AIG’s Better Candidate Experience

Dec 10, 2013

talent equation“Recruitment, at its core, is marketing,” said Gordon Frutiger, director of strategic recruitment initiatives at AIG, when we spoke to him in 2012. “I think where companies really struggle is that they attempt to equate their business or consumer brand with their recruitment brand, but they, and even most talent acquisition professionals, have been slow to grasp that the two are distinctly different.”

Undoubtedly, when you’re involved in leading the recruitment initiatives of a 65,000-plus workforce like Frutiger is, you understand the importance of cultivating an identity for your organization as a place to work. Simply put, a recruitment or employment brand defines the culture of an organization, giving candidates an impression of what it would be like to work there.

If you’re familiar at all with HR trends of the past few years, you’ve likely heard the employment branding topic come up countless times in conversation, trade publications, and the HR blogosphere. But even after years in the spotlight, most people involved with the hiring process claim they don’t think their companies have an employment brand or aren’t sure they have a definable employment brand — that includes 74 percent of hiring managers and 48 percent of HR managers, according to a 2011 CareerBuilder survey. However, everyone has an employment brand whether they know it or not. Employers and workers contribute to its creation, as do the job seekers who receive the recruitment content and form perceptions of a company.

For Frutiger and AIG, a major part of the branding process occurs long before a prospective employee’s first talk with a recruiter or sit-down interview (more on that below, excerpted from our book The Talent Equation). For many candidates, it starts with the job application itself. This is why one of Frutiger’s major initiatives is to ensure any candidate can visit the AIG jobs page, read a description, apply for a position, and receive confirmation of that application all within a 10-minute window.

This runs counter to most job seekers’ experiences. Getting your name on an employer’s radar can often be a highly frustrating, time-consuming process.

That’s a problem that multiplies when the job seeker realizes she may have to navigate a different set of clunky application software and employer requirements for each listing. Remarkably, some application systems timeout job seekers if they don’t make it through the questions after a certain period of time, forcing them to start over, or more likely, compel them to never seek employment with that firm again.

Frutiger noted that for the talent acquisition function to evolve, all existing traditions must be thrown under the microscope, including the time-honored resume. “When you don’t think about a job from the candidate’s perspective, you tend to fall into the ‘same old, same old.’ It’s why we still insist on seeing a resume when in fact the resume format as we use it today originated right after WWII,” he said. “Think about all that has changed in our world since then, yet the resume remains the same.”

Outdated application processes are at the heart of what’s wrong with the job search and can severely put a dent in how potentially desirable candidates perceive a company.

Since 2008, CareerBuilder has tracked the experience of more than five million online job seekers, identifying what prompted them to apply for a specific job, and again four weeks later, how they’d rate their communication with the employers. The research also asked candidates who looked at a specific job listing, started the application, and ultimately didn’t submit, why they backed out. Nearly one in four job seekers said their drop-off was due to an application that was too long, too confusing, timed them out, or asked for personal information they weren’t comfortable sharing at that stage of the process. In all, one-third of all candidates who attempt to apply for a job don’t complete the process due to a frustrating experience.

Think about what that means for highly skilled candidates and the organizations trying to lure them. If someone already receiving multiple offers encounters a system that gives even the hint of being an encumbrance, she’s going to move on. Respecting candidates’ time may seem like an optional behavior in a weak labor market, but data suggests it’s necessary. Certainly that’s the case if you’re going after top talent.

Companies are improving the recruitment process on both the candidate and employer side of the talent equation. Such improvements begin when the employer researches what motivates their ideal candidate and integrates those triggers with clear messaging in a variety of media. It’s difficult to attract quality talent without fine-tuning the employment brand. Once the candidates are hooked, the focus shifts to their experience interacting with the employer directly in the application and interview stages. So while branding and candidate experience are technically different, it’s hard to talk about one without touching on the other.

We’re not suggesting that companies receiving millions of applications annually deserve a scolding for failing to satisfy every interested job seeker. There is ultimately going to be a significant contingency of disappointed people. It’s the reality of the recruitment process. And certainly no one’s suggesting recruiters mail personal thank-you letters. That’s a straw man argument. It’s as impossible as it is impractical.

Another challenge in the candidate experience space is the justifiable policy of not responding to rejected candidates until the position is filled. An interview process will often break down, requiring the hiring manager to go back to the “maybe” pile. On the other hand, the typical job seeker wants to know their status within days, but the position may not be filled for weeks or months. By the time the selected candidate signs the offer letter, the job seekers who weren’t granted an interview have likely long given up hope of being called back.

But technology enables fairly simple solutions that would eliminate much of the ill will. Perhaps the most commonly used tactic is the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” e-mail. It goes something like this: “Thank you for your interest in Company XYZ. Due to the large volume of interested candidates, we’ll only notify you if you are deemed a fit for the position.” This is an efficient approach to acknowledging receipt, but isn’t aimed at improving candidate care. For one, it primarily serves to dampen job seeker expectations. It is code for “good luck because you’re going to need it.”

