How to Shortlist Candidates for Interview and Avoid Costly Mistakes

Regardless of the Applicant Attraction Channels you use, if you don’t have the right recruitment process in place, it’s all for nothing. So here’s my tried-and-tested process for effectively shortlisting applicants.

Don’t Panic if You Don’t Have Any Applicants

If you don’t receive any applicants within the first 48 hours you should be concerned, but it is possible to recover the situation.

I recommend you login to the employer section on a few job sites to see if they provide any stats.

If your job advert is not getting many views, this means it is not being found in the search results. There are four common reasons for this:

  1. Salary is not included.
  2. Salary is not competitive.
  3. Location is either in a small conurbation or a large region.
  4. The advert title is not using keywords that applicants search.

If your job advert is getting views, but not many applications there are two common reasons for this:

  1. You’ve published a job description rather than a job advert.
  2. Your job advert is not compelling.

You must take action quickly as response is unlikely to improve.

From this point on my advice is beneficial if you have applications. If you’re not quite there yet, I’d advise you to return to this chapter when you are.

Avoid Discrimination

At this point you’ll start reviewing applicants, and it’s necessary to say a few words on discrimination.

I’m not a lawyer, and I’m pretty sure my lawyers don’t want me to try practising law, so let me preface the following by saying that you should always get the best legal advice you can. I can summarise my personal understanding by saying that if you make decisions about an applicant based on gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability or similar factors then you’ll have issues with the law.

Don’t avoid discrimination just because legally and ethically it’s the right thing to do. Avoid it because this will increase diversity and inclusivity, and improve the working culture of your business. Though this shouldn’t be the primary motivation, you may well find that it enhances your competitive advantage as well.

There are highly talented people who suffer discrimination. Given a fair chance and the opportunity to show what they can do, they can make a positive difference to your business. If you’re going to be innovative, you need a diverse group of people who think about problems differently.

The recruitment process I recommend follows the letter and the spirit of the law, treating people fairly, and gathering and using only data about applicants that’s relevant to outcomes. Throughout, it attempts to reduce individual bias so that you’re hiring based on merit and whether a person is able to do the job.

We have so many biases – it’s part of what makes us unique – but these can have perverse effects. A common one in recruitment is the halo and horns effect. The term comes from a empirical study by Edward Thorndike (1920) that asked officers to rank their soldiers by various characteristics, including intellect, leadership and physique. He found that if a soldier’s physique was rated highly then so was his intellect and leadership skills. In recruitment, this effect means that managers hire those who look like them or are physically appealing (the “halo effect”) because subconsciously they assume they’ll be good at the job. The opposite “horns effect” happens with people who don’t look like them or aren’t considered as physically appealing. As you can imagine, this creates tremendous diversity challenges because you end up with a team who all look the same.

Unfortunately, I don’t think you can completely eliminate discrimination because it’s often unintentional and unconscious. Policies, procedures and rules aren’t going to solve the problem because by the time you need them it’s often too late and you have to take disciplinary action. Other practices such as removing candidates’ names and schools, however well-intentioned, just delay what happens further down the line at interview.

Most of the discrimination training I’ve seen is usually opinion disguised as facts. For example using survey data based on small sample sizes that asks how people feel rather than how they were treated. It’s very good at highlighting racism and bigotry which are more obvious so easier to immediately tackle by being an ‘active bystander’. But they are less effective at unconscious and unintentional bias. The outgoing chair of the Institute of Race Relations in the UK made a similar point saying unconscious bias training is “nonsense” (Mohdin, A. 2023).

I prefer to tackle the problem in a quick, cheap and effective way that I’ve found reduces discrimination by raising awareness of how unique team members are. Give your staff a psychometric test and ask them to share the results (this is one of the few times I recommend the use of such tests). This enhances employees’ self-awareness and their appreciation of how colleagues very different to them can be just as good at their jobs. With a better understanding that diversity doesn’t dictate ability, they are able to make better judgements.

While you could go on team-building exercises to encourage a discussion on diversity, I find that most employees treat it as a day off and switch off from work. Similarly, many employees are bored to tears with PowerPoint presentations and classroom environments.

With the best will in the world, someone may slip up without even knowing it. If it’s a major lapse, consider whether you still want them in the company, let alone in recruitment. For minor issues, I recommend a gentle word so they are more receptive and don’t feel their character is being assassinated.

I appreciate that my approach will never be enough for those who want lots of training, adaptations and enforcement. It’s aimed at tackling discrimination at source and changing perceptions, prejudices and attitudes.

Let fairness to all be your watchword.

