Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Needle In A Haystack: Identifying the best candidate for the job in a sea of applicants

by Shawn Boyer, CEO of

While the upside to a down economy might be the increasing size and quality of your applicant pool, identifying the best candidates – especially among hourly workers – can be an overwhelming task.

Time is of the essence. After all, the general lifespan of an hourly application is about 30 days. Beyond that, the application is likely “stale,” meaning that the candidate may have found a position, changed physical location or may have out-of-date contact information. That’s why it’s so important for hiring managers to keep their pipeline stocked, even when it seems like so many qualified people are looking for employment.

To combat an ever-increasing number of applications, HR professionals and hiring managers need to consider how to quickly identify the best candidates for the job. Every employer should include filtering practices in their overall hourly recruitment strategy, i.e. ways to “weed out” unqualified candidates.

Many struggle with the decision to hire someone over or under qualified for the position if the perfect candidate has not emerged. On one hand, the over-qualified applicant may bring valuable skills and expertise to the team, but he or she may soon walk away for a higher-level position somewhere else. On the other, taking on someone with a major learning curve could require extra training time and slow the rest of the staff down. In the end, you want the best candidate for the job, which is why it’s so important to refine your criteria.

To screen for the right candidates during the application process, you must ask the right questions that pertain to your retail business, a step that will require a bit of work on the front end. You’ll want to develop a combination of assessment questions that are specific enough to identify the qualities you are looking for in a candidate and broad enough to offer you a range of applicants. Done the right way, you’ll also eliminate candidates who simply are not a good fit.

The basic questions:
1. What experience level does someone need for a given position? (If you are hiring for a sales associate, you may want to require a year or two of customer service or sales experience.)
2. Are there industry-specific concerns to address? (A friendly and knowledgeable staff is absolutely critical for any retail business.)
3. What kind of applicant is needed for the culture/atmosphere you foster? (For example, an outgoing personality goes a long way when dealing with customer inquiries.)
4. From a logistical standpoint, do you need to consider a candidate’s availability to work a certain shift? (Applicants for your freight associate position should be available to work nights or early mornings when your shipments come in).

More sophisticated options may include questions about what the candidate wants from the job? (Are they realistic about expectations? Will they leave too quickly for what you need?)

Some job sites can be helpful in screening applicants ahead of time, allowing you to interview only the best candidates. At, we usually offer our clients a 60-day pilot program to test filtering questions and adjust as necessary. For example, if a manager is getting too many applications, we may add one or more filtering questions so that applications that do not provide the desired answers will not be sent to the client, thereby reducing applicant overflow. And if applications are too few, we will strip away questions to broaden the field. (Of course, we always allow hiring managers to view all applications that have been collected, even if some had originally been filtered).

Simple steps like coming up with the right mix of questions will save your company time and money in the long run. Filtering will dramatically reduce fruitless interviews with ill-suited applicants and will allow you to focus on what’s most important: running the business.

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