Last reviewed 31 July 2015

The basic structure of recruitment, on the face of it, has changed little since we first came up with the idea of not simply giving jobs to our children in the order in which they were born. We make these important decisions based on the application letter, form or CV and the interview. The process has got tighter as our concerns for fairness and equality have increased and we have a greater tendency to hand all or part of the process to agencies but, whether the process has become any more effective or any less stressful for all concerned is another matter entirely, says Gudrun Limbrick.

Recruitment is, by no means, an easy task and much depends on it — perhaps even the future of the company. Recruitment is also extremely time-consuming, not simply the inordinate amount of time it takes to interview a range of candidates, but also the pre-selection discussions, the design of the application process and forms, the short-list process, the pre-interview discussions and the post-interview decision-taking. It is important that all this time is expended effectively and that the right candidates are filtered through to the final stages.

The vast majority of employers rely on a written first stage — very often submitted online these days. Whether this is a letter, a CV or an application form, this is a test of the prospective employee’s written skills, regardless of whether those skills will be needed in the actual job. For some people, it can be hard to shine on an application form. The format of a CV is necessarily restrictive, and the structure of discussing and evidencing points on an application form can be repetitive and stultifying causing both writer and reader to lose enthusiasm before they get to the end.

The interview is the opportunity to meet the candidate — and for the candidate to meet company personnel — for the first time. It should be a time for both parties to learn about each other and gain further information, not about the measurable assets such as skills, competencies and past experiences, but also less tangible attributes such as personality and character.

However, interviews are fraught with problems. The first is the restrictive nature of the interview questions. In the efforts to treat everyone fairly and come up with answers that are measurable, questions can be stilted and encouraging answers to be formulaic. This can be a missed opportunity for both interviewer and interviewee. Nerves also affect interviews badly with some interviewees being crippled to the extent that they are unable to shine.

All too often, we hear the cry “the applicant looked great on paper but performed really badly at interview”. In instances like this, it is the interview process which is failing the candidate and the recruiting company. The interview has become a measure of how well candidates can perform at interview rather than a tool to explore the candidate’s post-appropriate skills.

We give much credence to the efforts to enable each candidate to shine equally and be judged equally in the recruitment process — but does the interview genuinely achieve that? Are we kidding ourselves that it offers a level playing field? Or are those who generally perform badly in interview situations automatically at a disadvantage even though these skills have nothing to do with how well they will perform in the job itself?

Two recent cases bring home quite how blunt a tool the interview can be in recruiting the best people for the job. The first was a candidate who had been told in the application form what the topics were that would be covered in the interview. This information enabled the candidate to construct her answers — with evidence — in advance and learn them by rote. In the interview, once she heard a key phrase, she gave her pre-prepared answer. She scored very highly, barely dropping a point. However, this should never be the desired outcome of interviews. It achieved little more than if she had been asked to write the answers on her application form and gave no opportunity for discussion, or any element of the two parties getting to know each other.

The second example was that of a series of interviews being carried out by a single panel of interviewers for a number of positions over a period of a week. The interviewees complained that the interviewers seemed uninterested in their answers, were making in-jokes between themselves and were generally off-putting to the candidates. The panel were indeed jaded. Having interviewed six people a day for a week, they were tired and lacking in enthusiasm — perhaps an inevitable consequence for such a long interview process. A number of candidates were put off taking the job.

In neither example were the recruiters likely to make the best recruitment decision. In neither were either applicants or interviewer able to shine.

The addition of psychometric testing has brought another dimension to recruitment and they are popular as they are both easy to administer and provide data which is measurable and comparable. There are significant drawbacks; however, the primary one being that they will not necessarily give an indication of how well a candidate will use a particular characteristic in post. For example, a candidate who shows high leadership characteristics will not necessarily be a good leader, rather they have the qualities that good leaders have. The potential is there, but not necessarily the full package of skills, experience and other characteristics.

More and more, employers are trying out auditions, and observations of how candidates function in real situations. An audition process can give a person a chance to show off, be extrovert and really shine. The talents they are demonstrating may be those linked to the job — entertaining children for example — or may be demonstrating characteristics that could be useful in a job, such as being happy and jovial in front of customers.

Giving candidates real work situations — letting them loose in the office to carry out particular tasks or shadow a worker — gives recruiters a chance to witness how they are able to pick up a task and interact with the existing team. This can be a day-long process or a single quick task which can be completed in half an hour. It also provides good material for discussion in a later interview.

The downside with both methods, of course, is how measurable a candidate’s achievements are in either scenario and thus, how two or more candidates can be compared with each other. This can bring into question how fair the process can be. It is important, in the design stage of the process, to be very clear about why a candidate is being asked to undertake a particular role play or task and what the recruiters are looking to observe while they are doing it.

While I do not think anyone wants every recruitment process to become a Britain’s Got Talent style auditorium audition (except, of course, for those people who happen to be recruiting magicians and trained dogs), the traditional application form and interview process is gradually being diluted with other tools. Getting good, creative, dynamic and enthusiastic staff needs good, creative, dynamic and enthusiastic recruitment methods.