Expect Irrelevant Applicants

It’s helpful to manage your expectations: you will get completely irrelevant applicants. You’ll see all sorts of weird and wonderful nonsense. Strangely I’ve even got completely irrelevant applications from HR professionals who either don’t read the advert or want to restore karma for looking at so many bad applications themselves!

Mostly I see overseas applicants, desperate for a job. I get lots of applicants who are so desperate they apply to almost everything. It’s common to get third-party suppliers upload brochures to solicit business. A few candidates even mistakenly upload tax documents, letters from their doctor, and divorce proceedings!

Completely irrelevant applicants happen to everyone, expect them to happen to you.

Completely irrelevant applicants happen to everyone, expect them to happen to you.

Rather than getting frustrated or upset, say to yourself “I was expecting this” and quickly delete the application and move on to the next.

People are not perfect, so recruitment is not perfect.

You’ll Never be Happy

Another expectation I’d like to manage is that you’re probably never be happy with the applications you receive.

You’ll naturally be frustrated with completely irrelevant applicants.

But if you only receive one ‘perfect’ applicant, you’ll still likely want more to benchmark against. Sadly it is unlikely they will be more, so you’ll still be disappointed.

Recruitment is often very polarised, you either get too many applicants or not enough. Please expect it and accept it, because you can’t really control it.

Shortlist Applicants Every Day

Shortlisting is best undertaken by a single member of the Recruitment Team so they gain an understanding of whether sufficient Applicant Flow is being generated to test how realistic the Great Performance Profile is.

If you’re advertising on job sites or using a flat-fee recruiter, you should receive your first job application within four hours or so. Don’t wait to see who else comes along: shortlist applicants every day, preferably in the morning, so you have time to act.

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> Schedule time in your diary to review applicants, preferably every weekday morning. What gets scheduled, gets done.</span>

Some hiring managers procrastinate. They want to wait for other responses before doing anything. This is unwise: that potentially perfect applicant who sent you their details on day one might accept a job offer elsewhere while you dither and delay. The “war for talent” can often be won by a Race for Talent.

Also, once your job advertisement has been published it will quickly fall down the list of search results. You’ll receive a diminishing number of applications over time so there’s even less point in waiting.

Even when you start interviewing, don’t stop shortlisting because you never know what will happen. Candidates might not turn up for their interviews, they may turn out to be unsuitable, they might reject your job offer, they might accept and not start. There’s so much that can and does go wrong that you need to be in control of your shortlist so that you can move quickly before other employers and recruitment agencies do.

Shortlisting Process

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> If you’re using a good recruitment agency or headhunter, they should be screening candidates. Therefore, you can generally skip this step and arrange Structured Interviews.</span>

It is really important that you respond quickly and coordinate interviews before the applicant is sent to their other customers.

Occasionally a recruitment consultant may suggest a candidate who looks bad on paper but they think will be a good fit. I’d recommend you give them the benefit of the doubt at least once because the recruitment consultant may actually be very good at their job.

Step 1 – Familiarise yourself with the Great Performance Profile

The first step is to reread the Great Performance Profile and the job advert. This will remind you of the key competencies which you determined are required to carry out the role.

After familiarising yourself with these vital documents, the fun can really start – it’s time to see who applied for your position!

Step 2 – Briefly read through each application

What you need is enough Applicant Flow for you to see if applicants are going to meet the requirements in your Great Performance Profile.

Try to remove obviously irrelevant candidates, such as international applicants (if you can’t offer a work visa), those with unrelated work experience and those with minimal CVs showing no effort.

Now review the remaining applicants, selecting applicants in rather than out. Ask yourself, “Why should I interview this person?” because this helps you see the potential value of each applicant. Remember to benchmark them against the Great Performance Profile, not against the last CV you read.

When looking through CVs, here are some things you should watch out for:

  • Does the CV contain glaring spelling and grammatical errors? If the job requires excellent written communication skills, be wary. They could have done a spell check or asked someone to proofread it, but you’ll need to judge how important this is and what it says about their personal pride, care and attention to detail (naturally, if the candidate makes you aware of a disability such as dyslexia, make allowances).
  • Is the applicant’s work history continuous or does it contain unexplained gaps which warrant further investigation?
  • Does the applicant’s work history build up to the position for which he or she is now applying? Be suspicious if they suddenly jump from a seemingly lower level to a dramatically higher level or have a complete career change.
  • How long did the candidate hold each of their previous positions? Have they had a high number of jobs within a short space of time? You might have a “job hopper”, though this might be because they had temporary assignments, which needs to be checked if not indicated as such.
  • Does the candidate have other desirable educational qualifications, or have they received additional training relevant to the position?
  • Be careful about dismissing applicants that live far away if they meet a lot of your other requirements. They might be considering relocation. In the past this would have been explained in a covering letter, but many job sites don’t include these. If in doubt, ask.
  • Don’t dismiss candidates just because they’re unemployed. Lots of people have faced circumstances beyond their control and work out great.

