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An Agency Recruiter’s Candidate Shortlisting Guide

Blog An Agency Recruiter’S Candidate Shortlisting Guide

In a tight labor market, the pressure is on to make the right decisions around sourcing and placing candidates. While you always want to be careful as a recruiter, maintaining balance between clients’ needs and job market realities might make you sweat.

That’s where the candidate shortlisting process comes in. This in-between stage in the recruitment process lets you pick and choose the finest candidates to move forward.

It shouldn’t be a guessing game; it just takes some logical steps. We’ve created this guide to help narrow and refine your candidate shortlisting process.

Here's what you need to keep in mind when shortlisting applicants.

Table of Contents


1. Why shortlist candidates?

In recruitment, it’s never a good idea to jump from “application submitted” to “candidate placed” too quickly. Shortlisting candidates is that critical step in the recruitment process to start sorting through some potentially great hires. Use this stage to narrow down huge numbers of candidates to a manageable list of candidates to interview.

Shortlisting saves you resources on working with any non-ideal candidates. By making the right decisions early, you can reserve your precious time for the right talent.

It also helps your clients. By conducting a thorough evaluation of every candidate you send in for an interview, your clients can trust that they’re making a truly good choice for the role.

A good shortlisting process makes things fair for everyone, including candidates. Shortlisting should be standardized, meaning later hiring decisions will be unbiased and that all candidates can be on an equal footing.

2. Shortlisting candidates: A step-by-step process

Let’s take a look at a simple process breakdown to make your candidate shortlisting process the best that it can be.

Step 1. Be alert to potential bias

It’s easy to be biased in hiring. From seeking “culture fit” to unconsciously favoring candidates who are more like ourselves, potential pitfalls are everywhere.

Candidates are likely to face bias over any of the following factors:

  • Age
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Religion or belief
  • Sexual or gender orientation
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Marriage and civil partnership status

That’s why the first step in candidate shortlisting is setting up anti-bias guardrails. Some ideas to achieve this are:

  • Redacting personal information from CVs
  • Standardizing your screening process
  • Using skills tests for a more level metric to compare candidates

For more detailed steps to ensure your entire hiring process is unbiased, read through our guide to DEI recruitment strategies for agencies.

Step 2. Define your criteria

Before you start to choose a list of candidates to move to the interview stage, double-check the list of requirements for the role.

Speak with your client about the must-haves and nice-to-haves for any candidates. What education, work experience, skills, knowledge, and competencies are on the list?

You might have to go back and forth a bit on this one, as the perfect candidate rarely exists out there in the real world. Don’t be afraid to push back against clients’ unrealistic expectations.

Here’s one framework to understand what the role really requires.

Look out for the mandatory requirements, or must-haves:

  • Minimum education level
  • Essential prior work experience
  • Language fluency requirements
  • Background check
  • Security clearances

Then sort out which are the preferred criteria, or nice-to-haves:

  • Experience with software or tech tools
  • Past work in a specific industry
  • Professional certifications

Last, determine which are the true “unicorn candidate” qualities, or great-to-haves:

  • Candidate’s passion for the client’s mission
  • Proven leadership skills
  • Outstanding references

Getting clear on these different qualities, and just how important they are, will help you to identify the candidates who are more likely to succeed in this role.

Step 3. Set the number of applicants to interview

You could try looking for candidates on a job board, via LinkedIn, or sourcing by mining your own database. But no matter the method, you’re likely to end up with more applicants than you can realistically interview.

How many candidates should you interview? You can calculate a rough estimate.

Check out these average application to offer conversion rates:

  • Application → Interview: 12%
  • Interview → Offer: 17%

If you’re hiring for a Perm role, you’ll have to get 100 applicants to find 12 that are fit to interview. And from those 12, 2 candidates would get an offer.

When you only send out one offer, the candidate might reject it. It’s always better to have that one extra just in case. So for a single role, interviewing a dozen or more candidates is a safe bet.

This number should be a general guide rather than a strict prescription. Don't exclude 2 competent people when your set interview limit was 12. You never know who will make the cut, or how many choices of candidates your client might want.

Step 4. Develop a scoring system

However you review candidates’ profiles, it’ll get out of hand quickly if you don’t have a set way to measure them.

Creating scorecards for applicants lets recruiters make objective ratings. Looking at these numbers side-by-side makes decisions easier and bias less likely.

When you’re setting up a scorecard template, list out all the criteria for a role. Sort them in order of importance like in Step 2, and mark scores for every applicant.

You can review CVs and assign points per must-have / nice-to-have / great-to-have factor. One suggestion is to add 3 points for every “must” quality, 2 for “nice,” and 1 point per “great.”

Adding some metrics and math to the process will make it a little easier to make objective decisions going forward.

Step 5. Start screening candidates

It’s not always fun, but necessary: it’s time to start looking for ways to disqualify candidates.

At this stage, you’ll look for factors that show the candidate is not a good choice to interview.

This can be done through a variety of methods:

  • Reviewing CVs and/or job application packets
  • Making a 10-15 minute screening call via phone or video
  • Using job tests or assessments
  • Requesting references and background checks
  • Automating knockout questions or keywords to exclude with an ATS

The more standardization and automation, the better. Because the decision to not move a candidate forward can be so tricky, you’ll want assurance that it was made for the right reasons.

Step 6. Let candidates know if they’re moving forward

At every stage of the recruitment process, candidate communication is key. At this point, you’ll sort candidates into two camps: those who will pass to the interview stage, and those who won’t.

Informing every candidate about their status is the ethical and professional thing to do. It’s also a great way to build your employer brand as you show responsiveness and care.

Notifying unsuccessful applicants lets them to learn from their experience and frees them up to move on with their job search. This is also an opportunity to thank them for their interest and enhance your candidate experience.

3. Consider using an ATS to streamline your shortlisting process

An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is a great tool for shortlisting candidates. Leverage it to automate tedious screening tasks like scanning CVs to save yourself some time.

An ATS makes shortlisting efficient by filtering out unqualified candidates at the start. This way, recruiters can significantly reduce their workload while ensuring that only top-tier talent makes it onto the shortlist.

Further along in the process, an ATS can also score and rate candidates for a job. Ranking by predetermined criteria is the best way to evaluate each candidate objectively. This helps you compare applicants easily and make unbiased decisions about who should move on in the hiring process.

4. Final thoughts

Getting the right match for a job is crucial for everyone involved: candidates, client, and consultant. When you’re making guesses about who to put forward for an interview, it’s too risky that you’ll end up with a bad hire later.

Candidate shortlisting is the intermediate step between applications and interviews that lets you do some quality checks. Getting this process right saves some headaches later, and makes everyone happier in the long run when you can put the best candidates forward.

Use these steps and techniques to get the highest chance of a successful placement - and happiness on all sides.


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