Determining the Correct Source of Hire: the First Step in Recruiting Excellence

icon_large_calculatorOne of the worst-kept secrets in recruiting is that source of hire data is inconsistently gathered and rarely accurate. To many corporate recruiters, the validity of source of hire data is a non issue; after all, once the hire is generated, their role is over.

However, if you view recruiting as a marketing and sales job (as I and many strategic recruiting leaders do), knowing what channels brought the prospect to the organization and what messages led to conversion (talented individual > applicant > candidate > hire) are by far the most critical bits of data the function can collect. Without this information, it’s extremely difficult to scientifically budget for sourcing or build strategic sourcing systems capable of impacting organizational performance.

Luckily, however, there is a simple approach that ensures much more accurate and helpful information that doesn’t rely on transaction-minded recruiters documenting the source of hire.

If you rely on weak sources, chances are you’ll get weak results.

Why Source of Hire Data is Almost Always Wrong

There are numerous reasons why corporate efforts to capture accurate source of hire data are almost always doomed to failure. Some of those reasons include:

  • Recruiters don’t care — not all recruiters are involved in selecting the sourcing tools they will have access to or even using them in general, so coding applicants is an activity that realizes little apparent direct benefit. Even recruiters who do source or play a role in their organizations’ sourcing strategy tend to be overconfident that they already know which sources work and don’t need data to inform them. Other recruiters are just old-school and will use the same sources over and over no matter what. Unless recruiters are made aware of how identifying source of hire accurately is critical to their success, no one is going to spend a lot of time on capturing it accurately.
  • Conflict of interest — while some recruiters may care about scientifically validating which sources produce which results, the truth is that capturing data that makes the recruiting function more efficient is seen by some as identifying ways to make line recruiters less necessary.
  • Not asking in a systematic way — most corporate recruiting processes are relatively flexible and give the recruiter a lot of leeway in determining source of hire. It’s rare to find a process that forces recruiters to specifically ask candidates which source most influenced their decision to apply. In other cases, the way the question is posed to candidates is so inconsistent that it dooms the reliability of the answer.
  • Not segmenting clouds the data — many organizations that do collect source of hire data do so in such a way that the value of the data becomes so diluted it is virtually useless. For instance, can you segment your source of hire data by manager perception of candidate quality (used to validate their assumptions) or by post-hire performance rating? Knowing how top and bottom performers approach the organization is much more valuable than knowing the most common source, or how the average employee is found. Further, knowing how sourcing effectiveness varies by job family or region is essential.
  • Technology forces bad choices — many corporations use applicant tracking systems to capture the source of hire data at the time of application. Although this is a good concept in theory, studies show that asking prior to hire doesn’t always yield the accurate answer, but rather the answer the applicant thinks might result in the best result. When recruiters enter applicants who have come via internal channels or who have been direct sourced, they tend to choose the first source in the drop-down list available. Few systems send validating questions periodically to confirm applicant data downstream, so errors in the front of the process produce bad data at the end of the process.
  • Forcing a single source — it is common for active candidates to use any and all sources available to apply to an organization, while passive candidates may first be exposed to an opportunity via one channel, but ultimately apply via another. Few data-gathering approaches identify how the opportunity was first encountered, what channels influenced a decision, and what channel ultimately produced the application.

Perception Isn’t Always Reality

Periodically testing assumptions or perceptions is key to being a good leader. In 2007, we surveyed more than 15,000 hiring transactions, comparing the pre-hire documented source of hire to results from a post-hire candidate experience survey. The results were shocking, even for those of us who tend to be cynical. Only 26% of the time did the post-hire result match the pre-hire entry.

Further, the variances were much higher with certain sources than others. While recruiters and recent hires generally agreed on the percentage that resulted from employee referral and events, they radically disagreed on the percentage that resulted from the corporate career site, job boards, and even third-party recruiting partners. In the 2007 study, only 12% of new hires attributed the corporate career site as their source of introduction, while the pre-hire data attributed the career site with 57% of hires.

Gathering Valid Sourcing Data the Quick, Cheap, and Easy Way

Sales and marketing professionals have for years used a simple solution to accurately identify the “real reason” why people make the decisions they do. They ask after the decision has been made.

