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The Steps of the Recruiting Process … and How to Identify Failure Points

by May 10, 2010, 12:16 am ET

It might surprise you to know that the average recruiter cannot name the distinct steps in the recruiting process, nor the goals or common failure points for each step. Even among recruiting leaders, it’s common for them to realize that their hiring process is failing but be unaware of which steps in the process are causing the problem.

Having advised a number of organizations seeking to improve their function, I have developed a process for identifying the weak elements of a recruiting process, which I call “Recruiting Failure Point Identification” or “Recruiting FPI.” There are three different FPI approaches that organizations can use to identify the key “failure points” in any hiring process. They include.

  • Auditing each of the distinct steps in the recruiting process to identify failure points
  • Using a yield model to identify failure points
  • Using surveys to identify what’s working and “what’s not working” in the process

In this article I’ll focus on the first approach, covering the other two in subsequent articles.

It may seem surprising, but many organizations realize significant benefit just from mapping out what they currently do and do not do, often realizing things they thought were being done were not. The mapping also allows participants to realize “the big picture” and the interrelationships between each of the individual steps. Having a mapped process also enables construction of a “yield model” that enables organizations to predict what volume of applicants would be needed to successfully close a projected volume of requisitions.

The 19 Steps in an Effective Recruiting Process

In this section I’ll list each of the 19 distinct steps in the recruiting process, as well as the primary goal and the common cause of failure for each.

Step #1Determine your ideal recruiting target — the goal of this step is to determine precisely who recruiting efforts should target, including performance level, experience level, and whether or not they are actively looking for a job. If you’re targeting top performers or poaching from competitors, the remaining steps of the recruiting process must be designed to “fit” the needs in the job search process of your targeted candidate if you expect to even gain their attention. At this step many firms prioritize their jobs, so that they focus resources on jobs with the highest business impact. Common reason for failure: defining your target but failing to design the approaches used in a way capable of recruiting and hiring that type of target.

Step #2Understanding your target’s decision criteria — a significant part of any recruiting process is attracting desired talent, which you cannot do effectively without understanding what your targets consider important. This step focuses on identifying the key factors, known as “job acceptance criteria,” that are necessary in order to convince a qualified prospect to apply for and eventually accept a job at your firm. Common reason for failure: omitting this step altogether and producing messages based on what the recruiting team finds compelling versus what the target talent needs to hear about.

Step #3Knowing where your target “hangs out” — having defined your target and their decision criteria, the next step aims at identifying where you are most likely to find the target talent, including what communication channels would be effective for recruitment messages. If you don’t accurately identify where they spend their time, there will be a low probability of you placing compelling information about the company and the opportunity in a place they will find or pay attention to. Common reason for failure: omitting this step altogether and deploying employment branding and recruitment marketing to channels that are easiest to deploy to.

Step #4Employment branding — driving a pipeline of talent is the role of employment branding, a science-driven discipline that produces a consistent flow of qualified talent interested in some day working for your organization. The goal of this step is proactively developing and deploying content about what makes your organization a desirable place to work in the minds of your target talent populations. Obviously, if qualified individuals haven’t ever heard of your firm or they don’t really think that your firm offers any positive or compelling features, you won’t get many direct applicants. Common reason for failure: firms present their employer brand message in a perfect “corporate format” that is not judged to be authentic or believable by the target audience.

Step #5Learning your target’s job search process — at this step you implement a process designed to identify the typical process that your target audience uses once they begin a job search. The goal is to better understand precisely how they look for jobs, so that you can engineer your approach to advertising opportunities to make your jobs visible to them. If for example you learned that top talent often start job searches using Boolean search strings entered into a major search engine versus visiting a major job board, you may focus your attention on making your jobs listing search-engine acceptable and optimized, versus broadcasting to macro and micro job boards. Common reason for failure: again, many recruiting processes omit this step and as result, rely on luck or coincidence in order to be at the right place at the right time.

Step #6Posting jobs for active candidates — because active candidates are proactively seeking out job openings, it doesn’t take a lot to make your job postings visible. During this step, the goal is to write position postings and place them where active candidates can easily find them. Obviously if the descriptions are written so that they are unappealing or they are placed where your active candidates wouldn’t likely see them, you would have a low percentage of active candidates applying. Common reason for failure: many firms refuse to gather data, so they are forced to guess where active candidates look for job openings.

