Improved System for Screening Job Applicants

(Or: How I Learned to Hire Smarter)

Do you think you’re a good judge of character? Studies show that not only do we suck at judging other people’s authenticity, we also vastly overestimate our ability to sniff out the fakers. This is especially problematic when you’re hiring for a crucial role. Combing through a flock of would-be new coworkers, most of them at least slightly exaggerating their previous work contributions, it’s daunting.

Can we conquer these impediments to improve hiring efficiency?

Yes. …At least somewhat. Please read on.

These are still special times. 5.7 million people were looking to be hired in the US in December 2021, a marked increase from the 839,000 in December 2018, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic provoked a paradigm shift in employee-employer relations – in addition to remote and hybrid work, we’re on the heels of more furloughing and firing than ever.

Though the initial pandemic-related hiring problems were largely and unexpectedly related to motivating people to want to work, as COVID-19 wears on, HR hiring managers are increasingly overwhelmed with applicants to screen. (Case in point, in 2020 a client told me to tap the brakes on keywords related to “recruitment” but we’ve since resumed those SEO efforts.) Regardless, with more companies leaning toward remote work, it’s more important than ever to hire great, self-reliant employees.

Here, we’ll discuss a method to better screen the hiring-pool wheat from the chaff to easily optimize hiring processes and quickly weed out troublemakers who’d otherwise sneak through. More often than not, when duds slip through your preliminary screening process it’s because they make you think they have important traits they actually don’t have.

How do managers efficiently choose who to hire?

I remember the first time I sat in front of a giant pile of resumes and cover letters with other managers to pick a couple new customer support representatives. My biggest takeaways from that process:

  • Different people scan for different, sometimes irrelevant qualities in candidates.
  • Some potential hires are there to pull the wool over your eyes.
  • Hiring well is hard.

A couple years later when I got had to deal with a stack of resumes and cover letters from would-be marketing assistants, I was sure I’d do better on my own. I didn’t. My new assistant’s performance was middling at best. To be fair, part of that was likely my fault – in addition to my greenhorn hiring practices, I didn’t train my assistant well. I was a managerial work in progress. Still am.

What are the core problems with HR talent management?

I, a self-professed HR-hack on the internet, say these three mistakes are the crux of crappy HR, which cause workplaces, both virtual and real, to be awful:

  1. Hiring people who aren’t well-suited to the position/role
  2. Not training well (sometimes because of ‘untrainable’ employees, see #1)
  3. Not firing those who should be fired

Sure, there are several other facets to HR, (benefits, safety, morale, etc.) but this is a blog post, not a textbook. While I’ve plenty to opine about training and firing, for the sake of keeping this article close to concise, we’ll leave it at: Don’t ignore training and firing. Train well. Fire well. Keep morale high. But most importantly, hire well.

So, what’s most important when thinking about hiring?

A job candidate’s attention to detail and ability to follow instructions are good indicators of their future success in their job. I’ve tested it. Strong correlation. Likely causality. If you’re able to quickly filter applicants for their exactness and their ability to notice and appropriately react to things, that is to say, their attention to detail and ability to follow instructions, you’ll be able to spend far less time training, firing, and otherwise dealing with employees you shouldn’t have hired in the first place. Yes, sometimes you’ll have to screen for other qualifications, but if you assess a large pool of job candidates for their situational awareness in preliminary hiring rounds, you’re going to be happier with later results.

When you’re a designated hitter in baseball, if you get a base-hit 35% of the time, you’re hall of fame material. You can fail at your job (to get a base hit) the vast majority of the time, and still be a towering success. Nutty. Conversely, when your hiring team onboards ten people for your crew, and six months later only four of them are still your teammates, is that success? Unfortunately not. A 40% hiring success rate is awful. Baseball players have it easy.

So that’s our metric. We’ll call it a batting average. Why not? It’s perhaps the easiest measure of hiring success:

  • After [some period of time] what percentage of hires are still with us?
  • X=quantity still with us
  • Y=number in original hire group
  • x/y = hiring batting average

Let’s improve your hiring batting average.

Our fake job posting
This fake job posting is highly tuned. Let’s turn it into a spreadsheet!

