Filter Unqualified Applicants The Smart Way

by George Blomgren


In my recent article “Good Job Postings Are Love Letters,” I acknowledged the fear that prevents a lot of employers from turning up the sugar in their job postings. They are already getting deluged with applications from overtly unqualified candidates. Therefore, making their job postings even more attractive sounds like an exercise in masochism.

The solution is quite simple. It’s a widely underutilized feature (available on most ATS platforms and job boards) that can be used in conjunction with really powerful job postings to create the ideal dynamic: job postings that attract as many great candidates as possible while filtering out those who lack the most basic requirements. That’s a far better approach than job postings which, attempting to do both on their own, look more like “No Trespassing” signs than love letters.

(By the way, if you are a job seeker and you are reading this, you may think I sound heartless. But things would be much better for you if employers follow the advice in this article. Rather than the 20 requirements job postings often contain, many of which may be “nice to haves,” the approach I’m outlining in this article shows you the short list of top requirements — the non-negotiable ones.)

The feature I’m referring to is screening questions. Used properly, they can be even more effective than you realize. Here’s an example, which illustrates not only the powerful solution they can be, but what can go wrong if you don’t use them.

Let’s say you need to hire customer service reps who speak Spanish. It says so right in the job description, so why the #$%!&# do you keep getting applications from candidates who don’t seem to have that skill?! The natural reaction is to start tightening up the job posting. Maybe move “Must Speak Spanish” to the top. Make it bold. Make the font larger. Perhaps ALL CAPS.

Consider what happens as a result. The desperate job seekers who don’t read your job posting or don’t care, continue to apply. The discerning job seekers (the ones you want to write love letters to) get sick of being “shouted at.” It’s the law of unintended consequences. The more you try to fix your job posting, the less it manages to attract the right job seekers, while it still fails to repel the wrong ones.

Now, consider what happens when you turn this requirement into a screening question. “This job requires strong verbal and writing skills in both English And Spanish. Are you fluent in both languages?” Or you can get creative: write the question in Spanish. Require the answer in Spanish. (I’ll come back to that last idea shortly, and explain why you might not want to.)

The simple fact of the matter is, requirements explained in job postings are easily overlooked. But when confronted with a required screening question that reveals a basic mismatch, only a pathological liar is likely to even complete their application, much less lie in response to a point blank question. For most positions, you can easily create several powerful knock-out questions based on technical requirements, soft skills and/or culture fit.

(Before continuing, I want to refer you to this article. If you are going to use them to knock-out applicants, be VERY selective about the requirements you turn into screening questions. It’s far better to consider semi-qualified candidates than to knock out potential superstars.)

To fully capitalize on this idea, only review applicants whose answers to these questions meet your criteria. Better yet, use the sorting technique I explain next. If you do this really well, in many cases these questions will prevent the majority of unqualified applicants — how many hours a week might that free up?

(Truth be told, there’s an even bigger benefit here. Many HR people and recruiters I’ve talked to over the years admit that reviewing unqualified applicants can be so mind-numbingly dull, that they probably cull some qualified candidates in their reckless efforts to whittle down a queue of 500+ applications. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could instead make careful, thoughtful decisions about a queue of 30 reasonably qualified applicants?)

Here’s the ultimate time saver, and the reason I dismissed the idea of requiring an answer in Spanish. Sophisticated ATS platforms offer you the option of different types of questions: essay, multiple choice or yes/no. The beautiful thing about the latter two is that you can assign scores to the different answers, which lets you sort applicants on the back end. Consider: let’s say you setup two screening questions:

Do you have excellent writing and verbal skills in English and Spanish?
yes no

Do you have 3+ years of customer service experience?
yes no

Configure these answers up so that “yes” gets a score of 1, while “no” is 0. Once you start getting applicants, use back-end admin features to sort the applicants based on their score … and only review the applicants who get a score of 2.

This approach enables you to write really powerful, attractive job descriptions while leaving the heavy lifting to simple screening questions. Net result? More of the right candidates, and fewer wrong ones.

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