Smart Tips for Prescreening Job Applicants
In their book Start Your Own Business, the Staff of Entrepreneur Media Inc. guides you through the critical steps to starting your business, then supports you in surviving the first three years as a business owner. In this edited excerpt, the authors explain how to use resumes and employment applications to weed out the job applicants who aren't a good fit for your company.
Two important tools in prescreening job candidates are the resume and the employment application. If you ask applicants to send in a resume, that will be the first tool you use to screen them. You'll then have qualified candidates fill out an application when they come in for an interview. If you don’t ask for a resume, you'll probably want to have prospective employees come in to fill out applications, then review the applications and call qualified candidates to set up an interview.
In either case, it's important to have an application form ready before you begin the interview process. You can buy generic application forms at most office-supply stores, or you can develop your own application form to meet your specific needs. Make sure any application form you use conforms to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines regarding questions you can and cannot ask. (You'll find more information here on the topic.)
Your application should ask for specific information such as name, address, and phone number; educational background; work experience, including salary levels; awards or honors; whether the applicant can work full or part time as well as available hours; and any special skills relevant to the job (foreign languages, familiarity with software programs, etc.). Be sure to ask for names and phone numbers of former supervisors to check as references; if the candidate is currently employed, ask whether it's OK to contact his or her current place of employment. You may also want to ask for personal references. Because many employers these days hesitate to give out information about an employee, you may want to have the applicant sign a waiver that states the employee authorizes former and/or current employers to disclose information about him or her.
When screening resumes, it helps to have your job description and specifications in front of you so you can keep the qualities and skills you are looking for clearly in mind. Since there is no standard form for resumes, evaluating them can be very subjective. However, there are certain components that you should expect to find in a resume. It should contain the prospect’s name, address, and telephone number at the top and a brief summary of employment and educational experience, including dates. Many resumes include a “career objective” that describes what kind of job the prospect is pursuing; other applicants state their objectives in their cover letters. Additional information you may find on a resume or in a cover letter includes references, achievements, and career-related affiliations.
Look for neatness and professionalism in the applicant’s resume and cover letter. A resume riddled with typos raises some serious red flags. If a person can’t be bothered to put his or her best foot forward during this crucial stage of the game, how can you expect him or her to do a good job if hired?
There are two basic types of resumes: the “chronological” resume and the “functional” resume. The chronological resume, which is what most of us are used to seeing, lists employment history in reverse chronological order, from most recent position to earliest. The functional resume does not list dates of employment; instead, it lists different skills or “functions” that the employee has performed.
Although chronological resumes are the preferred format among HR professionals and hiring managers, functional resumes have increased in popularity in recent years. In some cases, they are used by downsized executives who may be quite well-qualified and are simply trying to downplay long periods of unemployment or make a career change. In other cases, however, they signal that the applicant is a job-hopper or has something to hide.
Because it’s easy for people to embellish resumes, it’s a good idea to have candidates fill out a job application, by mail or in person, and then compare it to the resume. Because the application requires information to be completed in chronological order, it gives you a more accurate picture of an applicant’s history.
Beyond functional and chronological resumes, there is another type of resume that’s more important to be on the lookout for. That’s what one consultant calls an “accomplishment” vs. a “responsibility” resume.
The responsibility resume is just that. It emphasizes the job description, saying things like “Managed three account executives; established budgets; developed departmental contests.” An accomplishment resume, on the other hand, emphasizes accomplishments and results, such as “Cut costs by 50 percent” or “Met quota every month.” Such a resume tells you that the person is an achiever and has the bottom line firmly in mind.
When reading the resume, try to determine the person’s career patterns. Look for steady progress and promotions in past jobs. Also look for stability in terms of length of employment. A person who changes jobs every year is probably not someone you want on your team. Look for people with three- to four-year job stints.
At the same time, be aware of how economic conditions can affect a person’s resume. During a climate of frequent corporate downsizing, for example, a series of lateral career moves may signal that a person is a survivor. This also shows that the person is interested in growing and willing to take on new responsibilities, even if there was no corresponding increase in pay or status.
By the same token, just because a resume or a job application has a few gaps in it doesn’t mean you should overlook it entirely. You could be making a big mistake. Stay focused on the skills and value the job applicant could bring to your company.