How to Adjust Hiring Standards to Increase Your Applicant Pool

May 29, 2007

Part 1 of this article discussed risks associated with arbitrarily lowering hiring standards in reaction to applicant shortages caused by a tight labor market. The article did not say that hiring standards should never be lowered, but that they should be lowered cautiously and systematically. This part of the article discusses methods for doing this.

When a company decides to lower its hiring standards, what it is fundamentally doing is decreasing the concern placed on addressing one or more of the following questions about candidates:

  1. Do they possess the minimum requirements needed to hold the job?
  2. Do they have the necessary experience and education needed to effectively perform the job?
  3. Do they have the potential required to meet future job demands?
  4. Does the job match their work goals?

Relaxing standards around one or more of these questions allows more candidates to meet the selection criteria. The problem is that any change in the hiring process that leads to screening out fewer candidates is also likely to increase the risk that the wrong candidates will be allowed in (assuming you’re using valid selection tools to sort candidates).

The key is balancing the need to increase applicant flow against the risk of making the wrong hiring decisions. This is best done through systematically reviewing the importance and impact associated with changing the methods used to screen applicants based on requirements, experience, potential, and work goals.

The first three focus on how companies evaluate candidates based on whether they have the capabilities needed to succeed in the job. Each of these is discussed below. The fourth category, work goals, has to do with candidates evaluating whether the job fits their needs (covered in Part 3 of this series).


Requirements are things candidates absolutely must possess to even be considered for hire.

Requirements are primarily used to avoid making what I call “catastrophically bad” hires. These are hires who end up costing the company substantial amounts of money. This can result from violating employment laws, hiring employees who engage in counterproductive behaviors such as theft, or employing people whose lack of basic qualifications makes them completely unable to perform certain key job tasks or places them at risk of damaging company property or injuring themselves, customers, or coworkers.

In a loose labor market, companies have a tendency to establish more job requirements than may be strictly necessary because they provide a quick way to screen out applicants. During a tight labor market, companies can revisit these job requirements to make sure that they are truly critical to job performance, and are not just “nice to haves.”

For example, being proficient in English, while often desirable, is not actually necessary to perform many jobs, particularly those that do not require customer interaction (there’s an article on the topic of English requirements in the June Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership).

Even drug screens and background checks can be evaluated to determine whether they’re being used to eliminate candidates based on things that are not necessarily critical for job performance (e.g., removing candidates based on minor convictions that resulted from “youthful indiscretions” that occurred years ago). Removing a requirement does not imply that it isn’t relevant to the job. It just means that it, by itself, cannot tell you that someone is totally unfit for the position.

When you identify requirements that are not necessary, consider reframing them as desired qualifications or removing them altogether. If you determine, on the other hand, that a requirement is critical for a job, then be rigorous and uncompromising in its application to hiring decisions. Don’t allow hiring managers to make exceptions to the requirement. It’s a requirement for a reason. Allowing managers to make exceptions based on individual cases increases the risk of making a catastrophically bad hire and may lead to legal challenges based on inconsistent hiring methods.

Experience and Education

One of the best ways to decrease the size of your applicant pool is to set demanding expectations regarding candidates’ previous work experience and education. Hiring managers are quick to ask that candidates be screened based on things such as “3 to 5 years of marketing experience” or “a BA/BS in Chemical Engineering.”

The problem with using these types of experience and education criteria to screen candidates is they tend to be overly narrow and restrictive, even if they’re job relevant.

We do not hire people for their previous experience and education. We hire them because we assume that their prior experience or education has given them certain skills and capabilities. Keep the following questions in mind when establishing selection criteria based on education and experience:

  1. Why is it important? What capabilities are you assuming candidates will have gained as a result of having certain levels of experience or education?
  2. Are there other ways a person might develop these capabilities?

Challenge hiring managers to justify why high levels of education and experience are needed to perform the job. Remind them that experience itself does not guarantee learning.

High performers may develop capabilities from one year of job experience that other people may not gain from five or more years in the same job. Encourage hiring managers to also consider candidates with alternative types of experiences and education that can provide job-relevant capabilities even if it comes from working in a seemingly unrelated field.

For example, many retail companies consider former schoolteachers to be good candidates for store manager positions. While being a teacher and being a store manager may seem quite different at one level, they actually require many similar types of competencies in terms of planning, organization, and people skills.


We don’t hire people for what they have done; we hire them based on what we think they will do in the future. In a tight labor, however, market-experienced candidates rapidly become few and far between. In fact, learning that a candidate had a lot of experience but was still unemployed in the current market might lead one to ask, “Why can’t this person get a job given their experience?”

There are other ways to assess potential other than measuring past experience. Behavioral assessment tools such as personality measures and ability tests can provide considerable information about a person’s aptitude for different kinds of jobs. These tools often predict job performance far better than evaluations of previous work experience.

But these tools are relatively complex and must be used with care. Using an appropriately validated behavioral assessment will result in systematically increasing the quality of your hires, but a poorly designed assessment can have just the opposite effect.

Making greater use of behavioral assessment tools to evaluate candidate potential can provide considerable advantages during a tight labor market. These tools greatly increase the size of applicant pools by reducing the use of experience and education as the primary means for screening candidates. They also maintain standards around applicant quality by evaluating candidates directly based on their potential for job success.

Emphasizing candidate potential in addition to experience can also help companies attract larger numbers of high-achievement oriented candidates. A common theme among high-performing employees is the desire to find jobs where they can develop new skills.

If you decide to emphasize potential as a key criteria for hiring, prepare your company for the task of managing new employees who have lots of talent but little experience.

The advantage of hiring high-potential employees is their ability to develop. The disadvantage is you have to invest time and resources to allow them to realize their potential. This includes supporting them through the challenges and mistakes that inevitably accompany any meaningful learning experience.

Hiring managers must understand that these are not seasoned employees with extensive experience who can immediately hit the ground running. Some initial time must be spent coaching and training them so that when they start running they are going in the right direction.

Structure Flexibility

The underlying theme in this article is to approach the staffing process with a sense of “structured flexibility.” This begins by reviewing your staffing process to find those things that are having the greatest impact on applicant flow. Then testing how these things might be altered in a way that increases the number of qualified candidates without overly increasing the risk of making bad hiring decisions.

Remember, staffing in a tight labor market should not simply be about lowering your hiring standards. In some instances, you may even decide to increase requirements in certain areas (i.e., potential) while decreasing requirements in others (i.e., experience).

Remember that the goal is not just to increase the number of applicants or decrease the time needed to fill open positions. The goal is to accelerate your company’s ability to hire good candidates.

Tomorrow’s article, Part 3, will discuss one final issue that becomes a major factor when staffing jobs in a tight labor market: how to determine whether your job provides candidates with what they want from work. It also touches on what to do when you encounter the inevitable mismatch that exists between what the job provides and what the candidate wants.

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