8 ways companies can attract the best job candidates

While employers often feel that in a buyer’s market like this one, it should be easy to attract great job candidates, that’s not always the case. Top candidates always have options, and they can generally afford to be picky about what jobs they apply to, let alone what offers they accept. That means that employers who truly care about attracting top talent need to put special thought into how they recruit and screen candidates.

So what does it take to attract the strongest candidates? Much of it comes down to having a hiring process that treats candidates with respect.

1. Have clear, easy-to-understand job descriptions. Too often, employers post jargon-filled, incomprehensible job descriptions that barely explain what the position actually does. If job seekers have to struggle to figure out what the role is or who would be qualified for it, the best will simply move on.

2. Don’t force candidates to use convoluted and time-consuming application systems. Online application systems may have made things more convenient for employers, but they’ve done the opposite for job seekers, who regularly run into systems that are riddled with technical problems, ask yes/no questions that don’t fit many candidates’ situations, and demand enormous amounts of information just to apply. Candidates with options aren’t likely to spend an wrestle with an application system just to get it to accept their resume.

3. Don’t play games on salary. The reality is, most people work for money. Pretending that’s not true and refusing to discuss what a position pays – as plenty of employers do right up until they make an offer – will turn off good candidates. Talking about salary up-front – ideally in the job posting itself, or at least in an early-stage phone screen – will attract strong candidates who will appreciate the candor.

4. Respect candidates’ time. Canceling an interview at the last minute without any apology, not paying attention in interviews, and leaving candidates waiting in the lobby long past their interview time are flags for candidates that this company doesn’t respect them. Savvy candidates know that it won’t get any better after they’re hired, and will focus on companies that treat them with respect instead.

5. Keep interviews focused on questions related to the work. Employers who ask goofy interview questions like “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” and “What kind of animal are you most like?” will annoy strong candidates – and plenty will decide they’re not a good fit with a hiring manager who hires this way. Great candidates want to spend the interview talking about their background, the job, and what they might bring to it.

6. Be transparent through the hiring process. Hiring processes are so often inscrutable from the outside that it stands out when an employer is transparent and open with candidates. That can mean things like making it easy for top candidates to speak with would-be coworkers, being up-front about the downsides of the position (like long hours or difficult clients), and talking candidly about the reasons behind delays in the hiring timeline.

7. Remember that interviewing is a two-way street.Since the best candidates have options, they’ll interview and evaluate employers right back. Employers who assume that the assessment process only goes one way and forget to care about how they’re coming across to candidates – or even give them opportunities to do ask rigorous questions and do their own evaluations – will generally turn off strong applicants.

8. Be worth working for. That means not only offering competitive salaries and benefits, but also providing a high-functioning work environment, with effective management, professional development, and recognition for a job well done. The best-run hiring process in the world won’t be able to overcome bad word of mouth about what it’s like to work for a particular company.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. WorkerBee*

    I was literally about to comment on the word-of-mouth problem. My workplace has all the other stuff, but is such a poor work environment and so badly managed that its turnover is astronomically high and…well, the word has gotten around in the industry, to put it mildly. (If I tell other people in my field where I work, I always get knowing looks and a sympathetic “Oh…”

    1. S.A.*

      Wow, I had that experience too! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the company I jumped ship from is finally going down in flames. Horrific management, unsafe workplace, employees being injured, managers making threats to hours, benefits, and assaulting employees (I was one who was assaulted). The most frustrating thing is that EEOC could care less because the company is shrinking and no one makes the money to sue those monsters.

      I got the sympathetic looks and got my butt in gear to leave. Leave and don’t look back. They only thing you’ll regret is not doing it sooner.

  2. James M*

    I think #7 is the 800 lb. gorilla in the list. When interviewers see candidates as supplicants beseeching their attention, it can only mean bad things.

  3. PEBCAK*

    Related to #8: There is an annual list of the best employers in Chicago (put out by Crain’s, I think?). What I hear from the people I know working at those employers is mixed, at best. I think the lists very heavily weigh things like on-site childcare and similar “official” perks, but that can have absolutely nothing to do with the day-to-day work environment.

