what signals are you sending job candidates?

When you’re interviewing new staff members, you probably think a lot about the little signals you get concerning candidates’ responsiveness, work ethic, enthusiasm, and other elements of what they’d be like to work with. But do you also consider what signals you’re sending to them?

Job candidates pick up signals from every element of your hiring process – from how you write the job description to how you negotiate salary. And these signals matter, because they’ll influence whether the best candidates decide to accept your job offers and how they approach your culture when they start work.

Here are 10 areas where you might be inadvertently sending signals you don’t intend to job seekers.

1. Does your job posting paint a clear picture of what the job is and who you’re looking for? Too many job ads are deadly dull, full of dense verbiage, and even semi-incomprehensible, as if they were written to satisfy some internal processes manual rather than attract the right candidates. When you’re looking for a new hire, a job posting is your marketing document! Don’t make your best candidates wade through heavy jargon and overused buzzwords to try to figure out what the job is all about. After all, most managers can talk enthusiastically and compellingly about the roles they’re hiring for – so make sure that life makes it into the job posting too.

2. Does your application system make it easy for good candidates to apply, or is it convoluted and unwieldy?Online application systems increasingly frustrate candidates: They require them to type in each portion of their resume in tiny chunks, they make candidates choose from pre-set answers that often don’t provide an accurate option; and they regularly generate inexplicable and unfixable error messages. Do you really want a top candidate – who usually has options – to give up trying to apply when they can’t easily get your system to accept an application?

3. Do you keep your word? Things often don’t go according to plan when you’re hiring. You expect you’ll start interviews mid-month but they get delayed for two weeks. You think you’ll make a decision by next week, but then a stakeholder goes out of town, a budget freezes, or an emergency project sidetracks you. But if you don’t update candidates as timelines change, you risk looking flaking and unreliable. Reasonable candidates do understand that things change – but if you don’t let them know that what you told them last week is no longer accurate and instead leave them hanging, you risk them thinking you’re not on your game – which can drive off the people you most want to hire.

4. How quickly do you move? Most people want to work somewhere that can move quickly and make decisions. While you shouldn’t hire people before you’re convinced they’re the right fit, you also don’t want to let your hiring process drag on for months and months.

5. Do you show respect for candidates’ time? If a candidate arrives a half hour late for an interview, that’s typically a huge strike against her – and often a deal-breaker. But all too often, employers make candidates wait long past an interview’s scheduled time, cancel at the last minute, or never even call for pre-scheduled phone interviews. And then to make matters even worse, they often don’t apologize or acknowledge the inconvenience. Smart candidates will wonder how an employer who treats outsiders this way will treat employees.

6. Are you friendly or are your interviews hostile interrogations? Unless the position requires the ability to perform in a hostile or high-pressure situation, you’re better off being welcoming and trying to put candidates at ease. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t probe as much as you need to in order to identify the right hire, but you can do it while remaining warm and friendly. After all, most candidates will be thinking about whether they’d like to work with you or not. You don’t want to make an offer and have it turned down because you scared the person off.

7. How organized are you? You might not think a lot about how your interviews are scheduled, but candidates do. It’s a big deal to them if they’re asked to rush in for an interview with only a few hours of notice, or if you reschedule over and over, or if you cancel the morning of the meeting. And they’ll wonder if this reflects a disorganized, chaotic culture.

8. Are you willing to explain why the position is open, its potential downsides, and other “sensitive” information?If you’re honest not just about the upsides of a job, but also about the downsides, and if you’re willing to discuss what may have gone wrong in the past, thoughtful candidates will appreciate your candor. After all, they know every job has downsides, and they’ll be glad to be given the ability to make an honest decision about fit. And candidates who sense that they’re not getting the whole story will resent that you’re asking them to take a job without candid discussion about what they’d be signing up for.

9. Do you play games about salary, or are you straightforward about it? If you approach salary negotiations like a game where the object is to get the candidate for the lowest possible price, you’ll create an adversarial dynamic – which isn’t the relationship that you want to have with your new hire. If you make it clear that you want to pay a fair salary that will keep a great hire happy, candidates will generally respond with fairness and candor in kind.

10. Are you enthusiastic about introducing candidates to other employees, or do you seem to want to keep them from talking to other people? Consider the red flag you’re sending if you seem to want to isolate candidates from their potential coworkers. So resist any impulses to control who candidates interact with, and go out of your way to introduce your finalists to their prospective coworkers – it’s a reassuring sign that you’re not hiding a team of miserable people in the back room.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Work It*

    Sort of related to #7, being prepared, is reading a candidate’s resume before they come in for an interview. I know that seems obvious, but I’ve had experiences where the person I was meeting looked over my resume for the first time as I was sitting there (HR set up the interview). I spent all this time learning about the company and preparing answers and they didn’t even know my background and qualifications.