If you want to optimize your hiring process, I mean, raise your batting average, you should introduce and measure variables in your job postings. Tweak your hiring system so you heavily discount or eliminate contenders unable to follow instructions. But how?

How should I change my hiring process? What should I measure?

We’re tracking responses to your job posting to measure respondents’ attention. (Is that an official KPI?) Make a spreadsheet to keep track of these responses. Each potential hire gets a row in that spreadsheet. Each column is a type of data, a metric we care about. I’ll riff on some things you might choose to measure.

  • End your job posting with a closing and a name. Treat it like a letter.
    Thanks for reading,
    -Dan
    Does the applicant start their missive to you with a greeting, to Dan?
    Those are two measurable things.
  • Specify a preferred method of contact. Maybe an email address.
    Did the applicant try another avenue instead?
  • Résumés are a pain. As you’ll see below, without a resume in the mix it’s easier to measure attention to detail. It may seem unorthodox to start candidate screening without a resume, but that’s a whole other document to sift through. Stick to introductions for now. Request a resume when you’re sure you want it. Until then, specifically tell applicants you do NOT want them to send a resume.
    Did the applicant send a resume?
  • Furthermore, just go ahead and tell them you don’t want any attachments. You’re just looking for an intro email.
    Did the applicant attach anything?
  • Without a resume, you’d be left relatively blind without some good info. This is perhaps the most formal part of the candidate screening process. Come up with a few questions to ask applicants in the job posting. Ask what? That depends on the position and what you want to know.
    Did the applicant answer all of your questions? Did they answer well?
  • Even with this system, hiring can be a huge time sink. Specifically request brief responses to your questions.
    Did the applicant rattle on forever? Were they concise? Note it.
    Psychometrician friend Norm Abrahams says this is a naive approach to a proto readability index. He’s not wrong. Consider using a tool to analyze writing samples. (I generally don’t.)
  • When you ask people to omit their resumes, some people forget to include their names. True story.
    Did the applicant give you their full name?
  • How about contact information? That’s usually on a resume. Somebody interested in getting hired might give you more than one way to contact them, right?
    Did the applicant provide both phone and email?
  • There are numerous other metrics to measure. You may want to try rating the candidate’s motivation or style in relation to your organization and its values. Will they be a good match? Use your imagination.

Most of those examples are fairly universal, but you can get more creative still, depending on the situation. In 2007, when hiring a couple people for a digital agency, I whittled down a pool of potential web developer hires with a spreadsheet, but there were still too many candidates. One of the questions I’d asked them was something like: Do you have a website for your webdev efforts or any other site you’ve made which you’d like to share? A Github? Everybody who’d made it to this point had shared a URL. So I measured those.

  • Does the site use meta data? (13 years later, I’d also likely look for some structured data.)
  • Does the site look good? (somewhat subjective)
  • Did they use a website/theme builder?
  • Does CSS load from separate files?
  • Are there countless validation errors?
  • How long did their site take to load?
  • Does the site rank for any obvious long-tail keywords?
  • Was their top navigation on-point? (13 years later, I’d also look for responsiveness-related nav stuff.)
  • etc.

Even more whittling. Choosing your knockout punch.

Remember those questions you asked applicants in the job posting? You should measure responses there, too. Yep. You can and should measure things other than attention to detail in your spreadsheet. If you’re thorough in the early screening rounds the payoff is measurable.

Did you ask about their work schedule availability? With COVID-19 making remote work the new norm, did you ask remote workers about their time zone? Did you ask them about their knowledge of whatever your industry’s version of disruptive doohickey-widget buzzword-BS is? Can you measure and compare those and other things qualitatively in your spreadsheet? Do it.

It’s important to note that not every criterion should be weighted equally. When done right, you’ll have myriad metrics of varying import. When I’m dealing with throngs of applicants, I like to pick a ‘knockout’ criterion (e.g. did you send a resume when I asked you not to?) and immediately ditch those candidates; I don’t even add them to the spreadsheet of finalists. After all, we can hardly trust an applicant to be attentive to details later if they couldn’t follow a simple instruction this early in the process. Still too many contenders? Rinse and repeat with other knockout criteria as necessary.