    For example, I might see, in the article, “job-sharing for women going on/returning from maternity leave” and think “great, they value women and work-life balance,” but then I reach out to my contacts at the same company and hear “yeah, job-sharing is a career-limiting move…once you do it, you’ll never be taken seriously again.” Another one is lots of vacation days, but no time to actually take them.

    All of which is to say that top candidates aren’t fooled by your company’s appearance on some list. We’re doing better research than that.

    1. A Teacher*

      I used to work for one of those “Top 100 places to work in Chicago” off the Crain’s list. They don’t have a great rep in the industry and are often seen as a stop gap to get some experience before you move on. People will ask if I recommend applying there and I say no based on my own experiences. Word of mouth is huge.

    2. Laura2*

      Yep, I see a lot of this as well. I’m really not interested in whether a company has a game room, and if that’s something that’s being hyped instead of the overall work environment, benefits, work/life balance, etc. I get a little suspicious.

    3. CAA*

      I worked at a company that was on a lot of those lists. I found out after I got employed that the way they got on the lists was by letting HR give out our email addresses and then nag us all to fill out the “anonymous” surveys that these organizations would be sending us.

      1. PEBCAK*

        Yep, same. What’s more, it’s hard to know how an individual department will function based on company-wide policies. I worked somewhere that had “summer hours,” for example, but some managers allowed it and others didn’t.

        A huge number of my grad school classmates worked for one of the companies that always makes the list, and some loved it and some hated it, just depending on their division, department, etc. You really can’t make a blanket statement about employee happiness (though maybe you can make a blanket statement about employee unhappiness?).

        1. themmases*

          This is very true! I work for a Chicago employer that makes those lists, including some national ones, and as far as I can tell it’s fairly well deserved: i.e. the benefits are pretty good and we really do get to use them.

          It was after I got here that I learned my department has a strong internal reputation for dysfunction, particularly for antagonizing other departments and chasing out people in my role.

    4. Stephanie*

      Yeah, FirstJob was listed on one of those “Best Places to Start a Career” lists and it was horrible. I don’t trust those lists–it’s too easy to look at perks (FirstJob did have some good perks), but ignore the day-to-day actualities of working there.

  4. ChristineSW*

    #6 – The part about being upfront about the downsides of a job always makes me giggle about how naive I was back in the day. I remember interviewing for one of my previous jobs and the HR person and the hiring manager mentioned how it was a boring job because it was primarily data entry. I was thinking, “That is not how you sell a position!!” However, in reading this awesome blog, I now understand why it’s important to be upfront about those things.

  5. Ed*

    As a well-qualified candidate that has always had multiple offers when I’m on the market, I immediately hit the back button on my browser when I need to create a profile and fill out an online application. But I would guess HR departments love those systems so there is little chance of them going anywhere. It must be nice to just check your inbox for submissions. No more taking phone calls and reading hard copy resumes. I also think companies get away with it because it tends to be bigger organizations like hospital systems and universities where people are desperately trying to work.

    1. Judy*

      Although I’m not fond of the worst online application forms, I think that having them online is overall a good idea. You can check back to see the status of your application. There’s much less chance of your resume falling off of someone’s desk. If it is done well (and I know many times it is not) it makes a much more streamlined process for the company.

      Even 15 years ago, in engineering we were emailing our resumes and cover letters, so it’s pretty much been checking the inbox and monster for a long while.

    2. themmases*

      This is true. Normally I would only fill those out for a large site that hosts a lot of job applications and will save the information for next time. But hospitals love these systems and I just accept filling it all out for them.

      On the plus side, the hospital systems I’ve applied with do save some of that information so you don’t need to redo it all. That’s worth it to me, in a large organization where a dozen different departments may all have the same role to fill.

    3. cajun2core*

      I hate these even though I do understand the reasoning behind them. A small straight forward one is fine. However, those that basically ask for *everything* that is on your resume’ are a pain in the rear.

  6. Anonymous*

    This is kind of relevant, since I just interviewed for a position. Everyone was great, and then I met one of the VPs I’d be working under. To be blunt, he seemed like a pr*ck, very complaining and negative. When I did some research on Glassdoor, it turns out he basically demolished the morale at the last company he worked for.

    I spoke to quite a few people on the team, and have phone numbers and emails in case I have questions. So, should I trust my gut (run), or would it be appropriate to ask someone about what it’s like to work under this guy?

