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Candidate experience evolves to engender more emotional engagement

Despite the cost-of-living crisis, employment is high and companies need to create a compelling candidate experience when competition is strong and ‘ghosting’ is common

At a time of ongoing skills and talent shortages across most areas of the economy, the idea of wooing prospective employees with a compelling candidate experience is garnering increased attention.

Whereas it used to be considered a “nice-to-have” that was explored after other elements of the recruitment process had been dealt with, “intense competition has led to a renewed focus” here over the past year or so, says Jamie Kohn, a research director at Gartner’s HR practice.

This is not least because “when people are receiving multiple job offers, they don’t have the patience for long, drawn-out application processes, which is leading to a lot of effort in terms of creating an effortless experience”, she adds.

Also, it is starting to dawn on more hiring managers and business leaders that recruitment is a two-way process, which involves understanding what job applicants need, what engages them and what information they require to help them make the right decision.

As to what an effortless candidate experience looks like in practice, Kohn believes it consists of three key elements. The first is based around process-based activities, such as making jobs easy to apply for and providing applicants with frequent updates and insights into different stages of the hiring process. A key aim here is to streamline such processes to speed them up.

The second element is about understanding the candidate journey and what information and support are required during different moments that matter. These include the application process, interviews and offer stages.

Both of these elements are what Kohn describes as the “low-hanging fruit” of candidate experience and where the majority of employers are currently focusing – although “they don’t always do super well at it”, she adds.

A work in progress

The third area is “still a work in progress”, however, and is where organisations still tend to struggle most. It entails “engaging candidates on a more emotional level to build connection with the organisation and see if it feels like the right fit”, says Kohn.

It is this connection, based on whether applicants can identify with the company’s values and are likely to find the work they will do meaningful, that differentiates one employer from another.

But to build it involves viewing the candidate experience as part of the organisation’s wider employer branding activities. It also means understanding that everything that happens during the hiring process affects the company’s brand reputation.

Kohn explains: “So, for example, if you’re trying to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in your branding, candidates should feel that and see those values throughout the experience. Everything has to be consistent and make a strong connection to who you are, so it’s about rethinking how you provide a view into the organisation.”

One way of doing this is to connect job applicants with existing employees and managers early in the hiring process to provide them with a “voice of experience” that is more likely to be trusted than that of recruiters. Another is to be upfront and transparent about issues ranging from pay to flexible working.

Candidate relationship management systems

As for the technology side of things, it has a significant role to play here, especially in the process and candidate journey elements of the triangle. Over the last few years, for instance, vendors have been citing double-digit growth in candidate relationship management systems, says Betsy Summers, principal analyst on Forrester Research’s Future of Work team. Key suppliers in this space include Beamery, iCIMS and Phenom People.

The software, which has been around for about a decade but is not yet widely adopted, is a point solution that integrates or comes bundled with applicant tracking systems, which are now commodity products.

The first wave of candidate relationship management technology performs a similar function to “marketing engines”, says Summers. They enable recruiters to “foster talent pools, create campaigns and nurture them through scalable workflows so, for example, every rejected application gets a tailored, empathetic email response”.

They systems can also be used for sentiment analysis across social media channels and to understand where candidates are dropping out of the process so that action can be taken.

“It’s very analogous to marketing,” says Summers. “Imagine how inefficient and inconsistent it would be if marketing had no technology to manage their campaigns or social media strategy – it would take so much time it would be impossible, so candidate relationship management can help in the same way from a recruiting angle.”

As a result, interest has been particularly keen in sectors experiencing tight talent markets, such as high tech and financial and professional services. It is also buoyant in those where staff turnover is high, such as manufacturing, transport and the supply chain. Employers eager to be associated with a positive employee experience also tend to be keen.

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The next generation coming down the line, meanwhile, consist of artificial intelligence (AI)-based skills ontology systems, which can infer an individual’s skills based on their experience and match them to available job opportunities. They also help to identify top candidates that it may make sense to build relationships with.

But Summers adds: “These tools are still mostly in development, but there is a lot of scepticism and fear of employing them for a recruiting use case. Stories such as gender bias in Amazon’s recruitment system a few years ago have stuck in people’s heads.”

Although she acknowledges that, if used effectively, AI can help mitigate affinity bias, a key problem is that “most organisations are still grappling with how to implement AI in an ethical way” and “people are afraid of losing control over the process”.

But even if they are using less controversial technology, it appears that most employers still have a long way to go to create a truly compelling candidate experience.

