Candidate Quality Can Be Defined

What makes a good candidate different from a bad one? What defines a high quality candidate? I can’t count the conversations I have had with recruiters on these questions, and few have had answers.

For as long as I can remember, recruiters have focused on cost as the primary measure of their effectiveness and value to the organization. The most popular recruiting metric has been cost-per-hire, and recruiting functions justify their existence by showing how much less expensive they are than an outsourced solution.

This, however, has begun to change.

Even though we are in a recession, skilled talent is hard to find, and demographic projections indicate a long-term swing toward a candidate-driven market. If you are in Europe or recruit for European operations, the aging workforce and the lack of fresh, skilled talent has to be a major concern.

Positions are open longer and hiring managers ask for more resumes to review, not being satisfied with those recruiters provide. There may be hundreds of candidates on the job market at the moment, but managers are still frustrated at the inability of their internal recruiters to find what they consider quality talent. The most important metrics today are those of speed and quality. The best recruiters are measured on how quickly they present candidates and on the quality of those candidates.

In many organizations, outsourcing decisions are being made on these metrics, not on cost. Managers are finding that having a good employee when they need one is much more important than how much it costs to get him or her.

But one hurdle looms over all of this. That hurdle is to define what we mean when we say that one candidate is “better” than another. How do recruiters and hiring managers define quality? Who defines it? And how can it be tracked? These are the tough questions that need answers.

Quality can be defined and here are a few ideas on how to do it. The only caveat is that this process has to be dome for each type of position in your organization.

Number 1: Establish specific competencies or traits that equal quality in the minds of your hiring managers and use it to assess candidates

Most hiring managers do not have any definition of a “quality employee.” Some managers say that they know a quality employee when they have one, but they struggle with a hard definition.

A recruiter’s job is to help them create that definition. The place to start is to unravel the skills, competencies, and traits of the best performers. Unravel the ones that really differentiate average and superior employees and make a list of those. A list should be short and clear, with levels of accomplishment included. It might look something like the diagram you see with this article. I usually try very hard to keep the list to two key items per topic.

It may also be very useful to look at the worst performers and see what it is they don’t have. By listing the characteristics that are common to both the best and the worst employees in a function, you will begin to develop a profile that can eventually be used for selection, performance management, and development. These characteristics could be traits such as willingness to compromise, an open attitude toward new ideas, or frugality in business dealings. Or they could be competencies such as the ability to create spreadsheets in a certain time, or the capability of editing complex documents. And they can also include a level of knowledge such as expert-level knowledge of Unix or of a manufacturing process.

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Most likely any definitions of quality would include elements from each of these categories. Notice that these are all output-based measures — in other words, measures that can be seen or demonstrated in the work an employee does. They are the opposite of input-based measures such as length of experience or level of education. These types of measures tell you very little about the quality of a person’s performance.

You may need to partner with your internal organizational development group or with your training department to do this. It does take time and it takes willing managers to partner with you in the process. The result, though, will be a much clearer understanding of what kinds of people need to be sourced and hired.

Number 2: Educate hiring managers

Very few hiring managers know much about selection or about what it takes to assess a candidate. Even though you may have put all the managers though some sort of interview training, I am sure they have forgotten most of it and have used it less. Most of us are not disciplined nor can we expect the typical manager to become expert with these techniques. One area where recruiters can add value is to pre-screen and evaluate candidates against the criteria that you developed above. These criteria, remember, should have been determined in partnership with the managers. Each of you can use lists of these and behavioral interview questions or a variety of tests can be developed and used to measure these traits, competencies, and knowledge. Managers can help you determine how to weight the criteria, and they should be well aware of the consequences of using the criteria.

You can spend small amounts of time over a few weeks presenting bits of this information and moving the managers to understanding and acceptance. If you can, you could also hold seminars and use case studies and examples from your own organization to help managers understand how important it is to select people with the right skills and the right organizational fit and attitude.

Number 3: Investigate and experiment with new tools for screening and selection

It is still a bit surprising to me that very few firms are taking advantage of the many online tools that are emerging to help screen candidates before investing a large amount of time in interviews. By using the Internet and your corporate website, you can ask candidates to engage in a dialogue and mutual assessment process. While you are looking at their skills and fit, they can be looking at your organization and can make decisions on whether or not they like what they see. Many people I have spoken with have seen one side of an organization while interviewing, and another less attractive one after they are hired. There is still value in letting candidates email other employees for information about the company and work-life. There is a need for job previews and better job descriptions that are based on reality, not what we wish were true.

By defining up front what constitutes a quality candidate, you can remove much of the present frustration candidates have over why they were not chosen for an interview, and you can also reduce the number of unqualified candidates who apply. Many do so because they do not know or understand your definition of quality.

