The Most Damaging Strategic Omission in Recruiting — Candidate Research

You Don’t Know Jack … About Your Recruiting Targets

If businesspeople ran recruiting … candidate research would dominate! Even though both recruiting and product sales are involved in a form of selling, only the sales function has shifted to a business-like data-driven approach to understanding its sales target. Where they are customer-centric, recruiting is process focused, and we simply assume that we know the customer (i.e. our recruiting targets). The more strategic function, product sales, has a massive research effort which is known as consumer research or consumer marketing. To our detriment, recruiting has nothing like it.

The Product Side’s Approach to “Knowing Your Sales Target” Is Superior

On the product side, everything is focused on knowing your customer so that you can improve your chances of making a sale. No decision related to selling is made without consulting “the data.” They have a formal continuous research process for scientifically identifying everything about the sales transaction … Including the different types of customers, how they buy, when they buy, and what criteria they use to select a product. Customer research gathers this critical information using research tools like surveys, questionnaires, in-depth interviews, focus groups, projective techniques, eye tracking, and A/B tests.

Recruiting Is Stuck in the Past

However even though recruiting is also trying to sell or convince, we simply don’t have anything equivalent to a customer research function. Instead, even though the recruiting marketplace and candidate expectations are now changing at a record pace, we still rely on intuition, past practices, and the historical experience of individual recruiters. This is simply indefensible in an era where every other “convincing process” has shifted to a data-driven model based on research. Unfortunately in corporate recruiting, what should be called prospect research and candidate research is simply not done in any comprehensive and systematic way. 

What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

Not fully researching and understanding our recruiting targets dramatically damages recruiting results. I estimate that failing to precisely know how recruiting targets search and what they expect in a job/company reduces your ability to attract and sell those recruiting targets by as much as 25 percent. This is because, without prospect research, your job descriptions won’t effectively attract, few of your targets will see your job postings, and you will not provide your top candidates with the right information that they need to convince them to remain in your recruiting process until the end.

Now you probably think that with your x number of years of experience as a recruiter that you already know how to best reach and convince your targets, but you probably don’t. For instance, if you were asked exactly when most new hires begin looking for a new job, you would probably guess, but prospect research would tell you precisely when so that you could adjust the timing of your recruiting (i.e. within a month of their hiring anniversary date).

Prospect/candidate research is defined as … a scientific information-gathering approach. The goal is to map and understand the job search behavior of your targeted prospects to ensure that the most effective recruiting and employer branding information is placed where they will see it. It also identifies the positive factors that cause candidates to say yes to an offer and the turnoffs and deal breakers that discourage them.

Changing Jobs Is Equivalent to Buying a House, So Research the Decision Process

Most in recruiting severely underestimate the complexity of a decision to change jobs. It is a life-changing decision because it impacts the current and the retirement living standards of everyone in the family. Recruiting is selling something that is the equivalent of buying a house or a car. Yet the recruiting function approaches this major sale with a cavalier and almost arrogant attitude that assumes that we know our candidates, even though we have no formal research data to back up those assumptions.

Prospect/Candidate Information You Should

There are three categories of information that you should collect with your recruiting target research.

You start with information about your target prospects, including what factors get their attention and when and how they search for a job.

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For candidates who have applied, the most important information to gather covers the factors that they will use to decide whether to accept a job.

After the hiring is completed, you need to collect information from new hires about the factors that caused them to say yes and what parts of the recruiting process need improvement from their perspective.

You can find a detailed list of the prospect/candidate information that you should consider collecting in the follow-up companion article entitled “Candidate Research — The Critical Information That You Must Know About Your Recruiting Targets”, which will be published on on 2/1/16.

Final Thoughts

I find recruiting to be one of the least business-like functions in the corporation. For example, if a customer service process executive looked at the way recruiting treats candidates, they might break out in a belly laugh. Can you imagine telling a product customer “don’t call us, we will call you?” Or failing to respond with even an email acknowledgment when a customer makes an application? And if you were to invite an experienced business executive to conduct a snapshot analysis of our function, they would likely shake their head in disbelief upon discovering that we don’t do any formal research into an individual (beyond their resume).

Most recruiters believe they know candidates, but when you drill down into their knowledge in specific instances, you realize that the knowledge is limited to generalizations and many stereotyped assumptions. Stop assuming that you know everything about job seeker behavior and the most effective approaches for attracting and selling top candidates. Copying the research approach that has been successfully used for years by the sales and marketing function makes sense, because after all, isn’t recruiting just sales with a crummy budget?

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.