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Discouraging Low Quality Applicants

Dr. John Sullivan

Rather than being inclusive, employment staff need to learn to prioritize applicants and proactively discourage people who have little chance of becoming hires or top performers from even submitting an application.

Some other reasons for discouraging applications include:

* High candidate volume slows down the hiring process, which means that top performers with many opportunities will likely drop out before they receive any consideration from your recruiters.

* A high volume of resumes (which require reading and sorting) discourages both hiring managers and recruiters from keeping pace over time.

* Every applicant you accept is likely to call, write, or ask time-consuming questions regarding the status of their application.

* Every applicant who applies and does not get hired increases the likelihood of legal action.

* A large volume of applications requires a sophisticated applicant tracking system.

* High volume distracts you from high value activities, which in turn increases the probability that you will make mistakes where it matters most.


Step back and dream a minute. What if you had an open position for a basketball player and the only people who applied were Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Alan Iverson? Wouldn't it make hiring a lot more fun, while simultaneously limiting the odds of hiring an average or bad player? Since the John Sullivans (Dr. J?), Kevin Wheelers and Lou Adlers are unlikely to ever be hired on your basketball team, why bother with their applications at all?

Unfortunately, almost no firms have an active discouragement program in recruiting. Mostly I find that this is because of an unfounded fear of "being sued," whereas, in fact, the more applicants you actually accept, the higher likelihood of being sued.

If you have the courage to proactively discourage applicants, here are some of the approaches that you should try.


1. DEVELOP A PLAN. Have a plan to discourage a high volume of applications. Which tool or approach you utilize is less important than simply trying something. If it works, do it again. If not, try something else. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to determine which tool is too aggressive for your firm's culture.

2. UNSOLICITED RESUMES. Don't accept unsolicited applications for jobs that are not open now or are not frequently open.

3. SPECIFY A JOB. Make every application target a specific job id. This prevents the "shotgunning" of applications, which clogs the system.

4. LIMIT YOUR URL EXPOSURE. Be careful where you place your career site URL and career ads. Don't place them in general interest publications. Instead, start out by finding out what magazines and sites your top performers use and read (versus average or bottom performers) and then focus your message there. Also, study the demographics of the most qualified people and place ads or job openings exclusively where only the most experienced, diverse, and qualified individuals are likely to read them.

5. REQUIRE IT ALL. Make it clear in your job descriptions and announcements that anyone without certain exact qualifications will be automatically excluded (e.g. 6 out of 7 will lead to rejection).

6. LIMIT SOURCES. Reduce your usage of media outlets that reach broad audiences, like newspapers, job fairs, and large job boards, because they invariably attract a large number of under-qualified applicants. When you do utilize newspapers, for example, consider running the announcement in the business section rather than in the general job section. Also reduce the time overall that the ad appears.

7. LIMIT SNAIL MAIL. Some firms have learned not to put their "snail mail" addresses on advertisements or websites because that means you'll get a lot of paper resumes. Providing a fax number also increases the number of resumes you'll get by fax (do top performers fax their resumes or do they utilize the web?).

8. PRIORITIZE. Prioritize your jobs, managers, business units, and candidates so that your recruiters can focus on the most important jobs and the most qualified candidates, regardless of the volume of resumes in your database or which job "came first" in the queue.

9. LIMIT APPLICATIONS. Limit the number of jobs that applicants can apply for at one time, in order to decrease "job spamming."

10. LIMIT RE-APPLICATIONS. Do not allow rejected applicants to reapply for specified time period, like six months to two years. This serves to discourage individuals who realistically have little chance in the short term.

11. TIME LIMIT. Tell applicants that you keep applicants on file longer, so that they don't continually reapply.


On your website, there are a variety things that you can do to actively discourage the wrong applicant from applying:

1. REALISTIC JOB PREVIEWS. Provide a realistic "job preview" on the website that includes both the good and the bad aspects of the job in order to discourage people who wouldn't like or couldn't do the job anyway. Utilize information from post-exit interviews to identify the negative aspects of the job.

