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Finding the one: Strategies for streamlining your screening process

By Carolyn Heinze

When Internet dating came into vogue, us romantics cringed. And winced. And scrunched up our romantic little noses. (And shuddered.) (Romantically.) Since when was romance supposed to be summarized in a cold, calculated CV? What about chemistry? Didn’t anyone still believe in love at first sight? What had happened to spontaneity? You know—that chance encounter that changes your life? How could any of that be achieved through a painfully pragmatic online dating profile?

Granted, anyone who has gone through a messy break-up—or worse, a costly divorce—could argue that when it comes to finding the right match, a little pragmatism doesn’t hurt. The same goes for business: as every employer knows, recruiting is one of the costliest expenditures a company can make. But with the sheer volume of resumes out there, how can HR professionals and hiring managers determine who should be brought in for an interview? In today’s climate, with literally hundreds of job seekers applying for a single position, the need to screen effectively isn’t just a best practice—it’s a must.

Karen Siwak (www.resumeconfidential.ca), certified resume strategist, is the founder and principal consultant at Resume Confidential, a Toronto, Ontario-based firm that assists job seekers in tailoring their job searches. From her perspective, the screening process begins when the company composes its job description. “You really need to have a very focused and specific job ad, because what candidates are going to do is they’re going to look at the ad and, if they’re good candidates, they are going to try and tailor the content of the resume to that job ad,” she said. This means that you must clearly articulate the problems that the candidate would be addressing if they were in that role. “The more focused the job ad is, the more effective you can be in screening the resume.”

That said, recruiters should refrain from being too picky when on the lookout for Mr. or Ms. Right, according to Carolyn Thompson (www.carolynthompson.net), the Washington, D.C.-based author of Ten Easy Steps to a Perfect Resume, Ten Steps to Finding the Perfect Job, and Ten Secrets to Getting Promoted. Thompson, whose experience spans both recruiting and career coaching, advises employers against rejecting candidates just because they don’t fit 100 percent of your needs on paper. “The best avenue to take is to look for somebody who’s got 75 to 80% of what you’re looking for, because that 20 to 25% that they don’t yet have is the personal growth that they can experience by coming to that company,” she said. She notes that in general, this leads to a more loyal employee because they feel like the organization is invested in them. “They are more engaged as an employee usually.”

While applicant-tracking software has served to streamline resume screening and archiving, it’s only as effective as its operators. This is especially true when it comes to keywords: if they aren’t programmed appropriately, you may find yourself funneling out promising candidates, or you may discover that the system hasn’t really narrowed your search at all. Siwak underlines that, once again, it all comes back to the original job description: “One of the things that causes headaches for a job applicant is that it’s HR that writes the job description, and they really haven’t run it by the hiring manager, and the hiring manager hasn’t spent the time to actually explain what the keywords are and why they matter so that the descriptions that HR comes up with are very vague and very generalized, and don’t give enough information about what the candidate is going to be expected to do,” she said. She suggests that the HR department and the relevant hiring manager invest the time in defining context-specific uses of each keyword. “It needs to be very clear what the candidate is going to be doing once they come on board and why that keyword matters within the context of the job.”

Little details, such as abbreviations, can also wreak havoc if you haven’t included them in your keyword search, Thompson points out. For example, some applicants may spell out “Masters of Business Administration,” while others may use the abbreviated term “MBA.” If you don’t include both in your lexicon of keywords, you risk missing out on a choice candidate.

Standard screening practice dictates that resumes depicting gaps in employment should be red-flagged. While there is a good argument for this—it’s not entirely uncommon that the reason the applicant wasn’t employed for a year-and-a-half was because they were serving prison time for embezzling from their former employer—in this area, hiring managers should be willing to demonstrate a bit of flexibility. For one, jobs aren’t as easy to come by these days, and even the most aggressive candidates can find themselves on a job search that lasts six, eight or even 12 months. And, as Thompson reminds us, modern circumstances often mandate that people voluntarily leave their jobs.  “Why someone’s career took twists and turns, or why they left a job may not be clear on their resume,” Thompson said. “More and more people are required to leave their jobs to care for ill relatives that are out of their geographical area, and sometimes people leave a job sooner than they would have because they had a personal situation that came up, which is never noted on their resume.” This requires recruiters to be able to read between the lines, and, if they decide to go further down the road with the candidate in question, ask about that employment gap during the phone screening process.

For Thompson, however, phone screening isn’t nearly as effective as a video call; and in the age of Skype, it’s arguable that most job seekers today have access to the technology that enables this to happen. “It makes a huge difference on the impact that you make on the candidate, and the impact that your company makes as a leader in utilizing technology,” she said. What’s more, being able to conduct a face-to-face conversation – albeit via a screen—goes a long way in determining whether or not the candidate is a good match for your organization on a cultural level. “You see them live, how they communicate, what their mannerisms are. Culture is an important piece of hiring someone. You can determine if they’re a good fit for your culture just a little bit better during the initial screening process, and they can get a better idea about you, too.”

For those who wish to dig deeper during phone or Web screening, Thompson suggests situational questioning. “Taking into account maybe a situation or two that the person in this job might encounter, and asking them how they would handle it is a great way to get people to communicate with you about their experience, and to tell stories,” she said. Getting an individual to tell a story from start to finish sheds a lot of light on their communication skills, she says, and it often reveals information on how the candidate handled similar situations in the past. For example, if you are screening someone for a sales position, you may ask them to tell you about the biggest client they ever won, and how they went about doing it. How did they come up with the lead? How did they then pursue it? “The whole story from start to finish will tell you how hard that person is willing to work and dig for business.”

Mauri Schwartz, president of Career Insiders (www.careerinsiders.com), a San Francisco, California-based recruiting firm focused on assisting small to mid-sized businesses, also uses phone screening to hone in on what the applicant actually did in their previous position. “You could say that you produced a certain kind of report that was based on analyzing income and expense data for the past three years, but did you just print a report from somebody else’s work that they already did in Excel?” she challenged. “Or, did you input all of the information into the spreadsheets and do the analysis? Did you create the macros and the Excel spreadsheets that actually manipulate the numbers? Or did you just print it out and deliver it to people? I like to say, ‘Tell me exactly what you did.’”

For Schwartz, this simple statement could lead to some telling clues. For instance, when relaying their experience, does the applicant avoid speaking in the first person? “I find that the people least comfortable talking about themselves first start out with the word ‘you’. I’ll ask them, ‘How did you do such-and-such?’ And they will respond, ‘You would do this and you would do that.’ And I will say, ‘No. What did you do?’” This also applies to the use of the word ‘we’. “Sometimes that’s important because it is a team effort. But in the end, you still want to make sure you find out what part of that ‘we’ was ‘you’ (the applicant), because I’m not hiring ‘we’; I’m looking at hiring you.”

Arguably the biggest red flag is someone who didn’t leave their last position voluntarily, or due to layoffs based on economics. And while someone who has been let go from their last post should definitely be questioned as to the reasons why, Thompson cautions against ruling out candidates that have been fired in the past. “Not every job is for every person, nor is every company a great place for every person to work,” she said. “Don’t automatically assume that because someone has been let go from their job, that it was all their fault. There are a lot of bad bosses out there, and they let people go all the time. That doesn’t mean that that person is a bad employee. In the right environment with the right manager, people can flourish.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. She can be reached at carolynheinze@free.fr.

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