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What Works For Them

Survey sheds light on what makes a company look good to today's high-performing, highly critical college students in search of work.

Friday, March 2, 2007
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Considering the shortage of skilled workers, university campuses have become the latest battleground for corporate recruiters. While companies favor different marketing tactics, they all look to students for clues about which ones are the most effective and which ones showcase their companies in positive lights.

WetFeet Inc. recently shed some light on what students think about a variety of recruitment strategies and what influences their decisions to select one employment offer over another. The research and recruiting consulting firm in San Francisco published the results of two separate reports that focused on campus recruiting.

Its Campus Marketing Report 2006 compiled the comments of 60 undergraduates and M.B.A. students who participated in a series of online focus groups in February and March 2006. The other report -- WetFeet's 8th Annual State of Student Recruiting Report 2006 -- included the comments of 3,055 M.B.A. and undergraduate students who answered an online survey.

"One thing that always surprises me and was true again this year is that the campus-recruiting environment does change from year to year," says Steve Pollock, president of WetFeet. "Each time, we've come up with changes in the marketplace, how candidates are interacting with employers and what is really driving their decision process as they decide where they want to work."

So what recruiting tactics turn students on or off? Listed below are some key areas that the reports address.

But regardless of the campus environment, nothing beats a well-thought-out and well-executed campaign. According to these reports, the best campus recruiters were from companies that made a concerted effort to reach out to students, ranging from their Web site all the way through the interview process.

According to the ASSRR, candidates are indeed attracted to prestigious firms. But even the most reputable organizations have adopted the "We don't need you, you need us" attitude.

Pat Lloyd has seen this kind of arrogance at campus career fairs. As executive director of HR at BDO Seidman, a global accounting and consulting firm with corporate offices in both Chicago and New York, he has personally witnessed some chilling scenarios.

Some recruiters, he says, speak badly about their competitors and treat students differently based on the school they're attending. If students are not from a major university, for instance, they discount their accomplishments. Others try intimidation tactics, such as name-dropping of certain professors, or they tell students if they don't work for their company, it will be the biggest career mistake of their lives.

"We [on the other hand] acknowledge our firm as a second-tier accounting-consulting firm," says Lloyd, adding that it has about 2,300 employees. "We come from a humble perspective from the beginning."

He adds that all the firm's recruiting teams include partners who receive training in recruiting techniques. Because they may end up working side by side with some of the students they meet on campus, he says, there's no room for arrogance. They're also more invested in getting to know candidates as opposed to full-time company recruiters who never work with the students they refer or hire.

Michael C. Meng, a recent college graduate who now works as an investment banker at Lazard Freres in New York, recalls one prestigious investment banking firm whose recruiters and senior executives were condescending to students.

"I got the feeling that they felt like we don't really need you to join our firm -- it's more that you guys want to join our firm," he says. "They are definitely losing out on quality candidates who just find them to be quite arrogant. I did not even bother interviewing at all. I didn't drop off my resume. I didn't care."

Besides arrogance, negative impressions also resulted from poorly executed events, ill-prepared representatives, recruiters who lacked sincerity or honesty, and companies that didn't follow up with candidates, according to the same report.

Other deadly sins reported by students: interviewing with a company representative who barely spoke English, calling a cab for a recruiter because he drank one too many during a luncheon interview, receiving a rejection letter after a verbal job offer and listening to a recruiter who only talked about himself, rather than the company or the job.

Getting To Know You

More in-house recruiters are using high-touch approaches, such as setting up small-group events and bringing candidates to their offices, which provides them with opportunities to interact with employees.

The CMR revealed that small-group events offered the biggest "wow!" experience for students this year and heavily influenced their career decisions. They've become a vital part of recruitment campaigns at all levels.

"One of the main trends we've seen is a much heavier reliance on high-touch recruiting, both at the M.B.A. level and undergraduate level," says Pollock. "The kinds of things that really impressed candidates again and again were often little touches that aren't costly but do require a real commitment to recruiting and interest in the candidate's welfare, such as a phone call at night before the interview, a handwritten note inviting someone to attend an information session or a follow-up call after the interview."

Other recruiters might ask students to attend company-sponsored workshops on topics such as interviewing, or they may call students after learning more about their academic achievements and extracurricular activities.

Ed Bernier was also impressed with companies that returned his calls.

"When they don't, it's a huge turn-off for me," says Bernier, a recent M.B.A. graduate and associate marketing manager at McNeil Consumer Health Care in Conshohocken, Pa. "It's an even bigger turn-off when they come back and say they're busy. We're all old enough to understand that everybody's busy. It tells me that [I'm not] important to them."

Still, phone-calling can be just as informative for the recruiter.

