Spotting Potential in Job Candidates

Look for these skills and characteristics when hiring employees.

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Spotting Potential in Job Candidates

Here's what you need to know:

  • There are ways to spot someone with the potential to be a great fit for a job
  • Look at all your ‘must-have’ applicant requirements with an eye toward a tight market and revise your qualifications if necessary
  • Consider qualities over qualifications when hiring
  • Look for applicants who have the right personality traits to be successful in a role
  • Situational questions are the best for uncovering personality traits
  • It’s easier to upskill employees on systems than change their personalities

Finding an exact fit for an open position in any company is difficult. When market conditions are tight, it may be nearly impossible. Businesses that are hiring are facing unprecedented imbalances in talent acquisition. It’s estimated there are more than 4 ½ million more jobs available in the U.S. than candidates looking to fill them.

If you’re able to find a perfect fit for any job, you know it’s critical you hire them immediately — before someone else does. For the majority of your vacancies, however, you’re trying to find the best fit among the applications you receive.

Business leaders understand that shifting market conditions impact how they hire and whom. Expectations need to be adjusted to suit the available talent pool, but that doesn’t mean you should hire anyone. There are ways to adapt to market conditions that open the door to a wider range of applicants.

There are also ways to spot someone with the potential to be a great fit for the job. Examine what you need instead of what you want. Then balance that against a candidate’s potential instead of their credentials.

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Shift expectations when hiring job candidates

No, you’re not lowering your standards, you’re adapting to market conditions. Three to 5 years’ experience was the norm when applicants were plentiful, today it’s limiting. Is there a real difference between performing a job successfully for 1 year versus 3?

Either the applicant can do the work or they can’t — the timeline is arbitrary. Look at all your ‘must-have’ applicant requirements with an eye toward a tight market. Are they ‘must-haves,’ good to have, or obsolete?

Update your screening processes to adapt, as well. If you’re using an applicant tracking/screening program, revise your qualifications. It’s always been a best practice to look through candidates the software has eliminated to assure you’re not over-screening. In today’s market, those applicants may be your next effective hire.

Consider qualities over qualifications when hiring

To find candidates with potential, look for characteristics that make for a successful worker. For each position there may be different traits that fit the bill. A person in accounting will need to be meticulous in their work. Advertising professionals need a creative spirit.

What are the priorities for the vacancy — what kind of personality is/was the most successful in that role? Then look for applicants who meet those needs to make a great match.

Situational questions are the best for uncovering personality traits. Ask applicants to give you examples of how they responded to a circumstance you propose.

For some entry-level applicants, you may need to ask them how they dealt with a situation in school or among friends. For those with work experience, look for content over context.

Situational questions are the best for uncovering personality traits.

You’re not looking for the mechanics of how they got it done — you’re looking for the mindset of how they managed the event. Here are some traits you may be targeting and how to uncover candidates with potential.

Quick study

Learning a task quickly, then graduating on to the next is critical for some jobs. For others, a longer learning curve isn’t just acceptable, it’s required.

If you’re looking for a quick study, ask the candidate about times they’ve had to pick up something quickly. Ask how they went about memorizing the steps, why or if they had to ask for help, and how long it took them to feel confident performing the task on their own.


Some positions require laser-focused workers that aren’t easily distracted. Finding workers who are meticulous can be challenging. If you need to find someone who doesn’t let chaos sidetrack them, ask how they’d work under conditions common in your organization.

Ask for examples of how they’re able to filter out distractions or noise when working. If they don’t have a lot of work experience, ask if they needed a quiet spot in the library to do homework, or if they were able to work with their siblings blasting the TV in the next room.


Every employee encounters problems on the job; not everyone is able to assess the situation and come up with an effective solution. Front-facing employees often have to deal with difficult customer requests. Mid-level staffers may have to juggle multiple priorities.

Here you’re looking for examples of a problem the candidate encountered and how they came up with a solution. You may suggest a problem — again, something they’re likely to encounter on the job — and ask how they would respond.

Fast-paced/good under pressure

If your business runs on adrenaline, you’ll need someone who isn’t easily frazzled by a fast-paced, high-pressure environment. Ask the applicant to tell you about times they were confronted by a high-pressure situation and how they responded.

If they can’t think of 1, cite an example of something that occurs within your company. Their responses will tell you whether or not this type of situation sparks them or shuts them down.

Time management

If we could actually manage time, we’d be able to stop it and get some work done. Time management isn’t actually possible, but managing available time is important for some jobs. If this is a necessary skill for the role, start with questions on how they’re able to effectively use their time.

You might suggest a situation where the candidate may have to prioritize 1 task over another. Look for insight into whether they’re more apt to handle quick tasks immediately and leave longer projects on the back burner.


Leadership continues to be a nature versus nurture argument. Are people born leaders or can leadership be trained? If you need a leader today and don’t have the time to train them, ask about situations where they had to take charge.

Ask for details on what prompted them to step forward, how others responded to their taking the helm, and how or if they enjoyed the experience. If an applicant can’t offer an example, that may suggest they’re more comfortable in a non-leadership role.

Finding validation for a job applicant’s potential

Some companies use personality tests to find the characteristics needed for a role. These can be basic to highly complex.

It’s easier to upskill employees on systems than change their personalities.

If you’re not confident that interview responses have told the entire story, they’re a great way to validate the applicant’s potential. Look for areas where the applicant scores well on the traits you need, but don’t overlook any possible red flags.

It’s easier to upskill employees on systems than change their personalities. Anyone can learn Excel; not everyone is a quick study.

Your job is not to turn an introvert into a commanding leader — it’s to find where the introvert can work successfully. Hiring for potential means finding an applicant whose work ethic and personality is the right fit, then training them on the nuts and bolts of getting the job done.

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