Making The Most of Pre-Screening Tools

Online pre-screening tools seem to be the latest “buzz” in the e-Recruiting marketplace. They are becoming a standard feature on ATS systems, job boards are beginning to offer them as add-on options, and many of the “front-end” recruiting systems include pre-screening as a key feature. What do these tools really mean for you, the recruiter? And are they worth the investment? First, to fully understand the concept of pre-screening I recommend you read (if you haven’t done so already) the recent ERE articles by Charles Handler. He currently has a three-part series going (Part One, July 24 and Part Two, August 10). Part Three will be out sometime in September. In his articles, Charles clearly and succinctly defines the differences between screening based on background information and qualifying questions (“non-scientific screening”) and screening based on data-driven assessments that measure critical job-related competencies (“scientific screening”). Most of the tools commonly used today are non-scientific. Regardless of their level of scientific validity, when used to their fullest capacity, these tools solve a common problem recruiters have today – they help save time. They act like your personal sourcing assistant and can be highly effective in streamlining the front end of the recruiting process. Basically, these tools take the information provided by the candidates via resumes and qualifying questions and sort them into “piles” based on the criteria you, the recruiter, have supplied. They allow you to gather additional pertinent information on the candidates that might not be available through a resume alone and to review that information in a more efficient sequence than was otherwise available. Aside from some additional reporting capabilities the end result brings you no farther into the recruiting process than to help you create a “priority sorting” of the order in which you should review potential candidates. Some systems have more ranking and sorting features than others, but basically they all serve the same purpose. I am not minimizing the value of this because when the inputs are created to capture the right information, their value is immeasurable. The highest potential candidates can be contacted on a more timely basis and the level of interview questions can quickly move beyond the basics to more substantive probes. Cycle time and cost per hire are reduced, as well as the level of stress associated with this part of the recruiting process. I would not implement an ATS or front-end system that did not have this feature available. So what do I mean by “used to their fullest capacity” and “when the inputs are created to capture the right information”? I think that recruiters sometimes forget that recruiting technology cannot manufacture more qualified candidates and that the quality of the pre-screening is directly related to the inputs they provide. These are the keys to success. System outputs (results) are based on two types of inputs, one you can control and one that you cannot. The controllable input is the attention to detail you place on defining the criteria by which you measure the candidates. The uncontrollable piece is the level of accuracy by which the candidate answers the questions. Some systems only allow you to ask one set of qualifying questions for all candidates, regardless of the position for which they are applying. I am not a huge fan of these; however, if you currently do have a system like this your objective should be to view it as a “screening out” tool rather than a rating or ranking tool. Your questions should be those questions that would absolutely rule out a candidate from being considered by your company. Typically these may relate to visa status, minimum education levels, relocation requirements, salary requirements, etc. These are only helpful in sorting your submissions into two piles, “can consider” and “cannot consider.” Systems that allow you to ask a separate set of questions related to each position can be utilized in several ways. Prior to creating any qualifying questions, you need to determine the approach you want to take. There are two schools of thought. The first is to ask questions very specific to the position for which the candidate is applying. This allows you to quickly create the short list for that position, but may not allow you to gather additional information that could be pertinent to other potential positions in the company. The second approach is to ask more general skills-related questions so that your database is populated with more targeted information on the candidate than can be gleaned from the resume alone. This will allow you to do more comprehensive searches on your database for a variety of positions. My recommendation is actually a hybrid of the first two. Limit your number of questions to no more than 10. Ideally less than seven are best. Candidates tend to get “cranky” when they have to fill-out in-depth questionnaires with every resume they submit. The first three to five questions should be very specific to the position for which the candidate is applying. The remaining questions can be more generic skills-related questions that could apply to success at several positions within the company. The result will be a clear filter for that position with additional information that can be used in a database search for uncovering qualified candidates for other positions. Defining the criteria by which you measure the candidates is the most critical factor to your success in using these screening tools. These first three to four questions should be those that will help you determine whether or not you would want to have a phone conversation with the candidate. Once you’ve set the appropriate criteria for determining