Shortlisting is a crucial stage within the recruitment process in which employers are required to identify the candidates from their applicant pool who best meet the essential and desirable criteria for the job opening in question.

Rising unemployment levels are putting greater pressure on the recruitment, selection and shortlisting process. Employers are now handling increasing volumes of applications, with varying calibre and experience of applicants who, due to the current economic challenges, are applying for a broader range of roles. In addition, the growth in remote working means geographical limitations are being removed and people are applying for roles with organisations based ‘further afield’.

There are, however, important legal considerations to take into account when approaching the shortlisting process, not least avoiding issues of unlawful discrimination against applicants.

Below we look at the shortlisting stage of the recruitment process in more detail, including the basic but essential principles of shortlisting, what a shortlisting process should look like and how not to overlook the best candidates.

Basic principles of shortlisting in recruitment

Whether you are the owner of a small firm, the head of a department in a larger organisation or part of a human resources team, finding a candidate who is the right fit for the business can be both time-consuming and challenging.

That said, by understanding the basic principles of the shortlisting process, this can help you to shorten the time taken between ‘sift and selection’ to appointing the best candidate for the job. In particular, you should have regard to each of the following three essential shortlisting principles:

  • Equality and diversity
  • Objectivity
  • Fairness

Equality and diversity

Before embarking on the shortlisting process, it is incumbent upon you to first understand the basic principles of recruitment and selection in the context of equality and diversity. In particular, you should be mindful of the protected characteristics as set out under the Equality Act 2010, namely, age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, as well as sex and sexual orientation.

By way of example, a gap in someone’s employment service may be due to long-term sickness. By taking this factor into account, and by allowing it to affect your decision-making within the shortlisting process, this could be construed as discriminatory. Equally, where an application is handwritten, this may be linked to an applicant’s disability.

Objectivity

During the shortlisting process you will be required to sift through multiple applications, assessing each applicant against the shortlist criteria. This must be done objectively at all times, without allowing other aspects of the application, or your perception of the applicant, to impact on your decision-making.

By failing to objectively stick to the shortlist criteria, allowing other factors to influence your decision, you may, albeit inadvertently, be acting in a discriminatory manner. You may also erroneously shortlist candidates who are not the best qualified, whilst inadvertently screening out suitable candidates that meet all of the specified criteria.

Fairness

Throughout the shortlisting process you should endeavour to be fair and unbiased. To avoid any unintended or unconscious bias, the ‘sift and selection’ process during shortlisting, as well as any assessments and interviews, should be conducted by at least two people experienced in recruiting job candidates.

You should also adopt clear and fair shortlist criteria based on what is essential and desirable to do the job, only rejecting candidates that you deem unsuitable for the role based purely on these requirements.

Once the job role has been advertised, no additional criteria should be introduced into the recruitment and selection process, such that every applicant is assessed on the basis of the same factors throughout.

Legal risk when shortlisting candidates

The importance of effective and fair recruitment should not be underestimated, both in legal and practical terms. Indeed, there are various areas of risk when recruiting a candidate for a new job, from unlawful discrimination during the shortlisting process to inadvertently screening out suitable candidates.

It is unlawful to discriminate against someone by reason of a protected characteristic, in other words, to treat them less favourably than someone who does not possess the same characteristic.

In particular, you will need to ensure that your criteria for shortlisting does not discriminate, either directly or indirectly, against any legally protected classes of applicant. It is also crucial to apply your criteria consistently, fairly and objectively across all applicants, regardless of their gender, race and so forth.

Additionally, albeit with limited exceptions, under the 2010 Act you are expressly prohibited from asking job applicants questions about health or disability during the early stages of the recruitment process, thereby minimising the risk of disabled applicants from being unfairly discriminated against.

Whilst health and disability questions can be asked to determine whether any reasonable adjustments need to be made to enable a disabled person to participate in an assessment, or to attend an interview, you must ensure this information does not negatively impact on any shortlisting decision.

In addition to the legal risks, your shortlisting process may also pose a number of practical issues for your business, not least in losing a potentially ideal candidate though either overly stringent or unsuitable shortlisting criteria, or inadequate and ineffective methods commonly used to apply that set of criteria.

In particular, the use of software systems in the shortlisting process, especially those that use automated keyword matching to screen resumes, has limited functionality and can easily lead to distorted results.

Needless to say, relying solely on technology, and absent any experienced and trained recruitment personnel, your shortlisting process is likely to fall far short of what is legally and practically required to select the right candidate for the job.

What is positive action in the shortlisting process?

Notwithstanding the legal risk of unlawfully discriminating against applicants by reason of a protected characteristic as identified above, there are certain steps that an employer can take in the shortlisting process to actually assist people who share a protected characteristic. This is known as taking positive action.

Under the 2010 Act, it is entirely lawful for an employer to take positive action to assist people who share a protected characteristic and who are disadvantaged by reason of that characteristic or under-represented in the workforce. By way of example, an employer can lawfully offer a guaranteed interview scheme for disabled applicants who, having met the minimum shortlisting criteria, will automatically qualify for interview.

