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You've spent time developing a strong employer brand, an attractive careers page, some fun recruitment marketing campaigns, and zinger job descriptions.

You're now swimming in applications for your open roles, much success! Now it's time to sift through them and decide who gets through to the first stage with the hiring manager.

Candidate screening is an essential part of any hiring process and requires a slightly different mindset than interviewing.

I started my career as a recruiter in headhunting and executive search where screening was one of the most important stages because, in an agency, you don't get to interview the candidate as thoroughly as your client does.

So how can you make sure that you set up the right candidates for interview and even start to think about closing them at the offer stage?

Here I’ll share my knowledge and best practices to help you develop an effective candidate screening process.

What is candidate screening?

Candidate screening is the stage at the start of the recruitment process that decides who goes through to the first stage interview. This is especially common if a recruiter works with the hiring manager as the recruiter acts as a sieve and an extension of the hiring team’s needs.

The candidate screening process involves reviewing information about the candidate that is available to you (candidate’s resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile etc.) and deciding whether they could be a good fit. 

If they seem promising, then the process would also normally involve an initial call between the candidate and someone from HR, called the ‘screening call’, to explore a little deeper and discuss the role.

This involves designing questions that are wide enough to give you a snapshot of the candidate without going into unnecessary detail at this early stage.

At the screening stage, there is a lot of practice and effort required so as not to make any “mental shortcuts” or heuristics.

You need to actively steer your mind from jumping to conclusions based on limited information and try to verify and investigate whatever you can find before making a call.

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Screening while sourcing

You may not realise it, but a lot of judgment goes (or at least should go) into candidate sourcing.

This could be as basic as reading a candidate’s profile on LinkedIn and noticing that they specifically say they don’t want to be contacted for new roles right now (and respecting that wish!).

Here are a few things I look out for when deciding whether I should reach out to a potential candidate:

  • Are there mentions of the right skills? Sounds simple, but I know so many people who receive messages every day for roles that are completely the wrong fit for them e.g. a developer who’s worked with Java exclusively getting approached for a role that requires 5 years of Golang experience.
  • Are there mentions of the right skills in unexpected ways? Keep in mind that not everyone describes their skills the way you want them to or expect them to, especially if you are recruiting across cultures or in an expertise domain different than your own. For example, you may be looking for someone with project management skills, but a candidate may talk about a time when they “coordinated” a project. The skills may be the same, but the word coordination may lead you astray in thinking that they are not “managing” the project.  
  • Can you research if they have the right skills? Sometimes the skills aren’t visible at first glance so you need to research a bit deeper. When the information doesn’t go into detail, start looking for something that will include them on your list of people to contact rather than exclude them. Things to look at:
    • Current and past companies—do they have a similar product, size, or tech stack to yours?
    • Projects or engagements outside of work—these can also be used in your outreach message as well.
    • Education—things like a bachelor’s degree may be less relevant with senior candidates who already have experience, but signs of continual education in a certain area can demonstrate skills too.
    • Work experience—seems simple but don’t forget to pay attention to their description of their experience, not just the keywords.

Resume screening

When it comes to applicants, the first piece of information you will see about them is their CV or resume (depending on where you are in the world). 

We are so used to them that it’s actually a new thing now for companies to offer accessible applications without CVs. Here are things that I review for each job applicant's CV:

  • Has the candidate stated their title and responsibilities in each role clearly?
  • Is there a focus on outcomes and understanding of their work’s impact?
  • Does the CV clearly outline what their career path has been so far?
  • Are the right skills and experience that you’re looking for contained in the CV?
  • If the background (e.g., size of company, location, etc.) are important for the role, are those requirements covered?

That is all—not much, but bear in mind that for the moment we’re looking at the very top of the funnel. A CV only tells half the story, so you don’t want to look too much into it and start making assumptions that often turn out to be wrong.

For example, you may be excited that you have an applicant who has only ever worked at a very large company, but then you remember that your position is in a small start-up and you are looking for a sales director who has experience bringing a small challenger product to a new market. 

You can still interview a candidate from a large company, but you have to make sure you delve deeper into how they would approach your particular situation.

Things I don’t give much importance to:

  • 1-2 typos (especially if long CV). Others may be a bit more strict but to me I prefer to focus on skills and other things. The only roles where I pay attention to things like this is content marketing, lawyers, and finance.
  • Career gaps. Especially with the way the current job market is going, one or two gaps do not concern me. I will cover them during a call, but they shouldn’t exclude a candidate that otherwise has the right experience.
  • Formatting. Unless it makes it illegible, remember that sometimes your applicant tracking system (ATS) can screw up the formatting of a CV. Especially with candidates using new tools outside of MS Word to create CVs. My own is created using Canva!
Note on AI CV reviewers

Note on AI CV reviewers

I am yet to see an ATS with a well-executed “AI” or even “machine learning” model of CV rating per role. Even roles with the same title can be so different that I don’t see any current tool being able to reliably rate candidate CVs. Most just end up being SEO catchers i.e. looking for keywords and the frequency of their use.

 

For this reason, while it can be tempting to use them to help share the load, I avoid these tools. Instead, my solution is to not let CVs pile up and regularly review them (take 30mins daily). Also, if you have a question that automatically excludes people e.g. your company cannot sponsor visas and the role is not remote, make an automation to auto reject people who indicate that they need visas stating that specific reason.