After a product has been purchased or a job offer accepted, the prospect has no reason to lie. The answer will not influence the process. Telling a salesperson that you only came to their dealership because you are interested in a car that only they have in inventory is a fact that could impact the dealer’s willingness to negotiate.

Shifting data collection to follow completion of a transaction removes any value of manipulation.

Additional Reasons Why Asking Post-Hire Is a Superior Approach

  • As new employees, new hires may respond more thoroughly to questions out of a newfound sense of obligation to help out the new employer.
  • Post-hire collection instruments can be built to collect smaller fragments of data over time as part of the onboarding process, allowing for both better collection activities and validation efforts.
  • You’re only capturing data from the highest-quality applicants; in other words, those you actually hired.
  • The risk-adverse worried about privacy issues might be more than willing to provide this type of information post-hire once they are made aware that the information will be used exclusively to help recruit high-quality teammates for them to work with in the future.

Action Steps to Implement a Post-Hire Source Identification Process

Consider the following tips when designing and implementing a post-hire source capture process:

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  • Ask during onboarding — while recruiting doesn’t always own onboarding, recruiting should be permitted to use the onboarding process to collect information from new hires. Ideally, a recruiter can ask the questions and probe for more information in person, but surveys work almost as well. Work with the onboarding team to ensure that the source of hire questions are always completed. If recruiting does not own the onboarding process, using secret shoppers to occasionally test that recruiting-prescribed activities are being completed as desired is advised.
  • Email a questionnaire — if an onboarding option is not available, send a questionnaire or survey invitation via email to the individual before they start (because they are new, they are likely to spend some time on it).
  • Ask when the candidate accepts — because recruiters administer the selection and offer presentation phases of the recruiting lifecycle, a possible alternative is to include an acceptance criteria survey in the actual offer acceptance process. After thanking them for their acceptance, ask for their help in improving the process of identifying future top-quality candidates like them.
  • Educate the new hire — the first thing you want to do is educate the new hire about the importance of the process and how capturing the right sources will result in them eventually working along-side some other great hires. Educate them about the different factors that you’re most interested in; company awareness factors (employer branding factors) and how they learned more about the company/opportunity; what specific sources made them aware there was a current job opening; and what factors triggered their decision to actually apply.
  • Ask the right questions — after “when you ask” and “who you ask,” the next most critical factor in getting useful data is what you ask. The following are the minimal questions I recommend. You shouldn’t limit respondents to one answer, but rather allow them to choose all that contributed to their decision to apply. Consider providing them with a detailed list of answers to choose from, based on the sources used and past new-hire answers along with a few blanks. When multiple factors are identified, ask them to rank them in descending order of the importance.

Recommended Questions:

  1. Which source made you aware of our company as a desirable place to work?
  2. What factors about our company or opportunity best got your attention?
  3. Which source or factor made you aware that we had a current job opening in your field?
  4. What factor or source convinced you to take action and apply for a job?
  5. Were there any sources that provided information that discouraged you from considering our firm or applying for a job? If yes, what were those negative factors?
  6. What were the key factors that convinced you to accept this job and what aspects or factors of the hiring process had no value or discouraged you?
  7. Who else is exceptional at your previous firm that we should consider hiring?

Note: other powerful recruiting questions that you should be asking can be found here.

  • Improving the accuracy of your current system — if you choose not to adopt a post-hire approach or if you decide to run tandem data capturing processes pre and post hire, it is still important to improve your current data capture process. Run a validation study that collects post-hire data for a limited time and compare the data received from the traditional approach to that collected. If both processes produce similar results, there’s no reason to change your approach. If you continue letting recruiters enter the data, spot check or use a random validation study to periodically check the accuracy rate of their entries. One recruiter throwing bad data into the system can throw off all of the results. Merely knowing that there is a chance that entries will be checked periodically will drive most recruiters to improve their accuracy. Adding a reward for accuracy will further improve results.

Leveraging Source of Hire Data

Collecting data and doing nothing with it should be a cardinal sin in a corporate setting.

Recruiting leaders need to develop a formal process at least twice a year to review sourcing data and adjust sourcing processes accordingly. Adjustments should include dropping bad sources, modifying recruiter training, shifting budget allocations, and determining the impact of sourcing changes on new-hire retention rates and job performance.

