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Lengthy recruitment processes could be pushing candidates away

Over-long recruitment processes are a waste of time and energy for both employers and candidates and can drive talent away, finds Peter Crush.

It was all going so well. An all-expenses paid flight to Paris for meets and greets? No problem. An initial round of interviews? Sure. Follow up calls? Fine. But how quickly things soured.

“Three interviews turned into six, which turned into nine, and by the end of it, a marathon 13 stages,” says Sylvana Storey, and external consultanct to McKinsey, recalling one particularly enervating job hunt in 2022. “When I started being interviewed by people I wouldn’t even work for, I was bemused, confused but ultimately became angry. I didn’t get the job. But by then I didn’t want it.”

All-told Storey recalls having a staggering 72 job interviews across 2010-11. But more staggering than this is the fact this huge number was shared among just five employers, meaning she averaged 14 stages each time.

The longest – 17 rounds for a role at Goldman Sachs – was so convoluted, she actually dropped out.

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The jobs she was going for were senior level ones, but Storey still says the hoops she had to jump through were excessive. And the problem is that evidence suggests her experience is increasingly common – and at all levels. 

Everyday, Reddit’s Recruitinghell thread sees scores of dissatisfied jobseekers bemoaning what seems like never-ending selection stages for even entry-level roles. In 2021 software engineer, Mike Conley, wrote a LinkedIn post that went viral (nearly 3 million views and 20,000 comments of support), berating the nine rounds expected to him. “I did not want to be part of a system that is this taxing on candidates,” he opined.

With the evidence suggesting incessant interview stages demotivate talent to the point of them departing the process, it’s odd the problem only seems to be getting worse. So why is this, and why now? 

According to Daniel Callaghan, CEO at pre-employment screening firm, Veremark, there’s a very good reason never-ending interviews are rife.

He says: “We’re in a perfect storm of worry. Hiring has always been risky but with tight budgets and an uncertain landscape ahead, the ramifications of a bad hire are even worse. Recruiters are just terrified of getting it wrong.” 

James Allen, founder of Creative Huddle, says: “To avoid these ramifications, firms are opting for ‘safety’. Risk aversion is taking over. They want to be doubly sure their hire will fit in and are stringing out the process to try and guarantee this.”

The trouble is, this doesn’t work. When the once interview-intensive Google famously interrogated its own hiring data, it found four interviews was enough to pick the right person with 86% confidence. Each successive interview only yielded an additional 1% confidence of fit. 

“HR professionals have known for years that interviews correlate the least with identifying the right person,” says workplace psychologist Linda Folan, managing director at Inspired Development.

“They tend to favour narcissists, while assessment centres weed them out. By now going overboard with more stages, to make 150% sure – and possibly to justify their own jobs – it’s plain wrong. We’ve got to say ‘stop!’ 

“Organisations seem to be embedding multiple stages in, such that getting rid of them is now harder than leaving them be.”

Folan is particularly critical of HR directors, because she says it shows they haven’t recognised how the war for talent has changed. “HRDs could justify having lots of processes when it was an employer-led market, but they’ve forgotten to get rid of them when it’s an employee-led one,” she says. “Good talent will go elsewhere, following the path of least resistance.”

Grumblings about unnecessary stages are particularly vocal from recruitment agencies too. Much as they try to push back against ever-more laborious interview processes, they say they’re not being listened to. 

Alex Dick, CEO of search company Alexander Lyons Solutions says: “In the last year or so, clients are definitely putting more and more barriers into what was once a smooth process. 

“No recruitment consultant worth their salt should be agreeing that six-plus interview stages adds any value.” 

Jan Colligan, regional director at Gleeson Recruitment adds: “It’s becoming a merry-go-round, and it’s definitely got worse since 2022. Greater caution is everywhere, but more stages are not the answer.” 

Oliver Small, founder of IT recruitment firm Required IT, argues: “Even for contractors, who should only need one interview, we’re being asked to do up to four stages. That’s in addition to our own round of initial screening.”

Dick says he’s trying to change behaviour: requesting HRDs justify it if they want more than two stages. But he admits he has had to go nuclear and simply refuse to work with clients if they insist on too many stages against his advice.

