Screening candidates isn’t helping you.
In technology, user experience design is very close to our hearts. We are constantly trying to make it easier for our prospective customers to gain value from our products and services. We try to make the experience as welcoming as possible and take them on a journey.
When it comes to our prospective team members, perversely, we seem to take the opposite approach. When people express an interest in joining our teams, we seem to go to great lengths to push them away. We actively discourage them. We screen them.
“To test or examine someone or something to discover if there is anything wrong with the person or thing.”
– Cambridge Dictionary
That’s how traditional recruitment works. When people want to join our ranks, we try to find out what is wrong with them so we can rule them out. There is something inherently wrong with that approach.
What does that say about us? What message are we sending to people? When I try to put myself in the shoes of a candidate, this quote comes to mind:
“Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.”
If the journey is obstructionist and unpleasant, if I’m being screened as if there is something wrong with me, that must say something about the destination.
So let’s change that.
Why we should change how we think about screening candidates?
Recruitment is based on a mentality of keeping people out. Too many applications, too little time. So naturally, we put barriers up. But in doing so we are in danger of sending the wrong message to the people we want to bring in, which is counterintuitive.
Is that our intent or is it by necessity?
I don’t believe that all companies want to be portrayed as unwelcoming, impenetrable fortresses. Especially when there is so much talk about the importance of the candidate experience.
I don’t believe that startups, who are obsessed with attracting the best talent, want to signal to the very people they want to attract that the door is closed.
Screening may have been a necessary evil once upon a time, but that is no longer the case. With the help of technology, we can align the way we approach prospective team members to feel more like the way we approach prospective customers. We can take them on a journey and give them a great experience — and the good news is that it’s not difficult to do.
Thinking Like Designers
If you asked a designer to design a candidate journey it would probably look something like this:
CEO: We want to hire great people to help us grow. Can you help us out?
Designer: Sounds interesting. Who is our ideal candidate?
CEO: I knew you’d ask that. We want people who will be great at their jobs, share our values and be super motivated about working with us every day. If we tell a compelling story about our company’s purpose and the way people can be part of our journey, that will convince them to join our team.
Designer: So you want to convince everyone to join us, but then reserve the right to knock some people back. Typical CEO attitude.
CEO: Well… ideally we’d take people on a journey that reflects what it’s like to actually work with us. Not everyone can get the job, but at least everyone will get an opportunity.
Designer: Ok, leave it with me.
… four design hackathons later …
Designer: I think we should accept every application.
CEO: What? How? Who has time for that?
Designer: We do. We accept every application and interview everyone. We let everyone through to the first interview stage. Then we can decide based on merit who to invest more time in.
CEO: I know where you’re going with this. You dropped out of college and you’re a self-taught designer. So, you want people like you to be able to get through.
Designer: I’m a great designer, aren’t I? Who cares what college degree I have or don’t have?
CEO: Fair enough. So you want to interview everyone and give everyone a chance. I can see the benefits. But isn’t that a waste of time? I’m pretty busy.
Designer: Give me some credit. I’m not suggesting you physically interview candidates. We’ll ask them to do automated interviews …
… We give our customers free trials, don’t we? So why not do the same with candidates? We’ll give them a taste of what it’s like to work here with some scenarios that simulate the role they’ve applied for.
distance isn’t enough
CEO: Nice. And in the process we’ll learn a bit about how they approach relevant tasks.
Designer: Now you’re catching on.
CEO: And it all happens online right? I don’t have to actually be there.
Designer: Of course. We’re in the 21st century, aren’t we?
Let’s Open the Doors, There is Nothing to Fear
If we change the way we approach talent acquisition the prize is huge.
By replacing screening with an open journey, we can interact with candidates in a more productive way. Instead of worrying about where they went to school, we’ll focus on what they love doing and how well they can do it.
In turn, each candidate will get a glimpse of our company or team and be left with a positive impression.
An open process is a more optimistic way to approach recruitment. It’s a more respectful way to interact. And it’s far more efficient.
The trick is not to get better at screening by using artificial intelligence or other fancy tools to draw conclusions about about candidates based on their profiles. The trick isn’t even about technology.
It helps, but first we need to change our mindset. We must think about people as more than a static collection of data. We are living and breathing beings. We are dynamic. We therefore need to see candidates in action, not frozen. Looking from a distance isn’t enough.
This approach is based on performance, not background. On giving people a chance in relevant situations, not trying to rule them out.
Ok, so how do I do that?
There are a few tools you can use. We often hear terms like pre-employment assessment, skill testing and even interviewing used interchangeably. While they may have similar high level goals, such as identifying a suitable candidate, they are fundamentally different methods of achieving those goals. It’s important to know the difference because each evaluation method will produce completely different outputs. Moreover, in some cases it might make sense to combine one or more of these methods.