  2. Anna*

    Ten good points.

    I’m glad you brought up how ads are written, though there’s one more point to make about it. If applicants are expected to have fully proofread (and edited) their resumes and cover letters, what message are you sending if you can’t even do the same for your ad?

    That said, I suppose the lack of proofreading in such ads has its origins in the same thing that lies behind several of the other points — that many employers, even ones that are great for the chosen few (pun intended) that make it through the hiring process, have little to no respect for applicants.

    1. nyxalinth*

      OMG you just reminded me that recently I saw an ad stating they didn’t want “violet offenders”. I know they meant “violent” but it made me giggle and I told my room mate, “Violets are very laid-back flowers and hard to offend. Those roses, though? Just looking at them wrong sets them off!”

  3. Malissa*

    #2–I abandoned an online application last night because I was getting error after every box I had to fill in. I got to thinking if this is the kind of quality control they have over the application process, what kind of buggy mess is the software that I’ll have to work on everyday?

  4. Sharon*

    Malissa++ When I was job hunting, I got shut out of several employer career sites because their systems didn’t work, and there was no response from the web-help email link.

    I also wanted to comment on the job description issue. I found that the largest corporations are the absolute worst for having pages of boilerplate and no specific details in their job ads. Take a look at the CSC or HP career sites. I challenge you to pick 5 job ads at random and read them. Whether you look at a sales job, programming, business analyst, or accounting, the descriptions are all nearly identical. The federal government also does this and is worse because you have to go through pages of profile configuration and answering the job-specific essay questions before they finally reveal that you need X years of experience with Y tool for the job.

    1. Kelly O*

      Seriously, there are some companies that make it so difficult to tell the difference between jobs, or that make figuring out what you actually do in that position all day practically impossible.

      Or the external job postings that want someone who is “expert level” in a software package that is clearly just used by the company. Makes me think you just want an internal candidate, but why did you post it on Monster if that’s the case? Unless you just have to, and honestly I don’t want to be part of the group you interview because you have to for your EEOC compliance committee. Been on the other side of that one, done that.

  5. some1*

    It’s so true what you said about being respectful of candidates’s time and actually acting glad that they are interviewing.

  6. ChristineH*

    #1 – Yes, yes, yes!! I applied for a job at my university that sounded way more complex than it probably was due to the lofty wording. “Deliverables”?? How about something a little less intimidating, like “brief reports” or “article summaries”! I know you want to make the job sound impressive, but I’d prefer you just give it to me straight, to the point, and down-to-earth.

    My other beef with job ads are vague-sounding descriptions, like “must have good communication skills”, “analytical skills desired”, etc. I think those can be open to a wide range of interpretation, sometimes even making you ask yourself, “Am I analytical?? Gee, I’ve never thought about that”.

    In fact, Alison, if you’re ever looking for story suggestions, how about one on deciphering job ads? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed on applying for jobs because they sounded like you practically need a PhD in nuclear physics or be the most extroverted person on the planet when the job is in fact nowhere near that level. lol.

    1. Catherine*


      This happens a lot at universities. “Of COURSE my minimum wage part-time gopher MUST have an MBA, and possibly a secondary master’s, as well at 8+ years experience as a minimum wage part-time gopher. I wouldn’t dream of hiring someone anyone who didn’t!”

      1. Anonymous*

        Lately I’ve seen too many administrative assistant jobs that require (or at least “strongly prefer”) master’s degrees. And these aren’t high-level executive assistants. No, regular ol’ admins, answering phones, drafting documents, etc — I promise you, employers, I have NO degree at all and have done that and much more just fine. I mean, I guess in this job market, if you can get someone with that then why not ask for it, blah blah blah, but it’s still ridiculous.

        1. nyxalinth*

          I never understand this, either. I sometimes see call center job ads wanting a Bachelor’s degree. Why? Does having a degree in XYZ make you better on the phones? It’s especially weird when they say they want a degree, but no experience! It doesn’t matter what degree, as long as there is one.

          “Sorry Mr Jones, I can’t help you with your cable bill, but I can tell you all about basket-weaving during the Renaissance/string theory/design a bridge for you!”

          I only have two years of college myself, but I know I’m smart, I have great experience, and all the other qualities that make for a good call center worker. I just don’t get it.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            One article I read a while ago said employers ask for college degrees so they know the person can read/write and do simply arithmetic.

            Along that lines, it would also mean the applicant is probably not 17 yo.

            Pretty sad stuff.

            1. Liz*

              The administrative assistant in our office has two grad degrees, and I found out yesterday that she had been forwarding my messages to a non-working extension for MONTHS (which explained some angry client phone calls complaining that I had ignored them).