Step #7Directly sourcing “non-active” prospects — because “non-active” prospects are not in job search mode, they are unlikely to read any job postings or to visit your corporate career site. Instead, recruiters (or your employees through the referral program) will have to identify them, contact them, build a relationship, and eventually convince them to apply through direct sourcing. Common reason for failure: many recruiting functions do little direct sourcing and as a result, they are forced (often without realizing it) to select from a pool of primarily active candidates.

Step #8Providing prospects with additional information — at this step potential candidates have decided to consider your firm but want additional information before they decide to actually apply. The goal of this step is to make it easy for potential candidates to find positive information about your firm and its jobs. Many will visit your corporate website for additional information, opting not to apply if what they find isn’t immediately compelling. Smart prospects will also look for information about your firm and what it’s like to work there in places you can’t control, including blogs, ratings sites, and via social media. The best firms identify trusted information sources and work proactively to influence information on them. Common reason for failure: lack of interest in identifying what information candidates are most interested in and delivering a candid set of information.

Step #9The job application process — by this step, potential candidates have been convinced to apply for a position, so the goal is for a large percentage of the qualified individuals who visit the site to complete the application process. Common reason for failure: most application processes are tedious or frustrating and there is no feedback mechanism to find out why applicants drop before they complete the process.

Step #10 – Sorting applications by job — once applications are received, the goal is to ensure that the highest quality applications are sorted relevant to the most appropriate jobs (manually or via software). Common reason for failure: no metric or feedback mechanism to measure the percentage of applications that were routed to the wrong job.

Step #11The initial screening of applications and resumes — at this step applications are screened to see if they meet minimum qualifications for the job. The goal is to successfully qualify the applicants so that qualified applicants are not “sorted out” and that only a small percentage of unqualified candidates make it to the next step. Common reason for failure: the absence of a metric or feedback mechanism to measure the percentage of applications that were misclassified or that advanced without meeting minimum standards.

Step #12The initial phone screen — having screened resumes, the next step involves screening the individual behind the application. The goal of this step is to gather additional information on the candidate’s qualifications and “fit,” which should help you more accurately determine which candidates advance to an interview. Common reason for failure: no metric or periodic testing to determine the accuracy of the screening process.

Step #13Interviewing and selling qualified applicants — in this step the most qualified candidates advance to formal interviews and other assessment activities. The primary goal is to rank order the candidates by level of desirability, with a secondary goal of providing a positive candidate experience” that effectively sells the best candidates on this job. Common reason for failure: the absence of a feedback mechanism to identify problems and candidate dissatisfaction with the process that leads to top talent opting out before the process is completed.

Step #14The final interview — the goal of this step is to confirm your initial desirability ranking and set expectations among those most likely to receive an offer. Common reason for failure: the very best candidates have been previously screened out by mistake or voluntarily dropped out of the process, so remaining choices are mediocre.

Step #15The reference checking process — with your short list vetted and expectations for an offer set, the next step validates the perception of your assessment team using references. The goal is to gather additional information on the finalist(s) and ensure information provided is not erroneous. Common reason for failure: the reference checking process is underfunded and no one is accountable for demonstrating effectiveness.

Step #16The offer process — the goal of this step is to put together an offer that is within the company’s boundaries and that meets as many of the candidates “job acceptance criteria” as possible. The process should have the sales and influence component that work to improve the likelihood of top candidates accepting. Common reason for failure: no one is held accountable for this step and there is seldom an effective mechanism to analyze failures and to provide feedback on how the offer process can be improved.

Step #17The post-offer acceptance process — once an offer is accepted, it doesn’t ensure the candidate will actually show up for work! The goal of this step is to ensure those that accept our offers don’t back out (as a result of a counteroffer or second thoughts). That often means continuous communications with the new hire and providing more ties that closely link the individual to the firm prior to their start date. Common reason for failure: this step is often left to chance or is omitted.

Step #18The onboarding process — contrary to popular belief, the primary goal of onboarding is not to get employees enrolled in benefits, but rather to provide resources and information that enable new hires to become productive as fast as possible. Common reason for failure: failures often occur because of the week “handoff” between the recruiting and onboarding functions and no defined budget for onboarding.

