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Sniff Out the Subtle Concerns in Candidate Assessments


Candidate assessments raise concerns both big and small. In this article, we look at ways to sniff out the more subtle concerns using an approach in software development: smells.

Software development is chock full of ideas, patterns, and approaches that can help improve your recruitment process. We’re already seeing widespread uptake of agile and lean methodologies in recruiting: teams are embracing stand ups, sprint based approaches to hiring cycles, and TalentWall™’s own candidate pipeline visualization springs from agile methods.

A concept in programming that I love and have co-opted for recruiting is code smells. These are essentially observable clues in candidate assessments that might allude to a deeper problem that merits further investigation. Recruiting smells are usually sniffable by the experienced recruiter. The presence of a smell may or may not mean there’s a problem, but smells are always worth delving into. Here are a few recruiting “smells” and the steps you can take to get them out into fresh air.

SMELL: Interviewer uses the word “seems” when they give feedback on a candidate

MIGHT indicate: The interviewer didn’t gather evidence to support their observations, and/or are being unduly influenced by other factors: halo effect, unconscious bias, etc.

or MIGHT just be: a verbal tick of an insecure interviewer/figure of speech.

What to do about it: Probe a little more deeply. Ask the interviewer what they’re basing their opinion on. Don’t disregard an interviewer’s gut feeling out of hand, but definitely follow up on it and find out more from the candidate. Reiterate to interviewers the importance of getting evidence to support their feedback.

SMELL: Candidate doesn’t ask any/many questions through the process

MIGHT indicate: Candidate is not seriously considering the role. Maybe they’re using it as negotiating leverage in their current role, or as their “safety” opportunity if the job they really want doesn’t get offered to them. Or maybe the candidate has cold feet and since they’re busy weighing their reservations they’re not thinking about asking questions.

or MIGHT just be: Candidate didn’t get enough opportunities to ask questions, or candidate is concerned that asking questions may come off as though they haven’t prepared for the interview.

What to do about it: Make time to go back to the candidate to give them an explicit opportunity to ask questions. If they still don’t have questions it’s worth revisiting their motivations in looking for a new position and posing some questions of your own like “What aspect of this role are you most looking forward to?”.

SMELL: Changes get made to the job spec after interviewing a candidate

MIGHT indicate: Job spec scope creep [say that 4 times fast!]. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the interview team doesn’t quite like a candidate who otherwise fits the bill, so they suddenly notice important skills the candidate is lacking. It can also reveal a lack of sufficient upfront definition of the role. The interview process shouldn’t be the discovery vehicle for the attributes of the role. You can waste a lot of time that way and create a horrible candidate experience.

or MIGHT just be: You missed something off the job spec that’s essential for the role. It’s not ideal, but it can happen, especially in one-off type roles you aren’t hiring for frequently.

What to do about it: Get the hiring team on the same page on what the must have attributes of the role are and what are nice to haves/teachable skills before bringing in more candidates before putting any more candidates through the process.

These are just a few examples. No doubt you’ll have your own that you’ve sniffed out in candidate assessments. The best thing you can do with smells is get them out in the open and raise awareness.