Are You Guilty of Recruiting Cliche Images?

Have you seen these people? The ones in the picture to the right? If you have, immediately call the marketing police and report their location. They are on the “Most Overused Stock Image Photo” list at

I’ve personally tracked the photo to eight HR-related sites where it shows up illustrating employee engagement, consulting services, headhunting, and a company’s commitment to diversity recruiting. I know there are more. Google has 19 pages of results.

Is your company among them?

A moment’s digression: Google has a new, handy image search that lets you drag an image into the search box to find where else it appears. You can also upload a picture, search by URL or, with the right extension, right click an image. Google explains it all here. has a dozen pictures on its list, which it put together as much in fun as to make the point that imagery is not immune to cliche. The images are all stock photos, available at little or no cost, which is one reason they’ve become so ubiquitous.  They are a cheap way to spice up a site.

The downside for recruitment marketers is that like elevator music, no one pays much attention. And when they do, instead of thinking “diversity” (in the case of our suspect picture), they think, “Now where did I see that photo before?”

I found it on the internship page of a company that boasts of being the “best of the best.” It may be, but consider the message communicated by the picture  (and, oh dear, the site has several more offenders). The message it sends is more along the lines of, “We’re just like everyone else.”

Is that what you want candidates to remember? Think of another cliche, the one about a picture being worth 1,000 words. Behind that trite expression is an enormous amount of research that all says the same thing: Images evoke a more powerful response, and are more easily recalled than words.

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You can probably guess why. We see the image first, then zero in on parts, just the opposite of how we read. In a journal article a few years ago noted market researcher Dr. Alan Braithwaite, managing director of Ignition Marketing Research, explained it more scientifically:

Images have an immediate impact, as they are perceived holistically rather than in the linear-sequential fashion of verbal accounts. Whereas verbal messages are processed rationally and consciously, visual imagery is perceived and partially processed preconsciously.

You don’t have to be a market researcher, however, to appreciate the value of choosing images wisely. The web has plenty of sites with tips on how to select images. Here’s a simple starter from Brand Innovation Group.

Note the first point BIG makes: Fit images to the concept you are looking to communicate. I’ve sat in on enough meetings to know just how tempting it is to edit an idea, a concept, or a message to fit the image. This is especially true with logos, and thematic color choices.

I very clearly remember one heated creative discussion about choosing the “look and feel” for a website. The design team pitched hard one particularly attractive look. It was slick, modern, almost avant garde, with colors that popped. It was also totally inconsistent with the message we wanted to convey.

So here, in addition to the tips and advice from BIG and others you’ll find online, are mine:

  1. DO NOT choose images until you have written out the message and impression you want to convey. Writing it out will (literally) ensure everyone is on the same page. And it will keep you from backing down when the design team comes up with the wrong image.
  2. Avoid using images that have become Internet cliches. Search Google to see where else that cool, stock image appears. If it shows up more than just a few times, or if it shows up on other recruitment sites, don’t use it.
  3. Before going live, invite in employees not involved in the image selection. Instead of asking them what they think of the picture, show it to them in context, and ask about the impression the entire project conveys.
  4. Whenever you can, use real people. Have a photo day and engage your employees in shooting photos for the web site. Give them a photo credit online. Mount the best submissions and hang them where everyone can see.
  5. Be ruthless in your selection and your photo editing. It may be a great picture, but if it isn’t consistent with your message, it doesn’t get used.
  6. Change the imagery periodically. This is especially important to make sure the workers on your site are still your workers and haven’t moved on.
  7. Candids are better than posed.

John Zappe is the editor of and a contributing editor of John was a newspaper reporter and editor until his geek gene lead him to launch his first website in 1994. He developed and managed online newspaper employment sites and sold advertising services to recruiters and employers. Before joining ERE Media in 2006, John was a senior consultant and analyst with Advanced Interactive Media and previously was Vice President of Digital Media for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Besides writing for ERE, John consults with staffing firms and employment agencies, providing content and managing their social media programs. He also works with organizations and businesses to assist with audience development and marketing. In his spare time  he can be found hiking in the California mountains or competing in canine agility and obedience competitions.

You can contact him here.


6 Comments on “Are You Guilty of Recruiting Cliche Images?

  1. Ah yes: the happy, attractive, diverse (professionally dressed and groomed) 20-somethings- screams conservative company trying too hard to show it’s not controlled by white men from upper-class/upper-middle class backgrounds.
    Out here in the Bay Area, they some times “tweak” the image to show some South Asian or East Asian individuals.

    A variation we also have here is the happy, attractive, diverse (casually dressed and dishevelled- someimes with a little ink or piercings to show extra “coolness”) 20-somethings controlled by younger white men from upper class/upper-middle class backgrounds. Ditto: the tweak for the startups founded by Asians or Asian Americans.

    I hope in vain for some occasional irony, humility, genuine humor. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect corporate websites to generate these, any more than you Gentle Readers should expect me to generate them….


  2. Images on career sites and materials can be a real headache. We used to shoot our own (expense of sending a photo crew round the world to ensure authenticity) and use models (due to issues related to employees’ image rights) and use to do pre-launch material tests in key locations. Even this approach didn’t protect us from occasional upsets – notably the young model we used for one asian grad shoot becoming a TV star during the campaign life thereby ruining the illusion they were an employee).

    There is one other point that the material test taught me – viewers like to see images that reinforce their perceptions of what it is like to work in such a firm. I remember one image shot on a trading floor having a Starbucks cup on the desk. At graduate level the research results clearly showed a group of the target market thought this was too informal for the type of job portrayed.

  3. Stock photos of employees are misleading and tacky, but so are real photos of actual employees. Employees tend to be transient and some fall out of favor. So pictures of them have to be edited out causing the whole “Group Shot” having to be re-shot.

    You’re better off using animals and clay-figures…with taste, of course. Didn’t Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin (dates me) have stunt doubles and triples?

  4. The transient nature of employees Valentino mentions, and legal issues with people owning their image rights is why we used models. I do like the idea of using good illustration. It could be easier to create a house style and testing / prototyping would be quicker.

    You get similar issues with video. For the quality standards that we needed on the corporate website we budgeted USD6000 for a simple video filmed in a studio against a plain background or USD40,000 for one shot ‘in the field’. If the employee left you had to pull the film immediately, and schedule a replacement.

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