<div class="grey-callout"><p><span class="text-color-purple">Important:</span> Recognise that CVs are advertisements, not detailed objective reports. </p><p>People with the best CVs are often the ones who move jobs all the time – they get plenty of practice in updating them! In contrast, the person who has stayed for five years-plus with an employer may not have a clue about CV writing because it’s been such a long time since they last looked for work. They may find it harder to describe the wide range of duties they carried out, may be more prone to employer jargon and may struggle to separate their work into sections to show how they’ve developed.</p><p>A CV may also have been written by a professional CV writing company and hides the candidate’s true ability (or lack thereof!).</p></div>

Step 3 – Sort applicants into three separate piles

Sort applicants according to whether they are:

  • Qualified – have all the necessary skills and competencies.
  • Possibly qualified – have most of the skills and competencies.
  • Unqualified – are short of skills and competencies. Don’t be afraid of rejecting people and make a decision with the information you have.

One of the most difficult parts of sorting applicants is keeping your shortlist short. If you don’t have many CVs from qualified applicants, this is a clear sign that either your Great Performance Profile is unrealistic or you have failed to generate enough Applicant Flow (I explain what to do if this happens at the end of this chapter).

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> You’re going to get more unqualified applicants than qualified. It’s an unfortunate fact of recruitment. Despite this, when you see an unqualified applicant, take a moment to consider “have we been clear enough in our job advert?” If not, revise the advert to be more clear about what you want and don’t want.</span>

Step 4 – Take action immediately

Speed is critical in recruitment because of competing employers and recruitment agencies who have access to the same applicants. Remember the “War for talent” is often a Race for Talent and the quickest often wins. Take the following actions for the different categories of candidates:

  • Qualified: Start Telephone Interviews before your competitors do.
  • Possibly qualified: Hold on to these and revisit later if your qualified applicants are screened out.
  • Unqualified: Diarise some time to send a “we’re sorry you haven’t been successful” email. You might want to adapt the following email that has received praise from jobseekers for its tone and sentiment:

<div class="is-email">
<p>Subject: Thanks for applying</p>
<p>Dear {Frank},</p>
<p>Many thanks for applying to the {customer service} vacancy in {Sevenoaks}. We were pleased to receive your application and have now had the chance to consider it, together with the rest of the response to date.</p>
<p>I recognise the time and effort that is involved in submitting an application and that there is no easy way to pass on negative news, but I hope you appreciate being updated.</p>
<p>Sadly, on this occasion we felt other applicants appeared to be a better fit in terms of desired experience. However, we would like to retain your details for six months and may contact you in the future if we have relevant vacancies. Please let me know if you wish for your details to be removed before then.</p>
<p>Thanks again for your interest, and we wish you all the very best with your job hunt.</p>

<span class="navy-callout">A copy of the unsuccessful email is available at </span>

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Note:</span> Some employers don’t like telling applicants that they were unsuccessful because they worry they’ll ask for further explanation. They rarely do. Using the email template above, I either get no reply or a positive reply thanking me for my time. If an applicant keeps asking, I’ll say, “The challenge for you is that you never know who else applied, and I can’t be indiscreet about them and their experience, in the same way as you wouldn’t want me to be indiscreet about you.” After this, you don’t need to enter into any further communication.</span>

If No One Is Good Enough, Don’t Panic

Here are some common reasons why no applicants may be qualified and what to do about it:

  • Not enough Applicant Flow. This problem is often solved by advertising on more job sites, choosing a better flat-fee recruiter and using other Applicant Attraction Channels. Remember: applicants can be anywhere, so you need to advertise everywhere.
  • The perfect person doesn’t exist. I was once asked to fill an IT role with someone who had seven years of experience in a particular computer language, when that language had only been created two years previously! I was asked by another company to recruit a “customer service and credit controller”. This was like asking for a Jekyll-and-Hyde character who could show warmth to a customer one moment and aggressively chase debt the next! In these sorts of situations, the Great Performance Profile needs modifying to better reflect reality. I recommend you review “Conduct a sanity check!” on page 39.
  • Poor quality advertisements deliver poor quality applicants. If you haven’t clearly explained why your ideal candidate should join you rather than a competitor, be prepared to receive poor quality applicants – or improve your job advertisement. Advice about creating a compelling job advert is given in Chapter 5.
  • You’re not paying enough or hiding a salary. It could be that you’re not paying enough in a competitive market. There’s an old adage from Henry Ford along the lines of, “If you need a machine and don’t buy it, you’ll ultimately find that you pay for it anyway.” It’s the same in recruitment: if you need somebody but you aren’t willing to pay for them, you pay the price in terms of the lost value that they could have added to the business. And not specifying a salary leads to 80% fewer applicants.
  • You’re advertising too much with a company logo. As discussed on page X, when jobseekers see your job adverts too regularly, they might perceive your organisation as having a high staff turnover. I once recruited for a rapidly growing call centre. We did a lot of advertising for them and included their company logo and name but found that their application rate kept dropping. I held focus groups with jobseekers to better understand the issue. They told me that they saw the company advertising for the same role over and over and thought that this was a sign of a staff attrition problem rather than of fast growth.
  • You’re redirecting jobseekers from job sites to career pages. You’ll lose 92% of applications (as explained on page X), so don’t do this and save yourself the headache.

