candidate experience

With all the candidate IDs, applicant numbers, and employee codes, it’s easy to forget that these designations are associated with real people, each with their own strong views and ability to voice them. These people have their own wants, drives, motivations, and desires, who don’t actually want to be treated like an administrative burden place upon HR departments and hiring managers

It’s equally easy to forget that hiring decisions are a two-way street. Yes, employing organisations make important decisions on behalf of candidates, but candidates also make important decisions on behalf of potential employers.

It's equally easy to forget that hiring decisions are a two-way street.

Although this was always the case, the advent of job-site aggregators, applicant tracking systems, and other HR automation processes have greatly increased liquidity in the job market, making it far easier for candidates to find work.

The result is a heightened competition for talent, and a decreased loyalty towards potential employers. If an employer does something to upset, offend, or inconvenience a candidate, what’s to stop them discontinuing their application and focus their attention on the myriad other employers out there?

A candidate can easily apply to 20 jobs a day, why should they put up with your poor candidate experience?

What is Candidate Experience?

Candidate experience can be defined as a candidate’s subjective perception of how an employer treats its prospective employees. Throughout the candidate journey, employers engage in a process of give and take.

The employer evaluates the candidate’s potential, requiring varying degrees of investment from the candidate. This ranges from low-touch CV sifting, to very high touch assessment centres, and indeed everything in between.

The employer evaluates the candidate’s potential, requiring varying degrees of investment from the candidate. This ranges from low-touch CV sifting, to very high touch assessment centres, and indeed everything in between. In return, the candidate is given feedback, reassured as to the employers continued interest in their application, and hopefully offered a job at the end. The candidate needs to feel the effort justifies the eventual reward, and that the process itself is designed in a fair and effective way

The candidate needs to feel that the process itself is designed in a fair and effective way

When these expectations are not met, candidate experience suffers, and resentment builds. However, when a positive candidate experience is provided, this further encourages the candidate, increasingly the probably of several mutually beneficial outcomes.

Why Candidate Experience Matters

Most proximally, employers ought to provide a positive candidate experience to minimise candidate attrition. The loss of high potential candidates due to poorly managed recruitment processes results in a net-loss for all parties involved and is something that employers should be ever vigilant of. Naturally, this is the main (but certainly not the only) reason why employers are concerned with candidate experience.

Another benefit of a positive candidate experience is increased word-of-mouth referrals. Happy candidates inevitably recommend the organisations to follow job-seekers, encouraging a greater volume of applicants. Considering the cost of other candidate attraction strategies, word-of-mouth referrals are especially cost-effective mechanisms to acquire a sufficiently large applicant pool. Particularly for organisations that operate in the business-to-customer (B2C) space, disgruntled candidates could take their business elsewhere. In fact, Virgin Media determined that the loss of business from rejected candidates was costing them £4.4 million a year in discontinued subscriptions. This is an especially important concern for employers in industries that rely on customer loyalty and a high lifetime customer value.

This is an especially important concern for employers in industries that rely on customer loyalty

A company’s reputation as an employer is also on the line when candidates are given a poor experience. All companies aspire to be listed on the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work for, but it will surely become an impossible dream if candidates begin complaining on social media en-masse. Once an organisation has acquired a poor reputation in this space, its often very hard to shake, negatively impacting recruitment drives for many years to come.

Lastly, a negative candidate experience can also leave a bitter taste in the mouth of candidates who are indeed hired at the end of the process. Employees may question whether the organisation genuinely cares about its people, and whether or not a poor candidate experience is indicative of a poor employee experience. This distrust could result in decreased employee engagement, and untimely the employee’s commitment to their employer.

But what are employing organisations doing to avoid these negative outcomes and ensure a positive candidate experience?

Although much work has been done on making the recruitment process as a whole more candidate friendly, an accounting of its constituent stages has yet to be conducted. Indeed, it is these key stages where the employer learns about a candidate’s potential, enabling them to make informed selection decisions.

The Four-Point Model of Candidate Experience in Assessment

To aid in making quality selection decisions, employers have access to myriad assessments and screening tools. Ultimately, the primary objective of any employee selection process is to identify the highest performers, and a wide range of hiring tools exist to serve that purpose.