That said, although the statutory provisions relating to positive action will allow an employer to recruit a candidate by reason of their protected characteristic who is of equal merit to another candidate, positive action does not allow an employer to appoint a less suitable candidate just because that candidate has a protected characteristic that is under-represented or disadvantaged.

It is also important to bear in mind that positive action is entirely voluntary. There is no legal requirement for an employer to apply the provisions relating to positive action, either in the context of recruitment or otherwise.

What should an effective shortlisting process look like?

To help make the shortlisting process a little more manageable, the following practical steps set out below provide a good starting point, namely:

  • Determine the length of your shortlist
  • Determine your shortlist criteria
  • Create a shortlist scorecard
  • Rank candidates against that scorecard

Determine the length of your shortlist

You will first need to decide how many candidates you want to shortlist for interview. This will create a target when sifting through the applications, and will ensure that you are not left with too many, or too few, candidates to assess.

When deciding on your shortlist length, you will need to have regard to how much time you will have to interview these candidates, and what has worked well in the past, possibly even factoring in the average conversion rates in your own recruitment and selection processes.

There is no ideal number to shortlist to get a successful hire, nor is there any legal minimum or limit on how many people you can interview. Equally, even with a pre-determined number in mind, you do not need to be confined by your shortlist number and miss out on a potentially good candidate in consequence.

Determine your shortlist criteria

Having determined the target length of your shortlist, you will next need to decide on the key criteria that you feel is necessary for the job role, although these should, at least in part, have already been captured within the job description and person specification as advertised.

Typically, any shortlist criteria should be correlated with job performance rather than personal opinion, based on the qualities and traits of top performing employees currently in a similar role. Your criteria should also be categorised into what is ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’.

Essential criteria are those that a candidate must meet to be considered for the role, ie; ‘must-haves’, such as qualifications and experience. Desirable criteria, on the other hand, are those that would make someone a stronger candidate for the role, such as professional certifications.

Create a shortlist scorecard

The next stage in the shortlisting process is to take the essential and desirable criteria you have identified above and create a shortlist scorecard for your pool of candidates. The purpose of this scorecard is to assign a rating to each of the criteria for every screened candidate.

By way of example, if you are hiring someone for a retail sales role, your scorecard might include: education level, retail experience, customer service experience and communication skills, where you would provide a score of say 1-3 based on how well they fit a particular criteria.

Having a shortlist scorecard serves two purposes: it ensures you are applying each criterion fairly and consistently across all candidates, where candidates are assessed against the selection criteria and not against each other, and also allows you to easily and objectively identify and rank the strongest candidates.

Rank candidates against that scorecard

Before ranking candidates against your shortlist scorecard, you may first want to screen and reject any applications that are missing the essential criteria. With a large number of applications, you may even need to reject the ones with the fewest desirable criteria. Only once you are somewhere close to your target shortlist number should you rank remaining candidates against your scorecard.

In some cases, if you have more candidates on your shortlist than you need, you may want to consider other eliminating factors. That said, whatever your reason for removing someone from your shortlist, you will need to make sure that your reason is not connected to a protected characteristic.

One possible way of addressing the problem of too many candidates is to introduce a further screening aspect into your shortlisting process, for example, a short Skype chat or phone call prior to interview. Again, however, you must ensure that any decision to remove someone from your shortlist is not related to a protected characteristic revealed through any form of direct communication.

What should shortlisting criteria include?

Your shortlist criteria should be carefully drawn from your job description and person specification based on both essential and desirable requirements. To improve the quality of the pool of applicants from which you will be able to select suitable candidates, you must ensure that the criteria is specifically tailored to the role in question and the needs of your business.

In very broad terms, however, shortlist criteria should include the following:

  • Education – this will refer to the minimum entry requirements, such as a degree with a minimum classification.
  • Work experience – this could either refer to experience in a particular industry, or a specific field, such as managerial or retail experience.
  • Skills and knowledge – this will usually include job-related expertise, for example, data analysis and project management.
  • Personality traits – these include things like problem-solving, good interpersonal skills or the ability to work effectively as part of a team.
  • Competencies – also described as aptitudes, these refer to special abilities for doing certain things, such as a head for statistics or artistic talent.

As explained above, it is important to bear in mind that any criterion used during the shortlisting process does not discriminate against any legally protected categories of applicant. By way of example, it is better to set out the type of experience needed, rather than ask for a certain number for years that could potentially discriminate against an applicant by reason of their age.

Further, on one final legal note, it is essential to bear in mind the importance of protecting an applicant’s privacy under the new GDPR rules, by making sure only authorised people in the shortlisting process are able to access and assess an individual’s personal data – either based on the shortlisting criteria or otherwise.

Shortlisting process FAQs

What is shortlisting for a job?

Shortlisting is a critical stage in the recruitment process where employers identify candidates from the applicant pool who best meet the essential and desirable criteria for the job opening in question, and invite them to the next stage of the recruitment process.

Why should multiple people be involved in shortlisting?

To avoid any allegations of bias or complaints such as discrimination, it is advisable that more than one person contributes to the shortlisting process.

How many candidates should be shortlisted?

This will depend on the role, the location and the number of applications received, among other factors.

Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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