Screening and Evaluating Candidates

Scope—This article provides an overview of the most common and effective tools and techniques employers use to screen and evaluate potential job candidates. It does not cover methods used to find candidates, nor does it focus on recruiting strategies or tactics.


Significant changes in technology over the past decade are having a profound impact on recruiting strategies, with staffing professionals increasingly using social networking sites to source, contact and screen both active and passive job candidates. In addition to a focus on social networking's impact on the staffing process, this article provides an overview of the most common and effective tools and techniques employers use to screen and evaluate potential job candidates. Specifically, the article will cover issues and best practices related to the development of a comprehensive employment application, resume management, telephone and video screening, interview techniques, pre-employment testing, eligibility verification, and background investigations, as well as the legal implications of using such screening tools.

Business Case

Practicing superior candidate management and offering excellent candidate care can help HR professionals select the right person for the job, while ensuring a sufficient talent reserve in the future. Even companies with limited hiring or a hiring freeze can benefit from taking a closer look at their screening and evaluation processes to minimize hiring time and to take advantage of new technology and improved screening and evaluation techniques. See Know Before you Hire: 2018 Employment Screening Trends and Improved Employment Screening Will Make Candidates Happier in 2018.

Tools to Screen and Evaluate Candidates

The processes most employers use to find and select the best talent possible for an open position include the following:

  • Posting open positions on career sites to solicit resumes and employment applications.
  • Pre-screening to eliminate candidates who do not meet the basic requirements of the position.
  • Using a preliminary assessment to screen out those who lack the desired level of skills and competencies for the job.
  • Performing an in-depth assessment through interviews and job simulations to select candidates with the highest potential for job success.
  • Verifying candidates' stated employment record and qualifications.

This article discusses separately each of these stages in the process of screening and evaluating candidates.

Identification of Eligible Job Candidates

A comprehensive employment application and an efficient applicant tracking and resume management system are key tools that enable an employer to identify eligible candidates for open positions.

Employment application

The guiding principle behind any question asked of an applicant (whether in an interview or on the employer's application form) should be the following: Can the employer demonstrate a job-related necessity for asking the question? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) examines the intent behind the question, as well as how the information is used, to determine whether any discrimination has occurred. Therefore, employers should ask applicants only job-related questions. Before asking the question, the interviewer should determine whether this information is necessary to judge the applicant's qualifications, level of skills and overall competence for the position. See Applications: Legal Issues: What commonly asked questions should not be on an employment application? and Guidelines on Interview and Employment Application Questions.

As a general rule, state and federal equal opportunity laws prohibit pre-employment inquiries that disproportionately screen out members based on protected status unless some business purpose justifies the questions. The EEOC and state agencies take the position that the information obtained through pre-employment inquiries should be aimed solely at determining qualifications without regard to criteria based on irrelevant, non-job-related factors. Selection decisions should be well supported and based on a person's qualifications for the position. Accordingly, agencies have viewed inquiries that reveal information bearing no relationship to the job qualifications (e.g., year of graduation from high school, child care arrangements, country of origin) as evidence of an employer's discriminatory intent. Questions regarding criminal history may also be regulated. 

Applicant tracking and resume management

Technology can reduce the time it takes busy hiring managers to screen job candidates. Many companies use an online application process that includes behavioral assessment tools that have been internally validated. The goal is to adopt a robust and efficient hiring system that saves managers time, results in improved quality of hire and drives cost savings through a reduction in paper.

With the new applicant tracking systems, companies are increasingly moving their historically paper-based compliance forms online, creating a number of new efficiencies. When everything is done electronically, all the relevant information is already in the system if there is an audit. This automation also results in cost and time savings by reducing the amount of paper contained in new-hire packets. See Your Guide to Applicant Tracking Systems  and Today's ATS Solutions Go Well Beyond Resume Storage.  

Pre-Screening of Candidates

The pre-screening process typically begins with the review of a candidate's employment application and resume, followed by a telephone interview. A recent trend among some organizations is to use a candidate's social networking profile as a tool in the screening process.

Employment application and resume review

The purpose of an employment application and resume review is to screen out applicants who do not meet the basic requirements for a position (e.g., minimum experience or education, willingness to relocate, salary requirements). While technology has radically changed this step for those using applicant tracking systems, many HR practitioners still screen each resume or application manually. Some ATS solutions provide dashboard-like reporting tools that also support ranking and sorting candidates during pre-screening. See What are some tips for screening resumes?

Telephone interviews

Phone interviews are a quick, lower-cost alternative to conducting a first-round interview in person. An initial phone conversation can give the employer a wealth of information about a candidate's overall communication skills, sense of humor, ability to listen, attitude and professionalism. During the call, employers first try to determine if a candidate has the right education, experience and knowledge to do the job. They also focus on the prospect's motivation for applying for a particular job to make sure he or she has realistic expectations.

A typical pre-screening telephone interview lasts 20 to 30 minutes and includes questions designed to eliminate candidates who are not eligible for consideration. Examples of questions include the following:

  • Is the salary range for this position within your acceptable range?
  • Why are you searching for a new position?
  • What are the top three duties in the job you now have or in your most recent job?
  • What is your highest degree?
  • What do you see as your strongest skills, and what are your key challenges?

