You want to employ the best talent possible to strengthen your business, but what’s the best way to ensure you do?
Attracting a strong pool of candidates can be challenging enough, but once you’ve options, employers must avoid undoing all that hard work through a slow, poorly planned, or badly executed selection process.
In this article we survey the main candidate selection methods available to hiring organisations and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each method.
We look at application forms, CVs, interviews, presentations, psychometric tests, assessment centres and pre-employment background checks.
We outline how to choose the correct mix of selection methods, how to mitigate the risks of unconscious bias, and the role recruitment agencies can play in the selection process.
Finally, we provide advice on how to make the final decision the correct one, avoiding the most commonly made mistakes.
These can come in physical form or be completed online. The advantage for the employer is it ensures applicants supply the same information and in the same format. This allows assessors to judge applications in a consistent and uniform manner.
For the candidate the application form is a familiar format and leads them through the information gathering process in a structured manner.
The downside is they can be rather time-consuming to complete, and in the digital age can provide a poor user experience for the candidate.
Once a candidate has created a master CV, it can be relatively quick and straightforward to tailor this to each application. It also provides an opportunity for the candidate to showcase their personality and catch the assessor’s eye through a well-designed and impactful CV.
However, a multitude of CVs with different formats and varying degrees of information can make it much harder for the employer to benchmark one against the other. This can lead to important factors being overlooked, or less significant aspects being given undue weight.
In their raw state CVs can encourage unconscious bias and even outright discrimination. To reduce this hiring organisations should consider anonymising key data such as names, addresses, gender, age, ethnicity and educational institutions.
Photographs should also be removed.
Interviews are by far the most commonly used recruitment selection method. In fact, allied with the CV or application form, it is regularly the only tool used to make a hiring decision.
Employers put great store in the interview as a way to assess the candidate’s experience and their ability to perform the key elements of the role. It is also seen as an opportunity to assess communication skills and get a feel for any cultural fit with the organisation.
The interviewer should also use the interview to showcase the role, the company, its culture and values, potential development opportunities and employee benefits.
Similarly, the candidate has the opportunity to ask questions and get a more accurate impression of the opportunity and the company enveloping it.
Given the prominence of the interview in the selection process it is wise to examine the process for potential weaknesses particularly given the host of unconscious biases that can feed into*:
*Taken from Neil Anderson and VJ Shackleton’s Successful Selection Interviewing (Blackwell Publishers: 1993).
Most research shows that unstructured interviews – where interviewers do not stick to a set of common questions, in effect having different conversations with different candidates – are the least effective selection method for predicting the success of a new hire.
These should be avoided as a ‘first interview’. If using, they are best saved for the final interview stage where the likes of communication style, rapport-building, and ‘thinking on the spot’ may be being examined.
Research points to structured interviews being a much more accurate predictor of candidate suitability. The process for structured interviews usually consists of the following:
The advantage of structured interviews is candidates are asked the same questions and therefore have the same opportunities to showcase their skills, knowledge and experience.
Interviewers, too, can compare candidates more easily and therefore make better decisions.
The use of a systematic rating system also greatly reduces the risk of bias.
The main disadvantage of structured interviews is that by progressing systematically through a set list of questions the candidate experience can feel stiff and impersonal.
Flexibility should be included to let the candidate ask questions and add any additional details they may not have been allowed to express when responding directly to the questions.
Hiring teams should also build their selling points into this structure, taking time to outline areas such as autonomy, training, career development potential, and company culture and values.
The interview should be, after all, a two-way process where both parties bringing critical faculties to bear.
Although they require additional resource and planning, panel interviews can be a very effective form of interviewing.
Asking questions while simultaneously observing responses is not always easy for one person to do well. Having additional interviewers on hand to note the candidate’s body language, tone and general behaviour can be insightful.
Additionally, once the candidate has left the panel can discuss their performance in a collective and more objective manner, incorporating a range of views and perspectives. This greatly reduces the risk of unconscious bias inherent in a single interviewer.
The disadvantages of panel interviews is they can be a very intimidating experience for the candidate, particularly if it is for a relatively junior position. The tension involved can inhibit the candidate’s performance and give an inaccurate picture of their suitability for the role.
Often two interviewers – the hiring manager and someone from the HR department, for example – can strike a good balance between increasing objectivity while decreasing the stress-related drawbacks of a panel interview.
Employers commonly use telephone interviews for quickly and easily screening out unsuitable candidates. For example, establishing whether the applicant has client-facing experience.
Additionally, they can be used to quickly gather extra information, e.g. digging into the specifics of a past or current role.
These approaches are particularly useful if the hiring organisation has a large volume at the application stage of what appear to be suitable candidates. A brief, structured telephone interview can be an efficient and effective means of producing a shortlist.