Final Thoughts

There are some in the recruiting profession who look down on sourcers and the sourcing function as something that’s necessary but not mission-critical. In contrast, there is nothing more important than great employer branding and placing the right message in the right communication channel to drive the desired action by the right people.

If you recruit basketball players for an NBA team from elementary schools, you’ll never win a single game, but if in contrast, you recruit exclusively at NBA All-Star games, no matter how bad the rest of your recruiting processes, you will have some great hires. I go by the axiom that “great sourcing is everything.” If you believe so too, you will act immediately to eliminate actions that lead to unreliable sourcing data. Using a post-hire source capturing approach is cheap, quick, and much more accurate than pre-hire source identification. It’s a slam-dunk.

As always, if you have tried this approach and want to make others aware of your success, or have questions/suggestions you would like others to focus on with regards to improving the process, please post them to the comments section following this article.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



14 Comments on “Determining the Correct Source of Hire: the First Step in Recruiting Excellence

  1. John,

    I enjoyed the article, but would really like to challenge you on your final thought of

    “Using a post-hire source capturing approach is cheap, quick, and much more accurate than pre-hire source identification. It’s a slam-dunk.”.

    I am a firm believer in recruiting analytics – when they are valid. One of the challenges that we face in our industry is not having the same validated analytical details that our counterparts in sales, accounting, etc have when determining budgets and true ROI to an organization.

    The point of post hire source gathering is a valid one – you know where the people you have hired come from. On the more realistic stage, people often are unsure of where they came from when you ask them directly – especially if they were in a search and could have seen the posting in many places, on top of that(corporate) recruiters are often posting positions on a variety of sites to suit requests of hiring managers or because it is a company standard to do so. Having valid metrics – regardless of whether the person was hired or not – is important for determining proper budgets and having quantitative data to prove why you are making the decision you are.

    I think equally as important are the ratios of candidates per source phone screened, interviewed, etc – if candidates are getting to that point then you have a quality standard from that source. Anyone can apply by one method on a fluke – it doesn’t mean it is your slam dunk site or resource.

    One of the reasons that I joined HRMDirect (I am so sorry, I really hate to do this and NEVER do – so bear with me) was because of the advanced sourcing tracking they offer that none of the other ATS vendors have grabbed hold of yet. The sourcing tracking process should be completely seemless and not involve any self identification or recruiter guesses at all – including PPC/Google Ads, Job Boards or your own website.

  2. John:

    I think you undersell what’s possible with recruitment technology today. While this absolutely is a challenge in online recruiting, it’s also solvable and many companies are stepping up to do so. You’re right that some corporations have no idea what’s possible with their ATS, and do a poor job of tracking source of candidate, source of hire and the ROI of their recruitment advertising. But rather than bail on a technical solution, we need to be educating companies and challenging ATSes to properly train their clients, and even update their products to provide the proper tracking functionality.

    This white paper – The Four A’s of Recruitment Advertising – is a step-by-step process to help companies deal with this challenge. It’s something I am passionate about and have been working with companies to solve for years.

    While I agree that confirming source of hire is an important step in the recruiting/hiring process, I also hold out hope that we will get recruitment technology to the point where this is no longer a problem.

  3. Thanks John, great to see this much attention paid to helping the recruiting/talent acquisition teams start paying attention to this critical area of their strategy, especially as social media is highly fragmenting where candidates could be surfacing from.

    We’ve been working on this at Jobs2Web, and help our clients get visibility even to pre-apply visitor traffic so that companies can understand what’s driving brand oriented, and passive candidates to their career sites.

    There are solutions such as ours that do isolate exact source of applicants online, and pass the data into nearly any ATS system online, so I agree with Jason W at Indeed, that there is solutions that can capture this data on the front end, instead of hoping that candidates will remember the flurry of online sites they visited, or what the process was that they used to initiate contact into any company.

    Here is a link to our Recruiting Dashboard to learn more:

    Also, here’s a link to a video that shows how our Dynamic Source Tagging engine captures visitor data, and passes it into any ATS system:

  4. Accurate statistical analyses are volume dependent and, in the case of source analyses, source dependent as well. If you hire just a handful of new employees per month, don’t hold your breath waiting for statistical significance to be reached from any particular source whether you ask them pre- or post-hire. Segmenting the “clouds” in this situation finds you permanently in the fog. By the time you reach statistical significance, the variables in the equation have all changed!

