It is (not always) love at first sight

In their book „The War for Talent“, Michaels, Handfield-Jones & Axelrod wrote more than a decade ago about an increasingly competitive recruiting landscape. Ever since, organizations put considerable effort into their recruiting activities. Research supports this notion and has shown that skill-enhancing practices such as recruiting have a positive impact on a firm’s human capital (compare BION 06.2013). Hence, a company that intends to compete successfully in the marketplace is well advised to manage its recruiting effectively.

Conventional wisdom tells us that employer-branding activities are the key to building up the talent pipeline. This notion finds support in a growing body of research that examines how organizations try to improve upon their strategies and tactics for identifying and attracting potential employees i.e. before job seekers submit their application. However, recruiting is typically not a single hiring event but encompasses many efforts carried out as a process. Question is what happens after an organization managed to lure a job seeker into filing the application?

New research by Walker et al provides insight into how organizations maintain the positive attitudes of applicants during the recruitment process. They examined job seekers’ reactions to treatment received during the so-called maintenance phase of recruitment, i.e. between the submission of an application and the actual job offer. This phase is crucial from an organization’s perspective as it is here where the tender plantlet of attraction, which has started to grow between the applicant and the institution, might turn into a decision for accepting the (potential) job offer – or not.

In the generation phase, where job seekers become aware of an organization, they evaluate the institution based on observable information such as recruitment materials etc. It’s not uncommon for applicants to question the authenticity of such information and thus to enter the maintenance phase of recruiting with feelings of uncertainty about the organization. Walker et al’s results show that a job seeker interprets the treatment received during the maintenance period indeed as a signal about the types of relationships that exist in an organization. “Will I have good relations as a member of the organization?”, is a typical question that applicants ask themselves during this stage. Justice signals seen as positive increase the attractiveness of the organization and vice versa. In other words, evaluations of justice and fair treatment received during the maintenance phase have strong power for influencing job seekers’ organizational perceptions and their certainty that relations will be positive in the future – an important factor in their decision-making process.

One might think that job seekers form their impressions of an organization’s fairness rather quickly based on their initial interactions with the institution. Walker et al were able to empirically demonstrate that it’s not always love at first sight that counts, but that justice perceptions fluctuate over time. It appears that these perceptions are dynamic and malleable in the maintenance phase of recruitment. Hence, in this phase the challenge for the organization is to maintain the applicant’s initial interest and to reduce anxiety associated with uncertainty regarding expected relations.

Written and verbal interactions play an important role in forming an applicant’s perception of the institution. Organizations have the possibility of nurturing the development of positive relationships, for example by following up with timely correspondence immediately after applicants have submitted their application. Timing is essential and quality at least as much. Walker et al found that the correspondence to job seekers conveys signals of justice and caution to consider the quality of any interaction between the organization and the applicant. As a matter of fact, it’s not only the information provided but also the way in which recruiting agents interact with job seekers in general.

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Figure: Phases of Recruitment

What can companies do to ensure that positive outcomes of the generation phase of the recruitment process carry on through all subsequent stages? First of all, recruiting needs to be perceived as an end-to-process from an applicant’s perspective with the weakest link determining its overall success. Secondly, the application of service and experience design principles and methods that are increasingly used in business today to convert customers’ interest into actual purchasing behavior might prove equally valuable for recruitment purposes, i.e. for turning applicants into new hires.

Michaels, E., Handfield-Jones, H. & Axelrod, B. (2001). The war for talent. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press.

Walker, H.J, Bauer, T.N., Cole, M.S., Bernerth, J.B., Field, H.S. & Short, J.C. (2013). Is this how I will be treated? Reducing uncertainty through recruitment interactions. Academy of Management Journal, Vol 56(5), 1325-1347.

| Authored by Christian Völkl