But not all assessment procedures provide the same candidate experience, and more importantly, they differ on several key factors. For example, certain common assessment tools are quite boring and repetitive, but are very covenant to complete. Other assessment procedures require a massive time and effort commitment from candidates, but are highly engaging and interactive.

To create a positive candidate experience, a range of important variables must be controlled, and thus selection procedures should be chosen very carefully.

To categories the key factors which underlie a positive candidate experience in assessment, I propose the following four variables which must be optimised to provide a quality candidate experience:

  • Difficulty: An assessment experience which provides a worthy challenge, but isn’t overwhelming or underwhelming.
  • Engagement: An assessment experience which is fun, interesting, interactive, and memorable.
  • Convenience: An assessment experience which requires minimal administrative effort, logistic planning, and time commitment.
  • Relevance: An assessment experience which is perceived by the candidate to be directly related to the role’s requirements.

Clearly, certain selection tools will excel in one or two specific elements which promote a positive candidate experience, but no assessment procedure could ever hope to be perfect on all four fronts. For example, face-to-face interviews are typically perceived as relevant by candidates but are quite inconvenient compared to other selection tools. Conversely, telephone interviews are significantly more convenient than face-to-face interviews, but are likely to be perceived as less relevant to the role (unless the role is heavily telephone based).

In this next section I will go over the major implications of these four points, how they pertain to employee selection, and why they influence candidate experience.

1. Difficulty

When it comes to assessment difficulty, it shouldn’t be too hard, or too easy, it needs to be just right.

On one hand, imagine you are a fresh graduate receiving an absolute grilling from a senior partner during interview. The perceived difficulty of this exercise often has serious effects on the candidate’s confidence, perceived ability, and motivation to continue. Often in these situations, the candidate’s initial reaction is to simply give up and escape the situation, avoiding unnecessary stress and inevitable disappointment.

On the other hand, imagine a graduate completing a numerical reasoning test designed for children. As the candidate progresses through the assessment, their interest wanes, their focus is inevitably shifted elsewhere, also negatively effecting the candidate’s motivation and interest.

The ideal assessment is one that is targeted specifically at that candidates’ level of ability, providing a challenging, but not necessary overwhelming or underwhelming experience. This ensures that candidates are always focused on the task at hand, without invoking fear or boredom. In psychology, we call this optimal state “Eustress”, which represents the ideal amount of stress to focus one’s attention without the harmful effects of “Distress” or the distracting effects of “Calm”

Optimal assessment difficulty also helps when it comes to managing expectations. For example, if a candidate found the assessment easy and boring, but finds out they performed poorly on it, this will inevitably result in a disgruntled candidate.

Conversely, if a candidate performs well on an assessment that they found very difficult, they are likely to attribute this to luck rather than their own abilities. External attribution of achievements often has negative effects on a person’s self-worth, resulting in lowered confidence and self-esteem.

When the optimal level of difficulty is achieved, the candidate should feel positive about their own capabilities regardless of the outcome. Because the assessment was challenging but not overwhelming, the candidate is permitted to feel that they overcame the challenge due to their own competence, and not due to luck or external factors. Similarly, if not successful, they will feel that the assessment was slightly too difficult, not necessarily that their competence wasn’t up to scratch.

In both cases, these are superior outcomes for the candidate from a psychological perspective, promoting a positive candidate experience.

The Ideal Assessment Procedure for Difficulty: Computer adaptive ability tests

Computer adaptive tests (CATs) are assessments which automatically tailor the difficulty of the assessment to the performance of the candidate. This ensures that every candidate is provided with questions which are optimal for them specifically, maximising candidate experience from a difficulty perspective.

No other assessment procedure offers this level of customisation from a difficulty perspective. For example, fixed-form ability tests are almost always of moderate difficulty, making them ideal for average performers, but boring to high performers and distressing to low performers.

CAT ability tests are the only assessments which are designed specifically to optimise difficulty, and thus represent the best way to improve this aspect of candidate experience. 

The Worst Assessment Procedure for Difficulty: Difficult to say (no pun intended)

The reality is that almost any assessment can be too hard or too easy for specific candidates unless it employs CAT or some other candidate specific difficulty manipulation.

In the absence of CAT, its usually best to ensure that assessments are focused around a moderate level of difficulty, and thus will be optimal for the majority (although certainly not all) of your candidates.