    When volume blesses you with the chance to analyze your data with systematic, objective, and thoughtful statistical analysis, there is no better way to do it than post-hire. In my experience in these cases, it often isn’t your “sources” at all that you discover. Rather, it’s the ‘6 degrees of web-site, print, and social media separation’ created by great marketing and coupled with good old word-of-mouth. At that point, pick the one with the biggest buzz because exponential math is on your side. Investigator bias? Maybe. My feeling is that “all’s fair in love and recruitment” so when the math is fuzzy by design, go with volume.

    When the new-hire can tell you flat-out, “Here’s how I found out about the job…” thank your lucky stars, record it, and wait for validation.

  5. We used a “sourcing scorecard” for years to measure this information. It is a metric the business always had interest in seeing.
    It has to start with the Recruiting Leader being dedicated to metrics followed by the ability to hire Recruiters who feel the same.
    Each Recruiter on the team knew the source of candidate prior to orientation. For me it is a matter of standards and appropriate engagement of candidates by recruiting staff.

  6. Hi John,

    I shared your article with my marketing team – to show them just how poor of a job they are doing.

    Our job distribution and resume processing software includes sophisticated source tracking software. With 100% accuracy we know the exact source of any online candidate; it’s not a subjective pre or post survey.

    We are integrated with virtually every ATS; for many clients we can ping their ATS to tie candidate source reporting to actions (i.e. interviewed, offer extended, hired, etc.).

    Let me know if you are interested in a follow-up article describing what reporting now exists in the industry….Keith

  7. I am helping an international Institution to improve its outreach of candidates for professional and managerial positions especially from Eastern-Europe. Eastern-European job markets are not yet well known and in most cases social networks over the internet are not yet developed. I totally agree with your conviction that knowing the real source of candidates will be very helpful in targeting future recruitment campaigns and in the case of unknown job markets becomes even more important as it will slowly help us understand what sources are available and which ones generate good candidates. Of course in our case there are adjustments to the value proposition to adapt the message to the different cultural settings across the region by emphasizing the attributes that most appeal candidates. Just a thought.

  8. We’ve also seen the need for improved tracking and metrics here at CKR Interactive, which is why we created Recruitment Media Metrics ( This solution enables employers to track all responses to their recruitment advertising efforts, so they can identify where their hires are coming from and improve their recruitment marketing ROI. Relying on candidates to accurately report where they saw the position advertisement that they applied for will never provide the real metrics needed – as you mentioned, people often select the first source in a drop-down list, or they may say they saw the position on the employer’s website in attempts to impress the employer.

    Recruitment Media Metrics details the number of impressions, clicks, applications and hires, as well as the cost per applicant and hire, so employers can see the effectiveness of their media choices in converting prospective candidates to hires. We’ve designed this solution to make determining the correct source of hire easy for employers. It incorporates with their ATS, is web-based and password-protected so there’s no software to install, and provides real-time reporting.

    “If you rely on weak sources, chances are you’ll get weak results.” – Exactly!

  9. It’s interesting to see that a majority of the responses to this article come from technology or service vendors “claiming” to have solved this problem. Unfortunately such blanket claims ignore the fact that contrary to popular belief, not all hires originate online!

    I commend Doug for not making such a claim!

    For active job seekers that see a post on a blog, click through some recruitment advertising, and arrive at the companies online job application, we concede, you can track that source using automated means. However, for the applicant that heard about a company through a group of friends, read about the company in an editorial article, then ran into a representative of the company at a professional event and applied, tagging the source of hire isn’t nearly as easy.

    Two sources in particular make up more than 50% of hires in the average organization, employee referral and direct sourcing. While some sourcing tools enable you to capture the search string producing the result that becomes an applicant, not all do, and not all recruiters direct source using a sourcing tool.

    Can automated tools accurately identify the path to conversion for a subset of applicants, absolutely. Can automated tools accurately identify source of hire across the board, especially in organizations leveraging highly fragmented sources (kudo’s again to Doug for raising this issue)no chance!

