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#FirstInHR: How to Screen Candidates Based Off Their Recommendation Letter

In More Posts... — by Erin Engstrom

You’ve probably heard stories of people asking their former employers for letters of recommendation when they’re laid off. They want someone to put in a good word for them to increase their chances of landing on their feet. But now that you’re on the other side, you’re not sure what to do with these letters.

When everyone comes with a seal of approval, how do you know which candidate to hire? With the right tools, choosing the best person for your small business will seem easy.

Look for the Genuine Keywords

Anyone can ask their boss or teacher for a letter of recommendation. Unless the person in question has done something particularly wrong, the higher-ups aren’t likely to say no. This leads to a lot of half-hearted letters written by people who saw the letter as more of an obligation than an honest endorsement. So how do you know who’s genuinely trying to land their employee or student a new position?

To sift through the chaff, make sure to find keywords. You should be able to tell when someone’s not being authentic in their recommendation. One particular phrase education professionals recommend looking for is “I highly recommend.” You’d be surprised how difficult it is to find the right way to praise someone if you don’t really know them. When you don’t have a sufficient understanding of someone’s abilities, it’s difficult to put yourself out there and go out of your way to express confidence in their skills. By looking for direct, honest phrases like this one, you’re more likely to know they’re being genuine in their recommendation letter.

Verify the Source

Some companies and fields are more notorious for needing recommendation letters. Because the competition to get into these businesses is so stiff, some candidates are even buying fake references . If the job you’re looking to fill is the kind that needs a recommendation from an expert in the field or a particular higher-up, candidates will be more likely to try to slip a fake a letter past you.

Luckily, the easiest way to verify that the person signing the letter actually wrote it is to contact them and ask if they recommended the person in question. This isn’t always so easy– sometimes the person who wrote the letter may have changed phone numbers after switching jobs themselves or is otherwise unavailable. But if you can’t contact the person who wrote the letter, consider asking the candidate herself to find them. If she can’t find them for you, you may want to look for candidates with more verifiable sources.

Don’t Let Recommendations Mesmerize

Your latest candidate has a shiny letter of recommendation from someone in your industry you’ve actually heard. You want to hire them. But if the rest of the application­–resume, cover letter, experience, soft and hard skills–doesn’t match up? Don’t hire them. Referred candidates–including those with recommendation letters–account for only six percent of the applicant pool but make up more than 25 percent of the hires. It’s easy to take the word of someone reputable over the solid experience of another candidate , but letters of recommendation should distinguish qualified candidates from each other, not turn an unqualified one into a first choice.

We can get a cue from colleges when it comes to recommendation letters, this time to see how having a more automated process can help you find better candidates. California Polytechnic State University has eliminated the need for recommendation letters altogether. Their admissions process uses computer algorithms that including academic performance and test scores, among other factors. They’ve done this to prevent students who “know someone” from gaining an unfair advantage in the applications process. Not all companies can afford to do this, but it goes to show: Who you know shouldn’t be as important as what.

Small companies looking to hire need every way to filter they can , but they should focus on candidates’ qualifications more than letters of recommendation. A more automated process is a fairer one­­–and something that applicant tracking software like Recruiterbox can help you create in order to find your next great employee.

Recruiterbox is considered the most user friendly hiring software on the market. If you’re ready to take your recruiting and hiring to the next level, request a Recruiterbox demo today.