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How many candidates should you interview?

Have you ever spent days interviewing jobseekers for a role, only to find you don’t have anyone who really fits the job description or that you can’t agree on a favourite candidate? In this blog post, TPP looks at the pitfalls of interviewing too many (or too few) candidates and how you can get to the perfect ratio.

Why not interview everyone who’s suitable for the role?

Some organisations take the view that you should interview everyone who may be suitable for the role, so that you can compare different skill sets to find the best possible candidate. While this is a good idea in theory, in practice it creates a lot of problems for the interviewers.

First and foremost, interviewing a lot of candidates takes a huge amount of time, both in the interviews and in pre- and post-interview discussions. Having many different possibilities also means that everyone involved in the process could have a different favourite candidate, who supports their own aims or ideals, making it difficult to come to a consensus.

Lots of interviewees also create more administration. It’s important to keep in touch with your candidates and give them feedback, to manage their expectations and ensure they have a good recruitment experience that doesn’t damage your employer brand. This adds even more to your workload and eats up time.

All this prolongs the decision-making period when recruiting for a new role. Even though there are lots of jobseekers in the market at the moment, top-notch candidates still tend to get snapped up swiftly. Delay the recruitment process and you risk losing your best candidates to another organisation.

Interviewing too few candidates is also a problem, as you many not be able to fill the role, and if you do you may feel you have had to settle for a less than ideal candidate.

So what is the right number of candidates to interview?

Obviously, there is no magic formula to find the right number of interviewees. Some roles attract a wider pool of applicants, giving you a huge pool of candidates to choose from, while others may only have a couple of potential interviewees.

In TPP’s experience, admin or communications roles tend to attract huge numbers of applicants, while harder to fill roles in fundraising or at the senior end usually only result in a few candidates. But huge responses do not mean you have to interview hundreds of candidates.

As a general guideline, we suggest you meet with 3-5 candidates in the first round of interviews, and 2-3 in the second. If you are interviewing more than these, it may mean that you are not qualifying your candidates sufficiently prior to the interview. Spending some extra time in putting together a job description and person specification can save you hours spent debating the merits of different candidates later on.

How do I narrow down the list?

First of all, you shouldn’t be interviewing people with different skill sets. When putting together a job description, you should create lists of essential and desirable competencies. Also decide on the level of training you are willing to provide. Anyone who does not have all of the essential competencies can be discarded and the remainders ranked by the number of desirable skills they possess. The interview can then be used to judge cultural fit and personality instead of skills.

You can further narrow down your list of potential candidates using pre-screening techniques, such as aptitude tests and personality profiles. You can also check references and qualifications and make CRB checks if required to rule out candidates before you invest time in interviewing them.

A common reason for organisations to interview too many candidates is that they are trying to duplicate their existing star performers. This can waste far too much time and rule out candidates who many perform just as well, but in a different way. A mixture of personalities tends to work best in most organisations, as it aids idea generation and innovation.

Any potential deal breakers, like salary expectations, should be brought up in advance, not at the end of the interview; a very common interview mistake.

If you are using a recruitment agency to preselect candidates for you, make sure you give them all the available information and that they truly understand your needs. TPP always take the time to make sure we fully recognise your requirements, however urgent the role, and present you with only those candidates we are confident fully meet the brief. At TPP, the offer management process starts as soon as we meet with a potential candidate, so there will never be any nasty surprises when you’re ready to make them an offer.

Things to remember

You only actually NEED to interview one person and if the first person you see is perfect for the role, you can offer it to them straight away. Recruiters often simply don't believe their luck, and continue to interview more candidates just to compare or see who else is out there. This risks losing the original interviewee, as a candidate who is that good for you is likely to be highly viable for other roles and greatly in demand. If the candidate truly meets all your requirements, and is a good personality fit, strike while the iron is hot or you risk losing them.

If your first round of interviews fails to come up with any suitable candidates, there may be a problem with your job description. Limiting the number of applicants you see gives you a chance to fix the problems before launching on a second round, and means there are still potential candidates out there to interview.

If you are in any doubt about the ideal number of candidates to interview, your TPP consultant will be able to advise you. Plus, all of the candidates we suggest to you are pre-screened in face-to-face meetings, so we can be confident they will be a good fit for your organisation both in terms of competencies and personality.

Further resources

8 ways to effectively shortlist candidates
How many people should you call in for a first in person interview
The guerilla guide to interviewing
How many candidates should I interview