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Executives: Your Company Isn't Attracting the Best Talent
Business Journal

Executives: Your Company Isn't Attracting the Best Talent

Why companies repel some of their ideal job applicants -- and how they can fix it

by Nikki Blacksmith and Yongwei Yang

A warning to senior executives of companies across industries: Your recruiters could be repelling your best job applicants. They're providing the same recruiting messages to all candidates. But the reality is that not all applicants are looking for the same things. So companies must create distinct, targeted recruitment approaches for different profiles of applicants.

Highly educated people place high importance on a company's mission and culture.

Applicants with advanced educational degrees, for example, are attracted to specific attributes of a company, such as its mission and culture. Applicants who are seeking full-time rather than part-time work, in contrast, look for other attributes, such as the opportunity to learn and grow. To attract the right applicants -- and ultimately, to bring the right talent on board -- executives must understand what makes their company attractive to people in their different applicant pools and what compels those people to apply.

Attracting and selecting the right talent is critical to a company's success. Bringing the right people into a company from the start makes the business more productive, effective, and profitable.

What's important to applicants

To better understand the differences among unique populations of job seekers, Gallup surveyed a targeted sample of people looking for jobs and asked them a series of questions about what was important to them in their job search. Here are the key findings.

  • Highly educated people place high importance on a company's mission and culture. Job seekers with advanced or graduate-level education place higher importance on the mission and culture of a company than do those with lower levels of education. They also view working for an innovative company as more important than do job seekers with lower levels of education. There could be many reasons for this difference. People who seek higher levels of education often have more training in a particular area, for example. When looking for a job, they might seek mission-oriented workplaces that match the type of training they received.

  • Applicants looking for full-time work place heavy emphasis on long-term benefits and growth prospects. Those seeking a full-time job place more importance on a company's pay and benefits, growth and advancement opportunities, and financial outlook than do those seeking part-time work. This might be because part-time-job seekers are looking for a job for very different reasons than full-time-job seekers. Part-time-job seekers might be looking for something convenient that will allow them to fit other things into their life, such as college classes. Full-time-job seekers, on the other hand, may be thinking about their job as more of a long-term investment in their career. These workers may be looking for something more permanent, so the company's financial outlook is important, as are benefits and opportunities for workers to grow and advance in the company.

    One retail company that Gallup works with studied its store associates to better understand how to create a competitive recruitment message. The company found that its part-time associates were looking for a fast-paced, energetic environment and the opportunity to build strong and collaborative relationships at work. So the company changed its recruitment materials, including its website and brochures, to show applicants that it provided a fast-moving, energetic, collaborative workplace. Shortly after the company changed its messaging, the number of applicants increased.

  • Different kinds of job seekers require different kinds of messages. Not all job seekers are the same, so companies must try to understand the differences to create a compelling reason for people to want to work for them. Companies should tailor recruitment messages to different types of job seekers. Those interested in entry-level, individual contributor roles might be looking for very different things in a company compared with a job seeker who has years of experience and who is looking for a management role. Entry-level individual contributors might be novice job seekers who are looking for opportunities to gain multiple experiences in a company; these experiences, in turn, could help them decide on a career path. Job seekers looking for management-level roles might be seeking a strong leadership team and the right resources to help them manage their team.

Three steps to creating more compelling messages

To attract highly talented people to your company:

1) Identify and prioritize different types of positions and job seekers. Often, it's not feasible for a company to study every role, so executives may want to focus on roles that have the biggest impact in the company or on those with the most job openings. An efficient way to do this is to group job opportunities into larger categories that make sense to your applicants. Start by asking: What groupings or categories might applicants look for when searching for a job? How can we make their search easier?

One way to do this is to group jobs with similar tasks and responsibilities. If there are different types or levels of sales positions, for example, creating a category for "sales" and breaking out the specific positions within the sales category might be helpful to applicants. Another approach is to group positions by level in the company, such as entry-level, management, and leadership roles. Not only does this help organize the research plan, but it also helps applicants during their job search.

Look at the "Jobs at Apple" area on Apple's website, and you'll notice that Apple has categorized its roles into three areas: Corporate, Retail Stores, and Students and College Grads. Ernst & Young uses a similar approach on its U.S. career website, grouping its jobs by level of experience using the categories Students, Experienced, and Executives.

