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Much noise is made by employers around securing the best talent, using employer brand to attract the highest performers, and by recruitment firms promoting their first class customer service. But 57% of management to director-level HR professionals we surveyed felt their candidate experience was worse than they’d expected.

Do employers and recruiters really care about this as much as is claimed? Does it only really hit home that you could have given a better candidate experience when you’ve lost them to another employer after months of searching? With just 14% saying they’d had a better than expected experience, is HR just a tough crowd to please, or a group with expertise in this arena that should be listened to?

There will be key factors that must attract anyone to a role or company, but at the margins of decision-making, the level of emotional engagement that the employer has managed to achieve will probably make the difference if choices have to be made. What’s more, writing as someone who works in search, this principle will also be true of encouraging someone to leave a company that they’re perfectly happy with – so the candidate experience can be telling.

Where does the experience begin?

The typical candidate experience starts as an application to an advert – 71% (43% to third party recruitment firms/28% directly to a company advert). They say first impressions are important, so failing to acknowledge the application doesn’t start things off well, but comments in the survey suggest this practice was common, more so with recruitment firms.

This, combined with failing to respond with feedback on their application, accounted for nearly 60% of comments on the most common negative experiences directly with the employer (the figure was similar with recruitment firms too). Nearly 50% of people in the market had over 10 applications in the last two years, and 35% had over 20 – the investment of time people put in to a career search should merit some basis courtesies.

In the age of in-house talent acquisition or resourcing teams, it was surprising that only 6% of people were approached directly by an employer, whereas three times that number were headhunted by third parties. This suggests that headhunting still seems to be the domain of the third party.

Referrals from a personal contact accounted for 7% of routes of entry to a recruitment process. Most negative comments on a candidate experience seemed to stem from responses to adverts and the frustration that ensues from insufficient communication thereafter, where the alternative routes seem to bring more positive candidate experiences in feeling closer and better informed on the process.

Recruitment firms – beware

Our survey shows the ratio of candidates entering a recruitment process is 60/40 through a recruitment firm rather than directly with the employer. Asked whether candidates rated their experience better or worse when dealing with an employer directly, 44% said better while less than half that figure said worse. Reasons supporting this indicated better and fuller ongoing communication, provision of better information, feeling closer to the process, greater concern for the company brand, and a clearer view on your suitability.

Some common negative experiences of recruitment firms included failure to offer credible feedback on decisions, not providing sufficient detail or sufficient understanding of the role, and perceived failings to push back to their clients enough on role requirements or feedback.

This is a problem recruitment firms need to address, you may think. But it’s still a recurring problem in the industry – too many fail to make the connection that providing a quality candidate experience today (while a little more time consuming) will bring a quality client relationship tomorrow. Dodging, blagging, ignoring – candidates know what’s going on.

But employers need to pay attention too, as it’s their employer brand that may also get tarnished by association, and they’re also in a position to make demands of their suppliers. Like retailers with factory outlets in cheaper labour markets, companies do hold sway to make sure their suppliers deliver in a way that’s a credit to both.

Communication

The central findings of the survey may not come as a radical surprise to most, but if nothing else they reinforce the premise that the candidate experience is not actually that difficult to improve, with some fundamental attention to the basics of good communication. 77% rated communication as the most important factor to a quality candidate experience, and over 50% suggested it was the one key thing that companies could do better. With 60% of the common negative experiences relating to lack of communication at the early stage of the process, this should be uncomplicated enough for most to rectify.

When asked to recount any particularly outstanding candidate experiences they’d had, it was prompt, continuous and personal communication that featured most highly. Lack of communication was one of the highest scoring answers that would encourage someone never to work with or for that company, with top being lack of courtesy/unprofessionalism.

Other high scores came with being unimpressed by the people you met, a cumbersome applications process, a disorganised process and meaningless feedback. It’s highly likely that the fewer links in the communication chain the better it will be, as those in it will be more accountable – a candidate talking to a recruitment firm, RPO, HRBP, and hiring manager isn’t a recipe for a clear, timely, detailed flow of information.

Five rules for a positive candidate experience:

  1. Communicate with candidates promptly at each stage of the process, proactively once in the process, decisively at the end of their process. Where possible, make it personal (a call or personal email rather than standard response – especially once at interview stage)
  2. Treat candidates with courtesy and respect. It starts with a simple acknowledgement, giving responses and information when requested, not mucking them around at interviews and leaving them dangling with no news.
  3. Be informative: Ensure the candidate is able to prepare thoroughly with the provision of a detailed brief, relevant company and background information (careers sites can be great forums), set realistic expectations on timelines, and provide detailed and relevant feedback where possible
  4. Create a selection process that is efficient, rigorous but objective, and efficient
  5. Choose the interview panel well – stakeholders with relevance to the appointment, people who know how to interview, and will present the opportunity favourably and realistically.

Employers are in a position to make sure their suppliers are delivering a strong candidate experience, and should ask candidates how the service has been. Their brand is in the hands of their suppliers, and if it’s failing to be represented as they’d like, they should take the supplier to task.

To coin a well-used phrase, recruitment isn’t rocket science. If you get the basics right, make someone feel valued, or even avoid making them feel de-valued, you should be on the right lines. After this, use all the bells and whistles as you like – I’m sure it’ll be appreciated too.

This research was conducted by Tom Godber at The Highfield Partnership, an independent HR search & resourcing Consultancy. 

Written by Tom Godber, founder of The Highfield Partnership

Tom has worked as a recruitment professional for over 15 years, with experience partnering large multi-national clients as well as small start-ups. His particular expertise lies in the field of the HR recruitment market, working predominantly on mid to senior level appointments within the UK and internationally. Having worked in leadership roles with large recruitment consultancies and boutique search, he established The Highfield Partnership in 2012, a London based HR Search & Resourcing Consultancy.

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