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Developing positive candidate experiences through the screening and interview process.

Written by Bennett Royer – Director, Talent Advisory

There are certain immutable laws of building a good candidate experience. Excellent communication, transparency, thoughtful feedback, timely updates, and respect are the most important. An organized and well-planned process that provides value to a candidate and doesn’t waste their time is also right up there.

The process and how it impacts candidate experience can differ greatly depending on your pool of candidates and how you built it. Generally, there are two ways of building a candidate pool: active sourcing and applicants. An actively sourced candidate is someone that you or someone representing you has identified as a well-aligned candidate and proactively reached out to in hopes they will consider a change. An applicant is someone who sees your job posted on a job board and submits their resume for your consideration. Often the candidate pool is a combination of the two. These two types of candidates demand a different approach to screening and interviewing and using a process meant for one or the other, can result in a negative candidate experience, a bad hire, or losing a candidate that is very well-aligned to the technical and cultural aspects of the role.

Actively sourced candidates are usually very well aligned with the role on paper and/or come recommended by a trusted source. They often aren’t actively looking for a new job, and are already high performers in their current role, making them less likely to consider leaving and more likely to walk away from an opportunity if the candidate experience isn’t excellent. In my experience, if you are employing a hybrid approach to building your talent pool, this is where 99% of your best candidates will come from. If you have actively sourced candidates in your talent pool, you likely also have a high-level, or even in-depth, screen done internally or a detailed referral from a trusted contact and/or a recruitment firm.

Applicants, on the other hand, tend to be people who are actively looking for a new job either because they are unhappy in their current role or are unemployed. There is the possibility that you have such a reputable employer brand that even passive candidates keep an eye out for positions at your company. But even in that case, building a strong and respectful candidate experience is crucial. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good people out there who are actively looking for jobs and I’ve recruited many high performers who have been unemployed or are looking for a change. Regardless, an applicant requires a different approach to screening and interviewing than an actively sourced candidate, simply because you know less about them (and their alignment to your culture) when they enter your process.

Arduous and time-consuming screening methods are not only disrespectful but can introduce structural bias into your hiring processes.

Applicants require screening through your process because that is the only point of reference beyond the resume that you, as a hiring manager, have to qualify them for an interview. They expect to jump through hoops to get an interview, or subsequent interviews because that’s what they’ve signed up for by applying to a job posting. Now, there are limits to what you should put applicants through, and it should all be done to quickly qualify them for an interview. Screening can be a 20-minute phone interview or a written response to a form questionnaire. More modern screening methods include video submissions and online testing. Whatever method you use, it should be a valid and transparent way of evaluating a candidate’s qualifications and it shouldn’t take up too much of their time. Arduous and time-consuming screening methods are not only disrespectful but can introduce structural bias into your hiring processes. It could very well highlight that you don’t know what you’re looking for and are trying to figure it out.

Actively sourced candidates should not be put through the same screening practices. It is assumed that by actively recruiting them you have spoken to them and/or someone that knows them well and used that as an opportunity to qualify them. Imagine being happy with your current job and someone connects with you out of the blue to pitch you on an opportunity that you are a great fit for, asks you about your background and experience, and then, just as you’re getting excited, you’re asked to submit a written summary of how you qualify for the specifics of the job description just to get a meeting with the hiring manager? At best it’s a little off-putting and reduces your interest in the role and at worst, it’s insulting and a waste of your time. If you don’t have enough information to advance a candidate to a first-round interview after a detailed screen by an experienced recruiter and a credible reference, your screening process is broken. If you ask a candidate to spend too much time up front to prove that they are worthy of an interview, you are signaling to the candidate that your time is more important than theirs.

When you have taken the time to actively source candidates and have successfully garnered the interest of a handful of people who, on paper and through high-level initial screening and referencing, look highly qualified, you do not want to risk losing their interest because you can’t flex the process you built for applicants. Here are three common tactics for screening and interviewing applicants that should be altered for actively sourced candidates to improve the candidate experience.

“Homework Assignments”

Early-stage written or video submissions asking candidates to summarize their experience, skill set, or attitude is a great tool to see how well a candidate fits certain qualifications. If you’ve actively recruited someone and you have either spoken with them before or heard about them from someone you trust, it should be assumed that you’ve already qualified them (to some degree). Asking someone you’ve already told is a good fit – by reaching out to them proactively – to do more work to prove they have the bare minimum qualifications is kind of like asking a volunteer to work overtime. They might do it, but they may not come back next time.

Either skip the assignment for an actively sourced candidate or ask for very specific details if you have identified a gap or missing information. Be extremely respectful of their time.

Q&A Interview

a 55-minute Q&A followed by 5 minutes for the candidate to ask questions will not be successful in advancing a top tier candidate’s interest in the role.

I’ll preface this by saying I don’t agree with the Q&A style interview for any candidate. When you are actively recruiting candidates, you are selling someone on why the opportunity is better than a role they are currently happy in or others they are considering. You’re convincing them, in a short amount of time, that the role aligns with their interests and motivations and it’s worth exploring further. This tends to leave good candidates in a state where they are interested but have a lot of questions. That means that going into the first interview with the hiring manager, you almost always have a candidate who is not fully committed to pursuing the opportunity. The hiring manager should still be in sales mode (I’d argue the hiring manager should remain focused on selling the opportunity to all candidates throughout the process). This doesn’t mean that you can’t ask questions and make sure you get the information needed to advance candidates to the next round, but a 55-minute Q&A followed by 5 minutes for the candidate to ask questions will not be successful in advancing a top tier candidate’s interest in the role.

Spend time upfront giving them context about the role, ask them if they have questions before you get into yours, and focus on their motivations and goals, addressing how the opportunity aligns with them before getting into a Q&A.

Early-Stage References

References are an excellent way to corroborate what you see on a resume or hear in an interview while also gaining more context into a person’s experience and what they are like to work with. With an applicant, it is reasonable to want to make sure that others’ perception of them aligns with what they are telling you before advancing them in your process. Since they are actively applying for jobs, they should be comfortable and willing to provide references anyway. With actively sourced candidates, care should be taken when approaching the reference conversation. It is still very valuable to know that someone you trust would vouch for an actively sourced candidate, but often they aren’t looking for a job and might be uncomfortable with their close contacts knowing that they are considering a move so early on in the process. Ask yourself these questions before requesting a reference from an actively sourced candidate before a first-round interview:

  1. Are they a referral from someone you trust?
  2. Do the agencies you work with conduct references before submitting candidates?
  3. Do you have any mutual connections that could provide some confidential insight?

If the answer to any of these is yes, then it shouldn’t be necessary to formally request a reference. And please keep in mind, most references provided will likely only share the positive feedback you want to hear. So again, be mindful of your goal in conducting them.

The interview process works both ways and those with highly demanded skillsets have far more options and prospective employers to consider than you think they do.

Regardless of how candidates end up in your pool, they all deserve to be treated with respect. At any stage of the recruiting and interviewing process, it helps to have the mindset that candidates are interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. Have empathy for their position, keep them updated, provide transparent feedback and remember that this is more about finding someone you are excited to work with, not a body to fill a seat. Screening, interviewing, and hiring is like dating; if you’re interested in someone you need to let them get to know you while also getting to know them. You both need to invest time, but don’t play games. Be careful how much time and effort you ask your best candidates’ to devote to your process before you show them you are invested too. The era of employers interviewing candidates on a one-way street is over. The interview process works both ways and those with highly demanded skillsets have far more options and prospective employers to consider than you think they do. Be respectful. 

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