Job Boards: The More Things Change…

Job boards are ten years old this year. Boards are today considered an integral part of the recruiting process, so much so that many recruiters take it for granted that a posting on a board and searching a resume database is the first step in filling a job. The dominance of job boards is fascinating, considering that boards are largely ineffective at doing what they are supposed to do. Given the promise of boards ten years ago and the situation today, I am reminded of the 1937 movie Lost Horizon. The story follows a group of people that find the lost city of Shangri-La, a utopia in the Himalayas, only to lose it and never get it back. The promise of a utopia was never to be attained. That about sums up what the last ten years have been for clients of job boards ó both employers and candidates. In the fall of 1995, I attended a seminar on technical recruiting. The last hour was devoted to the Internet as a potential recruiting resource. The presenter told us about what the future held, how there would be this great meeting ground between candidates and employers. Vast clearing houses of information would ensure that candidates were matched with the right jobs, no matter where they might be. Recruiters would go online and find candidates for any job that came open (albeit slowly; 56K modems were just beginning to become available). The presenter also told us about a website called the Online Career Center that was to be the genesis of this revolution. Best of all, it was free at the time. Though skeptical, since it sounded like a lot of hype, even I was enthralled at the possibilities. At the time I worked for a small software company that was desperately in need of talent but had no money to pay search firms or even for recruitment ads. We were lucky to make payroll every month, so the potential of having this great recruitment resource sounded like manna from heaven. Fast forward to 2005, and the revolution has fizzled, if it ever was a revolution to begin with. As with most things, the hype was far from the reality. Jobs boards have advanced marginally at best in their ability to match candidates with jobs. Estimates of the percentage of jobs filled through major job boards put them in the single digits (according to CareerXRoads’ 3rd Annual Source of Hires Study). At that level of success in filling jobs ó and given that some boards have about 25 times as many candidates in their resume databases as jobs listed ó the probability of a candidate finding a job through a board is about a fraction of a percent! There’s a reason all those Super Bowl ads never mention the success rates. A Flawed Approach Of course it’s not a numbers game, and probabilities are just that. Even a high probability is no guarantee of results. Still, such low numbers suggest that posting a job on a board is a poor investment for employers and largely a waste of time for candidates. How did we get to this sorry state of affairs? For starters we never left it. Job boards today are no different than they were at their inception ó just an electronic version of the classifieds. They do offer some bells and whistles not available to the print ads, such as the ability to search, store resumes, etc., but those features are not productivity multipliers for either employers or candidates. There’s a fundamental problem in matching candidates with jobs, which is why a board cannot serve as a clearinghouse. The problem is that the fodder for this grist mill ó candidates ó is not disposed to behaving the same way as stocks, commodities, and other products. Candidates are not, and will not become, a liquid market. Unlike commodities, people have thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Some people prefer to stay put, even in less than ideal situations. They prefer known evils to the unknown. Proof of that lies in the fact that a majority of Americans claim to be satisfied with their current employment situation (the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago puts the number at about 76%). That’s tough for recruiters, but a boon for bad managers. There’s also the simple fact that job boards don’t match candidates to jobs. They advertise jobs and hope candidates apply, leaving the matching to recruiters. Since recruiters control the selection process, any matching done by candidates is rendered useless. That’s not a criticism; it’s just a fact. For employers, the situation has been made worse by job boards. The ease of applying to multiple jobs has generated masses of responses. Most recruiters are familiar with the following adage: Boards are great at generating resumes, poor at filling jobs. Given the low odds of finding a job through a board, it’s not surprising that candidates apply to just about anything they see. For a lottery player, the odds of winning go up with each ticket bought. The Candidate’s Perspective For candidates, a job board (and to some extent the entire recruiting process fostered by the web) is a particularly frustrating experience. First, locating an appropriate job on a board is predicated on being able to come up with the right search term. Since the vast majority of people have no idea how to search, they end up casting a wide net and catching a lot in it ó some results useful, most useless. The search features provided to assist candidates in their searches are of some help, but these, by necessity, cannot narrow searches much either. The terms used have to be generalizations to keep the lists small and usable. And the number of criteria cannot be large if the searches are to be manageable by candidates. So for a candidate, the choices are to either wade through large numbers of jobs or just apply for as many as possible. Obviously, the path of least resistance is the one most often followed. Failing this approach, a candidate’s only other recourse is to leave her resume in the board’s resume database and hope that some recruiter who manages to come up with the right search terms will land on it. Either way, this is a very inefficient model. What’s even worse for candidates is that they get absolutely no feedback on their efforts. They have no way of knowing why their efforts did not meet with success or how close they were to getting any particular job. Again, this fosters a need to apply for as many jobs as possible. The usual arguments advanced to defend this are:

  • Employers are not obligated to provide feedback to candidates.
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  • Providing feedback opens employers up to potential litigation.
  • It’s too much work.
  • Employers pay the bills for the boards and not candidates; ergo, they have all the power.

