Message to Recruiters: Get a Grip on Candidate Experience

dance-couples-silhouettes--vectorGame or Dance?

There are many metaphors for the hiring process. It can be a game, where candidate and recruiter square off and move strategically across a game board to see who is still standing at the end. Probably the least combative metaphor is of recruiting as a dance, with each side going through their well-rehearsed moves to finish the choreography in synch. In this scenario the goal that both parties want is a beautifully danced number that leads to a job offer (and a position filled from the perspective of the recruiter).

Recruiting Past, Present & Future

Back in the day recruiting (now called talent acquisition) was a manageable process. Companies would post a position in the Sunday paper and on Monday applicants would type up cover letters and resumes on their trusty typewriter, place these items into a manila envelope, and mail them to the address in the add. Or for lower level positions, applicants would begin showing up Monday morning to fill out paper applications (and later electronic applications on PCs in the HR office).

This process naturally meant you had to get the paper on Sunday and spend time combing through the job ads, circling ones you felt qualified for, then going through the very manual process of typing a formal cover letter. Because this was such a cumbersome process, which I don’t think any of us want to go back to, and tended to limit applicants to locals, the flow of applications was manageable.

There was a polite and structured process that people understood. Rejection letters, although often curt and unhelpful even then, were sent out in a timely manner. Waiting for news from a company has always been a painfully slow process, but in the pre-digital age, there was an understanding of how long it should take.

During this era there weren’t many phone interviews, so a series of face-to-face interviews were part of the screening and selection process. Since the rhythm of business was in synch with the technology of the day, a cadence for the hiring process was maintained and communication was simpler. With fewer applicants to manage, employers could maintain a cordial and open communication with an applicant, who typically knew within a couple of days whether they would move on to the next step in the process.

Things are dramatically different today. Almost no one sends a paper resume and cover letter, and if they do, they are asked to go back through the online applicant portal so that they’re “in the system.” The system, then, is where hundreds of possible candidates for a single position upload their credentials into an online database that recruiters can search to find the best matches.

Technology allows recruiters to search through countless online resumes for key words to find individuals who have used those particular key words in their resume. Then it’s a process of elimination, where the recruiter begins de-selecting candidates by taking about 30 seconds to evaluate on computer screens, narrowing it down to under a dozen manageable candidates that they want to screen more formally.

Today’s Talent Acquisition Game

And this is where the game begins. The recruiter makes contact with the candidate, usually by phone, but increasingly by email, and starts the series of moves that will either get the applicant closer to a job offer or trigger a rejection letter (another email).

For most companies, especially larger ones with a well-oiled recruiting process, the steps and applicant typically goes through include 1) Some type of online questionnaire or behavioral/personality assessment; 2) A structured phone interview; 3) A face-to-face interview with the recruiter; 4) A face-to-face interview with the hiring manager and/or group of stakeholders; and, if successful 5) A job offer.

There are variances in this process, of course, depending on the level of the position and the rigor of the company. At any point along the way, the candidate can be eliminated from further consideration.

Some companies do a fairly good job of communicating with candidates throughout the process. The candidate experience is a proactive consideration for these employers who understand that how they treat applicants, especially as they get further in the screening process, impacts their brand image. If a company really wants to control their brand image they will take the candidate experience seriously.

From the candidate experience perspective, these five things make the process painful:

