What to Do When Two Candidates Are Tied in a Dead Heat

Sometimes, choosing the right candidate for a job is a clear-cut decision — experience, skillset, and cultural fit will align in such a way that turning them down would be downright foolish. But more often, the decision’s not so easy. When your top candidates have similar backgrounds, or are each appealing in their own way, it’s hard to know which one to move forward with.

While you may be tempted to reach into your coin jar and leave the decision up to fate, you have to resist. (It might sound like I’m joking, but I’ve had hiring managers propose it on more than one occasion.) With talent being the lifeblood of any organization, you don’t want to leave the future of your company up to chance or an impulsive, arbitrary decision.

At moments like that, figure out a more objective way to evaluate candidates. Here are a few of my top tips for when you find yourself in that scenario.

Go Back to the Basics — Then Get Choosy

It’s not always that candidates are too evenly matched — sometimes, the initial criteria used to judge them were just too vague in the first place. If you suspect that might be the case, then go back and check the original job posting to make sure that you have your bases covered. If the requirements don’t get much more specific than “results-driven,” “analytical thinker,” or some other equally nice-sounding but vague phrasing, then sync with the hiring manager again. Determine five or six specific criteria that are critical to the position in categories like relevant experience, such as a minimum of 3-5 years in data analysis, and technical skill set, like a working knowledge of Java/C++.

If the candidates are still neck and neck after that, you can afford to get a little pickier. Ask your hiring manager to put the current candidates out of their mind as much as possible and instead imagine a hypothetical dream candidate, and the qualities and credentials they’d bring along with them. This is when things like prior experience within a specific industry, knowledge of a particular tool, or even something as small as a particularly thoughtful thank-you note after an interview can come into play. Once you map candidates against those criteria, picking a winner becomes a little bit easier.

Think Future-Forward

Filling a requisition tends to be very focused on the now. When there’s a gap on a team that only a new employee can fill, conversations with hiring managers often focus on the day-to-day impact of not being adequately staffed. But if all goes well, a new employee will be there for a few years or more — and you need to think about how they’ll fit in with where you expect your organization to be at that point.

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In a year or so, will you substantially add to the headcount of the team you’re recruiting for? If so, you might want to look for a candidate with lots of experience in collaboration or management. Is one of your long-term goals to become a more data-driven organization? Then you’ll want to verify that any new candidate fits into that data & analytics mindset, even if the position doesn’t immediately require it. Wherever you see your company heading, looking at candidates in relation to the bigger picture is not only a great tie-breaker — it’s a way to promote truly proactive hiring.

Leave the Door Open for Future Opportunities

Turning down one candidate in favor of another doesn’t have to be “goodbye” — if you navigate the situation carefully, you can turn it into “see you later.” It’s not always easy to do, but close communication and honesty is the right way to start. When you give a candidate the not-so-good news, let them know what a tough decision it was and how impressed you were by them. Then, share what criteria the decision ultimately came down to, and why you ended up going in another direction. If you think you might be hiring in the near future, let them know when to follow up with you — or better yet, reach out yourself when the time comes. Saying you want to keep in touch and then doing so is a pretty powerful differentiator.

On the other hand, if your company can afford to, you might even want to consider bringing the second candidate on board as well. If your team is experiencing some attrition and you know you’ll be hiring again in six months, staying one step ahead makes perfect sense. A so-called pink unicorn doesn’t come around often — so you might as well get ahold of them while you can.

Having to decide between two candidates, like so many things recruiters are tasked with, is no easy feat. It’s easy to overthink it and stress yourself out or worse, make a hasty decision under the assumption that any choice is better than nothing. But when you slow down and really think hard about what your company needs, both now and in the future, the decision comes much easier. And if nothing else, you can always keep a close eye on your silver medalists — they might come in handy sooner than you think.

Rachel Bitte is Chief People Officer at Jobvite (aka, head honcho of finding and keeping the geniuses who work there). As Jobvite’s Chief People Officer, Rachel brings with her a wealth of HR experience, particularly in the tech industry, with a focus on change leadership and talent management. Follow her on Twitter here.

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