Outside of working and spending time with my family, there is only one other weekly commitment I stick to – playing soccer. I play in a Tuesday night coed league that at times can be pretty competitive. We are often happy to just have enough players to field a team each night, so we’re always recruiting. While scoping out potential players, we once found this one guy who was really, really good. Let’s call him Julien. A completely different level than most everyone else – even had pro experience.
One season Julien was free, and we grabbed him to play on our team. He scored a good number of goals, but our team played the worst that season of any in recent memory. It was obvious why – we had brought him on because of his amazing skill and experience, but had failed to consider how well he fit with our team. People didn’t want to play with him because of his attitude and arrogance and some teammates even stopped coming. He would yell at our teammates and complain to the ref constantly. We let Julien be a free agent at the end of the season, and the following season without him, we won the championship.
This experience has stuck with me and highlights the importance of a thorough and aligned screening strategy – not just for soccer, but more importantly, in the office, as well. I want to ensure that every new teammate we have – on the field or in the office – is going to be a great fit and contribute to our success.
We created this Definitive Guide to Screening based off of the best practices we have seen screening tens of thousands of candidates at Wonolo, sprinkled with expert guidance from around the HR world. If there’s one key takeaway, it’s this: create a data-backed process and stick to it. I hope it’s as helpful to you as it is to us.
The Definitive Guide to Screening Candidates
This guide assumes you’ve found the candidates through your sourcing process. For our recap on tools you can’t live without for this important part of the process, check here . By the way, sourcing is not the place where you want to cut corners…or else you’ll be in a situation of garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t invest the time and effort up front in sourcing, you’ll be forced to put it in later when you are sourcing again soon for the same role.
With that PSA out of the way, we’ll break screening down into the five typical stages managers go through. Your company might not do all of these stages, but believe me – skipping a stage to save time will only have the inverse effect – each stage is designed to whittle candidates away from the following stage, which takes progressively more time and effort per candidate as you approach the finish line. See the figure below for an illustration of a typical timetable to expect.
Skipping phone screenings, for example, will either mean that many more people than necessary in face-to-face interviews, weighing down your team in days of interviews, or not enough candidates and finding no one who gets through to the interview, sending you back to the resume screen again.
The screening process is often punctuated with the fifth stage, a background screen, which could take days but can be run in parallel with the offer phase. There is one curveball we’ll also throw in at the end to drastically cut this process down, so don’t fret until you read all the way through.
Let’s start with a quote from one of the world’s biggest recruiting firms, Robert Half. “No one can know for sure how someone will perform as an employee.” As obvious as that sounds, it is full of wisdom. Screening is more of an art than a science. The manager who best uses processes and data in their screening has a decidedly better shot at a successful outcome than the ‘play it by gut feel’ manager, but there are definitely no certainties in recruiting. That’s why most headhunters offer a 30-day guarantee.
If you haven’t already aligned on what makes up your ideal candidate, now’s the time. In fact, you should have done that before you began sourcing. But you can still recover here as long as everyone in the screening process is on the same page. Companies will often focus on the soft (What traits are you looking for?) and hard skills (What experience is required?) when sketching out the ideal candidate, and that is a great place to start. Be sure to write it down. Sounds obvious, but it is not. To make sure the message really gets across, everyone on the team should have a hard or soft copy of what makes an ideal candidate for this role. Check out our list of questions to ask candidates to assess their soft skills here.
But where managers often fall flat is projecting into the future and determining the impact they’d like the candidate to make. Not just job functional duties, but what role (not job title) will the candidate play on the team? We can use a common marketing tool called Archetypes to map out the type of talent we want to hire for each role. Here is an Archetype map:
Remember Julien, my soccer teammate? We had hoped he’d assume the role of The Hero, but we didn’t vet him properly, and he ended up playing the role of The Ruler – and fell into the trap of being authoritarian, losing the respect of the rest of the team.