Step #19Feedback and new hire monitoring — if the ultimate goal is continuous improvement of the recruiting process, then this step is the most important of all. The goal of this step is to assess the performance of new hires and to use that performance information to “validate” or prove that the overall recruiting process is producing quality hires. If a high percentage new hires fail, quit, or are poor performers, you will know that the hiring process needs significant improvement. A secondary goal is using new hires to determine what elements of the recruiting process were and were not effective. Some organizations also consider it a goal for recruiters to work individually with new hires to improve retention. Common reason for failure: this step is skipped altogether.

Criteria for Assessing a Recruiting “Failure Point”

After mapping each of the steps of the recruiting process, the next thing to do is to determine if there are any indicators that point to an activity as a possible “failure point.” An individual step becomes an automatic candidate for closer examination as a key failure point if it meets one or more of the following six characteristics:

  1. The step is absent — if a step is nonexistent, it can’t make its contribution to the overall hiring process!
  2. The step has no defined goals — without published clear and measurable goals, it is unlikely that any activity will purposely produce desirable results.
  3. Performance measures do not exist – without feedback mechanisms to provide data or metrics to monitor the output of the step, the probability of failure increases dramatically.
  4. Handoffs are not aligned — the “handoff” between preceding and subsequent activities is not aligned. If they are not aligned, the outputs of one step will not easily mesh with the inputs of the next step.
  5. No individual is accountable — if no individual “owns” the step, there is less likelihood that errors will be caught.
  6. The step has no defined funding — without a defined budget, there is no need to justify the existence and the performance of the step.

Final Thoughts

One of the quickest and cheapest ways to identify potential failure points is to make a simple list of the steps in the hiring process. For each step, list the primary goals, how you measure performance of the activities in the step, and who is accountable. If you find missing steps, unclear goals, missing metrics or lack of accountability, you know what weaknesses may be leading to poor performance.

In my next article, I’ll discuss “yield models” and how they can further help you identify failure points in your recruiting process.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • George Bradt

    While I’m sure this is assumed, as long as you’re being explicit about the steps of recruiting, it seems that the first step is creating and getting key stakeholders aligned around the recruiting approach and recruiting brief. One of the main reasons people fail in new roles is that organization is not aligned around what is expected out of the role and how it should interact with others. Hence the need to get stakeholders aligned around the recruiting brief.

    In an ideal world, the recruiting brief would be a part of a Total Onboarding Program as outlined in our book, “Onboarding – How to Get Your New Employees Up to Speed in Half the Time.” But at least start with a recruiting brief.

    George Bradt – PrimeGenesis Executive Onboarding and Transition Acceleration

  • Geoff Votta

    This is a great article!

    We are constantly evaluating our process internally to make sure that we are providing value at every step in the process for our clients. I am going to share this with our whole team because our clients NEED this to be managed more completely and we NEED to get better at it… period!

  • Donna Svei

    Always love Dr. John’s advice. Would add:

    1. Identifying and documenting the job’s 12 to 18-month deliverables and how they support departmental/organizational objectives over same horizon. This prevents an organization from re-filling/creating an unneeded position (it happens all the time). It also gives the hired candidate their goals right out of the gate (some auto-onboarding).

    2. Identifying the selection criteria that will identify the candidate who can accomplish those goals.

    Begin with the end in mind.

  • CorDell Larkin

    I would add that if the recruiting function lacks a clearly defined goal, such as improving quality of hire without increasing cost or time to hire, then you might be investing time and money improving a misguided process, or worse you might improve process efficiency to the detriment of cost, time or quality.

    I would bet Dr. Sullivan agrees, as he has written about this topic in the past. From my personal point of view, I think it is most useful to define the performance level you desire your process to meet/exceed before you go about auditing/reengineering it. It should go without saying, but the performance level should be set with input from your customers.

  • Valentino Martinez


    Steps #12 -#14 cover the interview process which assumes that those doing the interviewing are well trained and aligned with the success factors related to the job, the reporting relationships, the customer demands, the work environment, and the company culture. These multiple factors can help or hinder a positive, productive and broadly benefiting experience.

    Untrained interviewers are the bane of any hiring entity and the biggest flaw in the recruitment process. Professional Interview Training should be mandatory and be highlighted, underscored and magnified in any article having to do with having an effective recruitment process.

