How to handle high numbers of job applications

People Management collates advice and tips from recruiters and other people professionals to help organisations prepare for unprecedented levels of hopeful candidates

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly caused widespread upheaval to the UK labour market. Those who were lucky enough not to be among the tens of thousands of people made redundant to date as a result of the national lockdown may instead have been one of the 9.6 million workers furloughed, or else had their hours slashed or workloads increased.

Such an unprecedented level of disruption naturally means those who have lost their jobs, or whose current roles have become untenable, are actively looking for other opportunities, so organisations looking to advertise a job should expect a lot more applicants than normal. 

Examples of hugely inflated numbers of hopeful candidates have been appearing in the media since widespread redundancies began occurring; the most recent of which was a receptionist role at a Manchester-based diner, which received over 1,000 applications in 24 hours. The same was also true for an independent brewery in Leeds, which was shocked to discover 1,000 CVs had flooded in for one packing vacancy.

The situation, further exacerbated by the imminent winding down of the furlough scheme in October, may signal good news for those looking for a new hire. But it could also prove to be an overwhelming task for unprepared employers. So what can HR do to make the process as smooth as possible?

Clearly outline your expectations in the job description

Making a change to standard or “outdated” processes is the first step in any successful job posting, says HR consultant Steve Carpenter. For example, shifting from essential and/or desired requirements to specific outputs will help to whittle down candidates. “Ask for examples of how they have achieved similar outputs in current or previous roles,” says Carpenter, adding: “Care needs to be taken to ensure the process is not too cumbersome and onerous, but a slightly more thorough application process can help ensure candidates really are interested in applying and are suitable.”

Suzanne Hurndall, relationship director at HR Inspire, suggests giving candidates a score against the requirements outlined in the job description. “Having solid cut-off points can prevent you from wasting your time with candidates who just aren’t a fit,” she says. 

“While it’s unlikely all the candidates will meet all your criteria, you can still identify your strongest ones by giving them a score. Try a simple ‘1, 2, 3’ scoring system to denote how they score against your criteria of mandatory, essential and desirable.”

And Jane Middleton, co-founder of Trapeze HR, adds that a human approach is always necessary, especially in the current climate: “Put very specific requirements on your job advertisements so the blow of not being successful is lowered for the applicants and constructive feedback can be given.”

Be prepared and automate where possible

It’s more important than ever for companies to ensure they plan their recruitment process in advance and in as much detail as possible, according to Carpenter. “Given the current market conditions, and with many companies either making redundancies or planning to, the market seems very candidate heavy,” he says. “Organisations should take into consideration that they are likely to receive a high volume of applications for any role they advertise, and if they are managing the recruitment themselves, they should dedicate enough internal resources to manage the process efficiently.”

Hurndall also highlights that planning should involve a well-thought out shortlisting process to help identify the skills needed for the role, but stresses this process doesn’t have to be manual. “If you’re expecting a high volume of applicants, you can automate this process. Using keyword identifying tools you can automatically weed candidates out who don’t meet your basic criteria,” she said. “Automated response and tracking software uses algorithms that can review and evaluate applications, saving time and paperwork.”

Invest in an applicant tracking system

While receiving lots of applications from strong candidates can be exciting, reading through an endless pile of CVs can be overwhelming. But technology can help make this a more manageable task, says Hurndall. “Different tools and apps can be used at any step of the recruitment process to help to pick up the slack where you need it most,” she says, suggesting employers use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to stay on top of volume recruitment processes. 

“Using pre-employment assessments can also make screening faster, more accurate and more efficient,” she adds.

If organisations are planning to deal with a vacancy internally, they must question whether they have the resource to handle a high volume of applications and how this will be done. “HR can very much help through the use of effective technology,” says Carpenter. “An ATS is an effective way to help manage high-volume recruitment processes, as opposed to more laborious manual processes.”

However, Ant Cohen, senior HR consultant at Macmillan Davies, points out that technology isn’t always the answer, arguing that manual reviews can easily be done. “It’s a simple process of working through the applicants to look at duties and skillsets in line with the job brief and hiring manager’s requirements. Once you have a longlist of candidates you believe match the specifics, you can then review CVs in a lot more detail,” he says.

Close the vacancy early if necessary

If a job posting has garnered a high level of responses in a short space of time, keeping it open isn’t kind to either the applicants or the hiring manager responsible for sifting through them, says Middleton. “Put the shutters down when applicants reach a desired level,” she says. Hurndall also suggests keeping the application window short from the start to alleviate the need to close an advert prematurely. “Having a shorter amount of time for applicants to apply can prevent a huge number of people applying,” she says.

But Cohen also warns that closing a posting early must depend on the quality of the applicants, and should ideally happen after a review of the CVs, or if a large number of high calibre applicants has been received.

Respond to every applicant

Getting back to applicants is a common courtesy that should be afforded, even if they are in their thousands. Carpenter acknowledges that it may not always be possible to provide personalised feedback to every candidate, but companies need to “take the human element into account.

“Acknowledging applications with a confirmation of receipt email and sending polite rejection emails, even if automated, will be appreciated, as will providing personalised feedback where possible, ” he says, warning that high applicant levels is not an excuse for poor practice.

Middleton also urges employers to remember the human side of recruiting and the negative effects of ignoring applicants: “Not bothering to get back to applicants is incredibly damaging to their self worth and confidence, and you can’t treat people like that.”

“Organisations need to remember there is a person behind the application that probably spent hours responding to your job advert,” she adds.

A lack of response, says Hurndall, can have an undesired effect on your company’s employer brand. “Candidates who receive a polite response are more likely to have a better perception of your company as opposed to those who do not get a reply,” she explains. 

“Remember that the recruitment process is a two-way street. While a candidate might initially be interested in working for your business, they may lose interest if they don’t enjoy the hiring experience.”