When hiring for an individual contributor, for example, having someone in the upper left-hand quadrant probably isn’t your aim. It will also depend on your company culture, the goals of the position, and the function for which you are hiring. An Outlaw, for example, would be a much better fit in Market Operations at Uber than in HR at Walmart. You can similarly map out managers, leaders, and even hire specific archetypes to build the culture in your organization. To help ground the archetype map, please see the Pop Culture Cheat Sheet from Emily Bennett below.
The Resume Screen:
First things first – let’s make one thing clear. The purpose of the resume screen is not to find your ideal candidate. It is to disqualify as many candidates as you can. You’ll start looking for the good in the next stage. Here, you need to go from hundreds of candidates to a dozen or so. Here are some tips and tricks for how best to conduct your resume screen.
- This should go without saying, but make sure your sourcing is aligned with your screening. The qualities you are screening for should be obvious in your job description – don’t waste anyone’s time. Making screening criteria obvious to candidates will limit the amount of people who apply who clearly aren’t qualified for the job.
- Look for ‘red flags’ on the resume that signify attributes you don’t care for. These include:
- History of job hopping (i.e., being at a job for less than 1 year)
- Long tenure at a company but lack of career progression
- Cover letters that obviously are templates
- Spelling or grammatical errors
- Doesn’t call out specific credentials / licenses required for the role
- Ask the applicant to do something specific while applying, such as adding a cover letter, answering one specific question like “What interests you about this job,” emailing the resume to a specific address (even better, asking for it explicitly in PDF form), or including references. Anyone that doesn’t follow these steps is likely taking a spray-and-pray approach to applying and probably isn’t worth your time.
- If your role has quantifiable results, look for those. For example, salespeople who hit 100%+ of quota or years of experience in a certain field.
- If you have an applicant tracking system (ATS) or other tool that can do keyword searches, start there and let the machine do the work. If you are posting lots of jobs and getting lots of applicants, investing in a tool like this could save you significant time and money.
Again, at this stage, you aren’t looking for a needle in the haystack – you are trying to pare down that haystack as much as possible before investing time in specific candidates. To keep the sports analogies going, think of the resume screen as the NFL’s Combine – not making any decisions but ruling out players who just don’t meet your baseline qualifications.
The Phone Screen:
The first step of the interview process is generally the phone screen. The phone screen might be by phone, over Skype or Google Hangouts, or more popular recently, pre-recorded video. You’ve shrunk your candidate pool from hundreds of resumes to enough to count on fingers and toes, so the next step is to move from disqualifying to qualifying.
The purpose of the phone screen is to move applicants who look like they could be the ideal candidate into the next stage, in-person interviews. Ultimately if you are doing a good job, you’ll be dropping up to ⅔ of your phone screen candidates, so you’ll be doing a mix of weeding out the bad and honing in on the good.
Each phone screen should be no longer than 30 minutes, and can be easily completed in 15. You are going to want to allocate almost all of the time to questions from you to the applicant, leaving a couple of minutes to get any burning questions from the candidate out of the way. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to ask questions when they come on-site.
The phone screen doesn’t have to be done by the hiring manager – in fact, if you have an HR professional or recruiter working with you, ideally the phone screen is conducted by this person. Align on what is being asked and what your ideal candidate looks like, but save the hiring manager’s first discussion for the in-person interview if you can. This saves you time and keeps the face-to-face fresh.
Finally, you’ll want to take advantage of the phone screen by getting commonly asked questions out of the way here. These include:
- Why are you leaving your current job?
- Why are you interested in this job?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
For more essential phone screen questions, download our guide here.
These are the questions that many interviewers ask to start off their interview and if the candidate has 4 back-to-back interviews in the next round, they likely get asked 4 times. Instead, ask these during the phone screen and then provide these answers to each interviewer so they have them before they walk into the in-person interview and don’t waste time asking the same questions over and over again.
The Face-to-Face Interview:
This is usually the decision-making step in the process. There is no one right way to do the in-person interview in terms of number of interviews, number of visits to your office, or who to select as interviewers, but whichever way you choose, you can expect a significant time investment per candidate so you want to make it good. There are a number of best practices we can share to improve your process and your likelihood of finding your unicorn candidate.
