how to choose between equally qualified candidates

A reader writes:

I’m hiring for a 3-month position. This is not a long employment commitment, but at the same time it is for a crunch period so the job needs to be done efficiently and effectively.

I’ve narrowed it down to 3 top candidates. Under my current assessment, any of the three would do fine; none is a clear choice above the others. What’s your advice on finding the criteria to make this kind of choice? I could pick one randomly, but I do want there to be reason behind choosing one over the others.

Well, that’s a nice position to be in! Here are three methods to zero in on the best candidate, all other things being equal:

1. Give them each an exercise that will simulate the work they’d be doing on the job. For instance, if you need someone who can write persuasively under pressure, give each candidate a set of talking points and 30 minutes to draft an op-ed. Or if the job involves accounting, send them some sample financial statements and ask them to explain them back to you in plain language. You get the idea – there’s always a way to do a simulation of the job itself. And the results of these exercises can be very telling, often strongly differentiating one candidate from another.

2. Check each candidate’s references and listen to see if one has references who positively rave about her. What you’re looking for here isn’t just a general “yes, she did a good job,” but rather positively glowing reviews. You’re looking for the difference between “I definitely recommend you consider her for the position” and “OMG – she’s the best – I wish we could hire her, but since we can’t, you must.” If a reference raves about one of your candidates and sounds like they’d move heaven and earth to hire her back again, that might be the person you want.

3. Last, really scrutinize what each candidate has accomplished in past jobs. Has one of them gone beyond doing her job perfectly well to really achieving significantly? If one has a track of achievement – taking something from A to B, where B is greater than A – that’s the person you want.

If you do all three of these (or even two of them), you should end up very confident about who to extend that job offer to.

{ 3 comments… read them below }

  1. Sergey Gorbatov*

    “Toss a coin” advice was on the tip of my tongue, and then I figured out that it would be quite unprofessional. Thus, I’ll just limit myself to saying that even though competence-wise the candidates might be absolutely similar, there are many other differentiating factors, which are no less important: motivation, career perspectives, potential, and getting recommendations might prod you in the right direction as well. Good luck!

  2. KellyK*

    For this particular job, I’d also pay attention to how comfortable they are with the fact that it’s a temporary position. Obviously not that you should pry into things like whether they’re married or have some other form of income, but how did they react when that was discussed? If they’re hesitant or uncomfortable about that, and they’re frantically job-searching for the last month of their employment, that might be less ideal than someone who is 100% fine with it.

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