How to choose between two outstanding candidates: 10 tiebreakers

You're out the other side of the interview process and you're left with two exceptional candidates. Candidate A has a little more experience than Candidate B, but you've been more impressed by B's responses at interview. In other words, they're neck and neck.

How to choose between two outstanding candidates: 10 tiebreakers

You're out the other side of the interview process and you're left with two exceptional candidates.

Candidate A has a little more experience than Candidate B, but you've been more impressed by B's responses at interview.

In other words, they're neck and neck.

This type of difficult decision is a good problem to have; it's far preferable to having to choose between a handful of poor candidates.

In fact, you could flip a coin to decide which candidate to hire, and you'd be happy with heads or tails.

But we hope that you plan on a putting a little more thought in than a coin-flip into making your final hiring decision!

In today's article we examine recruitment tiebreakers — in other words, the factors you should look at when you're struggling to choose one candidate over another.

#1 - Seek a second opinion

First, double-check there's a tie. You've probably been so wrapped up in trying to make a decision that an outside opinion can be helpful.

Consult a member of staff who hasn't been directly involved in the recruitment process but who still understands what's required of the new hire. Give them access to all the CVs, cover letters, application forms, and interview notes that you have available, and ask them who they'd hire.

You can then discuss their choice and perhaps break the tie and make a confident hiring decision.

#2 - Do the maths

When you first started the recruitment process, you probably produced a list of skills and experience the successful candidate should have (or you'd prefer them to have). This person specification should have formed the basis of the entire hiring process — but if it hasn't, don't worry. Look back at that list of skills and weight their importance. For example, crucial skills could be weighted at four points, and nice-to-haves could be weighted at one point.

Now look back through your top candidates and assign points to each skill or competency they have. Assess each applicant using the same criteria and compare their scores.

If there's no gap (or only a slim one) between their scores, you need to look at other tiebreakers. If there's a difference in their scores, however, then your tiebreaker has done its job.

#3 - Short-term impact or long term potential?

One candidate may be slightly more qualified than the other, but the second candidate has the supplementary skills and drive to succeed that could be more useful to the company in the long term. Think about whether short-term impact or long-term potential are more important to your company.

If you can afford the training costs and initial lower productivity, a candidate with potential will be a stronger choice in the long term. Just be careful you aren't discriminating based on age here — don't assume that an older candidate doesn't want to learn new skills or progress further in their career because of their age.

#4 - Salary

A candidate with more years of experience in a certain role may expect a higher wage than a less experienced candidate, even if their actual skill and competency is similar. In this situation, you may actually choose to hire the less experienced candidate — purely for business reasons. You may have to contact the candidates once more to learn more about what level of compensation they expect.

#5 - Values and Motivation

Knowing what motivates an employee can be the key to keeping them engaged at work in the long term, and reducing turnover.

Similarly, if you understand an individual's values and if/how they overlap with the values of the company, you can start to envisage the candidate's long-term suitability for a role at your company.

Again, you may not have covered this ground at the interview, so you may need to contact candidates again and arrange another interview, meeting, or call.

#6 - Enthusiasm and Communication

Another telling tiebreaker is the candidate's (lack of) enthusiasm for the role and your company. Genuine enthusiasm is hard to fake — at least in person. If you didn't pay much attention to the candidates' enthusiasm at the interview, think back to the questions they've asked throughout the process.

Did they show interest in how the company worked and the minutiae of their potential role? Or were their questions more generic?

How about their follow-up communication throughout the process?

Were they quick to respond to your questions?

Did they send a follow-up email after the interview?

Look at every interaction the candidates have had with your company and try to gauge their overall enthusiasm for the job — this is a strong signal of how driven the employee will be when they start work.

#7 Highly specific experience

In some cases, the job may require the use of particular software or other tools that you might not have even mentioned in the job advert because they're so specific or uncommon. When your two candidates are neck and neck, it's worth asking them if they have any experience of using these highly specific tools. You never know, one of your candidates might have used them in a previous role.

#8 Cultural fit

A candidate with strong cultural fit is likely to excel in your current working environment, because their characteristics, behaviour, and outlook align with those of the team or company. Cultural fit includes values and motivations that we mentioned previously, but looks at other elements too to determine how easily an individual might slot into an established team.

For example, a candidate who likes working in a sociable, relaxed, open office environment might struggle at an organisation with separate offices and a strict corporate culture. We're hesitant to suggest that cultural fit should be used as a tiebreaker, because it can lead to reduced diversity and even discriminatory hiring decisions. Instead, use this tiebreaker alongside other factors.

#9 Your top criterion

If there's still nothing between the candidates even with these tiebreakers, a decision can be made by comparing candidates based on one factor alone. Look through the person spec and choose which criterion is the most significant out of all of them. Maybe it's experience of launching a new product, or leading a large team.

Now compare the remaining candidates solely on this single point. Who's more impressive?

#10 Host another round of interviews

Even if you hadn't planned to, holding an additional set of interviews for the two remaining candidates is likely to break the deadlock. Instead of a repeat of the first round of interviews, switch it up. Hold a phone interview, meet at a cafe or other informal setting, or ask significantly different questions.

Inform both candidates that they're the final two applicants in the process when inviting them to a follow-up interview. This will make them more amicable to an extended recruitment process, and help shape their expectations and questions.

Final thoughts

On the rare occasions that you need to use these tiebreakers, make sure you always document the evidence you used to make your hiring decisions. When recruitment processes are close run, there's a higher chance that the rejected candidate might accuse you of discrimination — after all, they have 99% of the experience and merit of the candidate who landed the job.

Read more: Is Your Hiring Process Fair?