Never-ending recruitment in numbers…

  • A 2022 survey by hiring software company, Greenhouse, found 60% of job seekers were “unimpressed by time-consuming recruitment processes.”
  • Google research found that 94% of the time, hiring decisions remained the same whether candidates were interviewed four times or 12 times
  • A Yello study from 2019 suggested that as many as 60% of job seekers lose interest if the hiring process is too long

When even agencies can’t convince HRDs to ditch round after round of selection, some suggest it indicates firms don’t really know what they’re looking for. “Getting applicants in front of an ever-wider circle of stakeholders smacks of not being confident of their organisational culture,” says Karen Beavan, co-founder of Reignite HR, which aims to cut the number stages involved in recruiting HRDs themselves. 

“I often found candidates were guinea pigs, with extra rounds added simply to shape selectors’ thinking about what they wanted.”

One HRD determined not to fall into this trap is Rose Stott, head of people at renewable energy infrastructure company, Field. She says: “We’ve consciously decided that no job should have more than three stages.

“It’s a big ask getting people to commit to more, and besides, we feel that if we’re crystal clear about our needs and have the right process, typically a line manager interview, a practical test and a culture fit interview, that’s enough to establish best fit.” 

Stott says she’s previously worked in companies requiring seven or eight rounds but adds this happens because accountability for the role hasn’t properly been established.

She’s also critical of additional rounds because they invariably add duplication. She notes: “Candidates keep getting asked the same questions, just by different people – and that’s just annoying.”

So, do sceptical HRDs and recruiters simply have to bite the bullet and experiment with fewer steps to convince themselves it works? “A new balance does need to be struck between both parties,” suggests Lewis Maleh, founder of search firm Bentley Lewis who also launched The Recruitment Show.

He says: “It’s prudent of companies to want to find the best fit, and for some this may mean having lots of hoops. But where relationships break down is when the recruiter says ‘just one more stage’ and ‘just one more’. That’s not setting the right expectation.” 

Jordan Lawrence, from tech recruiter MRL Consulting, adds: “More steps doesn’t always mean something’s wrong, but where there is perceived to be extraneous stages, the process needs to be faster, with less time between them.”

Some companies are now adopting an ‘offer-by’ guarantee, a date by which the process will be over. Here candidates can at least see when the process will end. 

“Organisations do instinctively know that if they elongate the process they lose people,” says Nick Allwood, regional director, Macmillan Davies. “We asked our network how many stages they thought were appropriate: 74% said two and only 1% said they’d tolerate more than four. These are statistics HRDs need to take notice of.”

Allwood says he’ll work with clients to try and bunch stages together, or eliminate them entirely, but concedes: “Fear of hiring the wrong person is, unfortunately rife.” 

At a time when AI and technology offers the potential to cut stages, the fact candidates are noticing more seems even more odd. But Linnea Bywall, head of people at psychometric testing company Alva Labs says that’s because testing stages are added to existing stages, rather than replacing them.

She says: “Companies are using tech, but they’re not daring to let go of the old.

“What’s needed is a jettisoning of elements that don’t actually add much value.”

Bywall says she practices what she preaches, using psychometrics to identify candidates who will then only need a maximum of two interviews. Others, it seems, still need confidence that fewer stages won’t mean a lower quality of hire. “If HRDs are not sure after three or four rounds of interviews, then they have to ask themselves, ‘why not?’,” says Callaghan. “Ultimately hiring that drags on and on is a waste of the company’s time, as well as the interviewees’.”  

Case study: Too many hoops?

After three interviews (one by phone, two face-to-face) one presentation and several tests later, George Fryer finally landed his first PR job in 2018. Recalling the experience he calculates he saw half of the entire company of 30 before finally being given the nod. The process took two months. 

“Friends and family thought they were taking the you-know-what,” he recalls, but was Fryer as bothered? Actually, no. He says: “The number of stages provided a sense of comfort – that I’d been so well vetted, I had to be the right person,” he says. 

“I feel it’s saved me from having imposter syndrome. It made me feel worthy; that they really wanted me.” 

He says: “I came from having only done marketing – a sector that you can sometimes bullshit your way in. This process really tested to see if I had the right skills.” 

He accepts his view might be in the minority, but argues it worked for him: “What some may feel was laborious I see as validating me.”


This article was first published in the April/May 2023 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.