By working with hiring managers, getting them to write down and define for you the competencies and traits of successful employees, and by putting those to use in your screening and interviewing processes, you can improve candidate quality in a measurable way.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


11 Comments on “Candidate Quality Can Be Defined

  1. I agree 100%! Working with hiring managers in the beginning stages to develop a detailed job description can go a long way. This saves everyone’s time.

  2. Thanks, Gerald. I scanned the article and I see mentioned some firms that help recruiters find better candidates, but certainly don’t replace them. In fact, these type of tools have promised a lot but have not yet delivered, primarily because the competency models are too basic or the database of candidates too small. Great ideas still evolving.

  3. The real problem, Kevin, is that organizations have been taught to measure QOH on day 1, not day 180, 365, etc. When asked to correlate day 1 QOH versus day 360 QOH, they can’t. And with HR and Internal Recruitment typically disengage beyond the onboarding process, can we blame them? HR has zero control in terms of the circumstances and conditions in which that 5-star QOH candidate will work. From a TPR perspective, it’s why my fee is due on the start date, not 45 days out. Yes, I offer a 60-day replacement guarantee, but I cannot personally control conditions and circumstances once that candidate starts at the Client. (Note: I do my best to avoid supporting As*hole Hiring Managers, but sometimes they put on their best face and it’s not always easy to tell they’re a true As*hole until after the fact.)

    Therefore, what is really being measured is perceived QOH before these candidates are acted upon by the external environment, variables, type of manager (i.e. autocratic vs. democratic, etc.)

    Assuming that someone who is a 5-star QOH on day 1 (perceived) will continue to operate as a 5-star on day 360 . . . is no better than attempting to predict a mutual fund’s performance based upon its previous Morningstar rating. There is little to no correlation — case in point: Consider how 1-star rated (Morningstar) funds outperformed 5-star rated (Morningstar) funds in 2008. Yeah, no kidding.

    Let me give you another example: I have, in certain cases, not presented grade-A, *maverick-like* candidates to hiring managers that are highly autocratic. Put simply, an autocratic hiring manager has great difficulty managing a maverick . . . and mavericks resist micro-management. Yes, there is the inverse as well (i.e. maverick hiring managers and candidates that need heavy direction.) Attempting to forecast their future performance based on past performance would be futile due to the different environmental variables. It just wouldn’t be apples-to-apples.

    Now consider this angle: If I worked as an Internal Recruiter, and day 1 QOH was a component of my overall compensation, do you think I would push for the hiring of this 5-star day 1 QOH candidate, even though I instinctively knew it would be a train-wreck situation after 6 months? Also, considering that the average Internal Recruiter tenure has dipped to 12 months or less, would it be in my best interest to think in terms of creating long-term value for the organization? As you can see, I’ve laid out several things to consider; none of which are black-and-white considerations.

  4. Nice article Kevin, as we have all come to expect.

    Regarding the comments above, we should expect to see upwardly mobile marketers and web developers flood into the market with amazing feats of magic performed by– my favorite– “artifical intelligence” algorithms. I even see the rebirth of the all but extinct “Self assessed skill match solutions”. Einstein once said, “We should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” There are dozens of vendors racing into the ‘simpler’ space, driven by the long lines of candidates that form up (virtually) when jobs are posted.

    Accurately selecting the best talent is not rocket science, but it is people science (Organizational Psychology). There are lots of short cuts that create the illusion of value— just none that actually work. Parsing resume text doesn’t work. Self-reported skill ratings don’t work. Personality-keyed type or trait tests don’t work— if you define ‘work’ as correlating with actual job performance higher than resume sorts and unstructured interviews. And THEY capture only 20% of the Talent Value Potential of a perfect assessment. There are solutions that do work. Validated tests of mental ability, performance constucts, job-related behavioral interviews, and situational judgement tests work, but they aren’t effortless and they take some time. They do capture from 40 to 54% of the Talent Value Potential individually, and as much as 63% when combined.

    Those of us who read the published literature on the People Science side of things know that QOH on day 1 does correlate with QOH on day 360, since so much of QOH relates to mental abilities which do not change much over time. Other characteristics related to success don’t change much either. Still, Joshusa makes valuable points concerning the role of factors other than QOH as determining whether someone with great performance potential (High QOH) can deliver value and remain employed when a bad boss or a counter-productive culture prevails.

  5. Candidate “quality” will always be a moving target and will ultimately and constantly change as managers move up or sideways or out of the company. The BEST candidate for any open position may not be interested and will turn down your offer, so now do you settle for a #2 or start the process all over again?

