The Single Most Powerful Question in Recruiting

It’s the million-dollar question in recruiting that almost no one asks. It’s a simple question, and one that car salespeople around the world ask: “What is it going to take to get you in this car?”

Regardless of industry or geography, every salesperson worth their weight in salt asks some variant of this question at some point early on in the sales cycle.

While many of the best have learned to ask this question in a less-direct way, they all do it because it helps improve their closure rate by enabling them to narrow and focus their “pitch” on customers’ specific buying criteria.

The million-dollar question that must be a formal part of the recruiting process is, “What criteria will you use to determine whether to accept a job offer?”

While a number of exceptional recruiters have become very adept at gathering and leveraging the answer to this question, the vast majority fail to embed this customer-profiling element into their formal process.

Without this activity, the candidate experience cannot be managed to the candidate’s expectations, which decreases the probability of a candidate accepting an offer down the road. If you think of recruiting as primarily a sales function, what could be more basic than identifying your target’s “buying criteria” and using it to guide your sales approach?

How to Use The Information

Once you know a candidate’s criteria, use it in the following ways:

  1. Screening out. Obviously, if their acceptance criteria include things your firm can’t or won’t offer (i.e., the option to work at home), you can then screen out candidates early on in the process.
  2. Crafting your sales pitch. Once you know the candidate’s decision criteria, focus your approach on what the candidate needs (unfortunately 99% of corporate-recruiting processes are focused on making HR’s job easy, rather than being “candidate centric”).
  3. Getting managers to change the job. If it’s obvious that you can meet most but not all of the top candidates’ expectations, use the areas of “disconnect” to work with the manager to modify the job in order to increase your chances of getting a top candidate to say yes.
  4. Put together a “what candidates expect” database. If you asked this question of every candidate, you could identify the general criteria that candidates use to select a job. You could also train your recruiters on what to expect and what sales pitch is appropriate for each of the most common criteria. Use the information to change the content of job descriptions, your website, and the “pillars” of your corporate employment branding. You could also use it to determine any variations in job-acceptance criteria among the different X, Y, or M generations. Corporate recruiting should segment this data into job families and geographic regions, as well as between college and experienced hires.

Top Performer Criteria Is More Complex

One important thing to remember is that when you ask unemployed candidates about their acceptance-decision criteria, their answer is likely to be short and simple. In contrast, currently employed top performers are likely to have longer decision criteria.

I call this “job-switch criteria,” and it’s critical to ask what criteria candidates will use to decide if switching jobs makes sense whenever you’re trying to recruit more desirable currently employed top performers. If you can identify the job-switch criteria of currently employed top performers, you have added real value to the recruiting equation! Incidentally, I would still ask about acceptance criteria with all unemployed candidates. Don’t expect the answers to be as complex.

When to Ask the Million-Dollar Question

Just like in marketing, it is essential that you know your customers’ “buying criteria” before you attempt to make the sale. The golden rule here is the earlier the better! Remember that after you get the information, it’s critical to document it in a way that is accessible to all who will interact with the candidate.

Ask this question in the following places:

Article Continues Below
  • Your corporate career site (candidate profiling feature).
  • On your written application for employment.
  • During any pre-screening activities (phone screen, Web screen, face-to-face meeting).
  • Via e-mail prior to any assessment activity.
  • As the ice-breaking question in a formal interview.

Getting the Answer Indirectly

If you want to be subtle, ask them to outline their “dream job” using a structured set of information categories and use it to sell them. You could also get at the information by asking the following:

  • What frustrates you about your current job?
  • What could your company do to improve your current job situation?

Or, simply ask for their input on the following:

  • References.
  • Other decision influencers (colleagues, friends, professors, and family).
  • Focus groups or surveys with other recent hires in the same or similar job family.
  • Focus groups with employees from other firms (this is usually done at a trade fair or job fair) to identify their criteria.
  • Published general market research studies.

If you’re finding that candidates are not reluctant to provide you with their job acceptance criteria, ask them to rank or weight the factors so that you can see which are most critical in their decision-making.

Incidentally, during the on-boarding process you should ask all candidates why they accepted the offer, and also whether they had any concerns that caused them to nearly decline. Use this information to improve your sales pitch and to “validate” whether the information you’re getting on their job-acceptance criteria is similar to the criteria that they actually used to make their decision.

Remember, wherever possible, to categorize the answers from these surveys and focus groups by job family, location, and demographic factors. These “general” decision-making factors change over time as the economy and the competitive job market change.

Don’t Forget To Use the Information

Remember, the purpose of identifying job-acceptance decision criteria is to provide recruiters and managers with specific information that will help improve the organization’s closure rate. Doing the work and keeping the answers a secret will not work, nor will knowing the information and failing to consistently act on it.

If managers don’t use the information, or do not accept the candidate’s reasoning as valid, it will not work. To be successful, have a process for getting feedback as to whether the information was helpful and how the process of gathering decision criteria can be improved.

Incidentally, if you come across reluctant candidates, run. It’s a bad sign if candidates can’t identify their own decision criteria before making a critical decision like pursuing a new job.

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.



Leave a Comment

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