the worthiness of contacting the candidate, additional questions can be probed via a one on one conversation. Defining these “telephone contact worthiness” criteria is based on your understanding of the position. You need to determine the absolute must have skills. These skills criteria set the stage for creating the qualifying questions and weighting of importance for each question. For example, if you are looking for a software developer that has had experience in developing and testing Internet security software for the securities industry then you need to determine if securities industry experience is a must have or simply a nice to have experience. Is financial services industry experience acceptable or is any Internet security software experience acceptable? Sounds simple enough and even very logical, right? Wrong! What makes it so challenging? Recruiters typically receive the requisition and job specification information via email, which often does not highlight the most essential priorities. Pinning down the hiring managers to commit to the must-have criteria is about as easy as getting a child to choose between having Christmas with lots of presents or going to Disney World for the first time. To help, I always schedule 15 to 30 minutes with the hiring managers to determine the “must have” versus the “nice to have” criteria and educate them on the pre-screening tool I am using. Once they understand what I am trying to accomplish, it is usually easier to define criteria. When managers want “Christmas and Disney World” I typically use the tactic of saying things like, “So what you are telling me is that if the candidate has Internet security experience and has not worked in the securities industry but has worked within banking, you do not want to interview him/her.” If they definitively agree then I know the hurdle. It they start to back peddle, I know I need to probe the criteria further. It’s doable but challenging and extremely important to your level of success with pre-screening tools. In this case, if I determine that securities industry experience is highly desirable but other types of financial services are acceptable then I know I need to ask two questions related to industry experience. The first is to specifically screen for securities industry experience and the second is to screen for financial services industry experience. By breaking it into two questions, rather then trying to capture this essential criteria in one question I can set my first filter at securities industry and my second filter at financial services. I take this detailed approach to developing questions for all the essential skills on which I need to screen. Choosing the type of question to ask is also important to the type of result you will get. Some systems only create skills lists allowing the candidate to rank themselves on number of years of experience and proficiency. These are becoming obsolete. Most now allow you to ask questions in various formats: yes/no, multiple choice, true/false, short and long answer, or matching. If you have this type of system, the key to success is in the type of question you ask. Using the Internet security software developer example from above, if I want to first filter on those that have securities industry experience, I will probably choose a yes/no question for this: “Do you have Internet security software development experience within the securities industry? Yes or No?” My next question might be: “What other financially related industries do you have Internet security software development experience?” This could be a multiple choice where they can check all that apply. It would also include a selection for none of the above which would be the “rule out” criteria. By using this and other “key criteria” filters related to this position, I can easily sort and rank the responses without needing to review every resume to find the few that meet my criteria. When written appropriately, I will also be able to “loosen” my criteria by changing the weighting of importance to the questions asked. In this example, if I don’t find enough people with securities industry experience, I can re-weight the questions so that the 2nd question has a higher importance level. Need help? Ask the vendor for some training on how to write questions that will maximize the quality of response based on the mechanics of their algorithms. Their customer service personnel should be trained on helping you with this. To summarize, when using pre-screening tools to assist with the front-end of the recruiting process consider the following:

  • Understand your system capabilities to determine your maximum utilization.
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  • The quality of output is directly related to the quality of input.
  • Separate your “must have” criteria from your “nice to have” criteria.
  • Determine the type of question that will deliver the most accurate results: yes/no, multiple choice, etc.
  • Recognize that these tools help you get to the “short list” faster and do not manufacture qualified candidates.
  • Take the time to educate managers on their purpose and usefulness so that they know what type of information you need to right effective qualifying questions.
  • They are absolutely worth the investment as a cycle time, cost per hire and stress reduction tool.

Use them!

Karen Osofsky ( is a co-founder of, an e-recruiting consulting firm that provides outsourced recruiting solutions to rapidly growing companies and new ventures. The firm provides a broad range of recruiting consulting, sourcing, screening, and strategy development services to help companies manage the front-end recruiting process. Tiburon Group is a Certified AIRS Solutions Partner.


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