“Only shortlisted candidates will be contacted” is a standard clause in many recruitment adverts for Brussels-based EU related jobs and traineeships. Even if it is not explicitly stated in the job ad, it is the standard practice. But, is it possible to give better recruitment feedback?
For the employing organisations, it is a way of saving time, as recruiters cannot imagine responding to 150-450 applicants per vacancy. Often, they also sense a potential risk associated with writing replies: whether it be litigation or someone publicising and criticising what they have put in writing.
But at the same time, we all have the experience of how stressful and frustrating it is to be on the receiving end of this “silent treatment”. Writing and sending out dozens of CVs and motivation letters and never hearing back isn’t just detrimental to mental health – it also gives the candidates nothing to work with or improve on.
As we were preparing our traineeship recruitment advert in autumn 2020, Connor Allen released an opinion piece in the Brussels Times entitled “The shameless employers of the stagnant Eurobubble have all but destroyed it”. He argued that the Brussels Bubble job market is losing talent due to the behaviour of hiring managers, such as the refusal to acknowledge a receipt of an application and to inform candidates of the recruitment process results, including “ghosting” those who have been interviewed.
Inspired by the article, we decided to challenge ourselves and see if the recruitment process can be approached differently. After all, changing the world starts with oneself, so we made this recruitment round into an experiment.
The result? Not only did we receive many touching thank-you emails from the rejected applicants, but the process also improved the transparency and quality of our recruitment practice, creating a win-win for everyone.
We aimed for a process that was manageable and straightforward to implement and replicate. What follows is the description of our approach, for anyone who’d like to pick our brains and see if better treatment of applicants is possible.
1. Reduce the number of applications you need to read
The human brain has finite cognitive resources and thus it is impossible to select from among 250 applications in an objective way. As cognitive fatigue kicks in and our brains start losing entries from the short-term memory to create space for the new ones, unconscious biases kick in as a coping mechanism.
Cognitive psychologists tell us that most people aren’t even aware of the short-cuts and rules of thumb that drive them in decision-making. Instead, we tend to retain the illusion of impartiality even though scientific experiments demonstrate time and time again, that this is not really the case.
Thus the first step for us was to significantly reduce the number of applications we needed to read. We decided to offer a relatively short application window from the publication of the advert to the deadline, which meant we started with a pool of only 50 applicants. To make it manageable for the applicants to respond in a short time, we simplified the application process.
2. Provide an unusual instruction that helps to eliminate candidates
We diverted from the standard practice of asking candidates for a CV and motivation letter. Instead, we provided specific instructions on how to apply. We only requested a short email “explaining why you are interested in this internship opportunity and outlining in bullet points your academic, professional, personal and volunteering etc. experience and your skills and interests that are relevant to this role. ”
The reasoning behind this approach? To see who’s paying attention, and who reads and can follow instructions: two quite good criteria to hire your trainee, don’t you agree?
A simple visual scan checking for bullet points (or numbered lists – we were not strict on the format) brought us down to 25 candidates. Now, this is a number of applications to which one can give the amount of attention that they each deserve.
Our advert also stated that “we respond to all candidates who apply according to the instructions provided above”. This served as an additional prompt to pay attention to the instructions and also meant that we now only had to send out 25 replies.
3. Select quality applications using criteria linked to the role
We read the remaining 25 applications in more detail. In setting the pass-reject criteria here, the original instruction continued to be the key (see the bolded text above).
Many candidates provided long lists of their experiences and educational achievements; similar to what one might find in a generic CV. Often these long lists did not make any explicit link to the role applied for or to the mission of our organisation. This simply wasn’t what we had asked for.
We shortlisted for an interview the applicants who gave us points highly relevant for the position and showed the link between their experience and aspirations on the one hand and what our organisation does and stands for on the other. These were usually among the shortest emails we received, containing 5-7 bullet points.
The reasoning behind this? Since part of the traineeship was responsibilities related to communications, it was justified to look at how the information was presented and how succinctly it was summarised. In other words, the simple task asked of the candidates in the application process helped us judge their capacities directly relevant to the role.
4. Consider if the candidate can bring in value but also grow
The final step was the trickiest of them all and as it required a judgement call, it was admittedly prone to error and subjectivity. In our approach to traineeships, we look for the most suitable candidates, but also those whose career path can significantly benefit from their time with us. This is what we consider a good match.
About 3-4 final candidates were eliminated based on this criterion. They had excellent profiles, but their previous roles appeared more advanced than the position we were hiring for. It did not seem that we were the right place for them, as the task-set planned for the trainees wouldn’t offer them an opportunity for the learning and professional development they appeared to require.
5. Better recruitment feedback with a single email to all rejected candidates
The letter to the rejected candidates described these steps, criteria and our reasoning processes, so each recipient was able to make an educated guess at which checkpoint their application must have failed.
We found this approach fairly simple to implement. Although it takes a couple of pages to explain in writing, the process itself took less time than reading fifty CVs and motivation letters. In other words, better recruitment feedback with no workload increase.
What’s more, having to be explicit about our decision-making process forced us to clarify the criteria and in the end, gave us a much higher sense of confidence in the results. (And the performance of the trainees we did hire is a good proof for that).
“Thank you for the transparency and honesty,” wrote back one of the rejected applicants. “I welcome your email and will treasure your comments,” added another.
If you are an employer – please let us know your reflections on providing better recruitment feedback. Do you see the added value of reflecting upon your hiring practice or do you perhaps have your own tips to share?
If you are or have been an applicant – if you believe that employers can and should give better recruitment feedback, please share this article to help us spread the word and keep the discussion going. And let us know your thoughts in the comments too!