One thing to reiterate here is that recruiting and screening is tough. As we mentioned, there is a lot of art in recruitment. Many people hold Google on a pedestal in terms of hiring great talent and mastering the recruitment beast. But ask Google themselves, and they will tell you a different story. In fact, according to Google’s own data, interviewers at Google only make the right candidate decision 51% of the time. That’s right, Google, the undisputed ruler of recruiting, is hardly better than flipping a coin. If Google is the best and these are their results, that certainly means you’d be better off playing odds or evens with a candidate during the interview than going through the motions.
The lesson here isn’t to resort to eeny meeny miny moe, but to incorporate as much data-driven process into your interviewing as possible. Your gut can’t beat Google, but data and process can. The best managers will make the screening process as scientific as they can.
How? Let’s break it down. First, logistics. Let’s set ourselves up for success.
- Have a schedule and share it. Not just with each interviewer, but with the interviewee, as well. Let them know who they will be meeting with, give them the opportunity to prep on each interviewer, and remove as much uncertainty as you can up front.
- Have a good space. Book a comfortable setting, ideally not at your desk / office, but a private conference room with limited distractions. Provide water or some sort of drink. And always remember to have a clock visible to the interviewer.
- Prep interview questions. Make sure each interviewer knows what handful of questions they will be asking. (Looking for some guidance in this area? Download our list of 10 great interview questions). Have a printout, if necessary, with questions, and keep notes on what candidates said, especially if conducting multiple interviews. There’s nothing worse than asking irrelevant questions to fill time or forgetting which candidate said what. Consider asking each candidate the same questions to avoid bias.
Now on to the interview itself. A successful assessment will test the candidate for both aptitude and attitude. Honestly, if you are only going to test for one, attitude is more important than aptitude, although we see in practice that often the inverse occurs. At Wonolo, we believe in attitude so much that we take this to an extreme. Our Wonoloer onboarding process focuses solely on character traits. We call them the 5Ps, which are
But don’t believe just us. Successful entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk says the same – if he finds a candidate who embodies three traits, he hires them: patience, integrity, and empathy.
Still, you think experience and proficiency are what matter? How about some data? Forbes shares author Mark Murphy’s data that tracks 20,000 new hires.
- Within the first 18 months, 46% had failed.
- Of those failed hires, 89% failed because of attitudinal reasons.
- Only 11% failed due to lack of skill.
So why do most interviewers focus on aptitude instead of attitude? Probably because it is easier to focus on tangibles vs. intangibles. Identifying the right traits is dependent on the role and the company, which is why aligning on an archetype, as we discussed above, can help so much. The real sign of screening IQ is the manager who assesses for EQ (emotional intelligence).
So now that you are bought in, how do you test for EQ?
- Use an attitudinal test. This can be done before, during or after the in-person interview and gives you data-backed input to help you make an unbiased decision across candidates. Check out companies like Criteria to learn more.
- Look for toxic attitude traits. These are, across almost all companies and roles, some examples of bad attitudes you want to avoid:
- Ego – doesn’t help others who are perceived to be below them
- Arrogance – doesn’t take feedback
- Apathy – lacks initiative to go beyond
- Pessimism – complains, whines, and drags people down
- Ask questions targeting specific character traits. Ask the candidate how they would deal with “this-type-of-person questions,” such as “You have a subordinate/colleague/teammate who is always late and doesn’t deliver on deadlines. How would you handle this situation?” “What do you do with a high-performing jerk?”
- People perform differently in different situations. If you have the opportunity, spread the interview across mediums. Be sure to try one-on-one, phone, video, group interviews, walk on the street, golf course, etc. You can learn a lot about integrity on the golf course or politeness on the street.
Doing any of these should demonstrate immediate improvements in your hiring success if you are focusing just on skills and experience.
Speaking of skills and experience, this is not to say you shouldn’t brush up your screening game here, too. In addition to some of the great questions that you can download here, some homework assignments or on-the-spot tests can be very helpful, as well.
