Establishing Applicant Expectations Upfront

By Dr. John Sullivan & Master Burnett

One of the first lessons that many third-party recruiters learn is one borrowed from the sales profession. The lesson basically teaches that as intermediaries between the organization and the applicant, the recruiter has to work diligently to equalize expectations between the two parties if they want to have a realistic chance at closing the deal and converting the applicant to an employee.

During the courtship, the recruiter needs to help establish expectations in the applicant’s mind about the nature of the work the job entails, the work environment, the resources that will be made available to the employee, and of course, what compensation the employer will likely offer. The recruiter must also work to establish expectations with the hiring manager regarding the applicant’s fit for the job requirements, their work ethic, and of course, what type of offer would be required for the applicant to seriously consider employment with the organization.

It’s a delicate dance, and when performed well, can bring applicants’ expectations down to earth, while bringing hiring managers’ expectations in line with reality.

Unfortunately, in today?s fast-paced recruiting climate, most recruiting processes are administration-centric, implying that they are not designed to close the deal with top talent, but rather to ease the administrative complexity of the hiring process. Establishing expectations is a practice long since tossed out the door by corporate recruiters, but one they should consider bringing back.

An Ever-Expanding Chasm

In a book entitled The Support Economy, the authors write: “People have changed more than the business organizations upon which they depend. The last 50 years have seen the rise of a new breed of individuals, yet corporations continue to operate according to logic invented at the time of their origin, a century ago. The chasm that now separates individuals and organizations is marked by frustration, mistrust, disappointment, and even rage.”

This chasm is overwhelmingly evident and growing in most recruiting departments. In an era where someone can move funds from one banking institution to another using a simple application on their mobile phone, notify all of their friends of their exact GPS location with the click of a button, and plan a party coordinating services from dozens of vendors using a single website, it seems ridiculous that it takes 40-plus minutes to apply for a job with a single organization. It’s even worse that these applicants then get nothing in return but a generic email notifying them that their application was received.

Expectations Unset

If you have ever gone to the movies more than once to see a new release on premier night and gotten to the theater just a few minutes before the movie was scheduled to begin, you most likely entered the theater with the expectation that your seats, for lack of a better word, were going to “suck.” When you ended up sitting between two groups with loud children while your date ended up sitting three rows back in the seat with gum stuck all over it, you didn’t like it, but you understood why. In this scenario, past experiences helped set your expectations.

Now let’s consider a different scenario. A new restaurant opens near your office, and all week you have been hearing people rave about the quality of the food. One day for lunch, after hearing all of the positive reviews, you opt to try it. You walk in and are seated promptly, and all of the service staff seem very attentive. They take your order quickly, after which you begin to salivate already thinking about the wonderful food you just ordered and all of the positive reviews you heard. Ten minutes pass and you start to look at your watch, 15 and your right foot begins to tap, 20 and you start to look around. By the time 30 minutes elapses, you have moved well past anticipation and are frustrated and disappointed.

Realizing your discontent, the service staff steps in. After voicing your concerns, they inform you that unlike many restaurants, all ingredients are prepped to order and that all dishes cooked to order in an effort to maintain the highest quality standards. They go on to inform you that on average it takes the kitchen approximately 40 minutes to produce each order. You leave angry, upset, and hungry, primarily because no one equalized your expectations.

You walked in with one set of expectations, which you didn’t communicate, and the restaurant operates under a set of expectations, which they didn’t communicate. When combined, these created a significant chasm in customer experience.

Whenever expectations are not set upfront, the customer in any scenario is likely to set expectations beyond those which can be met by the party providing the goods/service, a rule of thumb that often leads to customer disappointment!

Article Continues Below

Preventing Applicant Frustration, Mistrust, Disappointment, and Anger

Preventing ill feelings among applicants resulting from their expectations not being met is truly easy, just stop treating them like crap! However, since that isn’t likely to happen, try equalizing expectations upfront with applicants and candidates about what they should realistically expect with regards to your hiring process.

While they still may not like the process, customer service studies repeatedly prove that customers, when educated what to expect, will stick through the process longer.

Think about it, when you dial in to a call center and learn that average hold times are seven minutes, are you not more apt to wait, and less disgruntled when they finally answer than you would normally be after waiting on hold for seven minutes without a warning?

