How to Sort the Huge Pile of Job Applicants

The thrill-ride that is today’s job market, combined with the ease of applying for jobs, means that the typical process of writing and posting a job description on a recruiting website nets you a mountain of resumes and cover letters that you just don’t have time to read. How in the world are you are you going to find the best candidate in that haystack?

It’s time to change tactics. Writing a good job description is definitely a requirement, but there are a few additional pieces to the task.

Basic Skill Assessment

Can the applicant do the tasks required for the job?

A decent number of applicants submit their resumes on a lark, and don’t necessarily have the skillset or interest to do the job (though they like the idea of having the job — hence the application). To weed those out, a basic skill assessment (and indicating that applicants have to take one) can let people know that only serious prospects need apply.

For any skill that involves definitive answers (e.g., arithmetic, coding, proofreading), you can create an online test that is hard enough that only about 50–60% pass (keep in mind that some of the fails are going to come from people who don’t take the test). The test can be open-ended, multiple-choice, or even involve basic text analysis to evaluate more complex tasks like writing or analytics.

If you are having trouble designing the test, ask yourself the following:

  • What would be the indicator(s) that an employee’s deliverable is total trash?
  • What would prove that someone is too incompetent to do the job?
  • What kind(s) of [skill-related] mistake(s) do professionals actually make but are still unacceptable?
  • What kind(s) of [skill-related] mistake(s) would get someone in this position fired?
  • What is a rookie mistake that a new hire should be avoiding at this level?

From there, you can not only create the test, but also create a series of questions that ask applicants if they can effectively do some of the tasks required on the job. For instance, a customer service job might ask something like:

  • Can you keep your cool and politeness while a rude customer is screaming at you? Yes/No
  • Provide two examples of your doing so in the text box below.

Some people will just check the “yes” boxes, so the second question becomes rather important and puts applicants on notice that they need to prove themselves capable, with the added benefit that they can all be compared on a level playing field in this first round (helps with diversity!). Even 2–3 of these questions can get you pretty far in eliminating applicants — most people are not going to come up with these examples if they aren’t applying seriously. Same goes for a qualitative assessment or providing a sample/portfolio. I strongly advise making sure that applicants know that they will need to answer these questions before they start the job application, and that the answers to these questions are in lieu of a cover letter.

This combination of skill assessment and evidence of key traits/behaviors should reduce the number of applicants you actually need to review carefully by a significant margin. Moreover, you are now in a position to rank your applicants to some degree by the responses they gave to the open-ended questions. Start with the top 10%-25% of the applicants who pass, and start reading resumes. The next section talks about what to look for.

Cross the T’s

Look for people with both breadth and depth

While it is definitely important to have the level of expertise needed to do the job (depth), having a broad perspective can augment a skill set by providing ways to connect with others, contexts in which to apply skills, or analogies that can help with creative problem-solving. For instance, having a chemistry background is immensely helpful in business — there’s a lot that you can learn from molecules, quantum mechanics, and statistical dynamics, such as how electrons behave in large, coordinated groups in the presence of an outside force (or: how a company-wide incentive might shift the behavior of a large number of employees in different silos), and how the method through which a particle is observed can determine its state (or: people tend to conform to your expectations).

Every person you are considering is more than a skill-set; (s)he is a purveyor of wisdom and insight drawn from every corner of his/her life. As such, it helps to have the corners be rather distant from each other! As you review the resumes of the people that pass the basic skill tests and provide evidence of core competencies, screen for a wide range of interests or experiences. Does this computer programmer play a sport, make art, or work with kids? Does this customer service representative play bridge competitively? People with interesting and/or unique experiences can add a lot to your company for any number of reasons (such as passion, perseverance, and curiosity), and they may be some of the first people you should interview. As a bonus, screening for T-shaped people also tends to enhance diversity!

Embrace the Randomness

Hiring is not an exact science

There will never be an expedient, fool-proof way to get the very best candidate in the door when you have a mountain of applications — accept this. Hiring has an element of arbitrariness to it, if only because the contexts that seed your thoughts at any given moment are pretty random. You might have been sitting across from someone whose newspaper fold facing you contained a chess column, and that made you more likely to catch a candidate’s chess interest when it showed up in a resume that very day (you may not have even realized it!). Whether you call it “kismet,” the “fickle finger of fate,” or otherwise, accept and enjoy.

In fact, depending upon the position, I sometimes suggest pulling random resumes and interviewing those people as a check against the hiring process. It’s especially important in companies that run the risk of homogeneity by hiring a set of candidates for the same position every year (such as investment banking interns). Expediency can incite reviewers to look for easy wins, but the danger is cloning past cohorts and creating an innovation-blocking level of sameness throughout the firm. Selecting just 5%-10% of the interviewees at random (after the skill/competency check) can keep your company from getting stale (and again, this also helps with diversity).

Of course, this all assumes that you are looking at lower level positions where hundreds/thousands apply. As Liz Ryan points out, having a large number of people apply for any kind of job that requires serious experience demonstrates that your job ad was insufficiently specific. It is critical to kick off the hiring process with a detailed job description that helps candidates self-select. As much as doing so is time-consuming, a good introduction to the position saves a lot of effort during the screening and interview phases. And that, combined with a good selection process, can get you the talent you are looking for.

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