You've advertised your role in the local paper, shouted about it on social media, and posted it on the big job sites. 

As a result, the responses have come flooding in, and you now have significantly more applicants than actual positions to fill. 

This is, of course, great news. But it leaves you with a major task ahead of you.

Narrowing the field can be an arduous and time-consuming part of the recruitment process. But the good news is that there are a number of ways you can streamline that process and turn that stack of CVs and applications into the next member of your team. 

Follow these seven steps to thin the herd and ensure that you're finding the best possible people for your small business.

Don't miss: The Pros & Cons of Using a Recruitment Agency

1. Build a 'long-list'

You'll have too much information at this early stage to be able to draw up a realistic shortlist of candidates. What you can do, however, is create a 'long-list' by excluding any applicants who lack skills that you consider essential to the role.

Referring to your original job ad, check each candidate's application or CV against the skills that you've identified as absolute must-haves. This might sound unnecessary, but it's not uncommon for a small number of applicants to apply for jobs regardless of the fact that they're missing one or two key skills in the hope that they'll still be considered.

Don't worry too much about soft skills or anything you identified as 'desirable' at this point (we'll talk more about these later) — just focus on whether the applicant could realistically do the job they're applying for.

2. Screen candidates by phone

Meeting and interviewing candidates takes a lot of time and effort. Before calling in dozens of people based solely on what's written on their CVs, try to thin the herd by having a quick chat with those who've made it onto your initial list.

Begin the phone call by telling them that you're looking through the applications and are reaching out to give them a little more information about role. Outline things like the salary, hours, main responsibilities, and the typical shifts they'd work. 

Next, ask them to expand on their CV by inviting them to tell you a little more about their employment history, skills, and qualifications, making a note of any areas where they might have exaggerated a little or genuinely excel. 

End the call by confirming whether the applicant is still interested in the position. This might sound counter-intuitive to the hiring process, but there's no point inviting someone to interview if they're already thinking that the work or shift patterns might not be right for them, so it's better to cut to the chase early on. 

3. Assign values to non-essential skills

It's now time to turn your attention to those 'preferred', but not essential, skills and work experience.

Rather than attempting to compare candidates directly, it's easier if you have a yardstick by which you can measure them all. You can do this by assigning values to each of the skills you've specified in your person profile as preferred, and totalling up those that each of your candidates possesses.

The values you set for each skill will vary depending on your particular industry, the job they'll be doing, and the talent that already exists at your business.

You might have said that you'd prefer applicants to have stock-taking experience, for example, but also listed proficiency in Microsoft Excel as beneficial. Ask yourself which of these is most valuable to you and assign it a higher value. 

You can then total up the number of skills each candidate has and give them a score — something that may come in handy if you find yourself with no obvious frontrunner. 

It's good practice to complete this process before you even send out the job advert, but if not, it's better to do it at this stage rather than not at all. 

4. Conduct face-to-face interviews

Now comes the time to meet your candidates in person.

We've already put together an in-depth guide for conducting effective interviews, along with a list of winning interview questions to help you find the right people, but some general things to consider when you sit down with your candidates are:

  • Be consistent. Have your questions ready, and ask them in the exact same way and order for every candidate. If you don't, it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to compare their answers fairly, and you'll come across as underprepared.
  • Take plenty of notes. It's important to listen to what your interviewees have to say, but it's also vital that you keep a record of their responses or any important points that are raised during the interview so that you can refer back to it later on. Alternatively, make an audio recording of the interview (but only if the candidate agrees).
  • Communicate your company's culture. If you want your staff to stick around for a long time, they need to be on board with the kind of business you're running. Talk openly about your business goals and the kind of culture that you'd expect them to be an active part of.
  • Let them talk. Allow plenty of time for candidates to expand on their answers and ask questions of their own throughout. You want to get to know each other, not just get through your list of questions, so try to keep things relaxed and relatively informal. 

Finally, remember that your interviews should never take place earlier in the screening process — your time is too valuable to be spent interviewing every single applicant, so invite only those who you genuinely think could join your team.

5. Test them

By now you should have a fair idea of the people who are best suited to the job. If you want to double-check that candidates are actually capable of filling the vacancy, you may wish to test their competency. 

For creative or technical roles like designers, developers, or writers, give them a brief or set them a challenge to complete in a given timeframe. This process gives you a true picture of their abilities when working on a task that's similar to what they'll be doing if they start working with you. 

For jobs in hotels, restaurants, cafes and other similar businesses, trial shifts are commonplace. Even a short trial shift gives your candidate a proper taste of the work they'd be doing, test their aptitude for learning on-the-go, and see how well they get along with the other staff. For office-based roles, work shadowing could fulfil a similar purpose. 

(Unless you're doing this at the same time as their formal interview, it's generally considered polite to cover the cost of things like bus or train fare so that candidates don't end up out of pocket for a job that they might not even get!) 

6. Involve your team in the decision

Unless you're hiring your very first employee, consider inviting your existing staff to weigh in on the decision.

It's not necessary for your team to be present during the interview process (in fact, this would probably be a pretty bad idea!), but the opinions of those who will end up working alongside your new hire can be invaluable when you're trying to decide between a handful of potential candidates.  

Talk about the kind of person they'd like to have working alongside them, the skills that person might have, and where they feel they could use a little extra help. Compare these to your candidates' experience, qualifications, and personal characteristics and try to imagine how well they'd get on working together.

You'll be the one making the final decision, but involving your existing staff in this way can have the added benefit of making your team feel more connected to the company, strengthening their bond with the business and giving morale a real boost. 

7. Make the most of references

Speaking with referees has become such a routine part of the modern hiring process that many managers do it almost on autopilot, running through a handful of generic questions as a way of affirming their own beliefs about a candidate.

It is of course important to check that what your candidate has written on their CV is true, but try to think beyond the basic script when talking to referees. This is your one chance to speak to someone who knows your candidate well, so set aside a good 20-30 minutes to get to mine them for information.

Some useful things to ask might include:

  • How would you describe their personality?
  • How well did they get on with their coworkers?
  • How did they perform under pressure?

There are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers to these questions, and every manager will be hoping to hear different things about their candidates, but you can learn a great deal about someone by the impression they leave on their former employer and how much or little they reveal about themselves at work. 

Final Thoughts

Recruitment requires a lot of hard work, but by taking a few extra steps to narrow the field early on, you can save yourself hours of paperwork and deliberation in the long run — not to mention significantly reduce the chances of hiring the wrong person.

Whatever steps you take to screen and assess your applicants, it's important that you follow the same process and judge each applicant by the same criteria. After all, the people you add to your team will have a significant impact on the future success of your business.