the work environment. Look for action words like ‘initiated,’ ‘transformed’ or ‘delivered,’ as well as adjectives like ‘motivated,’ ‘self-starter,’ or ‘creative’ in the resume.

Of course, these keywords can vary depending on the industry you are working in, the job role you are hiring for, and what your company values the most.

In addition, remember that clever candidates can load their resume with the keywords you want to see, so this is not a perfect yardstick on its own but still helpful if used correctly.

4. Screening interview

Once you have identified the resumes you like best, it might be good to have a quick initial interview to verify the candidate’s basic skills and competencies and determine their motivation to join this job. There are two parts to this:

a. Preliminary interview

This is usually conducted by a preliminary interviewer who gauges the candidate’s interest level and knowledge of the company while also checking their skills and qualifications.

b. Telephone/video screening interview

These involve screening questions that delve deeper into the candidate’s motivations and interests. Questions like ‘why are you interested in working with this company/industry’ or ‘why should we hire you’ can be asked here. You may choose to schedule this after the preliminary interview or club the two into one to save time.

Tips and tricks on shortlisting candidates

Did you know that about 75% of people who apply for a job are unqualified for it? That makes crawling through resumes to find the genuinely good ones all the more complicated.

Sifting through applications without a game plan in mind also increases the risk of negative moods or personal biases creeping in and coloring the process. That is why HR managers should aim to design a shortlisting method as objective, transparent, and scalable as possible. Here are our top tips to help you identify the best talent right off the bat:

1. Have a clear job description

A good job description is crucial for attracting the right talent. Sit with all the stakeholders in the recruitment process, including HR, senior management, and the head of the department you are hiring for, and chalk out a description of what the job will entail.

This includes day-to-day tasks, overall responsibilities, job vision, onboarding plan, and a goal plan for the first year or so. This is useful for posting on recruitment websites and a necessary step before you determine your shortlist criteria, as we talk about below.

2. Develop shortlisting criteria (before posting the job)

Having a picture in mind of your ideal candidate gives you parameters against which to measure each application you get. That is why you should select criteria beforehand (such as education, skills, certifications, work background, and so on) in collaboration with your team.

Your criteria should be high enough that you get the best person for the job but not so high that you lose out on too many talented applicants. You can divide your criteria into ‘essential’ and ‘nice-to-have’ categories to help you benchmark similar candidates against each other.

Also, make sure that your criteria do not discriminate against candidates based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, disability, and so on. Do not let bias unconsciously influence your decisions.

3. Determine the maximum number of candidates for your shortlist

To save on time and resources, it helps to have a maximum number in mind for the people you will shortlist. This could vary depending on the industry you work in (high-volume departments like call centers or operations, for instance, will want to shortlist more people).

However, a good formula is to work back from the average conversion rates (or both application to interview and interview to offer) for your industry. If you do not have this data on hand, though, we recommend playing it safe and interviewing a wider pool of candidates.

4. Eliminate applicants who do not have the criteria you are looking for

For every job you post, there will be some people applying who are utterly unsuitable for the job. If there are specific basic criteria that your applicants do not fulfill, eliminate them immediately. This is where having ‘essential’ and ‘nice-to-have’ shortlisting criteria is advantageous for shortlisting candidates correctly and quickly.

If, for instance, someone does not have a professional certification that is mandatory in your field, you need not waste any further time on them. Having screening questions as part of the application can also help with this, such as by verifying that the applicant is legally allowed to work where your company is located.

5. Give your candidates a score

Particularly, if you have several applicants you are finding it hard to pick between, a relative scorecard that takes both ‘essential’ and ‘nice-to-have’ criteria into account can help. You can assign each criterion a weight depending on its relative importance and compare total scores.

So, if two candidates meet all of the essential criteria but one meets more ‘nice-to-have’ criteria than the other, you will likely want to shortlist the first one. This helps you make a choice faster and also lets you apply all the criteria fairly and consistently for every candidate.

6. Watch out for errors

When you are sifting through a large number of profiles, it is a good idea to eliminate ones that have obvious errors in the resumes or online profiles.

While a typo or two may not be a dealbreaker, mistakes such as spelling company names wrong or extensive spelling/grammar errors could indicate indifference in the applicant’s attitude and are good reasons to reject.

Again, long and unexplained gaps in the resume might indicate that the candidate lacks commitment, so you might want to rethink selecting them.

7. Check for red flags

Even if your candidate’s resume passes with flying colors, look out for other signs that they might not be the best to work with.

Things like not maintaining proper etiquette over email, replying late to communications, or missing your screening call without prior notice could indicate a lack of organization or even an indifferent attitude towards the recruitment process.

9. Look up references

References are not just helpful in verifying that the applicant you have shortlisted has been telling the truth about where they work. They are also a good way of getting an insight into what the candidate is actually like to work with on a daily basis.

Does the reference openly appreciate qualities like the candidate’s initiative and creative thinking? Or are they vague about these things?

While the referrer could also be negatively biased, taking a third-party view can help you make a more informed decision about who you interview than relying only on the written profile. You have to do your research on the candidate.

How technology can help you shortlist more effectively

Most job openings today attract about 250 applications on average. It is not optimal for an HR manager to personally sift through each of them, which is where technology can be helpful. There are two main software options you can choose to help with shortlisting candidates, namely:

1. Applicant Tracking System

This tool sorts all applicant profiles and assesses them based on criteria that you feed into the system beforehand. An ATS can scan all incoming applications rapidly and eliminate unsuitable ones based on essential criteria.

It thus helps in presenting you with only the most qualified ones. A good ATS can also track important metrics like the applicant-to-interview ratio and send out alerts to candidates about their application status.

We recommend that every HR team invest in an ATS, as the benefits in terms of time saved and accuracy cannot be equaled.

2. Online skill assessment platforms

These are a valuable supplement to the ATS and allow you to focus only on candidates whose job-specific skills have been verified through a standardized online test.

Skill tests help keep things objective (as the candidates are reviewed solely based on skill and not, say, where they went to college) and give you more accurate insights, as the tests are based on scientific measures of ability.

For the best results, choose a platform like Adaface that lets you test multiple types of skills, such as cognitive ability, behavioral attributes, and technical know-how. We can help you assess candidates for various roles and reduce your time-to-hire by up to 80%.

Over to you

Talent can be scarce, and the best talents will always be wooed by multiple prospects. Effective candidate shortlisting can help you identify the top profiles from a pool of average applicants and get closer to offering them an employment letter.

By investing some extra time now in preparing a shortlisting strategy and getting the tools in place to execute it, you will make better hires faster and provide a fair and positive candidate experience to everyone who applies. Good luck!