Bear in mind the following if this will be your first time reviewing international CVs as they may contain these elements which may seem odd:

  • Picture of the applicant
  • Blood type, height, and weight
  • Marital status
  • Personal identification numbers
  • Exact home address
  • Immigration status
  • Criminal background check status.

Related read: Best Background Check Software

Phone screening/Video Call screening

If, after reviewing their CV, LinkedIn, etc. someone seems like a potential match, the next step of the screening process is a quick call with someone from HR.

This is likely the first human interaction the candidate will have with your organization as part of their application, so you want to balance assessing their skills with creating a good overall experience. Don’t let it be a conversation where it’s just a checklist of questions.

You have to give potential candidates enough information about the open position and the company culture in an engaging way and also get the information you need from.

While it may be the first proper conversation, this is actually where the “close” begins in that you’re preparing yourself and the candidate for a potential job offer.

Understanding the motivations of the candidate completes the picture that their skills and experience begin to draw, so make sure you take time to understand them truly. This will help you later on if you end up making them an offer.

For example, if a candidate mentions that they currently don’t do much frontend engineering as part of their full-stack role, but they’d really like to focus on that as a next step in their career and this is something you can offer, you can remind them of that in the offer call to reinforce the opportunity.

To ensure an effective a call as possible, I always center the initial screening interview around an agenda—just like with internal meetings!

I start by giving them an overview of the role and then ask them to give me an overview of their experience plus answer a few questions. I then make sure there’s time at the end for any questions they have.

I’ve found that starting with information about myself, the company, and the role settles candidates better than me rattling off questions at them from the start. 

But, as you want to move over to assessing their skills and motivations, be mindful of how much time you spend giving information vs how much you spend getting information from the candidate. 

My screens are usually about 30 mins so I spend around 5-7 mins on the intro and pitch and 15 mins gathering information from the candidate. The rest of the time I try to reserve for the candidate’s questions (which at this stage may not be that many).

I usually create interview questions based on the areas I want to cover in this first call:

  • Motivation. If they’re an applicant, why did they apply here? If they were sourced, why did they respond to the message?
  • Goals. I want to understand the candidate’s goals for their next role and if it will match our role.
  • Communication skills. This is important in most roles, so look at the communication skills of a candidate from the get-go. For example, are they able to explain something technical in simple terms? Can they be concise and keep to the time schedule as the screening call is short?
  • Skills. While this is not a technical interview, you can still look for evidence for some skills that should be essential (more on this shortly).

On my side, I talk them through the company, team, role, outcomes for the position, and other essentials that they’d need to know to make a decision.

This discovery process on both sides continues throughout the process, but the screening lays the foundation of knowledge on both sides.

I’d recommend similar approaches when it comes to phone interviews or video interviews at the screening stage. If you need some software to assist you, there are many video interviewing solutions to choose from too.

Setting up your recruiter for success

If you’re a hiring manager working with a recruiter, you play a key role in ensuring that your talent acquisition partner understands what you need. 

They will be conducting the screen on your behalf, so it’s crucial they understand how you think about the role.

An easy way to give guidance is to think about what information you need to consider a candidate suitable for the role, what information isn’t present in the candidate’s CV that you’d like to know, and what information the recruiter can realistically assess. For example, it’s unlikely the recruiter will be able to assess the quality of the code of an applicant.

It's also important to ensure your recruiter has access to the best tools, such as top-tier resume screening software, to make the screening process faster and more effective.

By taking this approach, you'll ensure your recruiter has the knowledge and screening tools they need to turn top talent into qualified candidates to progress through the interview process.

Other ways of gathering info

  • Application stage questions.
    • These can be a good way to check binary information like “Do you have the right to work in the country?” or “Can you come to the office X number of days a week?”. Some companies put very expansive questions that cover a specific skill set in the application questionnaire, but I’m not a fan of those as they limit the discussion.
      • E.g. One place I applied to recently had a question “Describe your experience in managing senior stakeholders”. Such a wide and, frankly, poorly designed question that I had to sit and write an answer to before anyone had even reviewed my CV, or I’d had a chance to speak to anyone to understand this company’s specific challenge.
  • Asking for references.
    • If, for example, you notice a candidate shares a common company with a colleague you can always ask them if they knew of them. Make sure that any reference given is from people that have directly worked with the candidate.
  • Asking for referrals
    • You ensure that you ask for more detail about any referrals given internally from colleagues. This can give you some idea of skills and behaviours beyond the CV that you can just confirm in the interview.

Closing thoughts


A well-designed screening process will really boost your selection process by making sure that you set the tone for skills testing early on and understand the candidate's goals and motivations.

As you’ve seen, in all three types of screening I outlined above, I talked about anchoring the screening on objective things and primarily looking for evidence of the candidate’s skill. This is important as unconscious bias can creep in during these early stages.


And don’t forget that, especially on that first call, you have the opportunity to set the tone for the kind of candidate experience you want to create—make it excellent!

Have any tips to share? Reach out in the comment or join the conversation in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders passionate about building organizations of the future

Some further resources to help you refine your hiring process:

Mariya Hristova
By Mariya Hristova

Mariya is a talent acquisition professional turned HR leader with experience in large corporates and start-ups. She has 10+ years of experience recruiting all over the world across many different industries, specialising in market entries, expansion, or scaling projects. She is of the firm belief that great candidate and empoyee experiences are not just a luxury, but a must. Currently she is the People Lead at Focaldata.