Every year, Meghan Lantier, a senior account executive at Bliss Gouverneur & Associates, receives about 60 resumes for entry-level and account-executive positions at the public relations firm in New York. Unless there's a glaring problem on a resume, she calls almost every candidate for a 10 minute pre-interview.

"I like to hear what their voice sounds like on their cell or home phone," she says, adding that entry-level recruiting is not experience-driven but chemistry-driven. "Students aren't coming out of school with all that much experience. A resume doesn't tell you who a person is."

These pre-interviews help her learn more about each candidate's personality and enable students to get a much better idea about the firm's culture and work environment. In those 10 minutes, she's also able to assess how well they may be able to work on teams or on their own.

"That's the most important thing you can do -- talk to people one-on-one," she says. "As we become more of a technology-based society, it's really important."

Killer Mistakes

Recruiters might be surprised to learn the things they do that can send the wrong message. If equipment breaks during a presentation, for example, students sometimes interpret that as a case in which the recruiter didn't care enough to test the equipment beforehand and, therefore, doesn't really care about the school or its students, states the CMR.

Bad interviewers can also cause trouble. Based on the same report, the most common mistakes included rude and even illegal behavior by recruiters. Horror stories typically share the same ending: students drop the employer from consideration.

For instance, WetFeet's ASSRR reported one M.B.A. student's tale of how a manager of a major global company requested a second interview but postponed it a few times, then just disappeared. Another M.B.A. student declined a job offer from the same company because its interviewers tried to sell her on a job in a different division that she had not applied for, nor did she want.

But perhaps the worst offender of all was an interviewer with an investment banking firm who stated to an undergraduate business student "that the culture of investment banking required more manliness than the average woman possessed."

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Other companies need to conduct a reality check. As an Asian-American female, Angela Lee, an M.B.A. student at the Columbia Business School in New York, is interested in companies with strong diversity programs surrounding gender and race. That was one of the reasons she attended a two-day event hosted by a national consulting firm that promoted diversity and introduced students to 30 different senior partners.

But there was one small problem.

"Not one of them was female," she says. "Ninety percent were Caucasian. They threw diversity in [their presentation], but it was apparent. The proof was in the pudding."

Students can sense when recruiters are insincere. No campus recruiter is above reproach. The report recommends that companies conduct mandatory interview training for all interviewers and carefully screen and select representatives who are enthusiastic about their jobs and can offer students positive impressions of their companies.

Information Sharing

According to the CMR, students are relying on company Web sites more than company brochures as their main source of information. The report says students pay little attention to brochures because they typically offer less information than Web sites, aren't updated as often, aren't interactive and are often saccharine-sweet.

The on-campus information session has also lost some of its market share and importance, due, in part, to other tactics such as small-group sessions, says Pollock at WetFeet. While information sessions can prompt some interest, he says, it's not enough to persuade prospects to come on board.

What's more, recruiters no longer need to address their companies' histories at such sessions. "You should assume that everybody who's seriously interested in your company has been to your Web site -- don't waste time on that stuff," he says. "What they really want to know is what it's like to work for you, what your people are like and what they can do to succeed in the interview process."

That's why BDO Seidman sponsors informal student gatherings, such as tailgate parties, where recruiters talk about their two favorite topics: the firm and football, says Larry Oberst, an assurance partner there who also participates in campus recruiting in western Michigan.

Likewise, during finals week, the firm sends accounting students and their professors a survival basket, filled with fruit or specialty coffee and baked goods. He says recruiters always share information about the firm's jobs, programs and career opportunities with professors in hopes they will speak favorably about the company to students who may one day become employees.

Because the firm's partners also help in the recruitment process, he says, they're able to answer specific job-related questions from students, giving them a realistic idea about what it's like to work for the company.

"There's constant one-on-one contact in more relaxed and informal settings," he says. "It's not just a one-and-done scenario. It gets back to [showing] them we have an interest in them as people, too."

New York-based L'Oreal USA Inc. foresaw this same shift in recruiting practices (interests) years ago and changed its integrated marketing campaign for campus recruiting, says David Greenberg, the company's senior vice president of HR.

Called, "To Build Beauty, We Need Talent," the campaign includes an information session where attendees receive product samples, listen to a senior executive who shares some strategic aspects of the business and watch a company video that focuses on the company's products, models, advertising, strategy and research. Afterward, students chat with a handful of senior executives and junior managers during a one-hour meet and greet.

According to Greenberg, students who attend information sessions usually have preconceived ideas about a company.

So these sessions need to elevate their knowledge by introducing them to the real world -- the company's business challenges, products, culture and people.

"We're trying to build our future," he says. "Our future really starts with this effort ... . Each year, we try to look for the best, the compelling, most astute and curious people that we can find on campus."

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