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Screen Candidates to Find the Elusive Needle in the Haystack

Screen Candidates to Find the Elusive Needle in the Haystack

By: Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer and Scott Schaefer, authors of Roadside MBA: Back Road Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives and Small Business Owners (Business Plus, 2014)

Screening candidates, whether it’s reviewing résumés, conducting interviews, or checking references, is costly. Time spent interviewing candidates is time that a small business owner isn’t spending on other essential activities.

Hence, it’s important to minimize the cost of employee screening when possible, and also to balance the cost of screening against the benefit of making better hires.

Recruit by Playing Hard to Get
At Southside Family Fun Center, Richard reduced the cost of screening by playing hard to get. That is, he set up small hurdles that an applicant must overcome in order to have his or her application receive consideration.

Note first that Richard required applicants to apply in person. This might well be a hassle for applicants -- especially compared to an online job application process -- but this is precisely what Richard wants.

To see why, imagine two potential job applicants: one who knows that she’s a good match for Richard’s job and stands a good chance of getting an offer, and another who doesn’t care much for bowling or cleaning and figures he’s a long shot to get an offer.

The first applicant is needle, and Richard very much wants her to apply. The second, though, is just hay, and more hay in the stack means more costly screening work to identify the good candidate from among a mass of résumés.

Richard would prefer that the second simply not apply.

Ask More of the Applicant
The key to this logic is that job seekers compare cost and benefit when making decisions about what jobs to apply for. A person who has little chance of getting an offer won’t bother with the hassle of applying. If, on the other hand, that same person thinks she’s a great fit for this job, then the hassle cost probably won’t deter her.

A small hassle cost of applying deters hay more than it does needle and means that Richard’s overall pool of applicants is tilted a bit more toward better candidates. Note, however, that Richard still got 176 applications (likely attributable in part to the high local unemployment rate).

How could he work through this pile of paper efficiently? Richard described his next step: “We put right on the ad ‘Bring a pen,’ and the first five through the door didn’t have a pen. So I just said, ‘How do you expect to get a job when you don’t pay attention to the rules?’ People just scattered. At the end of the day, there weren’t but five that we were interested in talking to.”

How to Play Hard to Get
Surely Richard had pens sitting around the bowling alley back office; this is not about the pens. Instead, Richard is putting up a second hurdle. To receive serious consideration, an applicant had to read the ad carefully enough to know to bring a pen. Again, this is precisely the sort of small cost that will tilt the pool in a favorable direction.

The applicants who think they are a good match for the job will be more fastidious in reading instructions than those who think they are a long shot. The play-hard-to-get strategy works by giving serious applicants the opportunity to separate themselves from the rest by incurring small costs that demonstrate their belief that they’re credible candidates.

By playing hard to get, Richard was able to reduce his pool to a manageable five, and it was this group that received a full résumé review, interview, and reference check.

It’s often counterintuitive to managers when we encourage them to play hard to get. If I’m serious about hiring, people wonder, then why would I want to discourage applications? The answer is that it’s always good to deter applications from bad matches; the last thing you want is a bigger haystack when what you need is that one elusive needle.

And while Richard’s hiring problem was indeed difficult, he did catch one break: “We had a few people come in that day wearing pajamas,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. None of these individuals made the second round.


Excerpted from the book ROADSIDE MBA by Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer, and Scott Schaeffer. © 2014 by Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer, and Scott Schaeffer.  Reprinted by permission of Business Plus.  All rights reserved. 

Author Bios:
Michael Mazzeo
is an associate professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Paul Oyer is a professor of economics at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Scott Schaefer is a professor of finance at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. More at Roadside-MBA.