- For managers, we like the 30-60-90. This gets right into the nitty gritty to see how the candidate plans to tackle the challenge at hand. Of course with limited information, the actual content of the plan is less important than the thought process and critical thinking that create and explain the plan and how it solves your problems. Be on the lookout for vagueness or generalities – these are signs the task wasn’t taken seriously or the brainpower or experience isn’t there. The candidate who puts the effort in to learn about the company will shine with actionable plans you may want to implement right away.
- Use an aptitude test. The viability of these tests varies with the type of role, but if you have specific skills you can quantify, this approach is worth a shot. Another testing solution is OutMatch.
- Let your SMEs ask the skills-specific questions in interviews. If you are hiring a Rails developer, let another developer test the candidate while other interviews focus on general experiences or cultural fit.
The third screen is cultural fit. Cultural fit may overlap with your attitudinal tests, but you’ll want to include your company’s values in the screening process. Culture is a shared set of beliefs, values, and practices. And as millennials fill the workforce, culture will only increase in importance. Employees want to feel like they are contributing to something worthwhile in an atmosphere where the company values their dedication and hard work. Consider this: A study of 3000 job seekers and hiring managers asked what the single most important determining factor is when making a new hire and 43% responded with ‘cultural fit.’
If you don’t have a clear culture defined, get to it. But that is the topic for a whole different article. For now, take this great example of how Southwest Airlines tests for culture. An excerpt from Hiring for Attitude elaborates: “Southwest was conducting a round of hiring for new pilots (typically serious folks dressed formally in black suits, etc.). The Southwest interviewer invited this serious bunch to get comfortable in a pair of Bermuda shorts. The shorts were part of the Southwest summer uniform, but it was an invitation that seemed too ridiculous for many of the pilots who immediately declined the shorts. And that told Southwest that these folks may be great pilots, but they just weren’t going to fit a fun-loving culture. Now, just because you put on the shorts was no guarantee of a job, but it was a good indication that you just might fit Southwest’s fun attitude.”
Graphic: The Huffington Post
Here at Wonolo we like to use a 4-point scale to rate interviews.
1 = Definite no
2 = Some admirable qualities but not convinced
3 = Strong potential hire
4 = Definite A-player
What this rubric does is take the subjectivity and quantify it. It also gives you a way to compare candidates afterwards with a numerical score. You might decide to create internal rules like automatically ruling out any candidate that received any 1s or 2s. Or average score has to be above 3.5 to move to the next stage. Do whatever makes sense for you and your company – we just recommend you make efforts to take the guesswork out of the process.
Remember, the candidate is also interviewing you. They’ll be evaluating your questions, your demeanor, your environment, your preparation, etc. One of the biggest mistakes managers make is forgetting that interviews go both ways. Let them talk! It will depend on the role and seniority level, but a good rule of thumb is to allocate ⅓ of the interview time to letting the candidate ask questions. Also, as tempting as it may be, don’t interrupt or finish their sentences. Remember, let them talk!
Finally, after all this talk of how to ask the right questions, it is worth calling out what not to ask candidate. These are known as illegal questions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) has a list of prohibited questions and other workplace no-nos. Be sure to take a look and share with anyone interviewing. What you thought was just small talk (Where are you from? Do you have kids?) could land your company in a heap of trouble.
Congratulations! You have a candidate who made it through your process, and you’re psyched about them joining your company. But now is not the time to be trigger-happy. Reference checks can be the most informative and valuable part of the process, but you’ll need to put in the effort to make this happen.
First, look at the references the candidate provided. How recent are the referrals? If they are years old, red flag. How relevant are the references? Did they provide relevant work connections or just random friendlies? Friends and family, that’s another red flag.
If the references pass those first two tests, proceed at your own peril. It is a good bet that any candidate you’d want to hire will have coached the references on what to say when contacted. You already like the candidate so you don’t need more fluff. This is where you need to roll up your sleeves and find your own references.
Your goal with the reference check is to get the “back door” references. People who can give you the truth about the candidate. But you have to respect the candidate’s privacy and conduct your checks ethically.
Never talk to anyone at the current employer. It is very likely that the candidate has not informed their current company, and your call could create major problems for the candidate.
