The Hype of Candidate Engagement and Candidate Experience

It seems that 2016 was the year when recruiters fixated on improving candidate engagement and the candidate experience. There were hundreds of articles and reports on candidate engagement, awards, and at least one conference devoted entirely to discussing it. There is nothing wrong about wanting to make the experience a candidate has friendlier or in making it easier to apply for a job. I know all too well how frustrating it can be for a candidate to navigate the typical career site, learn about and apply for a suitable position, and then find out that all his or her work went into a black hole. Most career sites and recruiting processes are designed for administrative ease or for the recruiter and are not seamless or simple for a candidate.

But, if we are going to improve the candidate experience or make them more engaged, wouldn’t it be nice to start with a clear definition of what engagement or experience are? And wouldn’t it also be useful to know if a positive experience results in any tangible improvement in the number of hires made per candidate or in the quality of hire (another ill-defined term)?

If recruiters and our profession ever hope to taken seriously, we must become more scientific and disciplined in what we focus on. We need measurable definitions, large samples of data, useful metrics, and longitudinal studies to support our claims. Today we do not have that.

Many Definitions — None Useful

To start, what does it mean when we say a candidate is engaged or that they have a good experience? Is it that they have click on more links, view more videos, or watch them longer, or is it the amount of time a candidate stays on the career site? Maybe it is how fast they get a response to their application or whether they can talk with a recruiter? We don’t know which, if any, of these are important. We have numerous adjectives to describe the characteristics we think are associated with engagement — words that define attitudes, behaviors, culture, and the interplay between these. But none are definitions. And none can be measured.

I know many recruiters say that this doesn’t matter. It is more about “I know it when I see it.” And many recruiters say they when they speak with candidates they learn that response time, having good videos about the positions, and so on made a difference. But do we know if they did or not? Maybe the candidate was just saying that because we asked a leading question or because they don’t know themselves.

No Objective Measures

There is no evidence that any measures of engagement or experience have predictive validity — evidence that if you measured them today (however you choose to do it or whatever definition you use) the results would predict that something similar would happen in the future.

The two most common ways engagement/experience are justified are:

Expert opinion and anecdotes: Stories abound about how a specific approach led to more candidates or better candidates. No one defines “more” or “better” in any meaningful way. Some people swear that videos resulted in more candidates or higher quality candidates. Others on some other approach.

None of these are supported by quantitative evidence nor are the approaches recreated and validated by others. Experts have written articles about the value of more engagement, but none produce any objective measures to prove it and, in fact, most do not even bother to define what they mean when they say engagement or experience. Statisticians consider this type of evidence the least reliable and of the lowest quality.

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Survey data: Surveys of candidates are common. Awards are based on the results of surveys that ask recruiters a set of questions about their process and candidates about their experience in getting hired, what attracted them, what made them more interested, or what excited them. This is used as evidence that several factors are important — speed of response, quality of information and so on.

Surveys such as these are biased, ask leading questions, are rarely complied by qualified statisticians, and are completed by a narrow set of respondents. All they do is cloak the stories and anecdotes with a veneer of what seems to be objectivity. They are of no real scientific value.

If engagement or experience were to be objectively measured it would require a measurable definition and then either objective, third-party research with a control group or a longitudinal study involving a large sample complied over time to see what makes a difference. I have seen none of these done, and it would be tough to do it, which is most likely why it has not been done.

Closing Rates

Does having a good experience or being engaged result to more people being hired from a given set of candidates? Where is the evidence that this is the case? Any single recruiter can make that claim, but is it verifiable? Does it apply year after year? Does it apply to more than one recruiter/firm? Can we make a generalization from it?

Candidate Quality

Does having a good experience or being engaged result in better candidates? How do we define quality? Again, there is no accepted, measurable definition of candidate quality that I have seen. There are mounds of anecdotes, but there were mounds of anecdotes and case studies proving that sanitariums and sunshine cured tuberculosis. Anecdotes are not evidence.