2. Engagement

Next comes Engagement, the extent in which the assessment modality is, as much as a screening tool can be, fun.

There are several reasons why selection procedures ought to be engaging. Obviously, if the assessment modality itself is fun to do, the odds are candidates will actually follow through with completing it, providing valuable information to aid employee selection decisions. If the candidate finds the assessment incredibly tedious, this negative candidate experience may result in attrition, causing the employer to lose candidates.

Similarly, fun experiences are typically quite memorable, which helps with keeping the candidate engaged in the recruitment process. Boring selection procedures do little to nurture the interests of your candidates, possibly causing their attentions to stray elsewhere. By making the assessment procedure more fun, your organisation remains fresh in their minds, and thus won’t fall to the way-side.

An engaging selection procedure can also help bolster the candidate’s perception of the employing organisation itself. When organisations ask candidates to complete boring selection tools, they cannot help but assume this is reflective of the organisation itself. However, when completing fun and interesting selection tools, the same logic holds true. This gives the impression that the employing organisation itself is fun, innovative, and exciting, rather than boring.

Lastly, fun and engaging assessments can help negate some of the anxiety provoking aspects of the assessment. If candidates are asked to complete something fun, most likely it will invoke less anxiety in nervous candidates. Naturally, employers have an obligation not to cause excessive stress and anxiety in their applicants, and one particularly useful avenue to achieve this is to employ more engaging assessments.

The Ideal Assessment Procedure for Engagement: Gamified assesments

Considering that video gaming is something that individuals do purely for their own enjoyment, it makes sense that gamified assessments rank among the most engaging assessments on the market. Gamification allows psychometric test providers to measure key psychological constructs using games or game-like formats, designed to provide a more interesting and engaging experience for candidates.

Gamification makes assessments more interactive, exciting, and inherently rewarding from a task design perspective. Specific key actions can be rewarded with animation, providing constant sensory feedback to the candidate in order to keep them engaged. When done properly, candidates may not feel like they are being assessed at all, and instead are participating purely for their own enjoyment.

The Worst Assessment Procedure for Engagement: Biodata questionnaires

It’s hard to imagine something less engaging than extended form-filling. This is especially true with biodata questionnaires designed inline with the behavioural consistency principle.

These biodata forms are long questionnaires asking a wide range of questions about the candidates past behaviour i.e. “how many books have you read in the past 6 months?”, “how many jobs have you held in the past 5 years?”, or “how many friends did you make at your last job?”.

Overall, about as far from a fun and engaging selection procedure as one could imagine.

3. Convenience

The reality is, no matter how fun you make the process, a candidate’s time is precious, and they would rather not be doing it if possible. However, the employing organisation’s primary objective in employee selection and assessment is to identify the top performers, which requires effort on the part of the candidate. Clearly, a compromise must be found.

This is where convenience becomes important, as employers must recognise that candidates, no matter how motivated, do not have unlimited time and effort to spend on your selection process. Instead, employers should aim to minimise frictions as much as possible, requiring as little time, effort, and stress from their candidates as reasonably possible.

Proximally, this means that candidates should be less likely to simply give up on the recruitment process, and thus comply with the organisation’s requests. Asking too much, too early from candidates is a sure-fire way to see candidate attrition, harming your recruitment efforts.

Moreover, people don’t like being made to jump through hoops, and may come to resent the employing organisation if their selection process involves excessive administrative effort. A good example of this is requiring candidates to upload a CV and a covering letter, but then afterwards complete an application form outlining the same information contained in the CV / covering letter.

Convenience is also very much related to candidate expectations of feedback. If the candidate needs to attend a face-to-face interview, and they don’t hear back from the employer, this will dramatically reduce candidate experience. However, a telephone interview, being far more convenient for the candidate, does not demand the same degree of feedback. Making selection procedures more convenient is thus a useful way to manage candidate expectations and reduces the negative implications of failing to meet those expectations.

The Ideal Assessment Procedure for Convenience: Short online personality questionnaires

Short, sifting focused personality questionnaires provide an unparalleled degree of convenience to candidates. When designed correctly, they can be completed on any device, they are untimed and thus can be completed at one’s leisure, and they require almost no cognitive effort to complete.