2. DUAL SITE. Split your website into two distinct sections so that applicants for critical and hard-to-fill jobs enter an "application friendly" section, while the rest of the site contains restrictions which actively discourage average and below applicants.

3. DISQUALIFICATION FACTORS. Make a list (with specific numbers) of the disqualification factors that will significantly lower (or eliminate) a candidate's chances of getting the position. Post them on the website as a warning that an applicant will not qualify if they meet any of the disqualification criteria.

4. FAQs. Post frequently asked questions and their answers (by previous applicants) on the website. By providing these answers, you can discourage individuals who would have not applied had they known in advance the answer to their specific question.

5. ACCEPTANCE RATE. Post your average job acceptance/failure rate for applicants so that people know upfront that the odds are very low.

6. LARGE JOB BOARDS. Don't accept applications through large job boards (or limit their use to jobs that don't require top performers), because these job boards can supply a lot of "lazy" active applicants who aren't really interested in your specific company.

7. SALARY RANGE. Post the actual salary range of the job to further discourage people who are unlikely to accept because of salary limitations.

8. PREQUALIFY. Put a pre-qualifying "mini-application" questionnaire on your web site with a few simple multiple choice questions that relate to the job qualifications. Let the computer automatically calculate whether the candidate met the qualifying score, and only then allow the candidate to officially apply.

9. REQUIRE COMPANY KNOWLEDGE. Require a brief test on the background of the company in order to submit an application. This has the effect of forcing them to do research on the company before they can apply.

10. SELF ASSESSMENT. Put automated self-assessment tools on the website (vendors can supply them) so that candidates can pre-screen themselves in or out of the process before it begins.

11. EMAIL ANNOUNCEMENTS. Refine your job opening notification system so that you automatically send out announcements of position openings only to candidates who clearly meet each of your requirements.

12. FEEDBACK LOOP. Gather information on the on-the-job performance of recent hires and utilize that information to further refine your ATS's resume screening criteria so that unqualified applicants are immediately screened out and top candidates are never screened out.


Some approaches you might consider as part of your referral program include:

1. LIMIT THE NUMBER OF REFERRALS. Except in unusual circumstances, accept no more than three referrals per month per employee. Remind employees that the focus is on only a few good people.

2. LIMIT GENERAL ANNOUNCEMENTS. Minimize company-wide referral announcements, and instead focus on the process of asking your own top performers directly to recommend referrals, so that you increase the number of prescreened, pre-sold, highly qualified candidates. Refine your system so that you automatically send out requests for referrals only to top performers and individuals in the specific job you're recruiting for.

3. RESTRICT REFERRALS. Require employees to know the individual they are referring and to provide some basic information on their skills. Only accept referrals from those applicants who meet each of the job requirements. These requirements have the net effect of discouraging referrals from people that the employee doesn't really know.

In addition to the above, the online form you use for referrals should require the following information:

* The specific skills that the individual excels at, as well as their level of performance.

* How the employee knows the individual, as well as what they know about their work results and the quality of their work.

* Whether the employee has specifically assessed the fit of the individual with the company culture.

* Whether the employee has "pre-sold" the candidate and whether they are confident that if the candidate was called he or she would accept an opportunity to interview.

All four of the above requirements are designed to decrease the volume and increase the quality of candidates referred by requiring the employee who's making a referral to acknowledge that they have assessed and pre-sold the individual and to provide information that they would not know if the candidate was only a casual acquaintance.


It's a fact in every aspect of business: Nothing kills quality faster than volume. If you want to have great customer service, you cannot be distracted by a high-volume of average applicants. You have no alternative but to actively discourage applications in order to limit the volume that you must sort and screen.

Rather than hoping that this reduction in applications -- and the resulting improvement in customer service -- will occur naturally, it's critical to develop a plan that has metrics and a feedback loop to ensure that your applicant pool contains a majority of highly qualified candidates, a low percentage of average candidates, and no below-average candidates.


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