How to Decide Between Two Great Candidates

Two candidates with documents in their hands are sitting on chairs in the lobby waiting for an interview. Man and a woman compete for the same position.

You’ve conducted your interviews and completed checking references. You’ve used pre-employment screenings to assess technical skills and tapped other team members to assess culture fit. You’re down to the final two candidates in your search; both are excellent contenders. So, who do you hire?

Of all the problems a hiring manager could have, this is the best one you could imagine: choosing between two great candidates. 

Though it’s easy to waste time agonizing over which qualified candidate to choose, the longer you wait, the greater your risk of losing out on one, or even both of your top picks. And, regardless of how long you spend mulling it over, remember that there’s no guarantee that the candidate you ultimately settle on will accept. So, it’s in your best interest to move quickly and definitively to extend an offer. 

How to Decide Who to Hire

Refer back to your original job posting

Though every open role begins with an advertised job description and its list of requirements, priorities can shift once you start interviewing candidates. You may realize that some skills are more critical than others or that the department’s original needs have slightly shifted. The candidates left standing at the end of the interview process may look different from what you initially had in mind for the role. 

Even so, it can be helpful to go back to your original job posting for a refresher on what you were thinking at the start of the process since that’s when the requirements for the role were at the top of your mind. What were the original goals you hoped to achieve when filling the position, and how do the candidates you’ve arrived at contribute to those goals? You might be surprised to find that after looking with a fresh set of eyes, one applicant is a better fit for the role you originally had in mind. 

Use objective selection methods

When faced with the challenge of choosing between two outstanding candidates, relying on objective selection methods can tip the scales clearly and unbiasedly. Utilizing skills assessments can provide quantifiable data on each candidate’s proficiency and suitability for the role. These evaluations range from technical skills tests specific to the job to broader aptitude tests that gauge problem-solving or communication skills.

Another effective method is to conduct structured interviews where each candidate is asked the same set of questions, allowing for easier comparison. You can also employ scorecards to rate candidates on key competencies and qualifications. By systematically evaluating each candidate’s performance on these criteria, you create a data-driven framework that simplifies the decision-making process and minimizes the influence of subjective biases.

Related: Effective Methods of Recruitment and Selection

Look to the future

It’s exciting when you have a candidate you’re eager to onboard, and there will generally be a lot of buzz about how great it will be to have them dive into the role. But what will their long-term contributions look like once the newness wears off and they’ve had a chance to settle in?

Hopefully, in the interview process, you had a chance to ask both candidates about their short- and long-term goals, both with the company and in their professional lives in general. How would this role play into those goals? See if one candidate’s desired path aligns more closely with the long-term role you’ve envisioned this position playing in your organization. 

Examine previous employers for culture fit

We’re going to assume that if two candidates have made it this far and your decision is so close, they both appear, at least on the surface, to be a strong culture fit. Hiring for culture fit, however, is notoriously difficult for many reasons. 

For starters, it’s nearly impossible to know what a job candidate will be like to work with on a day-to-day basis when they’re presumably on their best behavior during the interview process. Also, companies are generally not very good at accurately assessing their own culture or, in turn, how a candidate might fit into it. 

Short of giving each candidate a trial run, how can you know whether their personality and work style will match your culture? One pro tip we recommend is to look at the companies they’ve worked for in the past. 

Do they have a resume filled with Fortune 500 companies, or do they tend to work for small and medium-sized businesses? While a candidate’s past workplaces won’t tell you everything about what they’re like to collaborate with–after all, sometimes people change jobs because of a bad culture fit–any trends you spot may be indicative of the candidate’s preferences when it comes to where they’re most comfortable working and where they might be most likely to succeed in a new gig. 

If your culture is vastly different from that of the other employers this candidate has worked for in the past, it might sway your decision in another direction or, at the very least, be worth asking them about. 

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Consider each candidate’s interest level

In an employer’s market like this, it can be easy to forget that hiring is a two-way street. Many top candidates have multiple options for choosing their next employer.

When deciding between two great applicants, don’t neglect to consider the factors on the candidates’ side, like their interest in the position. You want to make an offer to someone who will be as excited to work for you as you are to hire them because they’re more likely to do a great job and stick around longer. 

When you compare two qualified candidates, how does their interest level stack up? Did one seem more enthusiastic than the other during the interview process? What kinds of questions did each of them ask, and how many? Did they both follow up after their last interview to reiterate their interest, and in what time frame? Are there other offers in play from any competitors?

Also, consider practicalities like salary and benefits. Is one candidate likely to be more affordable than the other or come on board with less negotiating? Depending on your financial constraints and the person’s level in the organization, these factors could make a significant difference in which of them is the preferred applicant. 

Consider your gut

Perhaps the skills and experience of your two great candidates are nearly identical. Or, both bring different things to the table that are hard to quantify and rank. In either case, one factor defies objective reasoning but can be a valuable tool in making a decision to pick the best fit: your gut feeling.

A gut feeling is highly susceptible to bias, so we caution against placing too much weight on it in most hiring situations. For example, you might like them because they remind you of a friend or you share common interests outside of work. Unfortunately, these feelings are not useful indicators of how effective a person will be in a role and, thus, shouldn’t be considered part of the hiring process.  

However, when it comes down to two strong candidates that you’ve otherwise thoroughly vetted,  your gut may be the deciding factor you need to push you one way over the other. 

Remind yourself you’d be happy with either candidate

Imagine that one candidate or the other had never entered your hiring funnel; you’d probably be thrilled to have arrived at either one of them as your top choice. This realization can be easy to lose sight of when you’re mired in the details, trying to determine why one is the better pick. We call this out only because obsessing over the decision for too long, as we mentioned earlier, may cause you to miss out on both candidates. 

If you’re confident you’ve done your due diligence and both candidates still seem equally matched, there comes a point when you’ll need to decide and take action. And remember–there’s no guarantee that the person you offer the role to first will take it, so it’s great to be equally excited about your second choice. 

Check references

When you’re down to two strong candidates, a thorough reference check might provide valuable insights that didn’t surface during interviews or assessments. Speak directly to former employers, colleagues, or mentors to learn about the candidates’ reliability, work ethic, and suitability for the team culture. Ask specific questions that align with the responsibilities and challenges of the role, seeking examples that demonstrate each candidate’s strengths and areas for improvement.

A reference check serves as a third-party validation of your observations and assessments. It can either confirm your inclinations or bring new considerations critical in making a well-rounded hiring decision. This step is not just a formality but an important part of the selection process that can help you differentiate between two otherwise equally appealing options.

Make an unexpected choice

Here’s a novel idea: why not hire both candidates? While it might not be feasible in every scenario, there are some situations, like sales, where two fantastic new hires can make twice the impact that more than covers the additional costs of the additional hire. 

If you can swing it, hiring both of your top picks will bring in two great new team members and keep your competitors from getting a shot at the candidate you would have otherwise passed on.

Trust Your Important Hiring Decisions to the Staffing Experts

It’s hard to overstate the importance of hiring well. It impacts every aspect of your operations, from productivity to customer service to team morale. When such an important decision is on the line, why not enlist a team of seasoned professionals to help you make the right call?

Our recruiting team is experts in hiring for technical skills and culture fit, helping you identify candidates who will excel in their job duties and make lasting contributions to the organization. Working with a staffing agency is a proven way to hire faster, with more accuracy and greater long-term success. 

Tell us more about your staffing needs, and let us get started on a staffing plan for your company by scheduling your free consultation today.

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Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn