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An IT manager calls a technical candidate's references

Screening technical candidates

Critical steps most employers miss

March 20, 2017

By Mike McSally

Should you subject technical candidates to an onerous screening process, or should you risk hiring the wrong person?

It’s actually not a zero-sum game. While most screening is done to cover your behind, a well thought out screening process is absolutely critical to employers and also serves the best interest of the candidate.  

Unfortunately, most organizations’ screening is entirely ineffective. Worse, it’s done in a way that alienates top talent. 

A few tweaks to your screening process may keep you from making a hire you regret or losing a great candidate. After screening technical candidates—or telling others how to do it—for over 25 years, I’ve seen most employers get it wrong and pay a high price. Here’s how you can do it better.

Most organizations screening is entirely ineffective 

The right and wrong references

Before I share tips for performing meaningful reference checks, I have to ask: Are you even performing them? We talk to pretty much the entire IT workforce, and the IT pros and hiring managers we survey tell us that most companies skip the reference check at least some of the time.

The other thing they tell us? Only about half the references offered are from supervisors. If you’re letting your candidates cherry-pick a couple of former colleagues, the reference checks are basically worthless.

The reference mistake most employers make

It’s time to change your mindset about references. They’re not a box to check before making a hire—they’re a chance to predict whether you’re inviting the right person onto your team.

Most employers call references way too late in the hiring process, when they’ve already settled on a candidate. At that point, they’re not in the frame of mind to really dig into whether their pick will truly add value to their organization.

References aren't a box to check before hiring; they're a chance to predict whether you're inviting the right person into your team

My advice is: Start earlier. Use reference conversations to ensure your candidate is up to the technical tasks and has the personality traits to excel on your team. Find out how they interacted with coworkers and higher-ups, what their communication style is and how well they accept feedback. Not only will this help eliminate future buyer’s remorse, it will give you the reassurance you need to avoid the “I want to see more candidates” trap that drags out your timeline.    

Screening tips

A frequently overlooked opportunity is your own employees and network. Ask people (and check LinkedIn) to see if anyone has friends at the company your candidate currently works for. You’d be surprised to see how few degrees separate you from someone you’re considering hiring. If you’re screening a candidate who used to work at Company ABC, you likely have an employee who also worked there—or knows someone who did—and could look into that candidate’s qualifications and reputation.

If you’re working with a recruiter, don’t ever let them off the hook on references. Make sure they share detailed notes from their conversations and that they’re willing to let you speak to a candidate’s supervisory references. If they don’t, it’s a huge red flag that they’re skipping this step.

Technical screening: Dos and don’ts

Look, technical testing can be valuable, but it isn’t right for every situation. It can alienate superstar candidates, and testing isn’t always a true reflection of how they operate in real work.

At TEKsystems, while we test most job seekers, that information is only one part of how we evaluate and present candidates. The testing platform we use assesses competence in very specific skill sets or job functions, and it helps stack-rank a candidate’s skills against their peers’.

Technical testing can be valuable but it's not right for every candidate. 

Possibly even more critical than how you use testing is how you present it to candidates. They’re evaluating you as much as you them, and trust me, they have opinions about testing. When used incorrectly, online and technical testing can make a candidate think you lack confidence in their competence. You can mitigate this by explaining how you use testing and by giving them a chance to voice concerns.

Finally, many highly skilled positions don’t lend themselves to testing. When we’re placing someone like a software architect or a high-level project manager, we don’t make them take a multiple choice test. Instead, we call an expert with similar expertise from our Global Services division—or another contractor we trust—to talk to the person. You and I may not have any idea what questions to ask a Hadoop developer, but someone with similar skills and expertise will be able to tell quickly if a candidate knows what they’re talking about or is just a master of BS. 

An overlooked element: Finding the right culture fit

Look, no matter how great a candidate is, culture fit matters. I’ve referred mates from my college rugby team who had tremendous work ethic but lacked the ability to take and grow from feedback that TEKsystems’ culture requires. Without that trait, people just don’t thrive here, despite their competence. You can’t ignore culture. 

A major indicator of whether you’re working with a body shop or a staffing firm who can partner with you is that they care about culture fit. I appreciate that my newer recruiters are eager to jump in and fill positions as quickly as possible, but we have to constantly remind them to slow down, take a breath and initiate phone calls with people inside an organization to truly understand any job (no matter how poetic your job description). I believe our relentless focus on finding out as much as possible about job openings through every channel possible is what distinguishes us as the best at finding people who perform in an organization’s culture. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten it better than our clients’ own managers—to the point where they handed over interviewing to us.

A few tweaks to your screening process can keep you from making a hire you regret or losing a great candidate 

How do we do it? First, we understand that great recruiting isn’t just about the interview, the reference or the test. It’s a series of checkpoints that helps us understand the full package a candidate offers. Meaningful reference checks are one way to understand what motivates a person, what they worry about and aspire to—and where they’ll succeed and add value.

Avoid losing your candidate during screening

When you mention references to a candidate, it often provokes a visceral reaction. The term conjures up visions of legal processes and HR hoops between them and getting the job. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

To get a potential hire invested in your screening process, change the conversation. Say, “I’m talking to your references to understand if this would be a good fit for you and for my team before we both invest in each other.” Then your screening has value for you and them, and it feels respectful.

Also, you must manage expectations. Explain how long screening will take, and then stick to that timeline or communicate if references aren’t returning your calls.

An employee who has what it takes to thrive in your organization—and who will be satisfied enough to stay a long time—is well worth the effort of proper screening.

Michael McSally is the vice president of enterprise operations and technology for TEKsystems.

Related: The Importance of a Quality Screening Process

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