HR Tech

By Drew Robb Sep 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, September 2004 Screening For Speedier Selection

If you're overwhelmed by online applicants, ​consider prescreening software.

Layne Buckley, PHR, and Eric Muller both need to hire engineers, and those engineers need to understand electricity. But the recruiters are looking for two very different types of candidates.

Buckley, staffing manager for communications headset manufacturer Plantronics Inc. in Santa Cruz, Calif., wants engineers who can design the electronics for audio equipment. Muller, on the other hand, is recruiting a team leader for the energy firm Southern Co., and that calls for an engineer to run nuclear, coal, natural gas and hydroelectric power plants. Both recruiters have one problem in common: Each has too many applicants to weed through.

“Our recruiters were overwhelmed and couldn’t pinpoint who they should hire for a particular vacancy,” says Muller. “They were victims of their own successful sourcing efforts.”

Buckley had a similar experience. “Since we are near Silicon Valley, some [information technology] jobs have had 400 applicants,” he says. “I have only a limited number of staff, and they can’t be reading that many applications.”

Both companies made some progress in paring back the number of resumes they receive by adding online questionnaires that screen applicants.

Sorting Through The ‘Resu-mess’

Southern Co., which ranks 178 on the Fortune 500 list, has 26,000 employees operating 79 generating stations and overseeing 28,000 miles of transmission lines, as well as handling sales, clerical, financial and other administrative tasks. About one-third of them work in the greater Atlanta area, where the company is headquartered, but the rest are scattered throughout Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. To maintain the required staffing levels, the company must hire more than two thousand new permanent full-time employees each year, Muller says. But to do this, the recruiters have to sort through more than 100,000 applicants.

“Our recruiters were swimming under what they called the ‘resu-mess,’ ” says Muller. Southern Co. was doing online recruiting, but the process wasn’t automated. Each recruiter would post their open positions on the company’s web site with instructions for candidates to send an e-mail to a generic address with the job requisition code in the subject line. The system wasn’t very workable.

“If that code was not in the subject line, the e-mail would go into a black hole,” Muller explains.

But even when the e-mails wound up with the right recruiter, there were major problems. To begin with, some candidates would apply to every open job on the web site, some of which they were legitimately qualified for and some for which they were not. Then, the resumes wouldn’t necessarily list the key information the recruiter needed, such as whether the applicant had worked on a particular piece of equipment. This meant that the recruiters would have to follow up with the candidates to chase down the missing information.

In the late 1990s, the company started looking for a better way of managing applications. It sent out a request for proposals and asked the strongest companies to make an in-depth presentation. These included Southern Co.’s HR information systems (HRIS) vendor, PeopleSoft

Corp. of Pleasanton, Calif., as well as RecruitSoft (now called Taleo Corp.) of San Francisco and Icarian (since acquired by Orlando, Fla.-based Workstream Inc.). In addition to HR staff, technical staff reviewed each vendor for data security. The company decided to go with an application service provider (ASP) model so the internal information technology (IT) group wouldn’t have to support the application. This decision eliminated some other vendors from the running.

Southern Co. selected Hire.com, a privately owned recruitment ASP headquartered in Austin, Texas. Its HireEnterprise suite contains three modules: electronic recruiting, applicant tracking and staffing analytics.

“Hire.com started with a focus on candidate relationships and candidate screening so that companies are not dealing with volumes of unqualified candidates,” says Shelley Schmoker, director of solutions marketing.

Hire.com hosts the software in its data centers in Austin, Texas, and Dublin, Ireland. Users access it through a browser interface. Customers have the option of purchasing just one of the modules rather than the entire package. For example, Southern Co. uses just the recruitment software, while Plantronics uses both the recruitment and applicant tracking modules. The front-end recruiting systems run on an Oracle database running on UNIX, while the back-end applicant tracking uses Microsoft Corp.’s SQLServer running in the Windows .NET environment.

For security purposes, the host provides each customer with a separate instance of the database, rather than trying to restrict access within a common database. Each of the modules has an open architecture and comes with predefined application program interfaces, the link between an application and the operating system or database, for integration with other enterprise systems the customers are using, whether proprietary or commercial HR management systems.

