Over the years I have worked with hundreds of 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 SMEs handle the graduate recruitment process.

SMEs can face challenges in the graduate recruitment process, including in selection and interviews. 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.

In many cases, the person doing the recruitment has been delegated the task, or is the person who will ultimately be managing the new starter. This 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. But others could have prevented the issues with a bit of planning, time management, and commitment to the process.

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 be aware of the issues that can crop up. I have listed some here, and how they can be avoided or managed. Many employers will already have these in hand, but hopefully this will be useful for others:

Some ways that SMEs can improve their graduate recruitment process:

Required experience:

Make a decision on the ideal profile before the recruitment process begins: what pieces of skills and experience are non-negotiable, and what could be trained. The more essential requirements there are, the more candidates will be ruled out. So, you may even want to keep it as simple as just the specific degree that is needed. Agree on this internally.

Sometimes the person handling the advertising and applications is not making the final decision on who to hire. Candidates can be rejected by the line manager because they were missing a piece of experience that was not given as being essential. The recruiter may not always be given the reason for rejection. So more candidates fitting the same, unsuccessful, profile will be sent until the recruiter or client walks away. And the employer, recruiter, and candidates have all had a bad experience.

A conversation between the recruiter and the line manager can help here. 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 line managers will handle the recruitment, but other things will come up. Setting interviews goes further down the ‘to do’ list.

The process is to take on a new pair of hands; that will help with the workload, so the best thing to do is clear some time, and get interviews booked in and completed. if not then candidates may lose interest, or take something else. And if they are lost its only going to mean more work, and possibly taking on a candidate who is not the strongest option.

Where 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. If someone will be on holiday, consider if it’s essential that they are involved.

When 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?

Time taken to consider CVs set interviews, or make offers:

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. And then don’t hear back for a couple of weeks or more (I have seen it take a month, with no reason given). It can really dampen enthusiasm.

Sometimes there may be a genuine reason for a delay, and it’s best to communicate this. The candidates expectations are then managed, and the recruiter can diarise to follow up at a more appropriate time.

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 losing a bit of enthusiasm as they have to wait, and may not feel the commitment is there.

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.

Interview questions:

For someone who has not been trained in how to interview, this may not be straightforward. There is a lot of information on the internet or in books, with sets of questions to choose from. Some of the more traditional questions, such as ‘where do you see yourself in 2 years’ or ‘what is your main strength and weakness’ are often asked as default questions, with no real reason. But they can be very effective if asked for the right reasons. So it’s important to think why the question is being asked, and what answers you are ideally looking for.

Questions often don’t 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.

There are some things that should not be asked in an interview; some examples here.

Most people I know have reflected on an interview and realised an answer could have been improved- it’s not always easy to think of everything in an interview.  So you may even want to consider advising the questions before the interview. It is rarely done, but would mean that all the relevant information should be given by the applicant.

On the subject of interviews, research shows that at least 15% of people in the UK are Neurodivergent. Variations can include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and Tourette Syndrome. And some of these conditions may result in perceived negative behaviours. For example, fidgeting or a lack of eye contact: reasons that are sometimes given for interviewees being unsuccessful. Of course it is easier if the interviewee makes the interviewer aware of any conditions (perhaps through a recruiter), but they may not always feel comfortable doing this, so it is something to be aware of.

It’s also important to remember that an interview can be a difficult situation for a graduate; even ones who have confidence. Behaviours that are shown in an interview are not always reflective of how they normally are. And sometimes something can happen that results in the best person for the job not being successful.

A couple of years ago I spoke with a candidate for a Graduate job. I can often tell if someone is exceptional within a couple of minutes. And I got that feeling; she was great, and ideal for the job.

But she was unsuccessful, as she came across as nervous in the interview; it’s a tough industry, with strong Directors in the business, and the need was for someone who could hold their own with them.

I was shocked, as she is certainly not a nervous person. I spoke with her and she felt that she wanted the job so much that she had underperformed on the day.

I felt I had to say something, and I put my neck on the line for her. I strongly advised that the business give her a second chance. They did – and she smashed it.

Two years on she is in a Managerial role, the Directors love her, and she has come up with ideas that have made and saved the business £Millions. She’s truly exceptional, and is being developed to take over when a Director retires.

But she could have been lost to the business.

It’s a difficult one, as not everyone can get the job, and everything needs to be taken into account. I’m not proposing that anything different be done, as interviews are essential.

But I guess the moral of the story is to maybe look a bit deeper sometimes; interviews can be difficult, even for a confident person, and sometimes the nervousness is down to them really wanting the job. And just being in that artificial situation. And if everything else looks good, maybe sometimes give them a second chance.

(Of course the opposite can be true; I’m sure we have all come across someone that is so good at interviews that they keep being taken on in good jobs; great at talking the talk, but not so much at walking the walk).

‘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.

Graduates will often have other options to consider, and they will want to hear about why they should join you instead of the other businesses.

While a little bit about what achievements the business has made is good, mostly this should be about them and how their career can benefit from joining you.

Be ready to discuss: 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. It can also be very effective for the interviewee to meet someone who started there as a graduate in a similar role.

I hope this blog has been if interest and that you have enjoyed reading about how SMEs can handle their graduate recruitment process better. If you have any comments or would like to discuss anything in more depth please let me know.

Matthew Parry,
Director. SME Graduate Employment

Email: matthew@sme-graduates.co.uk Telephone: 0370 774 9500

This blog is also covered on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKRFfWxpVwA

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