Over the years I have worked with many employers, and the number of candidates that I have placed is into 4 figures, so I’ve learned a lot about the different ways that employers handle graduate recruitment. SMEs can face challenges in the selection and interview process, particularly if there is no HR team or trained / experienced recruiter. It’s important to remember that graduate recruitment is a two-way process, and there are some factors that, if not controlled, can result in lost candidates. Overall, I would say that the most important thing is that time and commitment needs to be invested in the process.

As many SMEs don’t have an internal recruitment department, or even an HR person in many cases, the person doing the graduate recruitment has often been delegated the task, or is the person who will ultimately be managing the new starter- which can be an advantage in many cases, but can also present difficulties. They may not have been trained in how to recruit, and will also have their own ‘day job’ to be getting on with. Most manage this very well, but some have lost out on candidates, for a variety of reasons- some of which were unavoidable, as with all the will in the world, obstacles can crop up. But on occasion others could have prevented the issues with a bit of commitment to the process, planning, and time management.

There are many students and graduates who are looking for work, but the best ones have other options to consider, or soon will have. They will be looking at which employer wants them most, fulfils the criteria they are looking for, and makes them feel most welcomed. So, while they need to show the employer why they should make them an offer, the same applies in reverse.

In addition, delays can increase the chances of another employer making an offer, and the business who was the candidates first choice losing out.

It’s not always easy to manage the graduate recruitment process, and some employers will not always be aware of the potential issues that can crop up; I have listed some here, and how they can be avoided or managed. Many will already have these areas in hand, but hopefully this will be useful for others:

Required experience: It’s best to make a decision on the ideal profile before the recruitment process begins; decide on what pieces of skills and experience are 100% essential, and cannot be compromised, and what would maybe be ideal but could be trained.

And agree on this internally: sometimes the person handling the advertising and application stage is not the person ultimately making the decision on who to hire, and candidates can be rejected by the line manager because they were missing a piece of experience that was not given as being essential. If a recruiter is helping, they may not always be given the reason for rejection, and more candidates fitting the same, unsuccessful, profile will be sent until the recruiter or client walks away- and the employer, recruiter, and candidates have had a bad experience.

A conversation between the recruiter and the line manager can help here, particularly as expectations can be managed, and a compromise reached if that piece of experience is unrealistic or in high demand. And the recruiter will have a clearer idea of the profile to look for.

Internal issues: This is generally when more than one department is involved,  through a lack of communication, someone not being fully bought into the process- or just being very busy. Often if there is no HR department, line managers will handle the recruitment, but other things will come up, and setting interviews goes further down the ‘to do’ list. Or, if there is an HR department, they can be waiting for feedback and instructions for similar reasons.

The key thing to remember, is that this process is to take on a new pair of hands, and hopefully that would help with the workload. The best thing to do is clear some time, and get interviews booked in and completed. If candidates are lost its only going to mean more work, and possibly taking on a candidate who is not the strongest option. If there is more than one person involved in the selection of people for interview, try and get on the same wavelength in terms of timescales.

Time taken to consider CVs or set interviews: Candidates can sometimes have their CV forwarded to a business they want to work for, in a job they would love and are excited about – then don’t hear back for a week or more (I have seen it take a month, with no reason given)- it can really dampen enthusiasm.

There is always a lot of interest in graduate roles, with many applicants having similar profiles; it’s not easy generating a shortlist of the best 5 or less from 80 or more applications, but that is where a skilled recruitment partner can help. I would personally recommend interviewing all who are on a shortlist I generate, but if time is very tight then an initial telephone interview can help.

Sometimes there may be a reason for a delay, and this is not always passed on to the recruiter; this then creates an ongoing situation where the candidate chases the recruiter for feedback, and the recruiter then chases the employer- I have seen this go on for weeks and it does nobody any good. If there is a reason for a delay then it’s best to communicate this to the recruiter (or directly to the candidate if handing the recruitment internally); the candidates expectations are then managed, and the recruiter can diarise to follow up at a more appropriate time.

In terms of interviews, its best to try and book out some time when the process starts – and if more than one person is involved make sure they will all be available. If someone will be on holiday, consider if it’s essential that they are involved.

If there would usually be two interviews, could they be combined in one? Many of the candidates will be working, and it’s not always easy to take time off- and a second interview will also delay the process. If two interviews are essential, could the initial one be by phone or Teams/Zoom (if there is a good thing to come from the pandemic it’s that we can all use these now!). Or could the second interview be provisional and if all goes well, take place immediately after the first?

Interview questions: For someone who has not been trained in how to interview then this may not be straightforward. There is a lot of information on the internet or in books, with sets of questions to choose from. It’s a matter of personal preference, but I am not a huge fan of some of the more traditional questions such as ‘what is your main strength /weakness’ or ‘where do you see yourself in 2 years’ – partly because I’m not always sure they are asked for the right reasons; plus, there are so many guides around on how to answer these questions and many will give stock answers.  However, if these are asked for a specific reason, and planning and thought is given as to what questions to ask and what answers you are looking for, then they can be useful.