If the vacancy receives applications from national or international candidates, a telephone interview may be the only realistic option – at the beginning of the selection process anyway.
A face-to-face interview may involve an unnecessarily long journey, be prohibitively expensive or the candidate may not have time to spare due to work or family commitments.
Whatever the rationale for conducting a telephone interview they should be arranged as far in advance as possible. This avoids the candidate being caught unawares and gives them time to prepare sufficiently.
Applicants should be given guidance on what to expect during the interview and be advised to find a suitable location for the call to ensure they will not be interrupted.
As a substitute for face-to-face interviews, video calls are always preferable to telephone interviews.
Unlike telephone interviews the candidate is not solely reliant on verbal cues.
The interviewer can – quite literally – form a better picture of the individual being assessed. Body language and facial expressions are underestimated indicators of performance during an interview.
For both participants video interviewers are also a much easier forum in which to build a rapport.
Skype, FaceTime and Zoom mean costs are negligible and logistics easy for both interviewer and interviewee.
Second stage interviews are used by employers for various reasons.
For some, it’s to meet a relevant senior person in the organisation. For others it’s an opportunity to focus on less technical aspects surrounding a candidate’s work history. And it can also be a chance to revisit an area of possible concern with an otherwise strong candidate.
Second stage interviews more regularly take the shape of a more informal meeting.
Formats can involve the candidate being given a tour of the office, meeting potential new colleagues over a coffee, or perhaps even a lunch or dinner.
The advantages of informal meetings as part of the selection process is they can serve as an opportunity to observe the candidate’s behaviour in a more natural and fluid situation. For the candidate it’s a chance to see their possible new working environment.
The disadvantages of informal meetings largely surround lack of clarity for the candidate.
What is the purpose of this stage? What is involved? What is expected of me?
All these questions should be addressed in advance otherwise this part of the selection process can be counterproductive and lead to poor decision-making.
Just as important as the format of the interview, the types of questions employers use to assess candidates plays a central role in the effectiveness of the recruitment selection method.
Traditional, open-ended questions such as ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ or ‘What’s your biggest weakness?’ are less effective than behavioural or competency-based questions, rarely provoking response which reveal the true potential of a candidate.
That said, employers often do not know the difference between a behavioural and competency question.
This confusion doesn’t help the interviewee or the interviewer. Both types of questions tend to start with phrases such as ‘Tell me about a time when…’ or ‘Can you describe a situation where you…’.
Both also require candidates to draw on past experiences in order to highlight their suitability for a role.
The main difference, however, is that competency-based interview questions should assess the individual’s skills, knowledge and experience – ultimately their ability to carry out competently tasks inherent in the role. This largely includes technical skills.
In contrast, behavioural interview questions assess the candidate’s likely cultural fit with the organisation, department and team. They explore the individual’s personality, the types of people they work well with, how they make decisions and how they communicate.
A well-balanced mix of competency and behavioural interview questions is often the optimal approach. But employers should be clear with candidates what category of questions they should expect.
The proliferation of ‘gimmicky’ or ‘curve ball’ questions, often attributed to originating in Silicon Valley, seems to be receding (e.g. How could you solve humankind's biggest crisis given $1 billion and a spacecraft? Or What kind of tree would you be?).
While there’s an argument the unanticipated or ‘off the wall’ question gives better insight into an individual’s analytical or creative capabilities, be aware that these questions are regularly met with incredulity from candidates and can leave them disengaged.
Presentations can make a valuable contribution to the overall candidate selection process, particularly if it’s a senior managerial or leadership role or has a strong client-facing element.
Presentations are good for assessing candidates’ communication skills, strategic thinking and attention to detail. They highlight the individual’s ability to synthesise complex information and present it in a structured and disciplined manner.
Employers should give some thought to whether they share the topic with the candidate at the same time as the interview date is confirmed or wait until the day of the presentation.
While sharing the topic on the day and allowing the candidate to prepare under controlled conditions can provide insight into their ability to work under pressure and to tight deadlines, most businesses choose to set the topic a few days in advance to see the candidate’s best work.
Depending on the type of role, many employers advocate work-related tests as a key component of the selection process.
The belief is that the way to most accurately gauge future performance is to task the candidate with a piece of work that forms a central part of the role in question.
If we take an example from financial services, during selection a potential trainee investment analyst might be asked to interpret a set of company accounts.
Here the candidate is being tested as to whether they have at least the minimum skill level required for the role.
Because of this, it’s important to clearly identify the skills required for the role, the appropriate test or tests which assess these skills, and the minimum standards required.
Work-based tests bring the added benefit of assessing how well the individual behaves under pressure, priorities correctly and maintains attention to detail.