Frutiger’s other major initiative at AIG is the creation of an opt-in text message notification system for applicants. When the status of the job changes, the candidate will be notified immediately. For example, when a recruiter reviews your resume, when the hiring manager requests the interview, when the job is filled, or when they’ve decided to make you an offer, you’ll receive a text. This is very much the automation of personalization, which sounds like an oxymoron, but actually ensures individuals are on the same page as the employer. It also ensures a status change won’t get lost in the candidate’s e-mail inbox.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 2.11.24 PMBut as the applicant volume increases, courtesy begins to cost money. So what’s the value proposition of keeping candidates in the loop? See the graphic at right (and click to enlarge).

For some large consumer companies, this data is hardly insignificant. When one in four ignored candidates chooses to buy less of a company’s products or services, it can amount to millions in lost revenue and thousands of lost customers annually. It also speaks to the reality that negative experiences are far more likely to go viral than a positive story.

To address these potential pitfalls, Frutiger and AIG are attempting to do away with any flaws in their system. In the case of time spent applying, Frutiger challenged his recruiting leaders to scale back the process to something a bit greater than a simple name and e-mail form and a task significantly less cumbersome than copy and pasting 15 years of work history in individual chunks. This may mean AIG ultimately simplifies or skips the resume upload, integrates social media or online professional profiles, or uses brief video recordings utilizing candidates’ webcams. As long as the entire process can be completed in under 10 minutes, they’re likely to explore the idea.

But what about hiring managers who see application length as a way to weed out people not qualified or not serious about the position? The logic held by proponents of this camp suggests that a 10-page application, in which applicants are asked to type in answers to questions already addressed in resumes or cover letters, is a test to determine who is really interested in the job.

While it’s true a short application could attract more unqualified candidates, it enhances the applicant pool by appealing to skilled workers who don’t feel they should have to jump through hoops to apply for a position. Frutiger noted that for skilled positions, companies need to attract all potential candidates, including full-time workers who are only semi-active in their job search. “By making this group go through a false kind of test, aren’t you ruling out a good 70 percent of the labor market?” he said, noting that hiring managers and recruiters need to put themselves in a candidate’s shoes. “If you think of yourself as quality talent, then why are you asking someone to do something you would never do? Too many companies and too many talent acquisition groups unfortunately put the burden on the candidate.”

Frutiger’s point is magnified by the fact that 7 in 10 full-time workers frequently browse new job opportunities and 3 in 10 do so as part of their regular routine, according to a 2012 CareerBuilder survey.

The 10-minute application initiative falls under the umbrella of AIG’s broader effort to put the candidate first in the talent acquisition process. Every AIG recruiter works off a peer-created candidate care guide that establishes the mission of their prospect-centered process. Its mission statement is simple:

“AIG believes a thoughtful customer-focused approach carefully manages the candidate’s experience, builds our brand as a great place to work, and delivers results. We strengthen our relationships with prospects and clients, converting more resumes into candidates and more candidates into accepted offers and more new hires who believe they’ve made the right choice to join our company.”

The open communication is extended directly to the job seeker. Before candidates sit down for an interview, they’re given a simple card that defines how AIG intends to treat them for the rest of the process:

  • We will clearly define our job profiles so you can better determine which opportunities match your career goals.
  • We will respect your time with us, sharing interview details with you in advance and adhering to schedules as much as possible.
  • We will provide you with helpful information about the role, the team, and the department in advance of the interview to help you prepare and perform well in the interview.
  • Any meeting you come to will be a dialogue, giving you the chance to get answers to your questions.
  • We will aim to provide interview feedback.

Frutiger says candidates are told up front that they’re free to call out AIG if at any point they fail on one of these promises.

AIG’s philosophy is unique in the sense that it comes at a time when employers believe they hold all the cards in the hiring game. There’s relatively low demand for labor but a high supply of potential employees. With so many people in the mix — qualified or not — the hiring manager or recruiter could easily adopt a mindset of: “The only candidate that matters is the one I ultimately hire.”

There are two problems with that logic. First, the best candidates will apply in greater numbers to an employer that communicates more strongly. Second, all those other candidates you ignored or put off may be customers or future customers, or they may share their experience with other potential customers via social media.

The latter point reinforces the close link between the corporate/ consumer brand and the employer brand; while distinct, one can easily influence the other. Frutiger noted the significance of the company’s positive turnaround since the financial crisis, specifically the fact that the federal government no longer holds a stake in the firm after it owned 92 percent of shares at one point in 2011.

AIG is not shy about its role in the financial crisis when interacting with job candidates. A video prominently featured on its career page during 2012 and embedded within its online postings stated plainly: “Perhaps no other company came to represent that crisis more than AIG.” The video goes on to explain AIG’s 2010 promise to repay the U.S. government and American taxpayers in full with a profit, while at the same time becoming smaller and more focused through restructuring. It was a promise it kept. However, Frutiger said this business story isn’t as important to a prospective candidate as telling the story of the job itself.

The most important challenge in conveying an employment brand and kicking off the applicant’s experience correctly is to clearly illustrate what the candidate would be doing on the job if she were to get it. A processed PR message or a five-paragraph job description will not resonate nearly as well as an actual AIG employee explaining via video what the day-to-day job is like and what it requires — a tactic Frutiger intends to move toward employing for many of his listings.

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