Simple Statistics Will Do the Job

Providing data to help equalize applicant expectations isn’t difficult and doesn’t require a degree in advanced mathematics. To get started, consider these simple statistics:

  • Total applicant volume. Contrary to popular belief among recruiters, releasing this statistic is not tantamount to sharing a trade secret. Inform applicants that in the past year “x” amount of applicants have applied. Add which percentage were selected for phone screens, how many advanced beyond the phone screen to an in-person interview, what percentage made it to the final round of consideration, what percentage were offered employment, and what percentage were contacted regarding an alternate position for which they did not directly apply.
  • Process cycle time. If it takes three months on average for you to generate a hire, say so. While it may be embarrassing (it should be), releasing this statistic helps candidates understand why they may not have an offer on day two following their submittal. If you really want to be customer-centric, break down the cycle time with a detailed timeline that educates applicants about what your process looks like.
  • Source statistics. Letting applicants who really want to work for your organization know they may be more likely to garner an interview if they attend an event or are submitted by an employee as a referral is a great way to allow them to circumvent the design flaws in your archaic process. Simply indicate what percentage of hires come from each source or express it as a ratio. For example, 26% or 1:4 hires applied for the position via our website, or 9% or 1:10 hires approached a recruiter during an industry trade show.

The statistics don’t have to be complicated, and sharing them poses no risk with the exception of embarrassment. If you have the data, and your recruiting workflow varies by job family, location, etc., publish the statistics relevant to the job being applied for.

Final Thoughts

Just like progress bars on multi-page online employment applications and anticipated hold time notices on call-center holding messages, publishing simple statistics about the yield and cycle time of your recruiting process can do a lot to reduce applicant frustration.

While your applicant database from a recruiting perspective may be nothing more than a data store on a mass of people you will never hire, it could also be a data store full of customers more apt to continue buying your organization’s goods and services, if only they were a little less frustrated with you as a potential employer.

Will doing it solve all of your problems stemming from a disconnect between your process and society at large? Probably not, but it may help a larger percentage of the Web generation tolerate the antiquated approach a wee bit longer while you catch up.

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.



3 Comments on “Establishing Applicant Expectations Upfront

  1. Some good points made here, but I found one comment to be astonishingly misinformed. ‘Establishing expectations is a practice long since tossed out the door by corporate recruiters …’ I would go so far as to say you simply can’t be a good recuiter, corporate or otherwise, without having a keen awareness of how to handle a candidate’s expecations. It’s customer/client/candidate relationships 101. In the same hour I read this article I received the following from Light Reading, for a webinar for cellular service providers ?

    ‘Taking a Customer-Centric View of Service Assurance.

    As service providers strive to build a reputation for quality services, hoping to reduce churn and attract new and loyal customers, the importance of the end user’s experience is paramount. This Webinar discusses the importance of the customer perception of a service, relative to the traditional QOS monitoring approach to service assurance, and looks at the solutions available.’

    Service, then, and that?s what we?re talking about, can be a huge differentiator. Companies, and recruiters, ignore this at their peril.

  2. In response to Andrew’s posting:

    Some good points made here, but I found one comment to be astonishingly misinformed. ‘Establishing expectations is a practice long since tossed out the door by corporate recruiters …’

    I agree whole heartedly with this..whatever type of recruiter you are the business is people fundamentally. If we don’t service our clients either internally or externally WE are out of business. I would qualify the statement above in quotes next time with this… recruiters who don’t want to retain business, customer satisfaction and professional respect are those who don’t give clear expecatations at the begining of any relationship, client or candidate.

    Happy recruiting!

  3. I have been a recruiter now almost 10 years.

    I have been in the sales profession for almost 15 years.

    I am shocked and dismayed how poorly candidates are treated by some companies that fail to realize how what a negative impression they leave on potential candidates. Those ill feelings and memories of mistreated last for years.

    The job of every recruiter is to sell the company as an employer of choice and to be fair to potential candidates to ensure that have all the necessary information to make an informed career decision. They don’t want to be treated as a number…They don’t want to take a pay cut…they want to be treated with respect and most of all improve their career options and work with a great bunch of people.

    Companies that fail to do this…will only anger candidates who will not recommend other people to this company…..This is Sales 101……You have only one opportunity to sell your company to a star candidate that is being interviewed by other companies….in a very competitive job market….

    Its amazing how arrogance and unprofessional some companies are that refuse to acknowledge the importance of a candidate in the hiring equation.

    Is it no surprise that the individual does not work for your company? A happy candidates provides numerous referrals and a disgrunted candidates complains to 30 people. Sales 101

    Josie Erent
    Talented Minds -Division of Silicon Executive Search Inc.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *