How to choose between two outstanding candidates: 10 tiebreakers

Struggling to choose between two incredible candidates? Here's how to break the deadlock.

Female and male runner wearing red tank tops crouched on an indoor running track.

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

Both candidates have similar levels of experience, and both impressed you with their clever and informed responses to your interview questions.

In other words, they're neck and neck.

For business owners, 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.

You could probably flip a coin to decide which candidate to hire, and you'd be happy with the result, but there's a much better way to decide between two strong job candidates...

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 — plus providing tiebreaker questions to ask yourself to help you decide which candidate to hire...


#1: Get a second opinion

First, double-check that there's actually tie. You've probably been so wrapped up in trying decide which candidate to hire that an outside opinion could be helpful and may break the deadlock quite easily.

Consult a member of staff (two if possible!) who hasn't been directly involved in the recruitment process but who still understands what's required of the new hire — ideally someone senior on your staff or who has experience in a management role. 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 — without giving your opinion first.

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

Tiebreaker question

Which candidate does my colleague honestly prefer, and why?

#2: Assign value to individual skills

When you first started the recruitment process, you probably produced a list of skills and experience that the successful candidate should possess (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.

Tiebreaker question

Which of my two candidates possesses the stronger skill-set, based on the value of those skills to my business?

#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 business.

If you can afford the training costs and initial lower productivity, a candidate with potential will be a stronger choice in the long term, so don't always assume that the person with more experience or qualifications is actually the frontrunner.

Just be careful that 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.

Tiebreaker question

Which candidate would be the more valuable employee 6–12 months from now?

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#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.

Tiebreaker question

Which candidate does it make better financial sense for me to hire today?

#5: Values & motivation

Knowing what motivates an employee can be the key to keeping them engaged at work in the long term, and — together with the overall employee experience you offer — help reduce 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 and whether they'd be a good fit.

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, even if it's more of an informal "getting to know you" chat.

Tiebreaker question

Does this candidate possess similar values to my own?

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#6: Enthusiasm & communication

Another telling tiebreaker is the candidate's enthusiasm (or lack thereof!) for the role — and your company in general.

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 entire process.

Did they show interest in how the company worked and the minutiae of their potential role? Did they talk about things like career progression, the people they'll work with, or any areas that you feel they might need to work on to become a more valuable asset to the team?

On the other hand, did they only ask generic questions about things like pay and whether you'll honour any holidays they've already booked? These are still valid questions, but if these were the only things on your candidate's mind then they might not be the right choice.

Also consider how they communicated throughout the application process: were they quick to respond to your questions, emails, or phone calls? 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.

Tiebreaker question

Which of my candidates showed the most enthusiasm for the role and being a part of the company?

#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 — you'd assumed that you'd have to provide on-the-job training to any successful candidate.

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 and could hit the ground running.

Tiebreaker question

Does either candidate have experience with industry-specific tools, software, or processes?

#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 the values and motivations that we mentioned earlier, but also looks at other elements to determine how easily an individual might slot into an established team.

For example, a candidate who likes working in a sociable, relaxed workplace might struggle in a more formal working environment or a business with 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.

Tiebreaker question

Which of my two candidates would feel most at home at my business and working alongside my existing team members?

#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?

Tiebreaker question

Which criterion on my person spec is the most important to me, and which candidate possess it the most?

#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.

Be sure to 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 — the last thing you want is to lose a strong candidate because they feel like they're having to jump through a million hoops but still might not get the job!

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.