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When Your ‘Second Best’ Candidate is Really the Best One?

In fierce salary negotiations with your preferred candidate? Stressed that you can’t seem to get them over the line? If you’re looking for budget control, loyalty, productivity, and a solid team player, you may be wise to look at your ‘second-best’ candidate.

Bernadette Eichner
Bernadette Eichner
Young smiling female office worker

In times of candidate shortages we need to think a bit differently. Right now in Australia, we have almost 500,000 open jobs and the complaint “we can’t find anyone suitable” is echoing around the nation.

But what if your recruitment brief and/or process is actually limiting your future success?

What if, and hear me out here, your insistence on finding the person who “has Australian experience” and “will hit the ground running” (and complaining when you can’t find that unicorn) is a short-sighted solution that sometimes turns out to be the wrong choice? A choice that ends up costing you pain, time and money.

Second best is used to describe something that is not as good as the best thing of its kind but is better than all the other things of that kind. He put on his second best suit. The key message here is that just because it’s not the best doesn’t mean it’s not highly suitable and perfectly adequate for the situation.

Sometimes ‘first best’ is just unconscious bias in action

The reason why a candidate is deemed ‘second best’ is usually linked to their skills and experience – the preferred candidate ticks all the boxes and the illusion is that they will be more productive sooner than someone with slightly less experience.

At the risk of raising people’s hackles, ingroup bias still reigns supreme in Australia – apart from the skills and experience on offer, the preferred candidate is also more likely to have English as a first language, more likely to be from the same cultural group and age group as the hiring manager, and more likely to not have caring responsibilities (read more likely to be a man, certainly if the role is a senior management role). And yes, the gender bias is still true, even more so with the impact of COVID.

In the current market your preferred candidate will be very aware of their negotiating power and leverage. They are most likely already employed in a commensurate position, perhaps even with a similar job title and industry contacts you deem as valuable, and can tick the boxes on language, age, cultural background and no caring responsibilities. This gives them the confidence to negotiate fiercely, most commonly seeking to improve on their salary and employment conditions as an incentive to come across to you. If this is within your budget then all well and good, but in our experience, you’ll end up paying sometimes as much as 40% more to secure them.

The problem is that by the time you get to this point, you’ve been searching and interviewing for ages and just want to get someone in the role. And that’s when you become very single-focussed looking for ways to meet their demands rather than looking for an alternative solution that could be just as effective.

Enter your ‘second best’ candidate – the one you liked but who, in your mind, doesn’t match the preferred candidate’s value proposition in terms of skills, experience, cultural background or age. Or the role you’re recruiting for would be a step up for them and you don’t think they’ll be able to manage it. The candidate you’ve subconsciously pushed to the back of your mind as unsuitable – sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with their long-term value to your organisation.

Why you should reconsider your ‘second best’ candidate

Just because someone isn’t as ‘good’ as your preferred candidate, they may actually be a better choice for your budget, team cohesion and intellectual capital in the longer term.

Their salary demands may not be excessive, they may actually work harder to prove they were the right choice, their organisational fit may be better, and they are likely to stay with you longer.

More realistic remuneration expectations

Candidates who are seeking a step up and/or a chance to prove themselves are usually much more realistic about their salary expectations. They understand the opportunity in front of them and understand that in order to secure it, they need to engage in reasonable dialogue with you about the salary and working conditions. Work harder to meet your expectations

Most people who are given an opportunity to develop their career (or apply their skills in a new industry) will work harder to demonstrate to you that you made the right choice. They are also more likely to seek learning opportunities, and more likely to check in with you if they aren’t sure of something – both behaviours which give you the chance to mould and train them in your way of doing things.

Approach to teamwork is a bit different

Candidates who know they are being given a genuine opportunity to grow will often engage differently with their colleagues. They see that being part of the team is essential to both their learning and social survival at work and they want to be accepted and welcomed into the fold. Highly skilled and experienced candidates often don’t need that level of acceptance and can become ‘lone wolves’.

They will stay with you longer

Because the opportunity you’ve given them comes with a small learning curve, whether it be linked to skills, experience or industry knowledge, it also usually comes with a career opportunity in terms of a promotion at some point down the track once they’ve proven their value. And smart candidates know this, so they won’t blow the opportunity. Your preferred candidate may not be so loyal – after all, you were able to ‘buy’ them from someone else, so they could be bought from you just as easily.

‘Second best’ often turns out to be most suitable

Remember I said in the intro that just because something’s not the best doesn’t mean it’s not highly suitable and perfectly adequate for the situation?

This is true in most situations and is certainly true in recruitment.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of Ingroup bias and get swept off our feet by the candidate we think is ‘the best’ for all sorts of reasons we may not even consciously understand.

If you’re looking for budget control, loyalty, productivity, and a team player, you may be wise to look again at your ‘second best’ candidate.

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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