How to Shortlist Candidates

The more people who apply for your open position, the better, right?

Only if you have a reliable, efficient recruitment process for evaluating their applications and quickly identifying the best fits. That process, called “shortlisting,” identifies the ideal candidates for your job openings according to objective criteria and moves them to the interview stage.

Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. If you don’t have clear criteria established upfront, deciding who to advance rests largely on the recruiter’s judgment, and that can become clouded by bias and other irrelevant factors.
Establishing a standard process for identifying good-fit candidates for your shortlist minimizes these issues and produces enhanced hiring outcomes.

Define Essential Criteria for Each Role

The first step of the shortlisting process begins before you even post the job. Review the job description carefully, and clarify the essential and desired criteria for each role.
Essential criteria are non-negotiable skills, competencies, or qualifying factors. Essential criteria for a software developer position, for instance, might include experience with the specific programs that candidates would use if they took the job.
Desired criteria are more flexible and can help you create a better shortlist. Desired criteria for that software developer role might include certification in the software programs used in the role. These qualities would be good to have, but not having them isn’t an automatic deal-breaker.

Defining these criteria before you post the job helps you make better, more objective hiring choices.

If you aren’t sure where to start, evaluate high-performing employees who have served in the role. Assess their skills or review data from previous assessments to determine what factors drive success. These will become your essential shortlist criteria.

In the absence of clear hiring criteria, we tend to fill in gaps based on personal preferences and intuition — even though those factors have no bearing on the role. A recruiter may feel more biased toward a candidate who graduated from the same university, for example, but that fact on its own doesn’t tell you anything about that person’s potential.

How Many Candidates Are Usually Shortlisted for Interview?

The point of candidate shortlisting is to move the top candidates into the selection and interview process. By only moving a manageable number of candidates over, you can spend the time providing an excellent candidate experience during selection. To have the greatest impact, a candidate shortlist should be just that: a short list.
To streamline your shortlisting process, you need to have a final maximum number of qualified candidates in mind as you begin screening and shortlisting candidates.

How many candidates should you move into the next stage of the hiring process? Typically, as many as 78% from the pool of applicants don’t meet all of the qualifications outlined in the job posting, recent research from Robert Half found. That means you should only expect about 20% of candidates to make it to the shortlist.
As you whittle down the candidate list, be mindful of the resources required for conducting effective interviews in a timely fashion. If your recruiters and hiring managers can’t interview a dozen candidates without sacrificing quality or experience, for instance, then consider shortlisting eight to 10 of the top candidates instead.
For high-volume hiring situations, adjust your shortlist to account for the specific number of candidates you intend to hire.

Screen Candidates In, Not Out

When shortlisting candidates, your intent shouldn’t be to screen candidates out but to screen them in. To that end, your candidate shortlist should be based on inclusionary rather than exclusionary criteria. Ideally, your shortlist is based on candidates who scored the highest on your essential skills, traits, and competencies.
Ranking candidates based on inclusionary data speeds up the shortlist process. Recruiters can select the top 10-15% from the applicant pool instead of eliminating the bottom 85-90% of candidates.
Basing shortlist decisions on inclusionary criteria can also help minimize biases that arise during the screening process. A degree might be preferred but not required, for example. Candidates who may not have had access to formal education based on background or socioeconomic status can still be fully qualified based on their aptitudes and experiences.
Preferred criteria come into play here, but they should be weighted lower than essential criteria. A candidate who scores lower on essential criteria but checks all of the boxes on preferred criteria isn’t as strong as a candidate who scores perfectly on essential criteria, even if they don’t have any preferred qualifications. By including candidates who score the highest on essential criteria rather than excluding those who don’t have preferred criteria, you can stay on track for a fairer hiring process.

Rank Candidates by Assessment Performance

The essential criteria you identify by benchmarking high-performing candidates are usually best identified during pre-hire assessments. Oftentimes these are qualities that are difficult to measure any other way. Emotional intelligence, for example, can be accurately assessed by a scientifically valid test but would be much harder for a hiring team to spot on a resume.
Assessment reports reveal where each candidate ranks for the hard and soft skills that an employee needs to thrive in the role.
Integrate your assessments into your applicant tracking system (ATS). This serves as your central dashboard for shortlisting candidates. Using assessment data, you can further refine your rankings of the top candidates based on the essential skills, traits, and competencies outlined in the job posting.
A robust dataset organized by clear criteria leaves less room for doubt — or for bias. Using valid data and objective scorecards to create your shortlist can prevent the effects of bias in recruiters (and, ultimately, in hiring managers) from influencing hiring decisions.
Ranking candidates as part of a data-driven dashboard is critical in high-volume hiring scenarios. When you’re faced with hundreds or even thousands of candidates, you need to be able to make quick, authoritative shortlist decisions to keep the process moving without becoming overwhelmed.

Keep Candidates Up to Speed on Your Decisions

When moving candidates from one stage to the next, be careful not to lose sight of the candidate experience. One of the most important tactics for improving experience is keeping candidates updated as their applications are removed from consideration or promoted.
Communicating with applicants expediently, even if they don’t make the cut, is an essential part of the candidate shortlisting process. Since you’re only moving 10-15% of candidates to the selection stage, there’s likely to be several applicants who could make shortlists for future openings. You need to nurture your relationship with those candidates to encourage them to apply again in the future.

Not keeping candidates informed can put your employer brand at risk and reduce your talent pipeline.

Poor communication is a death knell to a good relationship with candidates. They expect you to respect their time by letting them know as soon as possible if you choose not to move forward with their application. It’s not realistic to send personal messages at this stage, but the decision not to shortlist a candidate should trigger an automatic rejection.

Timely communication with candidates that do make your shortlist is important, too — you don’t want to risk losing the best candidates because you waited too long to make a formal offer. As candidates make the cut and are added to your shortlist, send brief updates regarding the next steps. This could be an option to self-schedule their interview or simply let them know that the hiring manager will be reaching out to them.

Make the Best Hiring Decisions You Can

With the right candidate shortlist processes in place, you can accommodate a high volume of applicants without becoming bogged down. Defining objective criteria and setting parameters on the number of candidates you move down the funnel will create a manageable workload for recruiters. Implementing an assessment dashboard that’s integrated with your ATS makes it easy to visualize who deserves to move into the interview stage.
By only submitting a set number of viable candidates for interviews, recruiters set hiring managers up to make the best decisions. Providing a robust slate of candidates and defined criteria will reduce the potential for bias to creep in and ensure that hiring managers have the resources they need to make the best choice. The better your candidate shortlists are, the more successful your business will become.



Aon | Assessment Solutions

Aon's assessment solutions provides clients with powerful tools and insights to help them make better talent decisions at every stage of the employee lifecycle. This includes pre-hire assessments, identifying future leaders, screening for digital skills and agility, and AI-enabled solutions.

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