Definition by Elimination: Deconstructing the Candidate Experience

Last year, I took in a presentation led by the head of talent acquisition at one of America’s largest spirits and wine companies. In the presentation, we were guided through the speaker’s experiences transforming the company’s global recruiting organization to place greater emphasis on improving the candidate experience.

He traveled around the world, visiting different offices and meeting with their recruiting staff at each location. As the head of talent acquisition, during each visit, he’d meet with recruiters in the lobby and ask, “What would we have to do during the interview day that would guarantee candidates would never return our phone calls?”

After posing such a question, he was often met with bewilderment, blank stares, and furrowed brows. Not surprisingly, ‘Is this guy serious?’ was written on most of the faces he confronted.

As it turns out, he was serious, and his question made perfect sense. You see, often in life it is easier to state what you don’t want, rather than what you do. It’s definition by elimination, and more often than not, it just comes easier. His approach was shrewd and guided the company’s recruiters to a complete deconstruction of what could go wrong from start of the interview process to its end. The list flowed:

  • Book candidates in sub-standard hotels
  • Leave them stranded at the airport sans ground transportation
  • Provide transportation, but pick them up late
  • Have interviewers wander into the interview after their scheduled time
  • Have interviewers who are not prepared for the interview
  • Leave the candidate alone in a corner or a conference room between interviews
  • Ask them terrible questions during the interview
  • Take them out for a rushed lunch at a fast-food restaurant

You get the picture.

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The presenter explained that this approach facilitated a very detailed discussion and, more importantly, an actionable strategy for interview process dos and don’ts. The discussion participants developed a highly choreographed plan for a positive candidate experience (a topic I’m giving a workshop on at the annual ERE conference in Florida this fall). Before they knew it, it became standard practice to book candidates in quality rooms at the best hotels, and they were driven to the office by way of the most scenic city routes only. The end result was a fantastic candidate experience in which candidates felt valued.

When reassessing your own organization’s interview strategies, don’t be afraid to ask the same question. It’s worth moving past the blank stares to help define best practices for your company. You might also find that this approach will permeate and improve the whole recruiting process, as it did for the spirit and wine company.

Elaine Orler is president and founder of the Talent Function Group and chairman of The Talent Board, founding organization of the Candidate Experience Awards. Involved in developing and implementing HR solutions since 1993, she has worked with countless clients on dozens of global talent acquisition and management implementations to help them embrace new technologies aimed at improving internal processes and the candidate experience, a topic on which she’s regularly quoted in The Wall Street Journal. Contact her at


24 Comments on “Definition by Elimination: Deconstructing the Candidate Experience

  1. Interesting article but I am not sure that doing the opposite of a worst practice is the same as the best practice.

  2. Elaine, great article and interesting way to get to the root of the problem!

    Bob, also a good point to keep in mind – just because you’re not the worst doesn’t mean you’re the best! However, I think Elaine’s overall point is that if you start by examining “worst practices”, it then becomes easier to work backwards and establish what “best proactices” should look like. Then it’s simply working to optimize (easier said than done!).

  3. Nice technique to examine this important interaction.
    Candidate experience is a cornerstone of building a ‘brand’. The on-site interview is one event in the overall candidate experience. You really need to look at the entire ‘process’ from the moment the individual decides to be a candidate and connects with you until the decision to hire or not and continuing to the on-boarding.
    The sum of these interactions in the entire process is the ‘candidate experience’ not just the interview.

  4. Wonderful article Elaine. I heard the same presentation and cannot add anything (except for adding to a very long list of things to guarantee that a candidate will never return).

    This is an easy scenario for any staffing leader to facilitate with their team of recruiters. Once the list is generated it isn’t necessary to simply focus on reversing the item.

    The number one question IMHO is to first assess whether any of the items on the list are important enough to the firm’s success to NOT be happening. Then, ask for each “How do we KNOW its not happening?” What measure is in place or is it just a guess.

    We find that firms who assume, for example, that a ‘thank you’ response is automatically sent 100% of the time once a candidate submits their resume, are very often shocked to learn how wrong that is.

  5. Good article to pass on to potential employer interviewing candidate.

    Small companies may not realize who is really interviewing who….when it comes to “recruiting” talent.

    This new potential employee could be a great contributor to bottm line downstream.

