The hiring process for companies has often been described as overly complicated. There’s a general lack of clarity in the hiring structure, especially when it comes to how candidates are evaluated and how a final decision is made. As a result, candidates often feel left in the dark. They don’t know whether to reach out to a recruiter or a hiring manager for updates after an interview. They aren’t aware of why the decision takes so long, or why an employer takes a long time to get back to them.
Which is why it’s crucial for candidates to understand the general hiring process employed by companies. Who the decision makers are, who has a say in the process, and how a candidate moves from one stage to the next differs from one organization to the next. There are, however, a few steps in the process that are uniform across most employers.
Here’s an analysis of the decision-making structure in a company’s hiring workflow:
When you first submit your resume, whether through a "firstname.lastname@example.org" email address, an automated application system, or even a direct email to a hiring manager, there are a few steps that go into how it’s evaluated. The first line of defense for any company that can afford it is the application tracking system. Even if you apply via an email, more often than not your resume will end up being submitted for processing through an ATS.
What happens when your resume hits the ATS? A few things. First, the ATS converts your resume into a format that is simple for it to read. It then scans your resume for keywords that are relevant to the role you’re applying to. Finally, your application is assigned a score based on that scan. Any resume that doesn’t land at or above a certain threshold set by the hiring manager is screened out, typically resulting in an automated “Thank you for applying, we’ve decided to move forward with other candidates” email.
Pro tip: To get past the “resume black hole” (a fun nickname job seekers have given to application tracking systems), it’s crucial to have the necessary keywords and skills in your resume. Where can you find those keywords? Try the job description! It has all the info you need, and more, to understand what skills and words are needed for a strong application. Still not finding enough keywords? Find 5 more relevant job descriptions for your field and make a spreadsheet of common words.
Note that not all companies use an ATS. In that case, it falls on recruiters and recruiting coordinators to act as the first line of defense and hand-screen all resumes that come through the door. To make their lives as easy as possible, optimize your resume and cover letter for readability, only include skills and accomplishments relevant to the role, keep sentences brief, and reduce length to one page per 7-10 years of experience.
The pulse check
Once you’ve gotten past the resume black hole, your application goes through another check, usually by a recruiter or recruiting coordinator, to narrow the field of candidates even further. They’ll pick the top 15-30 applicants as finalists for what is often called a pulse check - a phone screen interview to ensure that you have a pulse and that the way you talk about your skills and accomplishments matches what you wrote in your application.
The phone screen will almost always be with a recruiter or a member of the team you’re applying to join. It’s crucial during the phone screen to avoid giving the screener any reason to eliminate you. Making hiring decisions starts to get really hard at this stage. There’s a reason you got to where you are out of a giant pool of resumes, and it won’t be a simple task for the employer to decide who they should hire.
Usually, pulse checks determine a few basic things such as whether your experience fits the role, what type of person you are, and how you fit into the company's cultural mold. They're simple pass-fail calls that determine if you fit the bill for a more formal interview. Prepare to talk about yourself organically - don't memorize answers or read from a script. Do your due diligence by researching the company, understanding what they want out of candidates, and getting a strong grasp of their culture. Learn a bit about the interviewer as well (online, social media presence, etc...) so you can better relate to them.
Finally, just be relaxed, calm, and friendly. Have a conversation instead of feeling like you're being evaluated. If you normally get jittery during phone interviews, make a hot cup of tea beforehand just to warm your hands and soothe your nerves. Set out all the stuff you need ahead of time and make sure you're in a quiet, distraction-free space.
Once it’s done, remember to send a thank you note pointing back to some of the things that were said on the call. Then, to wrap up the pulse check, the screener will conclude their evaluation of each candidate that they spoke with and narrow the field to the top 5-10 candidates that will come in for the first real interview.
Face to face evaluation
Congrats! You got invited to an in-person interview. Up to now, you’ve only met, spoken to, and been evaluated by individuals who can eliminate you from the running. This will likely be the first time you speak to an individual that can also hire you. It will be your first chance to impress the hiring manager.
Alongside the hiring manager, you may be required to do a multi-stage interview where you speak with multiple members of the team. This can often take up to an hour per conversation, especially if things are going well. While the final decision lies with the hiring manager, these individuals can have a great deal of influence on the process. And if you’re applying to small companies or startups, you may even be interviewed by the founders or high-level executives.
As you’re preparing for the in-person interview, focus on finding out as much as you can about each person you might interview with. This includes the full suite of relevant executives for that department, all members of the team you’d be joining, and the hiring manager. Usually, you’ll be told ahead of time who you’ll be speaking to. If not, make a point of asking - it’s baseline information that you deserve as a candidate.
Focus once again on having organic conversations, bringing new ideas to the table, and asking smart questions that you couldn't have learned the answers to online. Once the interview is done, make sure you keep in mind each person you spoke to. Try to remember at least one or two things of importance that you talked about with each.
Send a thank you note to each person you spoke to, or one big thank you note to all of them, and personalize each with a tidbit from the chat that you found revealing or a relevant article that continues the conversation. This will allow you to stay fresh on their minds and leave a lasting impression.
Pro tip: Subsequent interviews may happen if you’ve been narrowed down to a final field of 2-3 candidates. This doesn’t always happen, but if the decision is particularly difficult, you may be called in for another round of evaluations. For this interview, come with ideas and questions and be ready to lead a conversation. Speak as though you’re in your first meeting with your new employer, ready and eager to make your mark on day one. The final decision will rest on who the interviewers can most clearly imagine in the role.
The decision-making endgame
All the interviews are done and you’ve been told that a decision will be made in the coming week. What a relief, right? It should be! You’ve gotten to the final round of interviews and you're a top candidate for the job. Along the way you’ve gotten valuable practice at interviewing and being an effective job seeker. Awesome.
So how is the decision actually made? It’s really quite simple. The entire team gets together at the end of all the interviews, lays out everything they’ve learned about each candidate, and goes through the pros and cons. Each candidate is measured on their potential value, their accomplishments, and how well they fit both culturally and in terms of experience. Input is taken from everyone involved in the interview process, and then the key decision makers (the hiring manager, their boss, relevant executives, founders, etc...) meet to make a final decision.
This process can take a while. Many people are involved in interviewing and evaluating each candidate, and getting everyone on the same page and in the same meeting can be near-impossible, especially on a busy work week. Be patient and follow up only to acknowledge that you understand their timeline or if they blow past their stated deadline. Making a final decision is as hard as it gets in the final stages, so you don’t want to give them any reason to take someone else over you, even if it’s as silly as sending one email too many.
And finally, you’ll hear back with the final answer. If you got the job, congratulations! If not, it’s not the end of the world. You’ve gotten really far once, which means you can go further next time. Keep a positive attitude, because each step along the way makes you a bit better at the job search.
If you aren’t given a reason for their decision, politely ask for one. It’s important to learn from rejection in order to succeed. Whether it’s because someone else had a bit more experience, or you didn’t do enough to prove that you’d go above and beyond in the role, it’s important to know exactly what you can do to improve in your next interview.
Finally, try to keep in touch with the people you spoke with if you feel that you've developed a strong relationship. You never know when a new opening might come up, or if the other candidate decides to turn down their offer.