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How Ignoring the 80/20 Rule is Losing You Some Great Candidates

Pareto’s Law, or the 80/20 rule is well known to most of us but how does it apply to recruiting in a sparse candidate market? Also called the Law of the Vital Few, it’s more relevant than ever in a market where the demand for skilled candidates is outstripping supply. So how do we apply it to get the best outcomes for our clients?

Bernadette Eichner
Bernadette Eichner
Office woman standing with arms crossed

We had an instance recently where, after a 10 week search and presenting 12 candidates who met all the essential criteria and many of the desired criteria, our client decided to ‘put the project on hold until more suitable candidates become available’.

By ‘more suitable’, they meant a selection of people who tick every one of the boxes they have – both essential and desired, even though some of the desired criteria wasn’t linked to the skills and experience needed to do the job well.

The problem? Perfection doesn’t exist in a normal candidate market, let alone one like we have now! Put simply, the perfect candidate does not exist. ‘Best fit’, yes but ‘perfect’, no.

We talked through the 80/20 rule and how we apply it to recruitment to show him how 20% of the candidates met the ‘absolute best fit’ for the role, but he wouldn’t be moved. He’d rather have no-one in the job than someone who only met 80% of the criteria. We’re wondering how the people who are having to do this job as well as their own are feeling about that!

What is the 80/20 rule?

You’ve all heard of Pareto’s Law – the idea that roughly 80% of consequences/outcomes come from 20% of causes/input.

While the 80/20 rule is the most common name, it’s also called the Law of the vital few and the Principle of factor sparsity – how apt is that in the current candidate market!

The 80/20 rule is most used as a strategy for growth, development, productivity, and problem solving. And doesn’t recruitment fall into each of those categories?

Here’s some examples of how it works generally:

  • When we find the 20% of actions that create 80% of our results, we can focus all our efforts on that 20% of successful actions to grow the business
  • If you find that 80% of your profits come from 20% of your products, then you can spend more time refining and marketing those products than developing new ones at the cost of the most profitable ones
  • In our personal lives, if we find that a healthy lifestyle comes down to only about 20% of our actions, then we’re going to focus on maintaining those and cut ourselves some slack on the others
  • If we find that 80% of a team’s problems are generated by 20% of the contributors, we’ll focus on fixing that 20%

How does the 80/20 rule work in recruitment?

First of all, it doesn’t mean we only put 20% of our time into any client!

We use the 80/20 rule to help us quickly narrow down the shortlist to the very best-fit candidates available. Speed is everything when you are recruiting in a tight market.

When we take a recruitment brief from a client, we spend a lot of time fleshing out and separating the essential criteria from the desired criteria and understanding both.

This is so we can:

  • write more accurate and targeted ad copy to attract the specific type of candidate we need
  • be more efficient and productive when it comes to identifying potential candidates once the applications and responses to our search activity start coming in
  • craft a bespoke approach to both our interviewing and reference checking processes

Using the 80/20 rule in the ad writing process

To be able to move efficiently for you, we want to be spending 20% of our time reviewing candidates who meet 80% of the criteria, rather than the other way around.

When writing ad copy, you want to attract the best fit applicants immediately, so in our ad copy, we will make sure that 80% of our dot points in the ‘what we’re looking for’ section are from the essential criteria list and 20% from the desired list.

Using the 80/20 rule in the candidate evaluation process

As applications come in they are immediately marked ‘a possibility’ or ‘reject’ based on whether they meet 80% or more of the essential criteria.

Those that meet 80% or more are then reviewed more thoroughly to determine how much of the Desired criteria they meet. If they also meet 80% of the desired criteria, then they are shortlisted for an immediate telephone or video screening interview with us to cover off on things like location, salary expectations, availability and so on. If they meet 80% of that criteria, they are scheduled for a face to face with us.

This way, we can prioritise the most likely suitable candidates far more quickly for our clients.

Using the 80/20 rule in the interview and reference checking process

Now that we have already assessed that our applicant meets 80% or more of the selection criteria (from their application and our screening/qualifying exercise), we craft the interview process to ensure that we only spend 20% of the time covering off on the things we already know, and 80% investigating the 20% they are ‘lacking’. This enables us to confidently determine whether that 20% is a genuine barrier or not, so we can provide an accurate candidate profile to our client for consideration.

The same goes for reference checking – we spend more time investigating and probing the areas where our client needs to know more, rather than just ticking off the ‘what we already know’ boxes.

How do you apply the 80/20 rule to your shortlisted candidates?

We suggest you follow our lead – spend more time on the parts of the candidate’s background, experience and personality that have not been fully covered off. That is, spend 20% of your time on the 80% you already know and 80% of your time on the bits that will be the icing on the cake for you.

This is where behavioural interviewing techniques are your best friend. If you’d like some more comfort around their ability to manage conflict in the team, then spend more time on this than asking them to talk you through their resume. If you’d like to know how they determine a sales prospect, then spend the time asking some questions that will explore this little more.

Then, decide if the 20% that is missing is really a deal breaker. You should start by eradicating all those things that actually don’t have anything to do with whether the person can do the job or not – e.g. gender, whether they have children, what school they went to and so on.

It just may be the case that what you originally perceived as a potential deal-breaker has all but disappeared or is something that can easily be trained or coached.

Don’t miss out on the vital few candidates available!

In a very tight candidate market where the demand for skilled candidates is outstripping supply, the law of the vital few has never been more relevant.

Applying the 80/20 rule to your recruitment process will ensure you find those vital few much faster. 80% of what you are looking for will be in 20% of the applications you get. Spend your time on those!

Professional recruitment and fair pricing? Yes, it‘s possible!

At Just Right People Recruitment we‘ll give you the flexibility to choose between three different pricing models. And we guarantee each one will deliver a high-quality recruitment outcome tailored to your job, your budget and your specific needs. Now, that’s fair!

Learn more…

Bernadette Eichner
Bernadette Eichner

Bernadette Eichner, Cofounder and CEO of Just Right People, is a recruitment industry entrepreneur and thought leader in Australia, totally committed to improving the recruiter experience for clients and candidates alike. Her secret to life is to “just do the next thing that needs to be done”.

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