  1. Cumbersome process. I suppose, if the desire is to see who can survive to the end, a cumbersome process brings to the surface those candidates who are most resilient, patient, or desperate! But when our process is needlessly burdensome to the candidate, we really need to rethink what we’re doing and if it adds value to getting the right person into the job. A regular review from the applicants point of view may bring to light unnecessary steps or screening tools that are ineffective.
  2. Slow response times. Recruiters are busy. They have multiple positions to fill and dozens of applicants to screen. It’s understandable that it’s hard to keep applicants in the loop. But that’s when technology is our friend, reminding us how long someone has gone without feedback, or being scheduled for the next appointment, or sent a rejection letter. I know sometimes those delays occur because the recruiter is waiting for a decision from a hiring manager, or waiting for a background check report, or someone is out of the office for the week. The recruiter needs to be an advocate for the candidates, though, reminding everyone in the process that real people are waiting for them to decide or act. Send rejection letters promptly!
  3. Poor communication. We have so many communication tools available today, yet it doesn’t mean our communication has improved! For the person waiting for the phone call or email that determines the future trajectory of their career, lack of communication can mean days (sometimes weeks) on an emotional rollercoaster, wondering if the signs of encouragement from earlier conversations were delusional or empty promises. The key for recruiters is to give realistic timelines, track the time so that you don’t miss the promised deadline, and communicate proactively if something is delaying the process.
  4. Misleading or mixed messages. Sometimes recruiters give hope where there is no hope. They don’t want to let someone down, so they make it sound like things will progress to the next step in the hiring process when, in reality, they probably won’t. I realize there are times when a candidate is good, but maybe not great, and you may decide to take another look at them. The important thing is to see things from the candidate’s perspective and be honest with them. It’s OK to let them know you have other candidates who may be a better fit, but you will let them know within X days/weeks if you will continue to pursue them. And don’t be afraid to cut an interview short and say, You know what, I don’t think this is a good fit. Then at least you can see if any additional credentials or qualifications surface while the person is still in front of you. When you decide to pass on someone, give them 2-3 bullet points to either help them improve or encourage them in some way.
  5. Shoe-horned process. Often our processes are outdated and no longer fit the realities of today’s workplace, or pace. When we have assessments that have nothing to do with the job responsibilities, steps in the process that take more time than the value they create, or were added by an advocate who is no longer with the company, then the candidate experience will suffer and your organization’s brand will be tarnished. Whether a person is hired or not is only part of the issue. For every person hired there are dozens who started the process but were eliminated. How does your organization come across to these would-be employees? What will they say of their experience to future applicants, suppliers, or customers?

The candidate experience is, at best, an afterthought for many organizations. The churn-and-burn nature of talent acquisition leaves applicants feeling bewildered and frustrated, which can erode the brand of the companies they’ve applied to. I think most of us who apply for a position and never get contacted for an interview understand that there are so many competitors for a position that we don’t take it personally. But once a company invites us to the dance, we have expectations. If our toes get stepped on, or we get dumped for another partner, we are bruised.

Get a Grip!

Recruiters, get a grip on the candidate experience! Review the process regularly from the applicant’s point of view. You might even be brave enough to initiate a “voice of the candidate” survey! Listen to feedback and adjust the process to align your needs and objectives with the candidate’s. If your process is dehumanizing, reducing applicants to commodities to be sorted through, then you may be missing the boat when it comes to acquiring the best talent. Talent is not a commodity and the acquisition of talent is not a sport. It’s a way for humans to connect and determine whether one human can help another achieve goals while providing meaningful work. Recruiters need to keep this in mind to optimize the candidate experience in our complex work systems.

The Peter Principle Revisited

In The Peter Principle, author Laurence Peter describes a common occurrence in many organizations – people rise (or get promoted) to their level of incompetence. They do well in a position, whether operating equipment,  completing administrative tasks, or selling in a retail store. As a reward for their exceptional performance in that position they are moved up to the next level, usually some sort of leadership or management position.  Individuals in search of advancement apply for, and sometimes win, jobs they are not truly qualified for. I’ve seen it time and time again in every type of organization and the results are a serious problem in the organization. Not only is there the loss of efficiency, but the frustration and stress on both sides of the equation creates an atmosphere of paranoia and firefighting. When incompetence abounds due to bad hiring & promotion decisions employee engagement takes a big hit and chaos abounds as management works to clean up messes and keep employees focused and motivated.  

The wise organization takes an intentional approach to developing a career path for individuals. Understanding competencies, strengths and talents allows individuals and companies to prevent the Peter Principle from happening. Job descriptions get a bad rap, and many are poorly written, but when done right they can be used to ensure people do not rise or get promoted to their level of incompetence, but rather find where they have the greatest strength and talent and align their job responsiblities accordingly. Once someone is in a position where they cannot perform well, the emotional and productivity toll is hard to overcome.