For me, the key thing is that it does not need to be anything complicated- the main aim of the interview is to get the candidate talking and often a simple, open question such as ‘tell me about what you studied’ can do this. Similarly, picking up on pieces of work or projects that are mentioned on their CV, or asking them why they are interested in the opportunity.

Time to make a decision: Occasionally when I send a CV forward, the feedback can be ‘ they look great, we want to see them- but we need to book in some others’. Or if an interview has been set up, and gone well, there can be similar comments. It can be to see if there are more applicants- but there are generally already a lot of applications, with only a small number who fit the profile ideally, and who are available and interested- and yes on occasion it may be just one.

In theory there could be someone else out there, but in reality there is a risk of losing a very good candidate who is available and interested; or at best, taking them on but dampening their enthusiasm as they have to wait, and may not feel the commitment is there. They may even remember this in the future if another business approaches them.

If they can do the job, the interviewer likes them, sees them fitting in, and has no real doubts about them, then I would recommend getting them snapped up- or someone else will.

Not ‘selling’ the company: While I do this as part of my service, the employer also needs to show why the candidate should commit their future to them, what plans they have for them, what will they be doing, and what is it like working there. And for more technical roles it can be important to have someone there on their wavelength so they can discuss things on a more technical level. Even better if its someone who started there as a graduate in a similar role.

Feedback following interviews: This can often be difficult, as in many cases a candidate may perform well, and another may just have pipped them. It’s not always straightforward to quantify this, particularly when there is a strong shortlist all of an excellent standard, and where small margins can make the difference- though it’s always good for the unsuccessful ones to know that they have done well, to encourage them.

However, feedback can often be invaluable to candidates and make the difference between them getting their next job or not- maybe even with the same employer, if they use the feedback positively. An example being in a technical test where they weren’t as strong in a particular area, which is something they can then work on.

Please also be aware that some reasons for candidates being unsuccessful can relate to certain conditions. For example, research shows that at least 10% of people are Neurodivergent. Neurological variations can include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and tics. And some of these conditions may result in perceived negative behaviours. For example, fidgeting or a lack of eye contact. So, how to approach this? I read this article that gives a great perspective. The key thing is that the writer has turned her condition into an asset in terms of the role; and also made the interviewer aware, so actions cannot be misinterpreted (though it is not always easy to have the confidence to do this, and I guess a lot depends on the job for example if a person finds it difficult speaking with people, will they be entirely happy in a role where they will be doing this regularly, for example in sales).

Making an offer: On occasion, employers will make a ‘lowball’ offer- which is less than the market rate, or sometimes even less than the candidate is already on. When this is challenged, a higher offer is usually immediate. This is not necessary, and can cause a sour taste.

In general, it’s best to consider what the market rate is, what others are on internally, and what can be considered a fair offer. Sometimes there will still be negotiation on an offer, and it will need to be increased, but to a realistic amount. This is where a good recruiter can be invaluable as a go between. I always discuss salary levels with clients and candidates before the process begins, to check the same ballpark figure is there- and will also discuss this when an offer is made. I will let a candidate know if they are being unrealistic; and if I feel the offer an employer is about to make will not be accepted I will let them know- potentially preventing an awkward and unnecessary situation. The other thing to bear in mind is that if a lower offer is accepted, then there is the risk that the candidate may be tempted to move at some point for a more realistic salary.

When a candidate gets two offers: Sometimes a candidate may receive an offer from another business during the selection process. If an interview has not been set yet, I would recommend getting them booked in asap.

Or they may have an interview booked in for another job after an offer has been made. In this case I would discuss with the candidate how they feel about it- often the other role would not be their preferred option, in which case I would advise they cancel it and accept their preferred offer.

But if they were interested in the other role, and they would like to attend the interview, I would recommend allowing them a bit of extra time (even if the other interview is not through me!). Then when they do accept, there can be confidence on both sides that they have made the right decision and are fully committed. But also, if an employer insists on an immediate decision it can cause bad feeling; they will possibly either decline the offer, or accept and go to the other interview anyway.

Having said that, there has to be a cut-off point, or there is a risk of other candidates being lost from the process. Up to a week is reasonable I would say. I would always ask a candidate to let the other business know they have an offer, and to ask them to bring that interview forward- and if they don’t, then question if that business is fully committed to them.

I hope this blog has been if interest. If you have any comments or would like to discuss anything in more depth please let me know.

Matthew Parry
Director. SME Graduate Employment

SME Graduate employment is a specialist graduate recruitment agency. Covering permanent roles, fixed-term contracts, student / undergraduate and graduate internships, and sandwich placements. All areas of the UK, and most industries and job types.

If you would like to find out more about the services I offer please contact me by email matthew@sme-graduates.co.uk or phone 0370 7749500 (local rate number) You can also see other content I have written here