If your company only seeks out—and 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’re people who have unconventional work histories and educational backgrounds, people returning to paid work after a hiatus, or people looking to move into a new career. Plus, these types of workers can increase diversity for your organization, offering new voices, skillsets, and perspectives.
In this guide, you’ll learn some strategies for attracting, assessing, and hiring high-potential nontraditional candidates with minimal risk. Let’s dive in:
Finding and recruiting nontraditional candidates
To find unconventional candidates, HR teams sometimes need to use unconventional methods. Here are some ideas:
Tip #1 – Tweak your job requirements
Go through postings that you have 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 #2 – Look for passive candidates in less obvious places
Active candidates will seek you out, apply on your website or portal, and are usually more available for interviews. Passive candidates are often 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 well in your messaging. You might even go so far as to directly state that you welcome applications from candidates re-entering the labor force or considering a new career.
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 – Use targeted social media campaigns for each type of unconventional candidate
Create several mini-campaigns on your social media channels, each one targeting one type of candidate background. You can make a simple landing page on your website for each type as well, linking to it in your social posts and setting up contact forms so that you know which campaign an applicant followed to your site. As your campaigns perform and yield data, you can alter course as needed.
Interviewing and hiring unconventional applicants
Resumes don’t provide a complete picture of what someone can do. This goes double for nontraditional candidates.
What looks like a sudden career change could have been years in the making. A gap in employment could be time spent as the primary caregiver for a dependent relative. Some of their most useful skills might have been acquired from experiences outside of work.
Here are some ideas on how uncover a clearer sense of what a nontraditional candidate brings to the table after they’ve applied:
Tip #5 – 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, invite nontraditional candidates to connect the dots for you here.
Tip #6 – 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.
(Specifically, cognitive tests assess a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt, solve problems, and process complex ideas. Personality tests provide insight into qualities like a candidate’s interpersonal preferences, temperament, and reliability. And motivation tests gauge a candidate’s work-related interests.)
Tip #7 – Try auditioning candidates in addition to interviewing
Auditions aren’t just for acting roles. A new trend among hiring professionals is to offer candidates the chance to prove themselves in a trial run (and sometimes these candidates are even reimbursed for their time). In fact, according to a LinkedIn report, 54% of hiring managers see job auditions among the most useful interviewing innovations.
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.
Tip #8 – Use situational interview questions to assess potential
Instead of asking candidates to share stories about their past experience, consider asking them situational questions that pose hypothetical scenarios relevant to the position and then ask the applicant what they would do. It’s the difference between asking “How have you dealt with bad communication challenges with co-workers in the past?” and “If a coworker wasn’t communicating well and causing delays in a project timeline, how would you handle the situation?”
Taking this approach can actually be more useful than asking about past experiences, for any kind of candidate. It allows you to hone in on the difficult scenarios they’re most likely to encounter in the role they’re applying for, which may be different than challenges they’ve encountered in the past.
Tip #9 – 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, then it’s possible they don’t know what they’re getting into or aren’t taking this new stage in their career seriously.
Tip #10 – Proactively suss out soft skills
According to a LinkedIn study, 89% of talent professionals say bad hires typically lack soft skills. While identifying soft skill levels is more nuanced than doing the same for hard skills, it’s absolutely worth your time to evaluate for them—and hiring assessments are a great way to do so.
By casting a wider net and seeking unconventional backgrounds, you can find more workers who both qualify for the relevant hard skill assessments and also have unique experience with 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.
Onboarding nontraditional hires and keeping them around
After hiring an unconventional candidate, it’s critical to help them transition smoothly into their role and your company culture. Here are a few ideas on doing that:
Tip #11 – Use pre-employment assessment results to tailor your onboarding approach
Hiring assessment results can offer insights into candidate’s preferred learning styles that can guide you throughout any hiring and onboarding process.
For example, a personality assessment can provide insight into whether a candidate prefers to read through a manual or watch a video series or retains knowledge best from a hands-on approach with a teacher.
Tip #12 – Pair them with the most appropriate mentor
Mentored employees feel more positively about their organization and more committed to their career, which is good news if you’re worried that an unconventional hire will make another career change soon. Mentoring is also proven to reduce turnover and can lead to more diverse and dynamic team structures.
Be tactical about the pairings as much as possible. Pair workers returning to the workforce after a hiatus or making a big career shift with veterans who have similar backgrounds.
Tip #13 – Bake in a few beginner mistakes—and plan ahead for them
Not even the very best nontraditional hire will perform perfectly right out of the gate.
Employees in training who are getting used to a new position need to be allowed to stumble a little (with you there to lift them up). You don’t want them to feel so much pressure to prove themselves worthy that it makes it difficult to perform their role.
Describe the typical learning curve as you see it and be clear about expectations and the interventions in place to help them grow. Taking the time to help nontraditional hires learn from their mistakes upfront will help ensure a more stable career path within your organization for the long term.
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.