How To Screen Candidates Outside Your Area of Expertise

Often, recruiters are called upon to hire people who have skill sets that are quite different from their own. Vetting a candidate for knowledge that you don’t possess is challenging, especially when it comes to skills that are more technical or scientific in nature. While many recruiters have a knack for quickly determining whether a candidate displays good communication or interpersonal skills, it can be harder to suss out mastery of coding, statistical analysis, or experiment design.

We spoke with Eileen Campbell, a senior recruiter at EMD Serono who has spent the majority of her career hiring candidates for pharmaceutical and clinical roles that require a high degree of technical capability. Here’s what she had to say about how to screen candidates outside your area of expertise.

Meet With Internal Experts

The first step for a recruiter with an open req is to meet with the hiring manager — that is, the person whose department is looking to fill the role. A formal “req review meeting” with the relevant hiring manager (and other stakeholders as appropriate) is a perfect opportunity to talk through requirements and specifics. Especially at organizations with a variety of specialized hiring needs, it can be useful to complete a req review sheet. You may want to develop one internally, or you can lean on examples like this one from UVA.

The req review sheet should include absolute requirements, as well as red flags that could signal a candidate is not a good fit. During a req review meeting, focus on what to look for in a resume.

This could include:

  • Work experience
  • Minimum qualifications
  • Educational or degree requirements

Eileen suggests that recruiters work with hiring managers and internal stakeholders to develop a list of four to eight questions to ask every candidate for a particular role. This will give you a baseline for comparison and also enable you to report back internally about how candidates stack up.

Prioritize Core Competencies

As part of the internal req review, Eileen recommends that you get a good sense of what core competencies your organization values most. Here’s a list of examples:

  • Innovation
  • Results-driven
  • Detail-oriented
  • Creative
  • Process-focused

Understanding your organization’s values from this perspective can help you to assess a more technical candidate’s culture fit. For example, many technical roles require folks who are quantitative and highly focused on accuracy. In that case, it can be helpful in early interviews to ask questions about how candidates have met numerical goals or upheld specific quality standards.

Other roles, like product design and marketing, demand innovation and creativity. In that case, it may be more helpful to ask about times the candidate brought a fresh idea to the table or designed an entirely new approach to a problem.

Regardless of what core competencies your organization values in a given hire, understanding how a potential candidate would fit into the overall culture can help you ask the right questions early on.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

It’s a conversational trick that applies to interviews as well: Never ask people yes or no questions. Simply put, their answers won’t help you to fully grasp a candidate’s personality or viewpoint, let alone their qualifications.

Instead, Eileen recommends that you ask probing questions, like:

  • "What was your contribution to x project?"
  • "In what areas do you invest most of your time at work?"

Situationally-focused questions help you understand how a candidate puts their skills to use within the workplace. They don’t require you to go deep on a preferred programming language or the results of a complex experiment, but still allow you to get a sense of how someone thinks — which can be a great indicator of whether they’re a good fit for the role or not.

Find out Whether They're In the Know

Eileen also recommends that recruiters ask candidates how they keep up with industry trends and standards. You can ask them what publications they read and which conferences they have attended in the past. This is a great way to find out whether someone is actively staying up-to-date with their skills. No matter what technical competency you are talking about, everyone needs a refresher now and again, and a dedication to learning is obviously a good sign in any potential hire.

Learn as You Go

Remember, you don’t have to become an expert on a given subject to successfully screen candidates. After recruiters complete the first interview or two, hiring managers are going to vet the candidate and get into the nitty-gritty. In most cases, technical leads either have the same skillset (in the case of a peer) or have done the job in the past (in the case of a manager), so they are in the best position to determine whether a candidate has the appropriate skills. Early interviews are simply a good chance to make sure candidates check the boxes and are worthy of further consideration.

That said, good recruiters learn how to make a baseline assessment of a candidate’s technical skills over time. Eileen explains, “As you become more and more of an expert in these types of questions, you’ll be able to pose questions to a candidate that naturally bring out their technical skill sets.”

One final note: It’s a good idea for recruiters to have a clear idea of where their responsibility to vet qualifications begins and ends, especially when both recruiters and hiring managers are involved in the process.

Regardless of your subject matter expertise, you should be able to assess any candidate who comes your way by following Eileen's advice.