One of the best discussions I’ve heard on this topic was on a podcast called Hire Up hosted by John P. Beck, Jr. The episode was titled Assessments Made Simple, Human, Smart and featured Dr. Scott Hamilton, the CEO of Hamilton & Associates Consulting.
Dr. Hamilton distinguished between each candidate evaluation method with ease and clarity. It’s worth listening to the entire episode but, otherwise, I have summarized some of the key points in this article and added my own thoughts as well.
Skill testing is all about understanding whether someone can do something or knows something. It can be a simple task, a range of complex tasks or demonstrable knowledge. It’s possible to test for almost any skill because you can simply watch people perform tasks.
Dr. Hamilton gives the simplest of examples: “if someone is going to have to weld metal, you want see them weld metal”.
This is why résumés and interviews are inherently poor methods of validating skills. They are focused on what candidates claim they can do, not what they can actually do. Instead, it’s far more compelling to see how people perform. Literally. Moreover, it’s far simpler.
Skill testing is context-dependent, and therefore subjective in nature. But it’s also capable of being objectively assessed, which means it can be pass/fail. Confusing, right?
Let’s take a writing test as an example. The style of writing you test depends entirely on the job. It could be anything from creative writing to technical writing. So the test is bespoke. At the same time, it is usually possible to objectively determine whether a candidate performed well. To use Dr. Hamilton’s welding example, either someone knows how to weld metal or they don’t.
The opposite is usually true of pre-employment assessment.
Pre-employment assessment: what is it?
Pre-employment assessment is focused on predicting how people will behave in certain scenarios, not what they can do. They explore key personality traits based on an understanding that someone’s personality can predict their behavior. Most personality assessments are based on the Five-Factor Model, which asserts that there are five personality supertraits:
- Openness to experience
Therefore, if we gain an understanding of someone’s personality, and particularly these five supertraits, we will have a good chance of knowing how they will react in different situations. Unlike skill testing, this doesn’t mean someone can do the job. But it may shed light on how they will do the job.
Pre-employment assessment: does personality change?
Now here’s the tricky part. While skills can be taught, many people think that personality is fixed. However, that isn’t entirely true. Studies have shown that personality can, and does, change over time. While most people don’t change in a fundamental way, it is possible to change behaviors and habits, according to Carol Dweck. And it’s those very behaviors that are relevant to how someone will perform in a job, not their personality per se. That’s why two people with different personalities can perform well in the same role.
Whether we believe personality is fixed or not, it is not something that can be measured in binary terms such as pass/fail, like an Excel test. It’s who we are and, if we subscribe to the theory that personality changes over time, it’s who are are at the time of assessment. This means that the outcome of a personality assessment can’t be viewed as “good” or “bad” in isolation, it can only indicate potential suitability for a specific job. Conversely, someone can be good at Excel.
Additionally, if used incorrectly, personality assessments can be harmful to the hiring process. That’s why pre-employment assessments that test personality need to be validated. Skill testing, on the other hand, is inherently bespoke.
What does this all mean?
This is where it gets interesting. Let’s start with the dictionary:
- A test means “a procedure intended to establish the quality, performance, or reliability of something, especially before it is taken into widespread use”.
- To assess means to “evaluate or estimate the nature, ability, or quality of”.
- An interview means “A meeting of people face to face, especially for consultation”.
Tests and assessments sound fairly similar. They are ways of measuring ability or quality. On the other hand, an interview is a discussion. Technology also makes it possible to conduct one-way interviews using video, which are essentially discussions without real-time interaction. And yet, the most commonly used method for making hiring decisions is interviewing. For some reason the notion that skills and behaviors can be evaluated without skill tests or assessments – but through a discussion – has become the norm.
Maybe it’s because of a lack of resourcing. Maybe we trust our intuition more than third party methods. Or maybe it’s a lack of awareness. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense because interviews don’t predict performance. They typically focus on understanding what someone did in the past or discussing what they claim to be able to do, without proof.
Can interviews nevertheless play a valuable role in the hiring process? Interviews should be used to get to know a preferred candidate after their skills and behaviors have been validated. Only candidates who have already demonstrated they can do they job should be interviewed. That would allow for a much more valuable interviewing experience, and a far better use of everyone’s time. Unfortunately, that is not normally the case.
Can we combine skill testing, pre-employment assessment and interviewing?
A strong hiring process will combine reliable insights about a candidate’s ability to do the job and their expected behavior with high-quality human interaction. In theory, this could involve a skill test, some form of pre-employment assessment and an interview. It very much depends on the type of role, and the candidate experience the company wants to deliver.
Hiring is not a “one size fits all” endeavour. Every situation is different. But understanding what each evaluation method can achieve and, more importantly, what it will not achieve, will go a long way to helping companies build hiring robust processes.
For the candidates – make your job description about activities.
Here’s how to write a job description that will attract the right candidates.
“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”
– Greg Anderson
Why Focus on Activities?
People are hired to perform value-adding activities. While companies have different approaches to how they hire, their goals are usually the same. Every company wants to hire high-performing people, not people who just look good on paper.
Despite this simple and obvious assumption, too many companies ignore activities and focus on things that don’t indicate performance. This happens at every stage of the hiring process. For example:
- Many job descriptions focus on what candidates have done in the past.
- Screening is based on candidates’ backgrounds.
- Assessment methods often don’t simulate the tasks are performed in the role.
Instead, use on-the-job activities as the guide for the entire hiring process. If you follow this principle, you will hire people who perform the value-adding activities you require.
Here’s how it works.
The Job Description
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
– Lewis Carroll
Defining the role is the foundation of hiring. If you do that incorrectly, the entire hiring process will be steered in the wrong direction. The clearer you are, the higher your chances of attracting the person you want.
The problem with so many job descriptions is that they are aren’t linked closely enough to the daily activities of the job. Let’s change that.
A good job description should have three sections:
1. Start with why
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
– Simon Sinek
This approach is entirely applicable to job descriptions. Sell candidates on your company’s vision and story. Sell them on the role and the culture. This will achieve two things. First, it is likely to increase the quality of applicants. Second, candidates will be more likely to invest in the application process and make an effort if they buy into your “why”.
Conversely, candidates who don’t relate to your vision or culture will opt out. Mission accomplished.
2. Describe the role in activities
Outline, point by point, what the successful candidate will do every day. Keep it simple and be very specific. No clichés, no jargon. Candidates need to understand how they will spend each day, what they need to achieve, who they’ll be working with and under what conditions.
This is a great way of managing expectations. By communicating to candidates what they’ll be doing in the role, you are forcing them to ask themselves whether they can do those activities well and how much they enjoy doing them. This presents another opportunity for less suitable candidates to opt out.
3. State your requirements
The previous two sections should make this part easy because you’ve set the scene. Candidates already know what your company stands for and what they’ll be doing in the role. Now you can add some more detail about the type of person you are looking for and how you expect them to approach the role.
Don’t worry about years of experience, grades in college or anything else that’s not activity-based. Bring it back to activities and use plain English.
Describe the kind of person you’re looking for by listing how you want them to approach the role. Put thing in context. Instead of “strong communicator”, write “clearly communicate customer feedback to the product team”. Instead of “flexible”, write “prepared to join calls with developers late at night when necessary”.
You should also use this section to articulate the attitude and behaviors you’d like to see. Candidates already know from the previous section what they’ll be doing on a daily basis. Now explain how.
“The doors of wisdom are never shut.”
– Benjamin Franklin
With a good job description and scenario-based assessment, candidate screening is simply not required. To learn more about why you don’t need to screen candidates read this.
But in short, screening is not about activities, it’s about a candidate’s background. Ruling people out based on their background is counterproductive. Instead, set candidates up for success with a savvy job description, and then assess the ones that want the job based on that description.
Don’t worry about receiving too many applications from people who aren’t qualified or ignore the job description. That is solved automatically in the assessment stage and you won’t need to lift a finger.
“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”
– Mae West
Your job description will attract people who want to be part of your journey, and want to do the job you advertised. That’s the theory at least.
Now it’s time to find out how it stacks up.
The assessment stage, which is the most important part of your hiring process, should be entirely based on activities. Go back to the job description and choose the most important on-the-job activities.
Create simulations of those activities so you can see how candidates perform in real-world scenarios. To learn how to write a great interview script read this.
Use automated interviews to deliver the simulations to candidates online.
Some candidates will not make the effort. Others will find the activities too challenging. Others yet will see that the activities are not aligned with their interests or passions. The most motivated and qualified candidates will prevail.
It’s easy to read a job description and apply for a job. However, when candidates are asked to perform challenging tasks, they need to be motivated and confident in their abilities. You’ll only need to view and score completed interviews and you’ll know who measures up within minutes.
Using automated interviews based on activities, you can audition candidates for the role. They will, in turn, get a chance to do the role, albeit in a small way.
The candidates who perform well in the automated interviews will have proven they can do the activities you want them to do in the role. Seeing first hand how well they perform each of those activities will help you confidently make your hiring decision.
By focusing on activities, you can create a hiring process that reflects your role and how you want it to be performed. It’s a simple and effective method to hire people who can, and want to, perform the activities you consider to be value-adding.
Making hiring about merit, not background | Co-founder and CEO of Vervoe