    But, I would also add that company reimburse all travel expenses too.

    Look at it this way, would you give $2k to add a 30% increase to bottom line down the road?

  6. Great article Elaine. The reason why this approach was so powerful was its empathy with the candidate experience. So many recruiters simply tell candidates what they want them to hear. Empathy is the ability to truly look at the world through other people’s eyes and, when used effectively, it is the most powerful tool in a Recruiter’s kitbag.

    Simon Rowley

  7. I think this approach is useful to define the minimum requirements for a good candidate interview experience, but it won’t help an organization create a powerful or memorable candidate interview experience. Candidates expect an interview experience to include the common professionalism listed in the article (prepared and punctual interviewers, nice lodging and meals, being welcomed in general, etc).
    To create a memorable experience, an organization should focus on what motivates a particular candidate and what aspects of the position or company are most important to the candidate. If the candidate is interested in career paths, have them talk with a more senior employee about his/her progression through the company. If the candidate is focused on leading a healthly lifestyle, ensure he or she gets a tour of the workout facilities, a visit to the cafeteria, a chat with your wellness expert. If the candidate is a software programmer, make arrangements for him or her to visit the software lab and see demos of your products.
    Ensuring that the candidate’s basic needs are met is just the first step in a positive candidate experience. Personalizing the interview day can lead to a more influential experience.

  8. When trying to create a good candidate experience, consider what many “empployers of choice” do (difficult & time-consuming application processes, little/scattered/delayed feedback, large numbers of interviews filled with excessive quantities of poorly-trained/ill-prepared/indifferent interviewers, a tedious & SLOW hiring process, an atttiude of arrogance/condescension/superiority) and DO THE OPPOSITE.
    You should make sure that all candidates feel welcome and special even if you don’t hire them- that’s how Microsoft treated me, and I won’t forget it.

    Keith “Never Worked for Microsoft” Halperin

  9. Interesting. Questions of the team are one way to get feedback and insights. I bet it would have really been eye-opening had the executive simply done a self-test.

    I’ve seen executives who’d never put up with callous treatment as a candidate become some of the worst offenders once hired. They reconnected once I asked them to pose as a candidate and re-apply for a position as part of an internal audit.

    It was comical. One exec was asked by his direct reports to make himself available for up to six different interviews. A host of other issues came up, but he got stuck on how many times our company expected him to come back on his own time. (By the way, I asked him to complete the exercise so I could get him to champion change in his business unit – it worked!)

    Then I asked him if he could imagine being a candidate in the running for 2, 3, or more positions being asked the same thing. No way can a candidate easily justify the time away, especially during business hours, or take that much time off.

    I’m glad this exec shared his experience, but too few of decision-makers really put themselves out there as part of the problem and solution.

  10. @Darryl: That’s so common- people either didn’t have to go through the bad process or did and regarded it as an important test- “I did it, so should you!”
    Arrogance meets the Fallacy of Sunk Costs!


  11. Nice post Elaine. I completely agree with Jim Doherty, the candidate experience is building long before the actual interview process begins. I would challenge organizations to do the mentioned exercise on their entire recruiting process from cold calling, corporate career page, applicant process etc.

    It may shock your team to realize the hoops people are put through simply to submit a resume.

  12. Yes. The little things that can go wrong for the job interviewee can become big turnoffs. And if the actual interview experience is similar to that of the “Spanish Inquisition” then don’t count on a 100% job offer acceptance rate. In fact, count on the creation of an ANTI-AMBASSADOR who will feverishly share their terrible experience with you—the FORMER EMPLOYER OF CHOICE, with family and friends.

  13. Worth repeating…

    Yes. The little things that can go wrong for the job interviewee can become big turnoffs. And if the actual interview experience is similar to that of the “Spanish Inquisition” then don’t count on a 100% job offer acceptance rate. In fact, count on the creation of an ANTI-AMBASSADOR who will feverishly share their terrible experience with you—the FORMER EMPLOYER OF CHOICE, with family and friends.

  14. Elaine,
    Yes, it is often good to ebing with the broken or the do not want. Many creative problem solving approched use that method.

    First defining the deliverables, then measurement of the effectiveness at which it is delivered are the foundation of an intentional candidate experience. You have to ask yourself; “What do we intend to deliver?”