Make it a multivariate hiring experiment

In some ways, this screening system can be an intersection of HR-hiring and UX. Run tests to see which job postings get you the best candidates.

  • Which questions should you ask applicants to answer in your job posting? Ask different questions to different groups of candidates and compare results.
  • Do different geographic locations have better labor pools? If it’s a telecommuting gig, advertise in more than one location e.g. by posting to Craigslist in a few different areas – a big coastal city, a little inland city, a college town.
  • Which hiring website delivers the best candidates? Try a few different hiring sites: monster.com, LinkedIn, etc. Are their alumnai boards you can contact? Try a local newspaper? Do those still exist?
  • Does the general tone of the job posting affect your results? Run two different ads against each other. One more formal. One more conversational.

Always be testing. What you do in and with the job posting matters. These are important metrics. You should test to figure out which locations, websites, language, questions, etc. send you the most acceptable candidates. That testing will better focus your future hiring efforts.

Remember my industrial psychologist pal Norm? This system reminds him of a weighted application blank. A what? I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess. He’s been doing this sort of thing longer than I’ve been alive.

Whittling for two positions at once

One of my last hiring endeavors for a third party involved weighted criteria. The hiring team, (hiring for three disparate roles,) could change the importance of any factor on the fly to get a flexible hireability metric for any of the positions. Useful to see if weighing things differently shines favorable light on different candidates, particularly if you’re hiring for multiple positions from the same pool of applicants. …It’s like when so and so auditioned for the ______ role, but got cast as ______ instead. Sometimes you’ll find serendipity in your pool of applicants, even if it’s not in the position they thought they’d be in.

This is pedantic armchair HR data science for sure, but I like it.

Caveats: When does this hiring optimization system fail?

This system won’t help you find MORE applicants, but it will up your success rate. When you don’t have enough applicants your HR team needs to meet minds with your marketing team.

When your management and/or training programs are shite, that can easily lower your effective hiring-batting average. Using this system will still stock you with attentive people who can follow directions, and while that might be good enough to overcome some other shortcomings, crappy leadership is a monolith of morale-suck. Even good people can fail in broken systems.

If you spoon-feed applicants by accentuating what you’re measuring, (e.g. “Please address your letter to Dan”), you’re going to allow slackers through who wouldn’t otherwise know it’s common practice to start formal emails with a personalized greeting. Let job candidates use that better judgment their parents always told them they had to figure some of this out on their own.

Outlier negative traits in candidates, like painful, crippling slowness, personality/behavioral problems, etc. are often less of a problem for those who work remotely. Next time, weed these suckers out with better questions in your job post verbiage.

Think about incentives. When the compensation is low, there’s no path to a promotion, and the job sucks, (think fast food, crop picker, etc.), retention rate will be low. …This system likely won’t help.

You’ll inevitably weed out some people who made honest mistakes but would otherwise be great hires. You won’t have data to prove it, but it’s a safe assumption. We’re okay with this. It’s a worthwhile sacrifice.

Are you hiring a sado-anarchist clown for your traveling torture circus? Maybe you’re not looking for attention to detail, “plays well with others”, or whatever else one typically screens for in the hiring process. That there’s a poor attempt at HR humor. Sorry.

That was the end?

Yikes. What a horrible way to end an HR blog post. Instead, I’ll leave you with my poor, $0.02 summary of renowned management book Good To Great. The best leaders aren’t well-known, flashy, handsome, engaging talking heads; the most effective leaders are those who filled the important roles and positions with the best teammates. Hiring matters.

Every time I’ve used this hiring optimization system I’ve changed it. Sometimes I find new measurables. Sometimes I add to the system’s flexibility. Anyhow, it’s easy, and it works.

Next time you’re hiring, try it. Then try it again. Get that batting average up. Good luck!

This article was originally published April 8, 2020. Updated for 2022.


Dan Dreifort consults on SEO and UX. While he recently hired three writers and another WordPress maven for his fficient.com shingle, he hasn’t done hiring for third parties in almost a decade. But he’d do it again, probably, in the right situation. If he’s looking for HR consulting work, should he edit out the bit about the weird clown? Too bad. It’s staying. Thanks to master of the sports-IT analogy Roman Warmke for the sporty sub-header! …You know the one.

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