Gill Taylor: Shortlisting for jobs? Pay attention to the detail

Having a sensible person specification with measurable and testable criteria helps the process, writes the sector HR expert

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

I recently delivered some interviewing training to a small group. I asked them to read two job application forms and decide whether to shortlist them. Both forms were filled out with evidence given against individual person-specification criteria.

One application (Candidate A) gave extensive warm replies but, if you looked at what she actually wrote, it was evasive and her overall career history was nowhere near the profile for the post. The second application (Candidate B) had shorter, curter replies, but her career history made her a much better fit. Although her replies were short, they showed she had highly relevant experience and training. I was the only participant who scored Candidate B higher in our shortlisting.

HR professionals know recruitment processes are flawed, but we know that paying attention to detail in the shortlisting stage is incredibly important, otherwise you can let a great candidate slip through the net.

So what was going on here, and what can we do about it? Research shows that most people read what they expect to see rather than what is actually there. Try this simple test by reading the following and counting how many "f"s there are:

Finished Files are the

Product of Years of work and

Weeks of Scientific Endeavour

There is only one right answer, but it usually produces a variety of answers.

Research shows that the focus and intensity of active attention can vary widely. For example, contrast a proofreader and the cursory reader of a magazine article. The first carefully examines individual words and punctuation; the second focuses on the general content. We need to prime ourselves to be more like analytical proofreaders for this test and for shortlisting job applications.

Having a sensible person specification with criteria that are measurable and testable really helps when shortlisting. Write in clear sentences and make them relevant to the post; avoid statements such as "strong communication skills" or "excellent accounting skills", which are too vague and not easy to assess. Instead, specify "clear and precise writing skills, including evidence of producing articles, reports and strategy documents" and "accounting and reporting skills compliant with Sorp gained through working in an auditing environment in their career to date".

Read the application forms from the beginning and assess the work experience of the candidates – question whether they have directly relevant experience or transferable skills. Assess how well they meet the person specification. Some of this you will have to take on trust, so if they say they have done a thing, question whether it looks plausible. In other cases they might have been able to provide tangible examples, such as samples of written work.

Conduct this process where you are not distracted – and if you find yourself getting bored or tired, take a break. Be sure to give the next applicant as good a chance as the first one you assessed. Finally, use a simple scoring system, such as: fully met = 2, partly met = 1, not met or can't tell = 0.

These simple rules should lead to effective shortlisting. (And, by the way, there are six "f"s in the test.)

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