    Candidate Experience Factors

    Candidates are decision makers too. Your candidate experience should provide candidates with the information they need to make a sound career decision. Questions you might consider asking the candidate include:

    •Did you experience any problems with our on-line process? (Ease of use)
    •Are you in a better position to decide if this job is right for you? (Educational)
    •Based upon this experience will you refer others to opportunities here? (Exceptional)
    •Please provide any comments on your experience. (Evaluative)

    Data can be used to zero in on improvement opportunities, create testimonials within the careers page and support sourcing efforts.

    Read more here

    Keep pushing for a staffing process improvement that includes objective outcomes for the candidate experience!.
    Thank Elaine.

  15. “The end result was a fantastic candidate experience in which candidates felt valued.”

    That’s wonderful, but how much more money did they make because of those increased expenses? Did it drive their recruiting costs down? Did they increase their quality of hire? Did they decrease their time to fill? Did they improve retention?

    A lot of people in these fields of HR and social media seem to miss that at the end of the day business isn’t about making people feel good, it’s about making more money. Yes, you have to make people feel good at least to an extent in order to achieve those goals of sustainable profitability, but there needs to be a direct correlation between the two, people liking you more can be a great way to go broke fast, then you won’t be able to afford putting them up in nice hotels.

  16. @ Michael: A couple things-
    1) Inhouse/corporate recruiting isn’t about making money- it should be about getting quality butts in chairs, on time, within budget, every time.

    2) How can treating large numbers of solid candidates like crap and making them hate your company through your bloated, broken, and dysfunctuional hiring processes help make more money? (Often leadership arrogance trumps rational profit making.)



  17. @Keith – Corporate recruiting needs to be 100% about producing a return. The problem with HR and recruiting historically has been that they haven’t viewed the correlation between recruiting functions and company profits. The way that’s achieved is by increasing the quality of hires, decreasing the time to fill, and decreasing the cost to hire. In other words if you make people feel good by putting them up in a nice hotel, taking them out for expensive dinners, paying for expensive ground transportation, but it drives up your hiring costs by 50% that’s not necessarily a win unless it means the time to fill drops accordingly or the quality of hires increases, etc.

    Every equation in business ultimately comes down to a financial equation, the tendency to view it as otherwise by corporate recruiting is exactly the problem with many of the current corporate recruiting mindsets, which follows into all these nice fancy ideas where people think that engaging in conversations with every applicant is a nice idea because they’ll feel good…they might, but what does it cost you to do that?

    In response to your #2 I’m not implying that it will necessarily make you more money, I’m saying that the litmus test of the effectiveness of new recruiting practices shouldn’t be whether candidates like you but what the cost benefit analysis is. If candidates like you but you don’t increase your quality of hire, you don’t decrease your time to fill, and your costs rise then that’s not a win. On the other hand if treating them exceptionally attracts the creme of the crop in the industry to your company and results in higher quality of hire and shorter times to fill positions then by all means do it, but measure those, not how the candidates feel. As mentioned, is there a correlation between how candidates feel and those things? Absolutely, but it’s not a direct correlation candidates can feel really great about you and you can still have poor performance on key metrics.

    What I’m the biggest fan of is for example finding ways to improve the candidate experience that don’t necessarily involve spending more money. Think Zappos style, having someone who obviously cares talking to you, having a pleasant environment, etc. It doesn’t cost more to smile at people, to treat them politely, to be open and honest. Yes, abandoning them at an airport factors in there but if you just focus on treating people with respect, which doesn’t cost anything you’ll naturally take care of those things, it doesn’t have to look big or fancy or expensive.

  18. @ Michael: I think we may be saying the same/similar thing(s) from different perspectives. I don’t believe in spending loads of dough just making candidates “like us”. that’s wasteful. In fact, if they’re out of the area- I say don’t fly them in until you’re pretty sure you’d be making an offer, if then. Up until that point- use Skype/telepresence.

    As far as getting someone to talk to a candidate who sounds like they care (and may actually do so, sometimes) all that takes is $2.75-%5.25/hr for a Virtual Assistant to handle candidate care. This might actually make up a bit for the huge sums of money wasted by the arrogant founders/C’s/execs who insist on terrible and alienating hiring processes based on their own greed, arrogance, fear, or ignorance/incompetence. Cleaning up those messes is where the REAL savings are to be had….


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