Psychometric tests are designed to establish insight into a candidate’s intelligence, skills, behaviour and personality. The results can be used to examine specific characteristics at interview or as a final verification or ‘rubber stamp’ stage of the selection process.
They fall broadly into two categories: aptitude and personality.
Evidence suggests cognitive aptitude tests can be a good predictor of how well individuals will perform in a job, especially when applied to more cerebral roles.
These types of tests can assess a wide range of different abilities and attributes, including verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, analytical and clerical.
Personality profiling – as it’s often called – is perhaps the most controversial area of psychometric testing. The Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator test is perhaps the most famous.
Personality tests do not produce right or wrong answers as such, so interpretation can be everything. But establishing the type of personality a candidate has can add a useful perspective to the selection process.
At the risk of oversimplification, a candidate whose results indicate they are a strong introvert will likely be unsuitable for a sales role. At the very least, it will flag to assessors this is an area requiring further investigation.
Overall, psychometric tests add a number of advantages to the candidate selection process.
They can be quick and easy to carry out, often with instantaneous results, and provide objective and standardised means to assess candidates.
When interpreted correctly they offer a good snapshot of working style and cultural fit.
However, these tests should be facilitated and assessed by experienced practitioners and should not be used in isolation but as part of a wider selection process.
The principle behind assessment centres is they are designed to put candidates through multiple tests and selection methods over a relatively short period of time, usually one or two days.
As a result, assessment centres not only gauge applicants’ skills and abilities but also mental stamina and resilience. They are also particularly useful when selecting candidates as part of a high-volume recruitment campaign.
Exercises during the assessment centre can include all the selection methods we have covered already as well as additional tasks such as in-tray exercises and leaderless group discussions.
Whatever tests are included they should reflect key components of the job and measure candidates against these.
Some experts argue an assessment centre is the most reliable, effective and efficient method of candidate selection. It combines several methods, measures different abilities and across multiple perspectives, both on an individual and group basis.
The disadvantage of assessment centres is their success depends on the skill levels and availability of assessors, and often they can be relatively expensive and logistically complex to organise.
Although pre-employment checks are normally carried out after the successful candidate has been offered a contract of employment, they still constitute a vital part of the selection process.
A discrepancy in the checks – depending on how serious it is – may immediately disqualify the preferred candidate, leading to the job offer being withdrawn. An undeclared criminal offence or a fabricated professional qualification are two examples.
Nowadays, background checks go well beyond the traditional reference check. Our pre-employment check division, Core-Asset Verify, performs a wide range of checks, both nationally and internationally on behalf of our clients.
Our checks can include but are not limited to:
Some employers can be tempted to try and carry out these checks internally, but our advice is always to use a specialist third-party provider.
Limited expertise, ad hoc processes, poor technology, and a lack of knowledge surrounding everchanging regulations can lead to painfully slow completion terms, inconsistent results and poor decision making.
The costs of hiring the wrong person can be huge. Background checks should be left to experts.
The entire selection process does not need to be conducted or facilitated in house. If time, resources or expertise is limited, parts of the process can be outsourced to a recruitment company.
At Core-Asset Consulting we support our clients throughout the candidate selection journey.
Working on behalf of employers, we can screen candidates, shortlist them, carry out preliminary interviews, can organise and manage assessment centres, facilitate psychometric testing and conduct extensive pre-employment background checks.
Outsourcing parts of the selection process to a recruitment agency allows the employer to focus on elements they think are of particular importance, such as face-to-face interviews.
By allowing a specialist third party to administer the selection process, it can help improve the candidate experience and therefore boost employer brand.
The success of this, of course, very much depends on the reputation and professionalism of the chosen recruitment company.
Any final decision will be made based on the collective results of different selection methods.
There is, however, no point creating a series of objective assessments if the final decision defaults to a subjective or arbitrary ruling, or undue weight is given to one selection method over another.
For example, if the successful candidate turns out to be the one who impressed most during the face to face interview stage with the hiring manager but who underperformed in all other objective tests.
Crucial in mitigating unconscious bias and the risks of subjectivity, assessors need to commit at the outset of the selection process to an overall rating system and agree appropriate weighting.
In short, the candidate with the highest score should be selected regardless of any ‘gut feelings’ or ‘nagging doubts’ of the assessors.
For this to work, the most senior stakeholder must agree not to overrule this scoring system at the end of the process, trusting data over the ‘HiPPO’ (Highest Paid Person's Opinion)’.
Choosing the appropriate selection methods, managing the process in a logical and thoughtful way, and reaching a final decision based more on science than art should ensure the very best candidate is selected for the role.
And don’t forget to communicate clearly throughout the process the attractions of working in the role and wider business, as the critical assessment is a two-way street.
But perhaps of most importance, whatever methods you decide to use, make sure you have the resources - especially the people – to execute them in a timely and consistent fashion.