If your company only seriously considers candidates who have conventionally impressive resumes, you're doing yourself a huge disservice.
As talent leaders know firsthand, nontraditional candidates often turn out to be incredible employees too—whether they have unconventional work histories and educational backgrounds, they're returning to paid work after a hiatus, or they're looking to move into a new career. Plus, these types of workers can increase diversity for your organization, offering new voices, skill sets, and perspectives.
Here are a few low-risk strategies for attracting, assessing, and hiring high-potential nontraditional candidates:
Tip #1 – Look for passive candidates in less obvious places
Many viable candidates are currently employed or in school but still (quietly) looking for a change or to jumpstart their career. To identify strong passive candidates, consider establishing an employee referral program.
Since passive candidates are more interested in salary, benefits, and work/life balance than opportunities to move up and more challenging work, make sure to cover those bases in your messaging. Consider directly stating that you welcome applications from candidates re-entering the labor force or considering a new career.
Tip #2 – Tweak your job requirements
Go through postings that you've used before and adjust the language to open the door to a wider range of qualifications.
For example, instead of "four-year degree required," you might say "four-year degree preferred, but we'll make exceptions for exceptional candidates."
Tip #3 – Reach out to schools and membership organizations
Universities and trade schools have programs tailored to nontraditional students, such as older adults completing a degree or taking on a new discipline. Find out which job boards and resources they make available to students and ask how you might actively engage in on-campus recruitment.
Especially if you're looking for workers with highly specialized skills, try reaching out to membership organizations related to that specialty; a national directory of professional associations can be found here.
Tip #4 – Invite cover letters that tell a story
Cover letters are an opportunity for candidates to tell their career story their own way – outside of the resume template or job application. If you're asking for cover letters anyway, explicitly ask nontraditional candidates to connect the dots for you here.
Tip #5 – Use the best possible hiring assessments, and weigh them more than you're used to
Pre-employment assessments are a consistently effective method for anticipating high performers and identifying the applicants to move to the next stage in the process. The objective data hiring assessments provide gives you a window into competencies and potential that aren't dependent on a conventional work history, background, or current position—and can reveal certain unconventional candidates to be a great fit for a role.
Tip #6 – Try auditioning candidates in addition to interviewing
Job auditions can reduce bias against nontraditional candidates by measuring actual performance in real time, which gives you a chance to see your candidates in action, interacting with your team. According to a LinkedIn report, 54% of hiring managers see job auditions among the most useful interviewing innovations.
Tip #7 – Ask the hard questions about how candidates will overcome potential knowledge gaps
Returning to a fast-changing industry or entering one without years of experience presents a problem. Not all aspects of the job can be replaced with parallel experiences. What will this candidate do to ensure that they can keep up?
In interviews, look for cues that your candidate proactively seeks out learning resources—and that they have ideas about a plan that might work for them. If they haven't already dedicated some mental energy to imagining themselves in the role before walking in the door, it's possible they don't know what they're getting into or aren't taking this new stage in their career seriously.
Tip #8 – Proactively suss out soft skills
According to a LinkedIn study, 89% of talent professionals say bad hires typically lack soft skills. By casting a wider net and seeking unconventional backgrounds, you can find more workers who both qualify for the relevant hard skill assessments and have strong soft skills. For example, a Computer Science teacher applying to manage a team of programmers may have more leadership and mediation skills than other traditional candidates thanks to all her years in the classroom.
Finding diamonds in the rough isn't as easy as rubber-stamping a candidate with a strong, conventional work pedigree. But if you keep an open mind—and you're smart about the way you recruit and assess these nontraditional candidates—you could be rewarded in a big way.