  • Brian Kevin Johnston

    Dr. Sullivan- Thanks so much… Great article…

    The most important piece is “earning” the trust of an applicant.. (SHOW THEM YOU GIVE A SHIT!) 1V1 human “connection”.

    If you dont care, (lack passion) it might be time to consider another career…

    Best, Brian-

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  • Kirk Abraham

    This is a very comprehensive post. Heck, it’s more like a “chapter” of a very well written instructional book…

    Well done and thank you.

  • Joshua Letourneau

    The true challenge with FPI and/or Process Improvement initiatives as they relate to Recruiting and Talent Acquisition is the following:

    We get so focused on ‘Output’ that we forget about what really matters — ‘Outcome.’

    Outside of that, it’s not necessarily applicable to attempt to use 20th century Management Thinking (i.e. linear, process-based, manufacturing-centric) to 21st century challenges.

    We’re no longer in the Industrialization Era . . . so focusing on output instead of outcome truly illuminates the disconnect within an Educational System that focuses on Old-Economy driven through Manufacturing.

    P.S. When it comes to Human Beings (i.e. “Candidates”), I’d urge everyone to reconsider true consistency or reliability in terms of hiring-process results. It’s easier to control an inanimate widget on an assembly-line than a Human Being (“Candidate”) dealing with other Human Beings (“Recruiters”, “Sourcers”, or “Appointment Setters”). Now, if all Candidates were highly robotic with the same human psychology and existential views on life and everything in it, perhaps this would be different – fortunately, however, we’re not widgets. In closing, I’m not saying there isn’t some room for Old-School Management Philosophy that was pertinent after we reduced our Industrialization Era competition to rubble (Germany and Japan), but we live in a different world and a different Global Economy today – let’s keep our eye on the ball.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thank you, Dr. Sullivan.
    I suggest an alternative: my “Recruiting Methodology”
    Areas IIB, IIE, and III should probably be outsourced.)

    Everyone:pease feel free to use and modify this if it will help you.


    Recruiting Methodology
    I. Input collection: Determination of status quo
    A. Needs
    1. Measuring and/or improving Cost Per Hire
    2. Measuring and/or improving hiring speed/efficiency
    3. Measuring and/or improving hiring quality
    4. Implementing and/or improving systems and technology
    5. Enhancing overall recruitment organization/structure/strategy
    6. Measuring and/or reducing turnover
    7. Other
    B. Resources
    C. Preferences

    II. Hiring steps
    A. Job descriptions
    1. Development/Modification
    2. Posting
    B. Sourcing (inhouse or outsourced)
    1. Primary sourcing: Employee referral program implementation
    a. Direct contacts, competitor known
    b. Indirect contacts, competitor known
    c. No contacts, competitor known
    d. Competitor unknown
    2. Secondary sourcing
    a. Internet
    i. SIG posting
    ii. WWW search engines
    iii. Social networking applications (SNAs)
    b. Networking
    i. Trade shows
    ii. Conferences
    iii. Organizational meetings
    3. Research
    4. Outside agencies
    C. Interview
    1. Recruiter: phone
    2. Technical/professional: phone (optional)
    3. First: face-to-face (<4 interviewers)
    4. Second: face-to-face (optional)
    D. Offer: who makes it
    1. Bonus
    2. Stock
    3. Relocation
    4. Misc.
    E. Reference checking
    1. General (superiors, peers, subordinates)
    2. Background investigation (outsourced)

    III. Reporting and data collection: Interim or permanent
    A. Frequency
    B. Method

  • Carol Mahoney

    Great article. I 100% agree with using a form of this model to measure the success of your process. One note of caution: in a large company with lots of inputs to the process the actual data gathering effort can be a nightmare.

    The ATS is theoretically a logical repository of this kind of info … but there is a low appetite among recruiters and hiring managers to ensure that feedback is captured at all stages. If you have little confidence in the accuracy and/or completeness of the data in your ATS or common repository, gathering the information in another way is impractical if not impossible.

    It’s easy to design the right process; it’s also easy to determine the key steps and choke points to measure; enlisting the cooperation of humans and technology to ensure that information about the process can be accessed — a little tougher.

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