If you recognise that you’re asking for too much, have a poor quality advert, and/or are paying too little, a simple solution is to change the advert. Making a decision to improve the advert sooner than later is important because your advert is likely going down the search results and may shortly expire.

Advertising the job on more job sites will naturally bring in more applicants. Again it’s important to take action quickly. If you delay the inevitable, you’re wasting time and may lose great applicants.

Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Filter Applicants

Since late 2022, a plethora of AI has been released, making lots of promises. While AI is only going to improve, at this stage I doubt its efficacy. My primary concern is that AI has similar problems to many psychometrics in that the data it learns from may be from a small subset of the population, so introducing bias.

Additionally, I believe most AI gets very little feedback to reinforce its decisions. Some creators share this concern, as AI is essentially a “black box” and we may not know how it formed opinions. For example, if the AI doesn’t know if an applicant was (un)suitable in the long term, how has it made a decision on other applicants merely by looking at their profile? Similarly you could use ChatGPT or other tools to write a job advert, but they are unlikely to have been trained on what a good job advert actually is, but instead spin out the same generic copy.

I’m also concerned by some assumptions being made. In early 2023, I saw a demo for an AI tool that shortlisted candidates. The sales person explained how it “even analyses what the applicant looks like to make a decision to their suitability”. He went on to say, “For example, if you’re recruiting for a physical trainer, and the applicant’s body mass index (BMI) suggests they are overweight, we will reject them.” I find this deplorable, and hope you do to.

In the future, I do believe AI will be useful to supporting the recruitment process. Few people want to do process administration, it seems like busy work rather than valuable work. Therefore, AI will be valuable in supporting a hiring manager, rather than replacing. But for now, I see many as bad solutions looking for a problem.

Let’s not also forget the applicants can use AI. Is that cheating? If AI is going to be part of their job, then probably not, they’re demonstrating an aptitude to use common tools. But it will become tedious if every applicant/AI tool provides the same stock response.

Delete Old Applicant Data to Stay GDPR Compliant

It’s worth thinking about what you’re going to do with all your applicant data.

Applicants provide a lot of sensitive personal information, and under GDPR it’s your responsibility to keep it private. Under these regulations, applicants have the right to see the information relating to them (right of access) and request that their data is deleted (right to be forgotten).

There are lots of processes, definitions, jargon and penalties which I won’t go into. I recommend that you consult a solicitor if you need detailed, up-to-date information.

The best advice I can give is to delete old data. That way it can’t be stolen, and if applicants make right of access and other similar requests, you’ll have a legitimate reason for not being able to supply the data.

A simple approach to applicant data is the following:

  • Unsuccessful applicants. Delete their data.
  • Interviewed applicants. Delete their data after the successful candidate has started.
  • Made an offer, but not accepted. Delete their data after a few months.
  • Successful candidates. Retain their data while they’re in your employment and for at least two years after.

<div class="grey-callout"><h2>Key Takeaways</h2><p>This article was packed with information and recommendations:</p>
<p><ul?<li>Shortlist every day, ideally in the morning, so you can quickly act on the applications before competitors do.</li><li>Review each applicant, trying to find their potential by asking, “Why should I interview this person?”</li><li>Create three separate piles of qualified, possibly qualified and unqualified applicants.</li><li>Take action immediately with the qualified applicants.</li><li>If none of the applicants are good enough, learn from this. You might be asking too much or not advertising properly.</li><li>Use a simple and easy solution to manage your applicants. You likely already have the technology at your fingertips.</li></ul></p></div>

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Geoff Newman has dedicated his entire career to recruitment. He has consulted for many well-known international brands, and worked with over 20,000 growing businesses. He has helped fill over 100,000 jobs.

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We literally wrote the book on...

The secrets of great recruitment

The Secrets of Great Recruitment is a top-seller. It is easy to read and wastes no time in giving powerful actionable strategies you can use straight away.

Book cover for The Secrets of Great Recruitment