Kohn concludes: “I don’t know of any organisation that has completely figured out candidate experience, and some of that is because candidate expectations continue to evolve. But many organisations are still not even covering the basics – even if they might think they are.”

Case study: myjobscotland

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) set up its myjobscotland national recruitment portal in 2008, with the express aim of making it as easy as possible for citizens to apply for public sector jobs.

By doing so, the goal was to save £30m a year on newspaper recruitment ads. The move won COSLA a commendation in the 2011 Christie report on the future delivery of public services in the country for being an exemplar of the benefits that shared services could deliver.

Douglas Shirlaw, chief digital officer of both COSLA and myjobscotland, says: “From the start, we wanted to offer a site that candidates only had to register for once in order to apply for jobs at our 32 local authorities as the aim was to make the process as smooth as possible. And although different organisations may ask different questions in their application forms, 85% of them are roughly the same, which means people don’t have to re-enter the same information over and over again.”

The portal caters to the needs of 40 employers, which include not just local authorities but also the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and a number of leisure trusts and further education institutions.

They pay for using myjobscotland’s services based on their size. Such services include being able to use Cornerstone’s Saba TalentLink applicant tracking system (ATS) and take advantage of Flipbase’s video interviewing technology. By asking candidates to record a prepared answer, it becomes possible to speed up the pre-interview assessment process, for example.

A further 360 public and third sector organisations are also entitled to advertise their job vacancies on a pay-as-you-go basis. The portal now carries more than 30,000 vacancies and processes about 250,000 applications each year. It also has two million regular job-seekers in its database.

To create a compelling candidate experience, Shirlaw believes that “the most important thing is accessibility combined with usability”. To this end, the Digital Accessibility Centre undertook an audit of the site in January 2022, which resulted in a number of changes going live by the summer.

A further aim is to implement a “myaccount” single sign-on mechanism and to support the Digital Identity Scotland programme, which is due to be rolled out by the end of this year. The idea is to enable job-seekers to use the same identity credentials to access myjobscotland as they will to access public services.

Case study: CityFibre

The secret to creating a compelling candidate experience is threefold, says Richard Hutchinson, head of resourcing at UK telco CityFibre.

The first step is getting the basics right. The second is about creating a culture that reflects the organisation’s values, and the third entails taking a marketing-oriented approach to all recruitment activity.

“Your brand needs to stand out and reflect the opportunities you’re giving candidates to embrace what they’re trying to achieve in their own careers,” says Hutchinson. “It’s a very competitive landscape in IT and telecoms, which means it is essential candidates have a positive, consistent experience at every touch point to understand who we are and what the culture is like.”

The idea is to help job-seekers assess the company and whether they would like to join – and, even if they decide against, encourage them to recommend CityFibre, which currently employs 2,500 staff, to other members of their network.

As for getting the basics right, this consists of making the application process simple without having too many steps, while at the same time ensuring it is “slick”. But it is also about ensuring that all marketing and brand awareness content “intentionally” tells a consistent story.

“This means authenticity in telling true stories and bringing the culture to life, or showing the reality of who we are, not just what we want to portray,” says Hutchinson. “So it’s about making our key messages clear at all key stages of engagement with the brand to explain how we do things, what makes us tick, and how people can truly be themselves, as that’s part of the experience too.”

But to do this effectively, it is vital to spend time understanding the company’s culture and to “define the behaviours you live and breathe by”, he adds. Once the internal culture is right, it is then possible to “confidently go out to market”.

To make the vision a reality, Hutchison next “engaged with marketing to turn our internal brand into our external employer brand” based on the firm’s “engagement strategy”.

“Recruiting has to lean into having marketing at the heart of what it’s doing,” he says. This means it is important to engage with obvious destinations, such as job boards, and ensure recruiters know how to actively find candidates through social media platforms such as LinkedIn.

“But you also have to put messages out there to proactively engage with candidates who aren’t actively looking and then manage the experience as they come into the process,” says Hutchinson. CityFibre does this by using iCIMS’s Candidate.ID software, a marketing automation tool that helps it manage talent pipelines.

Other core technology comprises SmartRecruiters’ ATS and its Report Builder function to build custom reports. These range from monthly research on recruitment trends for the head of HR, chief operating officer and chief executive to how well individual recruiters are performing against targets.

“We use data to see if what we’re doing is right and how we could tackle things differently if it’s not,” says Hutchinson. “In the early days, it used to be a bit of a free-for-all in terms of candidate experience and that’s fine when you’re a smallish company, but as you grow, you have to ensure you’re being fair, consistent and giving people the best experience you can.”

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