              The former playboy bunny girlfriend of a partner figured out the phone system in 20 mminutes, however.

              There’s no such thing as smart. There’s just someone who can perform a particular task, and someone who I will unfortunately have to have whacked by the mob next week…

    2. Jamie*

      Seriously, you should see the job description in the ad I answered for the job I have now.

      I don’t think at that time I had 35% of what they said they were looking for. Some of what I did have I still haven’t used, because even though it was listed in the ad we don’t use it here (ad posted by a former employee who didn’t vet the tech stuff.)

      On paper I was ridiculously under qualified – to the point that I wasn’t that nervous at my phone screening since I truly didn’t think there was a chance in hell they wouldn’t rule me out immediately. I just looked at it as a chance to be rejected from a better job than the ones that had been rejecting me previously.

      Turns out the person who had the real decision making authority (not the one who wrote the ad) figured that to the right person you can teach the tech stuff but he really liked the fact that I had a background in analytics (I am all about efficiency and optimization formulas – but who isn’t?) It turns out that was a direction they wanted to go in and were going to look for someone to do that after they filled the IT slot. So I was kind of a twofer – and they were happy to let me learn some stuff OTJ because I brought other stuff to the table they needed.

      The other stuff that actually got me hired? Not in the job description at all. Anywhere.

      I had a point before I started to ramble – and I kind of lost it…but the moral is if a job seems interesting it doesn’t hurt to send in a resume. The absolute worst thing they can do is not respond. That’s it. It’s not like you get a finite number of resumes and have to use them sparingly.

      Oh and the other moral is, I guess, to assume you won’t get the job so you’re extra relaxed at the phone screening. That may only work for me, but I’ve been offered every job where I was positive I wouldn’t get and/or accept an offer. If I get my hopes up it’s the kiss of death.

      1. Miss Displaced*

        “If I get my hopes up it’s the kiss of death.”

        Funny, but I know exactly what you mean. I guess it’s due to being too nervous or maybe being too over-eager.

  7. ChristineH*

    #3 – I find it’s extremely rare for interviewers to keep their word or even keep you updated on the timeline or your candidacy. I can think of only two instances off the top of my head in the last 15 years where I was kept in the loop.

    #6 – I had an interview for an early intervention program that felt like it was an inquisition. Thankfully, it only lasted two minutes because I told them I can’t drive. Probably dodged a bullet there.

  8. Elizabeth West*

    #1–job posting
    Yaaaah! So many postings make you have to guess. Or they leave out important stuff. With my math issue, I have made a point to ask about billing/invoicing/purchasing if it’s not listed and I think it might be.

    #2–application system
    HATE. Some of them autofill from your resume, but then they do it strangely, and you have to start over!

    #3–keeping your word
    Thanks to Alison, I’ve learned not to panic when things take longer than I thought.

    #4–moving quickly

    #5–respect for my time
    I typically get there about ten to fifteen minutes ahead, if I’ve only emailed a resume, in case I have to fill out an app. That way we can start on time. Once I waited a half hour for someone after doing that. No meeting; the interviewer was just flaky. Grr.

    #6–friendly vs. hostile
    I would say make sure you know what you can’t ask. Yesterday I was asked if I smoke (?). I’ve also been asked if I have kids, if I’m married, and what religion I am. That last especially will make me strike you from my list even if you’re my dream job. Next time, if I’m sure I don’t want to work there, I plan to tell them I’m a Druid. :)

    It’s understandable if they’re experiencing unusual situations. I had one interview in an office that was renovating. We ended up in a tiny dressing room (it was a place that made infomercials) sitting on folding chairs. No biggie; I’m flexible and it’s hard to work around construction.

    #8–sensitive info
    Getting an answer to “Why is this position open?” is tough sometimes. I like it when they tell me right off the bat—”We’re hiring this person because Susie is moving to Oregon,” etc. I want to know if it’s stressful, and how that’s the case.

    #9–salary info
    PLEASE tell me what you’re paying! I don’t want to waste our time if it’s something I can’t live on! I almost wish this were regulated!

    #10–keeping candidates away from employees
    Creepy. Just weird.

    1. some1*

      I can’t believe an interviewer would ask you the stuff in #6…those questions seem to have too much potential for a lawsuit, or at least a discrimination complaint.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yeah, you and I know that, but I’m betting they don’t. The religion one I ended up reporting, since it was so obviously a screening question. I answered it just to see what would happen and the guy said they were very religious, believed their work came from God, had an office prayer meeting each week, etc. I would have definitely been uncomfortable in that situation and I’m afraid I would have been penalized if I declined to participate. (This was back in 2004, btw.)

    2. Jamie*

      “Yesterday I was asked if I smoke (?)”

