Business leaders in organizations large and small are facing a common challenge: they can’t find enough workers to fill all their open positions. According to September Labor Department statistics, it’s harder than ever for employers to fill openings, with a record-setting disparity between vacancies and hires. 

However, in this bruising war for talent, businesses may be their own worst enemy.

While there are several factors contributing to the shortage of workers (COVID-19 concerns certainly among them), many employers make matters worse by ignoring their treatment of job candidates. Less than a third of job seekers say that their candidate experience was great, according to a Talent Board report in 2020, and 73% say the search process is one of the most stressful things in life. For many, the experience feels devoid of all humanity.

Every day, organizations subject employment candidates to an array of indignities: Unnavigable job application portals that defy all generally accepted principles of user experience design. Incomprehensible job descriptions that are riddled with internal acronyms and nomenclature. Hiring status updates that are so rare, getting one is like winning the lottery. And, finally, selection decisions that – if even communicated at all – provide no helpful feedback to the candidate.

The poor treatment has a very real impact on candidate perceptions and behaviors, undermining a firm’s ability to fill the applicant funnel and convert desirable candidates into employees. The Human Capital Institute reports that 60% of job seekers drop out of a company’s application process because it is too complex or time-consuming. An astounding 75% of candidates say they’ve never heard back from an employer after applying for a job. In addition, an IBM study found that regardless of whether they’re offered a job, applicants who are satisfied with the candidate experience are more than twice as likely (62% vs. 28%) to recommend the employer to others.

Imagine if a business subjected its customers to these indignities: never providing a formal response to an inquiry, using sales materials that prospects can’t understand, or deploying retail websites that practically taunt buyers into abandoning their carts. These are things that would at least raise alarm within a business. But when these same indignities occur in the recruiting arena, it often seems to elicit nothing more than a yawn from top management.

But candidates are customers and deserve to be treated as such. They are, after all, “buying” a product from the business, in the form of a career opportunity. And just like a real customer, the business has a vested interested in cultivating long-term engagement and loyalty with employment candidates – most obviously if they get the job (and become an employee), but also if they don’t (since they could be a good fit for a future opening).

As with customers, the quality of the candidate experience hinges on how job applicants feel about and remember their interactions with a company. Below are just a few examples of simple tactics organizations can use to shape candidates’ perceptions and memories, increasing the likelihood that people will not only apply, but will accept an employment offer and refer other job seekers to the business:

Set expectations and keep people informed

Ambiguity is the enemy. When people don’t know how an interaction is supposed to unfold, it makes them uncomfortable because they feel a loss of control. This is why, for example, a known wait in a line feels better (and shorter) than an unknown wait. (That’s why an experienced-focused venue like Disney World prominently posts estimated wait times at the entrance of every attraction.)

Whether it’s waiting in line or navigating a hiring process, merely by setting expectations for people you can give them the perception of control and make them feel better about the experience (even if the line – or the hiring process – doesn’t move any faster). 

Early in the hiring process, clearly communicate the key steps candidates will be going through and the associated timelines. Then, to keep ambiguity in check, regularly communicate status updates, even if there’s really no update to provide (“Haven’t forgotten about you; our process is just taking a bit longer than we expected.”) 

Lastly, when the hiring process concludes, make certain that you contact all applicants and provide definitive closure for them. Never forget that these “silver medalists” in the hiring contest could be choice candidates for a future opening. Be sure to leave them with a strong final impression that doesn’t involve deafening silence.

Stop instantaneous automated rejections

To sift through huge volumes of job applications, many employers use automated systems which screen candidates out based on keyword analysis and other considerations. With no human in the loop, that means rejection decisions can be made on certain applicants almost instantaneously (and then immediately communicated with system-generated messages).

However, this is one business interaction where an exceptionally swift (albeit automated) response can actually detract from the experience. Candidates want to feel like they’ve been given fair consideration, but an automated and nearly instantaneous robo-rejection robs them of that. 

No matter how sophisticated, smart and speedy your automated application review systems are, build some delay into the rejections and at least give candidates the perception of due process and the dignity that comes along with it.

Be an advocate

Job hunting can be a lonely, stressful and emotionally charged endeavor. And so, given the vulnerable state they may be in, when candidates come across the rare employer that tangibly demonstrates advocacy for them, it leaves an indelible impression. 

In this context, advocacy doesn’t mean promoting the candidate as the best fit for the position (since that approach isn’t scalable across all applicants, many of whom will ultimately be rejected). Rather, this advocacy is about helping each candidate position themselves in the best possible manner when vying for the job at hand (or for another they might apply to in the future). 

Employers can deliver that kind of encouraging advocacy by providing candidates with interview tips (to help them put their best foot forward), offering realistic job previews (so candidates understand the real nature of the job and can self-identify if it’s not a good fit), and sharing thoughtful feedback and coaching when a candidate isn’t selected for hire.

McGraw-Hill Education, Deborah Feingold

These are just a few examples of how employers can use proven principles of customer experience design to “stage” interactions in a way that forges more positive perceptions and memories. While most applicants will ultimately be rejected, that doesn’t mean employers should resign themselves to creating an overall dissatisfying candidate experience.

Case in point: A Stanford Business School study of the highly customer-focused Southwest Airlines, which found that some if its job applicants had a better experience being rejected by Southwest than being hired by other companies. Imagine what that means for the airline’s ability to attract the best people.

And – as Southwest clearly understands – while a better candidate experience will help with recruiting, let’s not forget that job candidates are customers in more ways than one. In many industries, candidates could be actual customers of your business, now or in the future. If they feel disrespected during the hiring process, it’s far less likely you’ll earn their patronage as a customer – and far more likely that they’ll spread negative word-of-mouth.

While being kind and respectful to job candidates is the right thing to do at any time, it is especially important now – in an employment market where workers are a hot commodity and organizations struggle to fill openings. If businesses want to attract and acquire the best talent, they must deliver a humane candidate experience that is at once magnetic and memorable.

Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting and the author of “From Impressed to Obsessed: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans”.

More opinion: Maybe there’d be less of a worker shortage if job interviewers treated women and people of color more fairly

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