Humanize the Online Application Experience

For recruiters dealing with a high volume of candidates and even higher pressure to fill important positions quickly, the advent of applicant tracking systems (ATS) and other recruitment technologies has been a blessing. These tools enable recruiters to manage, organize, track and process a vast database of prospective employees at each stage in the recruitment process.

However, as applicant tracking has grown in sophistication, so has the complication and headaches for the job candidate, arguably the most important stakeholder in the process.

An example of the complication goes something like this: A job applicant finds a posting for the job on the company’s website; the individual fills out a lengthy online application, attaching a resume, cover letter, references and other requested documents. He or she submits, and then … nothing. The resume seemingly disappears into a black hole, and the candidate is either chosen for an interview or never hears from the company again.

In recent years this disconnect between recruiter convenience and satisfactory candidate experience has become so large that the Talent Board, a nonprofit research organization, has dedicated itself to finding ways to make the candidate experience more satisfactory for both the candidate and the company. The Talent Board said there are a number of ways companies can better serve the end user.

Communicate from the beginning: The most important element in creating an excellent online applicant experience is communication. Elaine Orler, president of the Talent Board, said the biggest disconnect she has seen is that when applicants submit their application, they don’t know if they will get a response.

Companies should have their tracking systems configured so that when an application is sent, applicants receive an automated email thanking them for their submission. Orler said most companies have done this well. She said the area where many companies still struggle is in the next line of communication.

Many companies will take weeks — some even months — mulling over which candidates to bring in for an interview before communicating with applicants. Orler said this is a huge mistake.

She said companies — even those with a high number of candidates for a position — should send another communication to each candidate as soon as three to five days after the submission. Personalized messages are best, but even an automated message letting candidates know where they are in the selection process would be beneficial.

Let rejected candidates know early: When an application is received and it’s clear that person isn’t qualified, Orler said it’s best to let the individual know right away. Again, this can be done with an automated email within the tracking system. Even if the information is disappointing, it’s best for a company’s image to be transparent so the candidate can move on in his or her job search.

Kristen Reese, director of talent acquisition at real estate company The Bozzuto Group, said another way to let candidates know they’re not qualified for a position outside of emailing them is to give them some way to check their application status online via the company’s careers site.

“We set up our applicant tracking system so that at any point the applicant can go back into our system and check the status of their application,” she said. “And if they have been [deemed] not qualified, it will tell them that.”

Further, once the position has been filled, Reese said they send an email to all applicants letting them know the opening has closed.

At first, just get the basics: For some companies, submitting an employment application can be a long and tedious process. However, when people apply online companies should make it as simple as possible.

Orler and other industry insiders suggest online applications should take as little as 10 to 15 minutes to complete. Companies should initially ask for just enough information to determine if candidates qualify to make it to the next step; save assessments and other extensive tasks for later in the process.

Part of the reason for this, according to the Talent Board, is that often the best applicants are already employed and unwilling to spend a lot of time filling out an online application. But if they do see an opening they are interested in, making the initial application simple and quick to complete makes them more likely to throw their hats into the ring.

Professional services firm Ernst & Young only asks for professional background information — a resume — and basic personal information.

According to Larry Nash and Jennifer Puckett, directors in the firm’s recruiting unit, this is done for many of the aforementioned reasons. Puckett said as applicants move further along in the process, they will be asked to provide more information — for instance, references or work examples — as appropriate.

Be accessible, transparent when able: Even companies that send emails to let candidates know about the different stages in the hiring process should expect phone calls and other communication from candidates asking for more information about where they stand — or why they were deemed unqualified to move on.

Chris Carlson, a senior recruiting manager at technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, said one of the ways the company tries to be accessible despite having a consistently large number of applicants is through a feature on its careers website called Recruiting Feedback. Should applicants want to communicate directly with someone on the company’s recruiting team, they can click that button, which automatically begins an email form.

“That goes back to a central point of contact that reviews all of those [emails],” Carlson said. “And we make sure to get an answer to people within a 48-hour period.”

Diane Borhani, the national director of campus recruiting for professional services firm Deloitte, said it has a similar communication vehicle on its careers site called the Green Room. In addition to allowing candidates to connect with a recruiting team member via email, Deloitte’s Green Room has live hours where prospective employees and recruiters can chat in real time.

Recruiters also should be prepared for communication by phone. Many of those interviewed for this story said it can be difficult to field every candidate request. Some companies may even have a policy restricting information disclosure. But companies should be as transparent as possible about why a candidate may not have been qualified.

Ernst & Young’s Puckett said for candidates brought in for an interview but ultimately not chosen, recruiters always should communicate with them via phone. When appropriate, they also should try to explain why they were not chosen.

Humanize the experience: Since the process of applying for a job online lacks natural human interaction, companies should add elements that bring as much face-to-face, personalized communication as possible.

Case-Mate, a designer of cases for smartphones and other electronic devices, populates its careers portal with videos of recruiters and employees talking about what it’s like to work for the company. Alex Putman, Case-Mate’s director of talent attraction and recruitment branding, said its recruiters also make sure to have a presence on its careers page. This includes links to recruiters’ personal Twitter and LinkedIn profiles so job applicants can
connect with a recruiter at any time during the candidate experience.

Aside from video and social media (see sidebar), Case-Mate humanizes the experience through a rule that says any communication sent by a job applicant — whether through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or direct via email — must be answered within a 24-hour period. Putman said more often than not such inquiries are answered within 18 hours.“A lot of this comes down to do to others what you want done to you,” Putman said.

Have a candidate experience team audit the process: Finally, part of presenting and managing a solid online candidate experience is having a team dedicated to evaluating its effectiveness.

For instance, Ernst & Young has a candidate experience work team. Its mission, according to Nash and Puckett, is to focus squarely on the process. Nash said the team not only consistently evaluates the online candidate experience, it considers the entire process from the application to the candidates who are brought in for interviews.

Deloitte’s Borhani said its candidate experience project team uses surveys and focus groups to audit the applicant experience. She recommends that companies advise their teams to first establish a benchmark audit to set goals. From there, depending on available resources, online experience auditing should be constant.

For smaller companies that may not have as many resources, Borhani said applicant experience audits should happen at least quarterly.

Not only is applicants’ ability to easily move through the process at stake, a company’s brand value is at risk as well, said Ryan Cook, global recruitment operations leader at building management consulting firm CH2M Hill.

“We know that if we spend $1 million a year on recruitment advertising, marketing and employment branding, we’re driving all these people to our website, we get them into the process and don’t communicate with them or don’t give them a good candidate experience,” he said, “that we’re not maximizing the return on that investment.”