When focused around a specific set of traits, short personality questionnaire could take 5-10 minutes to fully complete, requiring almost no time-commitment from the candidates themselves.

Similarly, with many online personality questionnaires, candidates can log out and then log back in and continue their assessment at a more convenient time, without needing to be reset or any manual intervention from the employer.

Overall, they offer a degree of convenience with is hard to beat.

The Worst Assessment Procedure for Convenience: Assessment centres

Assessment centres at held at fixed locations and at specific times, whereby the availability of the candidate is rarely taken into consideration. Occasionally, the candidate may have the option of choosing one or two slots, but for the most part candidates have little say over what happens and when.

Moreover, sometimes assessment centres are held over several days, possibly requiring candidates to find local accommodation. Even a half-day assessment centre is quite a serious time commitment, especially when factoring in travel arrangements.

During the assessment centre itself, candidates follow a very strict schedule, from which there can be little deviation. Each candidate is required to do what they are told, when they are told, as assessment centres must be managed diligently by the assessors.

Lastly, assessment centres often require significant preparation beforehand. Candidates may be asked to arrange a presentation in advance of their assessment centre or analyse materials for a case study. Even if no official preparation is required, most candidates will still spend time and effort researching the requirements and preparing accordingly.

4. (Perceived) Relevance

Last but not least, we have the candidate’s perceived relevance of the assessment. It doesn’t matter how fun, challenging, or convenient an assessment is if the candidate doesn’t believe they should be completing it in the first place. In psychology, we call this “Face Validity” i.e. the extent in which the assessment appears to measure its intended psychological construct.

Unfortunately for assessors and occupational psychologists, perceived relevance and actual, empirical relevance do not always tally. For example, general cognitive ability tests are the strongest predictors of job performance known, but if the candidate doesn’t know that, they are unlikely to be seen as such. 

Perceived relevance effects candidate experience in many ways, but most importantly it influences perceptions of fairness. If a candidate feels unfairly treated, almost always the results in a negative candidate experience overall, along with a massive loss of trust with the employing organisation.

Likely, the candidate will simply give up on the recruitment process, likely failing to complete the offending assessment. Unfortunately, it’s likely the high performing candidates, who have plenty of other options for employment, who will find this most offensive, and thus are most likely to drop out due to face validity concerns.  

Moreover, candidates that doubt the relevance of the assessment process are likely to share their opinions with others, potentially damaging the employer’s reputation. Just think about the interviews you have had, where the employer asked irrelevant and poorly thought out questions i.e., “what is your favourite colour”, “if you could be any animal, what would you be”. Naturally, you told your friends and family about that experience, which is a natural reaction to a poorly designed assessment process.

The Ideal Assessment Procedure for Relevance: Assessment centres

Despite being the least convenient of the assessment procedures, assessment centres are undoubtably the most face-valid. The reality is that convenience and perceive relevance are negatively correlated with one another, whereby the most convenient assessment may not always be perceived as the most relevant, and the most relevant assessments may not always be particularly convenient.

Because assessment centres are normally designed by the employing organisation themselves, the content of the exercises are usually completely congruent with the organisations sector, industry, and operations. As a result, its very easy to maximise the perceived relevance of the assessment centre by making it highly specific to the role.

Rarely will a candidate leave an assessment centre not feeling like they were thoroughly vetted first. Assessment centres comprise rounds of highly specific interviews, exercises, and psychometric assessments, all while being carefully observed by a team of assessors at all times. This helps ensure that any selection decision made using assessment centres, whether positive or negative, is perceived as fair and just by the candidates. 

The Worst Assessment Procedure for Relevance: Astrology

“We are sorry to inform you that your application has been rejected. We only hire Virgos and you are a Sagittarius. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours.“- HR Manager at BadCandiateExperience Corp

Although it may seem obvious to most people, choosing employees based on the month they were born is both completely ineffective, and likely to be perceived as such by candidates. I imagine that even staunch supporters of astrology wouldn’t feel confident using it during employee selection.

Using astrology in employee selection would likely give candidates one of two impressions:

  1. This employer doesn’t know anything about employee selection
  2. This is just an excuse to unfairly drop them from the selection process.

In either case, best to keep astrology as far away from employee selection as possible!