We are a long way from showing that a positive experience or engaged candidates are any better than those who were not particular engaged or from those who had a bad experience. Spending time and money on unproved theories is not only wasteful, it can divert us from doing things that make a bigger difference — learn about the business, anticipate future needs, build relationships, and work with hiring managers to set realistic requirements.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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6 Comments on “The Hype of Candidate Engagement and Candidate Experience

  1. Couldn’t agree more Kevin. Intuitively better candidate engagement and experience sounds good of course. But where is the evidence it actually makes the difference? We need tools that allow us to track candidate experience and compare to post-hire candidate quality. Lots of new survey and engagement tools. But I’ve only seen one (www.talenytics.com ) that links the experience a candidate has, and post-hire performance.

    1. I think the interview process is less important than the 90 day on-boarding period. Interview processes don’t have the reputation of being enjoyable, so candidates’ expectations aren’t that high to begin with. If the candidate chose your company, your interview process did its job by selling the next step. They had other options, so that’s a clear measure of how much it makes a difference. However, those first 90 days on the job are critical and can set the tone.

  2. Hi Kevin. In response to “I have seen none of these done, and it would be tough to do it, which is most likely why it has not been done.” then you might want to look at http://www.mysteryapplicant.com/ who do exactly that objective, long term, high sample size work. They’ve been going for some years and work with several large enterprises…so I would argue some organisations are maturing in this area and are taking scientific steps to understand and improve CX. I’d also be interested in what you think of The Candes who are also have use large sample sizes and have a data platform built specifically to mine for real insight.

    1. I know there is a large database but I am not sure what they are actually measuring. There is no generally agreed to definition of what candidate engagement means. It is a case of “I’ll know it when I see it.” Many of the questions are leading questions that no lawyer or data scientist would ask. I am a fan of making the application process seamless and of providing feedback. But I am not sure it makes any difference to candidate quality (whatever that means) or to better performance.

  3. This is a great article. I believe candidates should be treated fairly and with respect, but I haven’t seen where spending a lot of resources (yes, this includes Recruiters’ time) on the “experience” pays dividends. I don’t think anyone enjoys searching or interviewing for a job, no matter how fun or painless you try to make it. I think employers should spend their resources on treating their current employees well, as this is the main measure your company’s reputation as an employer is based on, not what the interview process is like. If you’ve got a great company that people love working for, people are more likely to apply with you, even if your interview process is not the best.

  4. Hey, Kevin. Another well-thought-out (and thought provoking) article highlighting a difficult measurement. While I realize that surveys are over-used and can be considerably biased based on your article, we are using two methods that are delivering results that are actionable (why survey if you don’t plan to (or can’t) do something with the information you receive, right?). We are in the healthcare space and we partner with Lean Human Capital to utilize quarterly candidate (and hiring manager) surveys. We survey both hired and not hired candidates. More importantly, we’re able to compare our results to those of over 500 organizations within our industry. Benchmarking helps us to know how we rank against other organizations and helps us to determine where to spend more of our time working to improve the candidate experience. The only downside of the LHC surveys is that the results are provided to us about a month after the quarter ends, so they are helpful when looking at trends, but are not real-time results. So, we’ve also adapted Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys that are typically used in retail sales to allow us to survey candidates at certain points during the hiring process (after recruiter phone interview, after manager interview, after offer, etc). These are done real-time (within 3-5 days of the action) and allow the candidate to provide a score as well as direct comments. Unlike Lean Human Capital results, these are not anonymous. We know not only who the recruiter was, but the candidate name, and for which position they were surveyed. We have the option of contacting them to try to improve the experience while they are still within the process. Why do we care so much about candidate experience? There are a number of reasons. Of course, we want to be an employer of choice with a positive reputation, but the more important reason is because a candidate’s experience will often dictate whether they choose to do business with us in the future. In our LHC surveys, we ask about whether they have shared their experience interviewing with us via social media. No surprise, those who have had less than positive experiences are more likely to share and are less likely to want to obtain services from us in the future. So, overall, we see the candidate experience as mission critical to our sustainability. We have implemented a vast number of changes in our recruitment process and experience over the last year. We have significantly improved our hiring manager scores and satisfaction throughout the past year and a half. So much so, that we’ve decided to survey hiring managers less this year (unless we start to see our scores decline or receive complaints from them). For us, 2017 will be the year we focus primarily on candidate experience.

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