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Pre-Screening Candidates: How to Develop a Detailed Process

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As a small business owner, it is exciting when you start receiving applications or resumes for your newly posted positions. As you receive them, you should sort your resumes or applications by which ones you would like to proceed with and which ones you don’t. Then you can start the pre-screening process for those candidates you would like to interview. Create a spreadsheet and list those that you will start pre-screening. This is particularly helpful if you receive many resumes.

According to the Fact Sheet from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you should ensure that any pre-screening tools you use do not violate any federal anti-discrimination laws and they are not used to discriminate based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age (40 or older). Some tests or checks may not be allowed in your state and you should review your state laws as well.

Once you determine what pre-screening tests you would like to perform, you should be consistent with every applicant. Use your spreadsheet to ensure all activities are performed on every applicant.

Once applicants have passed all interviews and you are interested in starting background checks and other tests, you should offer them a conditional job offer contingent on passing all background checks, drug tests, or physicals. You will want to send them a written conditional job offer and ask them to sign and send back to you.

Here are some basic pre-screening ideas you can use in your small business:

Review the Application 

Review each applicant to ensure they meet your requirements you listed on the job description. If a certain skill is required, you should ensure that each applicant has those required skills. Consider investing in an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). These systems help you sort your resumes and provide a variety of other functions to reduce time and paper. Once you have made your list of applicants whom you will be contacting, you should try to reach out to them within 48 hours to start the process.

Conduct a Phone Interview

Phone interviews can give you a quick snapshot of an applicant’s personality, professionalism, and communication skills. Try to keep your phone interview under thirty minutes and have 5-7 quick questions you would like to ask candidates to get to know them and their work history better. Ensure you understand which questions you can ask and which ones you can’t. Again, make sure you are not violating any laws when asking questions and ask the same questions of every applicant. Also, explain your process with each candidate and let them know when they will hear back from you.

Some examples of some questions you can ask:

  • Based on what you know about the position from the job description, what skills and experience do you have directly related to this position?
  • Why are you interested in working for our company? What interests you in this position?
  • Why are you leaving your current job?
  • What is your salary range? You can also give the company’s salary range. Some states now prohibit employers from asking about past salary history to promote equal pay. It is suggested you pay what the job requires and establish a range instead of determining salary based upon what they made before.
  • What do you see as your strongest skills? Biggest challenges?

Also, some employers send out questions in an email before the phone interview. You may want to do this as well, particularly if the position will be an office position. This will help you see their email etiquette, typing, and spelling skills.

Also read: The 9 Items You Need to Include in Your Employee Handbook

Follow-up with References

When checking references, most companies are required to only give start and end dates because of their policies. You should ask your applicants to provide up to 3-5 professional references so that you may contact them. You should have a mix of managers, co-workers, and even subordinates, particularly if you are hiring for a management position. Here are some sample reference questions:

  • What was the candidate’s job title and when did you work together?
  • Do you know why they left the company?
  • What were some of their responsibilities?
  • What are some of their strengths and weaknesses?
  • As a manager, when you gave feedback on their performance, how was it handled? What issues did you see with their performance or behavior?


Conduct Pre-employment Tests

Some types of tests or assessments you may want use:

  • Physical ability tests or physical examinations, which measure the physical ability to perform a particular task (usually used in jobs which require physical stamina)
  • Skills assessments (if you require a skill, then you test to ensure they know the skill)
  • Personality tests and integrity tests (may be used to find out if they are trustworthy, but use with caution)
  • Typing tests or writing tests (may be used to test typing skill or grammar)

Determine if you think your positions require a pre-employment test or assessment. There are many types of valid testing and assessment tools online. For example, if you are hiring for a clerical role, is it important how fast they type or if they can spell correctly and use good grammar? If you are hiring a construction worker, you may need to ensure candidates have the fitness levels required to perform the physical functions of the position. Again, your job description should have listed the essential functions and required physical requirements. Be careful when using personality tests, however, as you shouldn’t use them to make hiring decisions. There are many critics who say they don’t believe they help with hiring and can be biased.

When considering any type of test or assessment, ensure they are valid and legal.

Conduct Background Checks and Drug Testing

Background checks should be conducted once a conditional job offer has been given. Some of the types you can conduct are:

  • Criminal background checks provide information on arrest and conviction history
  • Credit checks provide information on credit and financial history (usually used in banking or financial positions)
  • Drug Testing (usually conducted for positions that require driving commercial vehicles or for operating equipment for safety purposes)

There are many online companies that simplify the process for conducting background checks and drug testing. Determine if your company would like to implement these or if you are required to implement for safety purposes. The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires you to conduct drug tests for positions in the aviation, trucking, railroad, mass transit, pipeline, or maritime industries. You can require all employees in your company to comply with a pre-employment drug test, but again, ensure all applicants that have been given a conditional job offer comply with your drug testing policy. Again, check all federal and state laws if you should or are considering implementing a drug-free workplace.


You should ensure you notify the applicant, obtain written consent, and follow The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) requirements when obtaining any consumer reports, such as background checks. Researching and implementing a pre-screening process may seem cumbersome but once you develop your process, it is very easy to implement and maintain. Also, remember some applicants don’t do well with tests but perform great on the job. Whatever methods you choose, make decisions that are best for your small business and help you recruit top talent.

Author: Kimberley Kay Travis

Kim Travis, co-owner of Travis and Adams Consulting Group, has over 20 years’ experience in human resources and leadership roles.
She has specialized knowledge in employment law, employee relations, recruiting, management consulting, leadership development, manufacturing safety programs, and writing business articles and blogs.


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