Within a relatively short period of time for a minimal investment, employers can decide to schedule a face-to-face meeting or determine that they have no further interest in the candidate. See Tips for Recruiters: How to Conduct Effective Phone Screens and Telephone Pre-Interview Screen.

Use of social media

Online technologies are increasingly bringing once private information to the public sphere. If you type a person's name into an online search engine such as Google, you might pull up a video from YouTube, a profile on Facebook, photos and myriad other pieces of information that are akin to an individual's social "resume." For those born after 1993 who have always lived in coexistence with the Internet, the blurring of lines between appropriate and inappropriate use of this type of information is common. However, for other generations, it may be disconcerting to know that one's personal information is only one click away. When recruiters use online search engines and social networking sites to screen job candidates quickly, easily and informally, they may pull up either a wealth of helpful information or very little, depending on how protective the prospective employees are of their online privacy. In spite of these risks and uncertainties, human resources is increasingly using the Internet as an HR tool.

For example, social media can provide a snapshot of applicants' professional personas. Do they belong to professional organizations? What type of volunteer activities are they involved in? What type of other organizations do they align themselves with? Will they represent the organization well in the community?

SHRM's 2016 survey, Using Social Media for Talent Acquisition—Recruitment and Screening, found that 84 percent of organizations are using social media for recruiting, that 43 percent are using it to screen applicants and that 66 percent are taking steps to leverage mobile recruiting to target smartphone users.

Depending on the privacy settings of the social networking site and what the job candidates actually have on their profiles, hiring managers may be able to view pictures of the job candidates and information about their education, political views, work experience, geographic location, hobbies and interests, as well as the list of people they are "friends" with.

Despite the obvious advantages of using social networking websites in recruiting, staffing professionals should be aware of caveats and possible pitfalls. Key reasons many employers give for not using social networking include concerns about the accuracy of the information gained, invading the privacy of the applicant or creating an inadvertent issue of job discrimination. See The Brave New World of Social Media Sourcing, How to Use Social Media for Applicant Screening, and Social Media Recruiting Has Similar Risks as Word of Mouth.

Preliminary Assessment of Eligible Candidates

Preliminary assessment of candidates can be conducted through in-person interviews, structured panel interviews, video interviews or any combination of the three.

In-person interviews

The three key goals of employment interviews are to find out as much as possible about what the candidates know, to learn how they have applied and tested work skills, and to determine where their aptitudes lie, thereby defining the path of future growth and development. Ideally, each of the 10 to 12 questions interviewers ask during a typical one-hour interview should provide the most insight on the candidates' knowledge, skills and abilities. Scrutinizing interview questions before using them can help improve their strength and effectiveness and ensure that the interviewer and the candidate get the most out of their conversation. To examine the usefulness of each interview question, interviewers should answer the following questions about each one: What is the most likely response to this question? Does that answer give me concrete data that will help me make a hiring decision? If either test falls flat, the question needs work. If both tests fail, the interviewer should toss out the question and start over.

Enabling candidates to share answers with depth and breadth about skills, knowledge and experiences gives a hiring manager much more useful information than using canned interview questions to see if the candidate can give the "right" or "best" answer. Hiring success depends heavily on the ability to assess accurately what candidates can bring to the organization. In addition, it shows how the organization can interact with its newest employees to develop underused skills and provide a level of professional satisfaction that will keep them engaged and happy to continue as productive members of the organization. See Interview Questions to Ask, and Stop Asking and More Employers Moving to Fewer Interviews.

Structured panel interviews

Organizations have become more rigorous and sophisticated in their selection processes. As a result, many companies use a panel interview, particularly for positions considered mission critical. The cost of making a bad hire is high, so employers must ensure that candidates can do what they say they can do. Typically, individuals on the panel plan their questions based on interest or subject area and then divide them so each can interview the candidate. The structured panel interview gives everyone who will have significant interactions with the new employee an opportunity to meet and interact with the candidate at the same time, helping make certain that the group makes the best possible selection. Team interviews are usually less formal than panel interviews, but use the same, multi-interviewer approach. See The Ins and Outs of Team Interviewing and When would an employer use a group interview technique?

Video interviews

Over the past decade, widespread technological advances in teleconferencing, video recording and streaming media have occurred. Video interviewing is most popular with high-tech companies and those in the communications industry, but universities, community colleges, executive recruiting firms and large multinational corporations also use this method. As companies expand their candidate searches nationally and internationally, the popularity of video interviewing is likely to continue to grow.

Video interviewing allows long-distance candidates to be more viable. Unlike conducting a phone interview or reading a resume, a video interview lets the employer observe candidates' body language and how they answer questions; however, its key advantage is a reduction in travel costs and a more efficient use of time for both the recruiter and candidates. See Video is Changing the Picture of Talent Management, Digital Video Upgrades the Hiring Experience, and Your Guide to Video Providers.

