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Engaged from the Get-Go

A positive online job-application experience can have a powerful effect on new employees' views of the organization. Same goes for a negative experience.

Friday, September 16, 2011
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Laura Middaugh knows that if you want to find out if your organization's online-application process has any flaws, you just need to ask an applicant.

Such feedback, says Middaugh, HR vice president of operations and recruiting at PODS Enterprises Inc., recently helped the company streamline a portion of its hiring process and select a more appropriate assessment for call-center candidates.

"Looking at the process holistically, we came back with some surprises," she says.

While Middaugh and her team at the Clearwater, Fla.-based provider of moving and storage services initially thought they knew the correct competencies necessary for call-center positions, it was only after talking to candidates that she realized there was a mismatch. That feedback led her team to re-examine the assessments they were using for the positions and shave off a portion of the application that was deemed unnecessary.

Mining applicants' experiences in this fashion can not only be a quick way to improve the recruiting process for many organizations, but it can also go a long way in giving applicants a positive view of the organization.

As hiring experts have long said, it takes only a few short moments for an interviewer to form an opinion about a candidate during a typical job interview. But what's less considered -- although just as true -- is that candidates are also forming quick, yet strong, opinions about the organization, based on how they feel they're being treated throughout the application process.

Companies stand to greatly benefit in the long run by improving candidates' online experiences, says Gerry Crispin, co-founder of CareerXroads, a staffing-strategy consultancy based in Kendall Park, N.J. These experiences are "a vital link in the employment process," he says. 

"In the last two decades, through the use of HR scorecards, we are seeing that employee engagement heavily correlates with the future performance of a corporation," Crispin says. "And a logical extension of that is, if a new hire comes in [to an organization] highly engaged, then you're going to move [that person] into the organization as an engaged employee much easier and faster."

Crispin is a co-founder of the first-ever Candidate Experience Awards, which are scheduled to be presented at the upcoming HR Technology® Conference in Las Vegas on Oct. 4. The awards are intended to recognize organizations that have set a high bar for their own job-application processes.

"Only 25 percent of companies on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list actually let applicants know when a job closes," he says. "And none of them make any promises on how they will treat candidates or what they can expect."

Elaine Orler, president and co-founder of Talent Function Group in San Diego and a co-founder of the Candidate Experience Awards, says the most forward-thinking organizations are taking pains to ensure that all candidates have a positive experience -- regardless of whether they're ultimately hired -- because negative ones can linger long after positions have been filled.

"A negative experience breeds contempt and a fostering of perpetual lack of interest in the organization," she says.

And those negative sentiments can be easily spread: Orler, who will be co-presenting at the upcoming awards ceremony with Crispin, says websites such as Glassdoor.com, Amplicate.com and Indeed.com offer job seekers forums for quickly sharing their candidate experiences -- positive and negative -- with others. And then there's Twitter, of course.

Although the rise of online recruiting has brought more attention to "the Black Hole" -- the abyss into which job seekers throw their resumes and applications and often get nothing in the way of replies -- technology can also be a great help, says Orler, providing more options than ever for HR to forge good relationships between companies and job applicants. "We just have not leveraged [them] well," she says.

Some companies are making the most of the latest technology by using informative, in-depth videos about open positions, or by sending candidates modeling tools that show prospective executives how their total rewards would stack up over time against competing offers.

Such tools, says Crispin, can go a long way to getting the best candidates to become the best employees.

"You either make it easy for me [the candidate] or not," he says, "and the harder you make it, the more I'm going to be reluctant to give you my all and be as engaged as you want me to be."

Know Thy Process

When it comes to the candidate experience, Crispin says, there are simple things that any HR organization can do to improve it.

First among them, he says, is to try walking a mile in the candidate's shoes. "Every recruiter should be regularly applying online to [his or her] company," he says. "And the first questions should be: 'Does [the process] work the way you intended? Is it doing what you thought it should do?' "

At PODS, trodding the candidate's path is the norm, says Middaugh. Recruiters go through the recruiting process approximately five times a year, proceeding through each step to ensure every link works and all the messaging is correct and up-to-date.

Middaugh adds that sending recruiters through the application process has helped tighten up the overall experience.

A recent run-through by a recruiter led to a tweak to the process' entry message in order to help applicants plan their time better, she says.

"There is a certain time commitment for this, and it really is better for someone to go through the process in one sitting," she says. "But otherwise, we really haven't had a lot of glitches, and we're lucky that we have some tools to ensure it's working as well as it is."

Another way PODS has improved its candidate experience is by offering a "realistic job preview" for call-center candidates in the form of a three-and-a-half-minute-long online video that gives them a peek inside the environment in which they would be working.