Since Southern Co. didn’t have to install and configure the software at its end, it took only 35 days to get the initial functions up and running. (Additional functions and more in-depth integration were added later.) Muller says the implementation might have been quicker, but some integration bottlenecks at Southern Co.’s end slowed down the process. After that, Hire.com sent in a team to train the recruiters on the software. The two-day process consisted of half a day of briefing, half a day of training, and then a full day of practice on the system.

“The great thing is that it is designed like a public Internet web site so it didn’t really take any training, just a matter of getting used to it,” says Muller. “If you can use [Amazon.com], you can use this software.”

Asking the Right Questions

When someone goes to apply for a job on either Plantronics’ or Southern Co.’s web site and clicks on the jobs link, it takes them to the Hire.com server, though there is nothing to indicate to the applicant that he or she is accessing a different site. There they can set up an account based on their education, job preferences, location, etc., and search for open positions. Applicants can also sign up to receive e-mail alerts when jobs that meet their criteria become available in the future. Southern Co. reports that 60 percent of its job candidates come through this push feature.

The biggest advantage, however, is not in finding applicants, but in narrowing down which ones the company should pursue. Recruiters, after all, don’t have time to read through hundreds of applications for a position. To simplify this, both Plantronics and Southern Co. use the software’s testing functions to prescreen candidates.

Answers to these screening questions can take several different forms, including yes/no, true/false, multiple-choice, numerical or text. Answers can be assigned different weights, and certain answers can also automatically include or exclude the applicant. Based on the responses, the software screens out any applicants who are not qualified and ranks those who do meet the criteria. The key to making this work is determining the exact questions you want answered and how much weight to give to each response.

Here are some sample questions that can be included:

  • How many years’ experience in the industry do you have?
  • In which subject do you have a master’s degree?
  • Are you used to functioning independently with minimum supervision?
  • In how many research studies were you involved?
  • What are your former employers in this sector?

Plantronics had been using Hire.com for two years before Buckley arrived at the company, but it hadn’t been using the testing function. This is his area of expertise, and he established the procedures for crafting questions that would distinguish the most qualified candidates. Plantronics uses, on average, 17 questions for each open position, but these vary from job to job. There is a core set of questions, most relating to software, with project management or people management questions added for any managerial position. Plantronics also asks questions that are applicable to a particular job, such as queries about the applicant’s experience operating a specific piece of equipment or knowledge of a particular field. The style of questions also varies depending on the level of the position.

“When screening senior-level applicants, they know what they know and what they don’t know, so assessing their skills is much easier,” says Buckley. “Lower-level applicants don’t know what they know, so I switch to more of a testing model rather than a self-rating system.”

Setting up such a testing system takes a fair amount of work initially, and hiring managers are often reluctant in the beginning to take the time to work with the recruiters on developing the questions, Buckley says. But over time, the process gets easier as recruiters develop more questions that can be reused, and recruiters refine the questions to produce even more accurate screening.

When Southern Co. started using the recruitment module, it only screened out around 40 percent of the applicants. By refining the questions, the company has increased that to 65 percent. Plantronics sometimes screens out as many as 90 percent to 95 percent.

“By using the prescreening questions, the recruiter can spend time phone screening or following up on the best 10 applicants rather than having to sort through 100,” says Muller.

Successful Implementation

“People tend to underappreciate the difficulty involved with installing one of these recruitment packages,” says Kevin Wheeler, president of Global Learning Resources Inc. in Fremont, Calif., who regularly consults clients on electronic recruiting. “Unfortunately, just as much blame for faulty or slow implementations can be placed on the customer as on the vendor, which is not something that clients like to hear.” Common problems include IT departments that are difficult to work with, incompetent staff, over customization​ and poor-quality HRIS installations, he says.

“A lot of the problems come from trying to make the product fit the current way of doing business rather than rethinking the way they are doing business,” he says. “Putting in these systems requires systems engineering and process engineering.” Wheeler cautions against getting too excited about buying a product with lots of features you may never use. Instead, list the core features that you need and pick the product that is strongest in those areas, he recommends.

“I think that having a system is essential,” he continues, “but almost everybody buys a Mercedes when they only need a Chevrolet.”

Drew Robb is a California-based freelance writer who specializes in technology, engineering and business.

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