In-Depth Assessment

Depending on a particular position, in-depth assessment may be necessary to ensure the individual has the necessary skills and competencies to perform the job. See Prehire Assessment Buyer's Guide.

Pre-employment testing

The purpose of employee testing is to help the employer predict how well an individual will perform on the job. Hiring the wrong people can be expensive, and selection errors can have a negative impact on employee morale and management time, waste valuable training and development dollars, and reduce employee productivity and a company's profitability. According to the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures of 1978 issued by the EEOC, any employment requirement an employer uses is considered a "test." As a result, there is the potential for litigation if a selection decision is challenged and determined to be discriminatory or in violation of state or federal regulations. Therefore, HR professionals must ensure that the selection process—and any procedures related to other employment decisions—are reliable, valid, equitable, legal and cost-effective. See Screening by Means of Pre-employment Testing.

Verification of Candidate

Employers may wish to verify a candidate's prior employment, education, criminal background information and other pertinent data to ensure the candidate is being honest about his or her experience and credentials. An employer may conduct these checks in-house or contract with a vendor, but any related legal requirements in performing and using these checks will ultimately be the employer's responsibility.  See How to Choose the Best Background-Screening Provider and SHRM's Guide to Background Screening Systems.

Criminal background checks

Courts are increasingly challenging employers' use of criminal background checks. The EEOC has stated that "an absolute bar to employment based on the mere fact that an individual has a conviction record is unlawful under Title VII."1 Yet the agency also observed that Title VII does not wholly bar the use of criminal records in employment decisions. Instead, the EEOC has provided a framework for assessing criminal records when making an employment decision.


An employer's consideration of criminal records may pass muster under Title VII if an individualized assessment is made, taking into account the following:

  • The nature and gravity of the offense or offenses.
  • The time that has passed since the conviction or completion of the sentence.
  • The nature of the job held or sought.

See EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Several states prohibit private employers from asking job applicants about their criminal records on initial written applications, requiring employers to wait until later in the hiring process. To ensure compliance, organizations should check the laws in the states they have employees working in. 

Verification of credit history

Employers face a thicket of state and federal laws that govern pre-employment background screening. New state laws restrict the use of credit histories in hiring decisions, and more states are planning similar measures. Employers should check their state laws for compliance. See Multi-state Law Comparison Tool.

Behind the debates lie two fundamental values that often conflict:

  • Employers' rights to maintain safe workplaces and to conduct business without interference.
  • An individual's right to privacy and fair treatment in the job market.

See Can we run credit reports and use them as part of our employee selection process?

The EEOC may decide to enact guidance that prohibits credit reports for employment-related purposes. As a result, employers that use credit reports in their screening processes should consider the risk versus the benefit and identify positions for which a credit report is necessary. If no clear and direct correlation exists between the position and the potential for fraudulent activity, the organization is at risk for a possible discrimination lawsuit.

Verification of education credentials

Not all applicants are honest on their resumes and employment applications, and some may embellish or lie about education. Studies continue to show an increase in the number of discrepancies between education records and information applicants provide. In addition, recent news stories of fraud—from the CEO of a well-known electronic retailer to a cable network television personality—illustrate the risks of false educational records and credentials. Recruiters and employers should verify credentials directly through the educational institution or a background screening service. Many colleges and universities have a degree-verification program or refer employers to the National Student Clearinghouse, which charges a nominal fee for the verification. Another option is to ask the employee to have the school send a certified college transcript directly to the employer. See Background Checks: Why Should an Employer Verify an Applicant's Education? and Verify Degrees and Protect the Company from Resume Fraud.

Verification of prior work performance

Employers may ask applicants to provide information about their prior performance; however, the real issue is whether it is an effective HR practice. Some employers believe that performance review information can determine the type of employee the applicant will become. However, there is no effective way to determine if a performance review is a reliable or valid predictor of future performance.

A more effective practice might be to obtain applicants' written permission to confer with current or former supervisors after making a conditional offer of employment. Supervisory referrals may provide more useful information about the applicants and the types of supervision to which they best respond. Applicants and their supervisors are unlikely to resist this accepted practice. See Background Checks: Can We Ask to See an Applicant's Prior Performance Reviews?

Verification of prior employment and references

Employers must confirm candidates' prior employment to ensure that they have the background and experience their resume or employment application indicates. Some recruiters believe talking to references that candidates provide is not useful since candidates are likely to select individuals with a positive view; however, it is worth the time.

Legal Issues

Most of the legal issues that arise in connection with screening and evaluation involve those related to ensuring background checks and equal employment opportunity. These issues include the need to establish nondiscriminatory criteria for job descriptions and to implement nondiscriminatory strategies for attracting talent.

Screening often involves pre-employment assessments, which are usually standardized devices designed to measure skills, intellect, personality or other characteristics and which yield a score, rating, description or category. However, according to the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures of 1978 issued by the EEOC, any step in the employment process is considered a "test." Thus, litigation may result if a challenged selection decision is discriminatory or in violation of state or federal regulations.

Templates and Tools: Samples



1 EEOC. (Feb. 4, 1987). EEOC Policy Statement on the Issue of Conviction Records under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (1982). 



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