The video -- which applicants see right after clicking on the "Apply" button -- was prepared in partnership with third-party vendor SHLPreVisor and was rolled out this past December.

Middaugh says candidates learn about the company and its culture, then get a deeper look inside company walls through the video.

"It talks about the training and expectations you'll receive," she says. "You [learn] the things you'll be accountable for, as well as what you can expect from the company. The video has captured a very realistic depiction [of the job]."

Middaugh says the feedback from candidates about the video has been very positive to date and the company has just rolled out a new video for drivers, its largest current hiring need.

"What we've heard from [current employees who saw the video as applicants] is that it really was a good depiction of what they're living today. It gave them a better-educated idea of what they were getting into."

"The Hardest Part"

The candidate experience is, at the very start, a sales-and-marketing effort, says Scot Marcotte, managing director of talent and HR solutions in Buck Consultants' Chicago office.

Part of that marketing effort should include providing candidates with more information than just the basics about base salary and vacation days, he says. It should include "total reward offer letters" that sum up the "true value" of the potential compensation awaiting successful candidates -- including the value of the company's equity package, for example, so candidates can better compare it against other offers.

McKesson, the San Francisco-based healthcare-distribution and technology-solutions provider, emails select candidates interactive letters (using Buck Consultants' My Total Wealth online product) that include modeling tools to help them "play out some different scenarios" in terms of how the company's future performance would affect their future pay. (Other tools that let HR do this include TotalCompCalculator, from Rocklin, Calif.-based TotalRewards Software Inc.)

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"It helps get that candidate to think 'It's not just what I'll get today, but also my potential going forward,' " says Marcotte. "The candidate sees the entire picture."

Michael Philpott, McKesson's director of compensation, says that although My Total Wealth was originally purchased to show existing employees what their current holdings were in a year-over-year basis, McKesson quickly found it had other uses as well.

"One of the things we realized after we built this was that it would be great to utilize some of the same functionalities for external populations, for people we were hiring into the executive-level range," he says.

Approximately 200 positions -- out of 40,000 across the Fortune 15 company -- fall into that category, Philpott says, and he has created a half-dozen such letters for high-level candidates to date.

"I'm able to create a profile of an external candidate and what they'd get offered for pay, bonuses, stock options, restricted stock and other long-term vehicles, and that essentially allows them to access My Total Wealth for a certain period of time, as a candidate. It brings to life the offerings we have as an organization."

Philpott calls the product "pretty darn successful" in transitioning the best candidates to employees.

"This is the little piece that says, 'Wow, they are serious about me,' " he says. "It's all about being effective and always asking the question: 'What more can we do to convince them that this is the place to be?' [The profile] might not be equal to what the candidate currently has, but they can see how the growth of McKesson has performed over the last several years, and it's really just about educating and selling. That's the hardest part."

Acknowledge and Appreciate

A majority of the recruiting systems available in today's market allow clients to turn on a feature that lets candidates check on their application's status, says Orler. However, many either forget to turn it on after going live or decide not to deal with any possible issues related to keeping applicants informed, she says.

That's not the case at Prudential Financial. The Newark, N.J.-based company, which receives 200,000 or so job applications annually, strives to close the communication loop with these applicants as best it can, says Kate Pullman, vice president of staffing operations.

"When you have such a high volume of candidates," she says, "you want to look at ways you can improve the experience for the most candidates possible. Everyone will have a different opinion -- some might apply and think they'll hear back tomorrow, versus other people applying and thinking it won't happen until maybe the following week."

To that end, every online applicant receives an immediate acknowledgement of receipt along with a thank-you message, says Pullman.

Prudential's online recruiting platform, built by Taleo and implemented in late 2009, also recognizes returning candidates.

"You can log back in and use your saved profile to apply for a different position, and that saves candidates time," she says, adding that another feature also allows candidates to check in to see where they stand in the hiring process.

But what if a candidate isn't selected? Does the Black Hole then swallow their application?

"We're also communicating with them, as well," she says. "Candidates who are interviewed and not selected are typically informed of their status by a phone call from the recruiter. If they're not selected to interview, they'll receive an email communication so that no one's application is lost in the 'Black Hole.' "

In the end, Orler says, strategies such as Prudential's are the foundation for a successful candidate experience.

"It's about basic customer respect," she says. "Candidates just want to know: 'Are you interested in me or not?' It's better to be honest with the candidate and say, 'You don't need to wait for us.' There's a level of respect that's appreciated in that.

"If you're going to ask me, as a customer, to spend this time going through your application [process]," says Orler, "then I would hope there's an equal amount of time being spent on me somewhere along the line."

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