This line of reasoning, especially the last, is exactly why the job board model has not advanced very far in ten years. The litigation excuse is the typical boogie-man logic employed by HR and employee relations departments that so endears them to the rest of their organizations. Think how much better a relationship an employer would have with candidates if it provided them feedback on where they fell short. Of course, some curmudgeon is bound to use negative feedback sooner or later as a basis to sue, but this is not a likely occurrence. In 2003, there were 4782 lawsuits filed that related to hiring decisions in a year of 4.2 million hiring decisions. That’s about 0.1%. It’s not known how many resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff, but one indicator that this would not be a high number is that, in the same year, the EEOC received 20,615 complaints but filed lawsuits in only 393 cases. The value of providing feedback cannot be overstated: candidates would then be in a position to apply for jobs they are better suited to or work at making up the limitations that kept them from getting the job they initially applied for. Documenting and providing this information to candidates is a lot of work, but feedback can be restricted to information that was generated from automated screens and assessments, without providing exact scores. Anything would be better than the situation today. A Short-Term Focus What’s harder to get around is the view among employers that they are in a buyer’s market. They pay the bills and have no obligation to candidates. The fact that employers shoulder the entire expense of job boards, or most aspects of the staffing process, is self evident. But this view of the labor market is incredibly myopic and assumes that the supply will always exceed the demand. The last few years have erased the memory of the late ’90s, when jobs were hard to fill. The current treatment of candidates seems like retaliation for those years when the news was full of stories like the one about a company giving every hire a new car. Demographic trends indicate that we are on the cusp of a talent shortage that will make the late ’90s look like a time of plenty, so treating candidates like so much cattle can come back to haunt employers when the going gets tough. The job board model is focused on the here and now. This is another aspect of bringing candidates and employers together where they have fallen woefully short. Boards are for jobs that are open today and for candidates that are looking today. The most desperate in search of the most desperate ó what a great combination! Most people, unless they are out of work, are not on the prowl for a new job. People have career aspirations over the long term, and the better ones look at developing relationships that will help these aspirations be met. That requires a mechanism to develop these relationships. The mechanism can certainly be electronic, such as LinkedIn or other social networking sites. Job boards would do candidates, and their clients, a world of good by helping foster these kinds of relationships. A relationship is a two-way street. It involves trust and open communication. These are precisely the elements missing from job boards today. Communication on a board is limited to the information included in a job posting and any information an employer chooses to make available, more often than not just a link to their own website. This has limited information value to a candidate ó all it represents is the marketing spin the employer provides. It’s naive to expect employers to be entirely truthful about themselves, but that matters little to candidates, who will try to learn as much as they can from other sources. Providing research tools to facilitate that process would improve matters. Denying candidates these tools does not mean that they won’t get the information, and again, the more enlightened employers will be interested in having this information available to candidates. This just extends the concept of a realistic job preview a few more steps. Better information improves the probability that candidates are serious and less likely to turnover if hired. It’s disappointing that ten years after their inception job boards have proved to be largely ineffective. Some of the larger boards have simply become a cost of doing business for most employers, the conventional wisdom being that jobs must be posted on these, despite the fact that there’s little likelihood of getting a result. Of course, the unit cost of an individual posting is small, so many do it ó but that still makes for a large cost-per-hire. There’s a familiarity to this that plagues much of HR technology; it’s the inability to distinguish between automating things and making them better. Automation of a bad process only means that a bad result is obtained sooner. So instead of waiting a week or two after an ad is run to open a bunch of envelopes and find that most of the resumes in them are worthless, a recruiter can get to the same point within hours of placing a posting on a board. There is one upside ó at least there aren’t any paper cuts. There never was a sequel to the movie Lost Horizon. Shangri-la is still out there, waiting to be found. Or maybe not.

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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