The Relative Importance of the Four Points

The reality of the matter is that candidate experience isn’t a simple, unidimensional construct, its far more complex than that. As a result, a selection process can provide a poor candidate experience for many different reasons, and the degree in which those reasons effect candidate experience can vary widely between roles, and even between people.

Naturally, some candidates are particularly sensitive to perceived relevance, especially senior staff and experienced hires. These people, who resent being assessed whatsoever, are often very intolerant of assessments that they deem not directly relevant to the role itself. Usually, they are already working and are not in a particular hurry to leave, and so any friction in this regard could discourage further participation.

In the emerging talent marketplace however, convenience and engagement are king. Inevitably, graduates apply to a wide range of organisations, and will therefore need to dedicate a great deal of time to assessment. As a result, graduates often act tactically, focusing on the employers which require the lowest time-investment, maximising the number of applications per unit time. Having fun and engaging assessments however, help encourage further participation, increasing the likelihood of emerging talent actually dedicating the time to completing your assessments.

When deciding which assessments to utilise in employee selection, and deciding when to use them, always bear in mind the candidates themselves. Try to consider their motivations, values, experiences, and expectations, and then build a selection process around those factors. For example, maybe fun and zingy gamified online assessments aren’t the best fit when it comes to executive recruitment. But for graduates and apprentices that could be exactly what they are looking for, or indeed expecting from their future employers.

To summarise, I propose the following recommendations for balancing the four aspects within an employee selection process:

  • Convenience and Engagement are most important in the early stages and get less important later on.
  • Perceived relevance becomes increasingly more important as the process progresses.
  • Difficulty remains equally important at all stages of the recruitment process.

Importance of the Human Touch

Of course, the main focus of this article is to address the elements within an employee selection process which effect candidate experience, but how those elements are implemented matters just as much. Choosing the right assessments at the right time is essential to providing an excellent candidate experience, but how you provide those assessments is just as important and requires significant forethought.

You could design the perfect selection process, including zingy games, face-valid assessment centres, and convenient personality questionnaires, but if you mistreat your applicants at every stage you will inevitably provide a poor candidate experience. Once again, its easy to forget that candidates are human beings with needs, wants, and desires.

In particular, candidates want someone they can ask questions, receive support, and eventually gain meaningful feedback from. What they don’t want, is to only receive automated emails, push notifications, and tedious support tickets that never come to fruition.

Rejection is another major issue regarding candidate experience. Inevitably, you will reject more candidates than you accept, which is never a pleasant experience for candidate or recruiter. Tactfully managing rejections is an important aspect of candidate experience, which is certainly easier said than done. Naturally, you want rejected candidates to feel fairly vetted, and not to feel resentment toward your organisation moving forward. A useful way of doing this would be to always leave the door open for re-application, or to encourage applications to other roles. That way, candidates won’t feel permanently rejected, instead they will see this as only a temporary set-back.

Summary

The most important thing to remember when attempting to improve candidate experience in employee selection, is that there is more to creating a positive candidate experience than just making it fun.

Engagement is only one of four key elements which underlie candidate experience, and simply trying to make the assessment process more fun may in-fact worsen the candidate experience if used incorrectly or inappropriately.

The good news, however, is this means that employers have several avenues they can follow to maximise candidate experience, including making the assessments more convenient, optimising their difficulty, or increasing the perceived relevance of the assessments.

By accounting for each of these four aspects, and balancing them appropriately, HR teams can truly optimise candidate experience, ensuring that all candidates feel positive about their participation in the application process.

Final Thoughts

Although candidate experience has received significant attention of recent, one must always be cognizant of other factors which determine the effectiveness of employee selection processes.

First and foremost, any assessment process must be valid i.e. meaningfully predict future performance. Identifying future top performers and avoiding mis-hires should always be considered the number one priority in employee selection, and any organisation which ignores this is simply doomed to fail.

Secondly, employers must also be cognizant of diversity and inclusion. Minimising adverse impact should be an essential aspect of any employee selection process and must be balanced with validity and candidate experience.

For practical, legal, and ethical reasons, these two priorities should always come before candidate experience, which becomes important after accounting for validity and adverse impact in section process design.

Only by incorporating each of these three elements can you design a truly successful employee selection process, meeting the strategic objectives of all major parties within the HR department and the wider organisation.

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