  10. @Master Burnett

    For employee referrals, most companies use some type of system (ATS-based or otherwise) to track the volume of referrals, the referrer, referral bonus payouts, etc. So it seems that source is not excluded from this type of tracking. Even SMBs I have worked at and worked with track this source very closely, as they know it’s so valuable.

    I agree that we cannot expect 100 percent automated measurement of candidate source – direct sourcing and campus recruiting are tough areas, and sources like “career site” and “employer brand awareness” will never be totally clear. My goal in working with companies is to simply help them track what IS trackable – and even there we have a long way to go toward automation.

  11. Dr. Sullivan nailed this one in his first 6 bullet points. While I respectfully disagree with the general usefulness of his recommendations, I wholeheartedly applaud the effort. If we’re going to continue to debate the value and efficacy of source analysis, apparently trying to sell our products and services at the same time, we’d best set up our analytical methodology with clarity and define our terms.

    Let’s assume we all know what we mean by posting, advertising, tweeting, referrals, and other “sourcing” words familiar to all of us. Then we’d need to call this “Mistake #1”. The interrelatedness of these things is mind-numbingly complex. How many of us have hired the person who was an “employee referral” – cashing in on an internal friendship – who actually saw the position posted on the commercial board that scraped the original posting from the corporate site. He looked there because his sister got a tweet about the job from another friend so she did a web search in the local newspaper help-wanted ads and pointed it out to your new hire? Was this an Ad, a posting, or a referral? More importantly, who has the resources to determine this?

    Mistake #2 works like this: I’m responsible for hiring. I’m responsible for the budget. I’m responsible for advertising. I’m responsible for posting. And now I’m responsible for gathering my own data to support (or not) my own performance! Does this sound just a bit biased to anyone? At the very least, it’s a bad way to objectively examine anything at all.

    Mistake #3: The harsh reality is that I have a limited budget so I can only post/advertise in a limited number of places. By design, I may have completely missed the “best” place. This is “Wag the Dog” in any research design.

    Mistake #4: Finding the “best source”- (a.k.a., the Mother of All Mistakes): Let’s assume a pristine methodology and we get 30 applicants, achieving the all-important “n” value out of “N” possibilities. We hire Joe who we are absolutely certain came from “Job Board Extraordinaire”. For this particular job group and/or job type, how many more times do we have to repeat this process before “Job Board Extraordinaire” reaches significance? Around 2026 you should have your answer.

    This is social spaghetti wrapped in nuclear physics. Anyone who thinks “automation” will lead to better source analysis needs to hop in the trenches and recruit for a while. Track-backs, click-throughs, impressions… all great stuff, if you control for mistakes 1, 2, and 3. And if you do, welcome to #4.

    Finding the “best” source is a volume and distribution issue guided by industry-involved thinkers with good gut feelings, a reasonably efficient filtering and recording mechanism, and a penchant for action. They call them “Recruiters”.

    A tip-of-the-hat to Dr. Sullivan for identifying each and every one of these challenges. My opinion is that the resources to develop and control for accurate methodology coupled with the volume issue (#4) makes truly supporting the ROI on sources a proposition limited to a very few, very large organizations.

  12. Mr Pollock you have it right. It is sooo much more complicated than just finding the “source” where our hires come from. Recruiters use gut feel along with this data to make good decisions on what to do and what to spend on. But I have a simple formula:

    Be Visible

    Visibility – making your talent market aware that your company exists and has openings. this is a combination of online visibility and alot of word of mouth! (want to start a word of mouth epidemic? try reading malcolm gladwell’s Tipping Point)

    Attractiveness – what would make your talent market want to work at your company? what makes you unique vs your competitors? this is tricky as we talk about EVPs. lets remember that we need to appeal to both conscious and sub-conscious needs. Again this will be a combination of online and real-life word of mouth activity.

    Information availability – job seekers are curious. you cant buy a car without knowing the specs right? same with deciding what company you want to invest time applying at. You cant cut and paste the usual JD’s. Lets all please understand whats important for applicants to know and lets not speak in company jargon!

    All Sourcing and Recruitment Marketing activities should fall into the above 3 elements. If you can win on those 3 vs your talent competitors, then you have a good chance of winning the game.
    Your sourcing strategy will depend on how your competitors fare on those 3 elements.

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