Instead, look for direct reports, managers, and peers at previous companies. In fact, look for all three if possible. Each role will have had different interactions with the candidate and provide a useful perspective. For example, managers may help you understand how the candidate takes direction, dealt with difficult tasks, or hit targets and deadlines. Direct reports will speak directly to managerial ability, leadership style, and give a strong sense of culture fit. Peers can talk about collaboration and teamwork or general presence in the workplace.
If you are on the fence or are looking for someone in a very particular situation, you might decide to go beyond the obvious working relationship reference. You might find volunteer groups or athletics teammates that you are mutually connected to. Linkedin is definitely your friend in this part of the process. A great example of an unusual reference check that worked for former Arizona head basketball coach Lute Olson was the high school janitor. If you act like a jerk to the janitor or don’t throw your paper towels in the trash can, that is a good indicator of character. Remember the janitor in The Breakfast Club?
Be aware, if going for a backdoor reference, you won’t have any context on previous relationships or occurrences. The person you are reaching out to might have not gotten along with the candidate so it is your job to try to work the reference and get a sense of the relationship and experience working together.
Background checks are generally the last step of the screening process, and depending on the company, you may actually run these after a conditional offer of employment. The reason for this is simple – background checks are not free. They cost money and depending on the types of checks, it could be a triple-digit bill. This is why most companies want to run them only when they are certain about a candidate.
Typical background checks are looking at the following:
- Identity Verification (i.e., You are who you say you are)
- Criminal History (including Sexual Offender Registry, Terrorist Watchlist) over the past 7 or 10 years
But companies may decide to add further checks depending the role and the risk tolerance of the company, such as:
- More stringent criminal history spanning county, state, national, federal, global, and even civil records
- Motor Vehicle Records
- Employment History
- Education History
- License, Certification, and Registrations
- Drug Tests
- Credit Checks
Like everything in screening, there is no one right solution. But doing at least a baseline check is recommended if for nothing else, peace of mind. If looking for a (new) provider, Checkr is the fastest-growing background check provider. Also, there are legalities about when and how you can run a background check or even mention that one is required. Again, a link to the EEOC’s page on background checks is here.
We mentioned earlier that there is a shortcut to skip much of this process. Remember the quote above from Robert Half? “No one can know for sure how someone will perform as an employee.” That is true, but anyone can know for sure how someone will perform on the job by giving them a chance to prove themselves. This is the foundation that Wonolo was built on – the idea that both the business and the worker get to “try-before-you-buy” to make a more informed decision.
If you had the opportunity to see how a candidate performed on the job, you’d probably value that over any other step in the screening process. The same goes for the candidate. The chance to actually do the job, work with future colleagues, and get a sense for the real corporate culture is worth much more than reading websites, sitting through interviews, and looking up the company on Glassdoor. And the best part is that, after both sides have had a chance to feel each other out, the likelihood of making a hire that sticks grows exponentially. Plus, using a service like Wonolo that pre-vets the talent means the background checks are already completed, and you have factual data on prior performance in similar jobs on the platform, giving you even more confidence in making your decision. By using this try-before-you-buy method, you’ll save time and money and actually have a shot at being better than Google at making the right hire.
You are going to make a decision on each candidate who enters your funnel – most will be No, a few will be Yes. The Yeses can move on to the offer stage, and you go from buying mode to selling mode. As for the Nos, they need to get that no. But, when delivering that no, keep in mind that you never know when you might have the right fit for that candidate or who that candidate knows, so always treat everyone, including the Nos, with respect. Every applicant deserves closure – be one of the few companies that actually delivers that closure. Depending how far they got down the funnel and how much time they spent in the process, the closure might only be a simple thank you email or or might be a call from the hiring manager. Bill Simmons found out he got fired from ESPN on Twitter. Give your candidates more respect than that. Show each of them some love.
Screening is a necessary part of every manager’s job. Every one of us can get better and improve our success rates of hiring the perfect candidate. It’s a question of honing your process, bringing data into your decision, and testing for the things that truly matter. Please use this as a guide for all of your screening needs. And don’t be shy about sharing feedback so we can improve!