Taming the Paper Tiger: Sorting Resumes and Prioritizing Candidates

Laura Gassner Otting
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Taming the Paper Tiger: Sorting Resumes and Prioritizing Candidates

Most hiring managers follow a similar rollercoaster of emotions at the beginning of any search. First, there is a quiet nervousness that no good candidates will respond to a major expenditure of advertising dollars. Next, feelings of delight and elation as the first few resumes begin to fall in their inboxes. Then, confused fear as the piles of mail, faxes, e-mails and calls keep coming, piling up and up and up. Finally, the lucky ones find relief as they tame the paper tiger and sort through to find those candidates worthy not only of an interview, but possibly even an offer letter.

First, Set Up a System

Even before you place your first advertisement, you need to set up a system that can handle the responses without overtaxing your probably already overburdened staff. Responding to all inquiries reflects well on your organization; not responding eventually gets back to donors and other opinion makers. Having a system in place early will alleviate the strain of back pedaling to rush out late responses, whether or not you are interested in the candidate. Not much looks worse than a letter five months post application telling a candidate that you aren’t interested. Consider using one of the following two form letters for post or electronic delivery:

Thank you for applying:

“Thank you for responding to our advertisement for the position of _________. We are pleased with your interest in this opportunity to join [our organization] and look forward to reviewing your credentials.

A thorough search and serious candidate review takes time; we appreciate your patience. Once we have reviewed your materials, we will contact you as we need more information.”

Thank you for applying but we are not interested:

“Thank you for responding to our advertisement for the position of _________. We have had tremendous response to our initial outreach efforts and are now working to review the many applications we have received.

I regret to inform you that your background, while impressive, does not fit with our needs at this time. However, other opportunities often arise at [our organization] and we will keep your materials on file should anything else seem appropriate for your background.”

Sorting Resumes Winnows the Pile

The vast number of responses to any job opening are bound to be unqualified; some seem not to have even read the position description but just apply with an “insert job here” mentality. That doesn’t change the fact that you still have to sort through every resume that comes across your desk, e-mail or fax.

According to Alison Raby, president of Berkeley, California-based Mariposa Search, “You have to give everyone their due and look at every resume that comes through the door in order to avoid being unfair or prejudiced in any way.” It’s a daunting task, to be certain, but like many experienced recruiters, Raby approaches it logically to winnow the pile of resumes down to a manageable, interesting and qualified few.

Raby explains, “I ask myself ‘What is the one sentence that really describes what my client wants?’ and then I take that baseline, those keywords, and match them to the words on the resumes.” Each position in each organization is unique; some organizations are looking first for degrees, others weigh exposure to a certain mission or population more heavily, and yet others highly value experience managing budgets or staffs of a certain size.

Raby continues, “Once you sort the pile of resumes from 100 or more down to 30 or less, then you can sort by other, more nuanced factors, adding depth to the general questions of budgets or missions by learning more about the context in which the work occurred.” For example, if a development director raised $2 million, examine whether the money was raised from direct mail, foundations, grants, or major gifts. If your organization wants to diversify its funding base, make sure that the money raised came from sources you haven’t already secured; if the majority of your funding comes from the types of sources in which this candidate is expert, the ability to raise $2 million is far less relevant to your organization.

Prioritize Candidates with an “A” List and a “B” List

Cutting applicants loose is difficult when they fall into a grey area of “not perfect, but not wrong.” As a result, beleaguered hiring managers find themselves with too large of a list of the “call” resumes and not enough of the other, far less labor intensive “do not call” variety. To remedy this situation, staffing professionals like Lisa Brown Morton, President and CEO of Nonprofit HR Solutions in Washington, D.C., divide all applicants into an “A” and “B” list and contact the top four to six “A” candidates first. Solutions like this one help the hiring manager avoid wasting valuable time with candidates who are less than perfect for the open position.

The division of resumes for Morton follows another seasoned approach. “Typically, we are looking for connections to our existing needs such as position-specific experience comparable with the needs of the vacancy and experience with the nonprofit sector. If hiring for mid-level manager position, resumes from director and vice-president level candidates are screened out. We also look at resumes that are well-formatted and free of typographical errors. Lengthy cover letters are also a distraction. If a candidate can’t articulate how their experience matches with the requirements of the position in two paragraphs or less, we often move to the next one.”

Use a Rolling Admissions Process

Resumes will trickle in for months. Do not wait for critical mass to begin calling, should you find an “A” list candidate among the early responses. As long as you feel you have enough candidates to make strong comparisons, get on the phone and start dialing. A good candidate is a good candidate, and likely will be applying for more than one job. Standing on ceremony, or getting trapped in the bureaucracy of a sorting system, will put you at risk of losing that “A” lister to another search.

FIVE PEARLS OF WISDOM: From 100 Candidates to 10 Finalists

Avoid getting buried in paper. Use these five shortcuts and their questions to reduce the resumes in your inbox to a manageable number:

  1. Look at the Current Job: Does the candidate work in a similarly complex organization or mission area or have a title connoting parallel or like responsibilities? Have they been in their current job for a decent amount of time?
  2. Determine the Degrees: Do the dates and levels of degrees lead you to believe the candidate has the right amount and focus of experience or training? Has there been the necessary or appropriate ongoing training or education?
  3. Scan for Numbers: Do the budgets or staff sizes managed prepare the candidate for success in an organization of your size? Do the amounts of money raised match your needs? Does the size of the program or grant portfolio enable them to make the leap to your program or grant portfolio?
  4. Examine Tenures and Job Switching: Has the candidate worked in one organization his/her whole career? Has s/he not stayed with an organization long enough to bring about change? Is the movement endemic to the field or abnormal and questionable?
  5. Search for Keywords: What are the five “must-haves” for this candidate to succeed in the job? Do those words key to your job description match the words in the candidate’s resume?