      I had a former co-worker who was tangentially involved in my hiring process that if I had smoked back when I was being interviewed he’d have lobbied against hiring me – then asked me when I started. (He had stopped by when I was with other co-workers for an after work drink at a place where you could smoke outside) I told the truth – I started again about 3 years before I started working with him. He refused to believe he could hire a smoker because he could always tell – whatever.

      Then I got outed to tptb at work who were all shocked. Seriously, if you couldn’t tell and I’m not on your insurance then it really doesn’t affect you.

      “#9–salary info
      PLEASE tell me what you’re paying! I don’t want to waste our time if it’s something I can’t live on! I almost wish this were regulated!”

      God, YES! I am usually opposed to regulation, but ffs why we both know if we’re even in the same ballpark before I waste time picking out an outfit?

    3. ChristineH*

      It’s understandable if they’re experiencing unusual situations. I had one interview in an office that was renovating. We ended up in a tiny dressing room (it was a place that made infomercials) sitting on folding chairs. No biggie; I’m flexible and it’s hard to work around construction. ”

      Ahh, so having the interview for a previous job (worked at a biomedical manufacturer a number of years ago) in the company lunch room isn’t the weirdest thing ever! They weren’t even under renovation or anything and the interviewer had his own office. Weird.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        That happened sometimes at my old job, when the conference room was taken and the HR person was on a call. Visitors would sometimes have to meet with people in the break room. Not a biggie; that’s where the coffee was. Unless you don’t like Sharpie water, because that’s what it tasted like. :P

  9. fposte*

    One of the interesting dynamics about our student hiring is that we’re sometimes interviewing people who have been admitted but are still thinking about whether they want to attend our grad program. That means that there’s an underlying reversal of roles-we want them to “hire” us as a school. It also means that we’re quite likely to be working with these people even if we don’t hire them. I don’t think the applicants necessarily feel more powerful as a result, but on our side that really encourages us to treat people in a way that keeps them wanting to be involved with us even if we reject them. We don’t always pull it off, but it’s amazing how often it works out and how much we benefit from that happening.

  10. Tami*

    #8 – I was recently recruited by a business, and I got conflicting information when I asked them about why the previous person left the position (between interview #1 and interview #2). Additionally, when I asked them what the last person did well vs. what the last person could have improved upon, their candor was unsettling. They gave me a laundry list of what she did wrong, and could not name one single positive thing. That was enough for me to withdraw from the interview process. While their candor cost them a candidate, it probably saved me a lot of frustration and aggravation.

  11. nyxalinth*

    In regards to #3, in Florida I did have a job that did this, because the start date kept getting pushed back. they kept me in the loop while the process dragged on for six weeks. I should have seen it as a sign, because I worked there a whopping two weeks before they fire me and half my training class because they’d fired the guy who’d hired us.

  12. Not So NewReader*

    I hate the ads for employment where you get to the end and you still have no idea what the job is.

    Decades ago, I went on an interview for a job that sounded low key. Perfect for me at that time. It sounded like office work. The interviewer mentioned “collections”. Huh? “Well you have to call the people who are delinquent on their accounts.”
    There was NO way I got this out of what the ad said.
    I must have asked four times, “How much of my day would be spent phone people and asking them to pay up?”
    Finally, I got an answer “75% of your day”.

    I can still hear that woman saying, “No. Wait. Don’t leave. You are a nice person.”

    1. Sam.i.am*

      I totally agree about location! My partner works for a company with half it’s staff working out of its headquarters in another city and half the staff living and working here. When he applied for the job, we thought we’d be moving, which was our MO, but we were wrong.

      If you know where the job will be located, just say it. Or if the location is flexible, just say that.

  13. nyxalinth*

    Okay, here I am *again*…

    It also looks pretty bad to us when we apply for a position and then they run their ad four more times in five weeks. Are they super-nitpicky, super-sucky, or both? I feel like I dodged a bullet on those people.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Urgh! Or you interview and then you don’t see it, and then they run it again. I almost want to call them and say, “Well, either you suck and drove off your new hire, or they sucked and you messed up by not picking me!” :)

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Actually, don’t read anything into that. Many employers continue to renew ads to keep them alive until the position is filled. That’s very common and doesn’t indicate anything about their feelings about the candidate pool they have so far.

  14. Betty*

    I also love the online applications where the year of high school graduation is mandatory. These generally won’t let you proceed to the remainder of the app unless answered. This is nothing more than age discrimination! When you list your college degree, do they think there are people out there getting into college without a high school diploma?

  15. Miss Displaced*

    3. Do you keep your word?

    This is so important. I’ve been interviewed and told I would be contacted “either way” or that a certain person would be the “point person” only to meet a blank wall of ZERO response when inquiring about hiring timelines or if the position was filled.

    Would it kill them to send an email back saying they have found a match and filled the position. It’s just nice to get closure.

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