    My personal belief is that ATTITUDE is the most important criteria and you can’t really do a reliable test for that. This of course assumes that the candidate has the basic skill set needed – don’t want to fill an accounting position with someone that can’t do basic arithmetic no matter how great their attitude is!

    Having been around the block for more than one round, I still believe that personal relationships starting with the initial phone interview are what makes good hiring possible. You can’t automate personal relationships!

    Anyone that has been around for a while will remember that the “Internet” was going to be the solution to all our hiring problems – how did that work out for you?

  6. “Most hiring managers do not have any definition of a “quality employee.” Some managers say that they know a quality employee when they have one, but they struggle with a hard definition.

    A recruiter’s job is to help them create that definition. The place to start is to unravel the skills, competencies, and traits of the best performers.”

    This quote from point #1 should be in 48 bold font plastered on the walls of every recruiters’ work space.

    Excellent, succinct article, Kevin – right on the money, again.

  7. Great insights, Kevin. I like the idea of diagraming the targeted traits, competencies and skills and getting sign-off from the Hiring Manager (or internal recruiter). Internal and external recruiters can take this one step further by requesting each interviewer complete a short post interview feedback form that rates the interviewers expectation of how the candidate will perform in each area. This simple process can help the hiring manager think more critically about how they expect the candidate would perform, help them track “expected” QoH vs. “actual” (say, in 6 months), and also provides them with a general guide for conducting the interview and staying on track.

    Here are some sample criteria:

    Expected Performance per Criteria Rating (1-5)

    – Technical proficiency
    – Leadership skills and motivating others.
    – Interpersonal skills and building successful working relationships.
    – Team skills and ability to work interdependently.
    – Conflict management and diplomatic skills.
    – Self-motivation and drive for results.
    – Fitting in to the organization’s culture.
    – Seeking/fostering positive change and driving for continuous improvement.
    – Representing the organization well to external entities and stakeholders.
    – Going beyond formal job description to contribute outside of own role.


  8. Nice conversation Kevin. As you point out so well, the discussion has been endless- over decades despite the fact that QOH isn’t rocket science.

    I think there are at least three issues we need to get over:

    1. Lack of a standard approach to job analysis and job description. Vendors and academics push their proprietary (and typically incompatible) definitions of “job description” methodology with the result that stakeholders are simply confused. It matters little whether the job should be defined by some taxonomy of “traits, competencies and skills” or “knowledge, skills and experience” or some other schema. What matters is “agreement” on some methodology and consistently applying it. The problem is that even within a firm, the recruiters, developers, hiring managers and others often fail to have a common approach. I believe your 1st and 2nd points make this perfectly clear. We can help drive this profession-wide however by pushing standardization of terms and definitions.

    2. Confusion over talent versus performance. In engineering “potential” energy has a very clear definition. It’s a theoretical construct that, when translated to “work” or released energy always has a gap. The gap could be that the potential energy was miscalculated (but more often it is due to the loss of energy directed to things other than work). Similarly, recruiting is bringing the “potential” to perform to the plate. Recruiters working with their colleagues need to ensure that the “talent” is theoretically capable of performing but, that expected performance is dependent on much more than the starting conditions. I’m in favor of holding staffing responsible for the starting condition and then jointly with others responsible for how we apply what we learn from the result.

    3. Failure to develop a measurement culture in Staffing. Too much data is missing. Too much “gut feeling”. No discipline in collection methodology. Too many “wows” without support. Survey after survey based on “perception” of what is effective or efficient w/o demanding any proof of those beliefs. We need to all stop, pull back and be better BS detectors.

  9. 2016 candidates promise all manner of social change by their own pen. This is the harm that ex-Presidents have done with abuse of Executive Orders, Signing Statements, and such. Few have mentioned working with Congress to create a government which works for the people. It is as if the Administrative State we’ve created seeks its newest temporary leader to change the way America works….damn the Constitution.

    It’s probably how Hitler came to power, how dictators come to power in nonviolent takeovers, and America, a democracy in name only, is not immune to the effect.

    Create the opportunity for an all powerful head, and many will scramble to ascend that hill to be at the pinnacle of that power. Anyone and everyone wants to be the all powerful oz with a magic wand/pen to command planet earth. But that is not the way American founders envisioned democracy and how it would work.

    If we use populsm, people power, money, and passion to undermine the Constitution, nothing is there to save it. It is completely defenseless, being simply a piece of paper. Ideals alone don’t produce justice, equity, or productivity, but conflict any of those, and democracy as envisioned cannot succeed. That is the importance of three powers of government meant to work for the people, by the people, and of the people, not corporations. Leadership is as leadership does!

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