2) Study applicants for -- and employees in -- your high-priority positions. Once your company has identified the positions that are most important and that should have unique recruitment messaging, gather information from top performers and top applicants in these roles. Start by identifying your best employees and managers (the employees your company would like to have more of) and your ideal applicants. Then invite them to participate in a survey, interview, or focus group, depending on what information-gathering method is most feasible and efficient.

Gallup has linked the talent levels of employees to their company's performance, including higher sales and lower turnover.

Use this survey to ask your best employees questions about why they like their jobs and what attracted them to your company. Whenever possible, applicants should also be part of this research because it's crucial to capture their thoughts about what motivated them to apply. While it's not necessary to talk to all applicants -- some might not be the right fit for the company -- interviews with high-quality applicants can provide key insights.

Once the appropriate groups have been identified and interviewed or surveyed, analyze the qualitative data to identify common themes and patterns. For example, if you're talking to salespeople from a technology company, a majority of the applicants might say that the company's products are valuable and they want to help sell those products to others. In that case, providing job applicants with more information about the products could be a compelling message for those applicants.

Working with a government client, Gallup identified top performers in a highly selective, high-turnover role and conducted interviews and focus groups with individuals who joined the organization and with those who did not. To gain insights into their demographics and psychographics, researchers asked these individuals to respond to a survey about their interests and activities. The resulting profile helped the client define who the high-potential applicants were like in terms of their psychographic profile, understand what those applicants liked to do in their free time, and understand where they got their information.

This recruitment "brand realignment" initiative allowed for more targeted marketing activities and recruitment strategies. The client learned that just targeting any particular pool of applicants wouldn't yield the best return on investment or the highest number of qualified individuals who would stay in the client's program. Instead, with analysis using interviews, focus groups, and survey data, Gallup was able to show the potential of using targeted recruiting and messaging to attract more individuals just like the client's top performers.

3) Communicate and integrate messaging. After reviewing all the data from the employees, companies will see common themes and patterns from the interviews. Those themes should be instilled in the recruitment strategy.

Beyond incorporating these themes and patterns into their recruitment materials and career website, companies should also make sure that everyone involved in the hiring process understands the key messages of the recruitment pitch. All employees should receive formal and informal training -- not just recruiters, HR staff, and hiring managers -- because employees often deliver recruitment messages to friends and family.

One organization that Gallup consultants and researchers worked with was interested in defining its culture and better communicating its strengths to its applicants. After conducting research with its top-performing employees, Gallup helped the client integrate everything it had learned about its culture and the value of working for the organization on its career website and in its recruitment materials. To help applicants see that the organization's culture was one of its strongest value propositions, an entire page on the website was dedicated to defining the culture.

Not only did the client integrate this messaging into its virtual and print recruiting materials, but it also conducted several training sessions with recruiters and HR staff to ensure that they knew the appropriate language and messaging that should be consistently delivered to each applicant. After this training process, many applicants praised the company for helping them understand why they would want to work for this organization. One applicant even claimed that he would be OK if he didn't get hired. Thanks to the messaging of the recruitment process, he realized that the organization hired for a certain "fit" to ensure that employees would enjoy their work and feel like they were part of something.

What executives must know

This research has significant implications for senior executives who want to create a pipeline of high-quality applicants and future leaders. For one, attracting people who are more aligned with your company's goals and employment offerings will produce a pool of candidates that will increase business performance. If companies can spend more time with the right applicants because there are more of them to choose from -- and less time with the wrong applicants -- they can save on recruitment time and cost.

Improving the applicant pool will also enhance a company's ability to hire better people. Gallup has linked the talent levels of employees to their company's performance, including higher sales, lower turnover, and higher supervisor ratings. Best of all, companies might be able to attract individuals who are better aligned with the company's brand and mission and who, in turn, will improve how that brand is delivered to customers.

Results are based on an online survey conducted with a targeted U.S. sample of 1,376 adults aged 18 and over who were seeking a job. The data were collected between August 28 and September 16, 2007. To participate in this survey, participants had to be looking for a full-time or part-time job within the past six months. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2.7 percentage points.


Nikki Blacksmith is a former Lead Researcher, Workplace Practice, for Gallup.
Yongwei Yang is an Advanced Design and Analytics Consultant for Gallup.

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