The single most powerful question in recruiting

by 26 Jun 2007

Knowing what an employee wants from a job is the all-important key to successful recruitment in todays talent-short market. Its all about how you use the information once you have it, writes John Sullivan

It’s the million-dollar question in recruiting that almost no one asks. It’s a simple question, and one that car salespeople around the world ask: “What is it going to take to get you in this car?”

Regardless of industry or geography, every salesperson worth their salt asks some variant of this question at some point early on in the sales cycle.

While many of the best have learned to ask this question in a less-direct way, they all do it because it helps improve their closure rate by enabling them to narrow and focus their ‘pitch’ on customers’ specific buying criteria.

The million-dollar question that must be a formal part of the recruiting process is, “What criteria will you use to determine whether to accept a job offer?”

While a number of exceptional recruiters have become very adept at gathering and leveraging the answer to this question, the vast majority fail to embed this customer-profiling element into their formal process.

Without this activity, the candidate experience cannot be managed to the candidate’s expectations, which decreases the probability of a candidate accepting an offer down the road. If you think of recruiting as primarily a sales function, what could be more basic than identifying your target’s ‘buying criteria’and using it to guide your sales approach?

How to use the information

Once you know a candidate’s criteria, use it in the following ways:

Screening out. Obviously, if their acceptance criteria include things your firm can’t or won’t offer (ie the option to work at home), you can then screen out candidates early on in the process.

Crafting your sales pitch. Once you know the candidate’s decision criteria, focus your approach on what the candidate needs (unfortunately 99 per cent of corporate-recruiting processes are focused on making HR’s job easy, rather than being ‘candidate centric’).

Getting managers to change the job. If it’s obvious that you can meet most but not all of the top candidates’expectations, use the areas of ‘disconnect’ to work with the manager to modify the job in order to increase your chances of getting a top candidate to say ‘yes’.

Put together a what candidates expect database.If you asked this question of every candidate, you could identify the general criteria that candidates use to select a job. You could also train your recruiters on what to expect and what sales pitch is appropriate for each of the most common criteria. Use the information to change the content of job descriptions, your website, and the ‘pillars’ of your corporate employment branding. You could also use it to determine any variations in job-acceptance criteria among the different X, Y, or M generations. Corporate recruiting should segment this data into job families and geographic regions, as well as between graduate and experienced hires.

Top performer criteria is more complex

One important thing to remember is that when you ask unemployed candidates about their acceptance decision criteria, their answer is likely to be short and simple. In contrast, currently employed top performers are likely to have a longer list of decision criteria.

I call this ‘job-switch criteria,’ and it’s critical to ask what criteria candidates will use to decide if switching jobs makes sense whenever you’re trying to recruit more desirable currently employed top performers. If you can identify the job-switch criteria of currently employed top performers, you have added real value to the recruiting equation! Incidentally, I would still ask about acceptance criteria with all unemployed candidates, but don’t expect the answers to be as complex.

When to ask the million-dollar question

Just like in marketing, it is essential that you know your customers’‘buying criteria’ before you attempt to make the sale. The golden rule here is the earlier the better. Remember that after you get the information, it’s critical to document it in a way that is accessible to all who will interact with the candidate.

Ask this question in the following places: on your corporate career site (candidate profiling feature), on your written application for employment form; during any pre-screening activities (phone screen, Web screen, face-to-face meeting); via email prior to any assessment activity; and as the ice-breaking question in a formal interview.

Getting the answer indirectly

If you want to be subtle, ask them to outline their ‘dream job’ using a structured set of information categories and use it to sell them. You could also get at the information by asking what frustrates them about their current job, and what could their current employer do to improve their current job situation?

Or, simply ask for their input of: referees; other decision influencers (colleagues, friends, professors, and family); focus groups or surveys with other recent hires in the same or similar job family; focus groups with employees from other firms (this is usually done at a trade fair or job fair) to identify their criteria; and published general market research studies.

If you’re finding that candidates are not reluctant to provide you with their job acceptance criteria, ask them to rank or weight the factors so that you can see which are most critical in their decision-making.

Incidentally, during the on-boarding process you should ask all candidates why they accepted the offer, and also whether they had any concerns that caused them to nearly decline. Use this information to improve your sales pitch and to ‘validate’ whether the information you’re getting on their job-acceptance criteria is similar to the criteria that they actually used to make their decision.

Remember, wherever possible, to categorise the answers from these surveys and focus groups by job family, location, and demographic factors. These ‘general’ decision-making factors change over time as the economy and the competitive job market change.

Dont forget to use the information

Remember, the purpose of identifying job-acceptance decision criteria is to provide recruiters and managers with specific information that will help improve the organisation’s closure rate. Doing the work and keeping the answers a secret will not work, nor will knowing the information and failing to consistently act on it.

If managers don’t use the information, or do not accept the candidate’s reasoning as valid, it will not work. To be successful, have a process for getting feedback as to whether the information was helpful and how the process of gathering decision criteria can be improved.

Incidentally, if you come across reluctant candidates, run. It’s a bad sign if candidates can’t identify their own decision criteria before making a critical decision like pursuing a new job.

Dr John Sullivan is professor and head of the HR program at San Francisco State University, and is a noted author, speaker and advisor to corporations around the globe