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How to Choose Between Two Star Candidates

A group of people shaking hands at a table in a restaurant.

​It's a predicament that recruiters and hiring managers are happy to have: two highly qualified finalists for an open job.

"Once in a great while, something amazing happens," said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, a global staffing agency and HR consulting firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. "You come across two outstanding candidates whose resumes stand above the crowd. They both interview well. You could see yourself hiring either one of them."

Alex Moore, director of talent acquisition at management consulting and IT services firm Credera, headquartered in Dallas, found herself in that situation recently. "We had this come up for a position we don't hire for often, so it was pivotal for us to choose the right finalist for the role," she said. 

"It's a fantastic problem to have until you realize you literally can't decide which person to hire," McDonald said. "You're paralyzed by the thought of making the wrong choice."

And employers can't wait too long to decide, either, for risk of losing one or both candidates to another opportunity.

But Moore wasn't worried, because her team uses a data-driven, structured interview approach to take the guesswork out of these situations. Everyone involved in the interview and selection process got together to provide their feedback and recommendations on the top two candidates, she said. "We were able to pull out the few key differences in hard and soft skills, as well as nice-to-have qualifications, and we compared this data against the ideal candidate criteria we'd established upfront. We were able to determine which candidate met the most requirements, and this ultimately helped the hiring manager select the top candidate to extend an offer."

Terri Tierney Clark, the CEO of Summit Leadership Advisors, a Phoenix-based consulting company that helps organizations hire diverse leaders, agreed that instead of relying on a gut decision in these cases, employers should think about and weigh each candidate's skills and organizational fit. "When it comes to deciding between two people you really want to hire," she said, "it's time to ask yourself some tough questions."

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Weighing Skills

One way to decide between two great candidates is to look beyond whether their qualifications simply meet the advertised requirements of the job and instead evaluate their skills for priority needs. 

"You need to go deeper than just seeing how many boxes they check off and weigh the importance of the skills," Clark said. "Maybe one candidate for a sales position has six out of seven of the qualifications, and the other has four out of seven but has sales experience with a specific company product. You might decide that the employee with the unique sales experience has a better background for the job than the one who actually has more of the required skills."

In Moore's example, both candidates met the advertised requirements of the job, but one had a unique skill that was a nice-to-have, which made him the right choice.

"Before we start recruiting on an open position, we confirm with the hiring manager the specific skills and experiences a candidate should bring to the table to be successful in the role," she said. "With this information as our guide, we establish candidate evaluation criteria we'll cover in each stage of the interview process. Then, we apply structured interviewing so that each candidate has the same experience and is objectively evaluated using the same criteria. It's been extremely helpful to have everything we're looking for defined upfront and everything we evaluate documented, so when this sort of scenario comes up, we have all of the data we need to compare candidates, apples to apples, to determine who we should offer the job to." 

Evaluating future potential is also key. "Look beyond the requirements for the open position and examine each candidate's potential to grow at your firm over time," McDonald said.

Fitting In

Talent acquisition professionals are debating how organizational culture fit should be defined—whether it's how well candidates get along socially with the team, if their skills complement the group's, and if hiring for culture fit leads to hiring bias and conformity. But there's no denying that hiring people aligned with the work approaches that define an organization is related to new hires' thriving in their job. 

"Beyond thinking about which candidate really 'gets' your company, is excited about your mission and has goals that match up with the organization, you should think more carefully about how each of these people would work in your office day to day," Clark said.

At Credera, assessing culture fit—referred to as culture add—is a big part of the interview process, Moore said. "For most roles, a candidate's ability to demonstrate the behavioral traits that lead to success at our firm are all assessed and discussed before making a hiring decision. We collect data in the form of interview score card feedback that we use in debrief meetings to determine if a candidate aligns well and adds to our culture."

Why Not Both?

You may be able to hire both candidates, depending on the available budget and the structure and needs of the team, McDonald said. "Of course, that's easier said than done, but if you have the means, it's worth considering."

The reason is simple, he added. "Good people are hard to find. The needs of your business can change rapidly, and you may find yourself on the hunt for another hire before long."

If you do select only one candidate, be sure to turn down the other respectfully and stay in touch. 

"Connect on LinkedIn and check in with the person occasionally to pass along news about the company and get updates on their career," McDonald said. "You never know when your next hiring need will arise."


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