    I have a feeling I know the answer, but I’ve been surprised before, so I thought I’d throw it out there.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Agreed, ask the questions. Be prepared to move on though if what you hear isn’t what you would like in a working environment. If you know someone basically demolished the morale of an entire company, that ought to tell you something. But, it could be that this guy won’t have as much interaction with you as someone else or whatever so ask the questions and see what happens.

    1. Anonymous for this one*

      I agree with Mike. You can learn from asking questions.

      I was in a similar situation years ago. I remember in the first interview thinking “She (the HR person) seems great. He (the hiring manager) seems like a jerk.” After the interview I checked around and he had a terrible reputation of bring difficult to work with. But one person, whom I respect, had good things to say. I went to the second interview with an open mind and a willingness to ask the questions I needed answered. Such as what us your management style? How do you handle conflict? How would you prefer your staff deal with competing priorities?

      He was surprised at my questions but I appreciated his honest (blunt) answers. I ended up working for him and, although he wasn’t my fave boss ever, we had a good and respectful working relationship. (I think part of it was the fact that I’d been willing to ask such questions.)

      So I’d suggest go in with open mind, ask what you want to know, then follow your gut from there. Good luck!

      1. PEBCAK*

        Agreed. I was at a job where I loved, loved, loved working for my manager, and I was very surprised to hear my peers complain about him while we were out for drinks one night. They all felt he didn’t care about their work and never gave them support, etc. I felt that he trusted me to get my work done and that I’d involve him if there was an issue. It wasn’t good or bad management, just a difference in work styles.

  7. Alex*

    I would add that job postings as resume fishing expeditions are a bad idea. This is when an employer regularly posts the same job to collect resumes. It makes it appear that the employer can’t hold onto employees. I had an interview at a place where the interviewer basically said that was what they did and when they had an opening, I was in a file to call in for an interview. I saw postings from them again in the nearly 3 months in between my application and my interview. There were a number of reasons I wrote them a no-thank-you letter after my interview and this was one of them. Also, I got an email from them at 9:30pm for an interview the next afternoon. An office that requires support staff to be working until 9:30 pm is not a place I want to be.

    I also agree with the online processes. Ugh. I recently didn’t apply to a job because of two factors: 1) There were four days between the posting and the due date. This would have been manageable but the online process would have taken about that long. 2) You have to fill out two forms on two different webpages and then print them out directly and sign them. You then had to scan these along with the cover letter, resume, transcript (for a non-entry-level job), list of references, and writing sample into a single PDF to then get emailed to HR. No paper applications accepted. This requires a lot of equipment people simply don’t have at home. Even if they have a printer and scanner, most home scanners can’t scan to PDF, particularly not text PDF. This requires doing everything at one’s office if they have the right equipment (classy and smart! ugh) or a trip to a copy shop. I don’t work in a visual field, my job applications should not require a trip to a copy shop.

    1. hamster*

      You don’t have to have a special printer or scanner. Even if you take a picture of the papers with a smartphone/normal scanner/digitalcamera and then use a simple software to convert the jpeg images in one single pdf, one image per pdf. No copy shop needed.

  8. EmployeeOfPointyHairedBoss*

    #2!!!! If you’re apply on company website leads to a taleo / complete life history application I am not interested. Companies ask for far too much information up front.

      1. Anon*

        My company is hiring teachers and they’re asking for a recommendation from a principal with the application. It makes me cringe.

    1. Stephanie*

      Taleo is the devil. I saw a position of interest earlier today, but am about to give up since the system has locked me out (even from requesting a new password) for one too many failed login attempts. It is difficult to keep track of all these various applicant tracking systems passwords/logins. I’ve just defaulted to using the same one or two for every ATS. This is totally bad interneting, I know (I use a different password from my email and banking).

      A company automatically gets points in my book if they have a simple cover letter/resume drop or they use a simple ATS like Jobvite or Resumator.

      1. Stephanie*

        Also, USAJOBS is the worst about the onerous application process. Essays? Unique resume formats? Transcripts? Form SFAZIASGJI-37Q if you’re a former federal employee or veteran?

        1. Dan*

          You wanna laugh? I found USA Jobs to be an easy way to meet the VEC unemployment job search requirements. It doesn’t take that long to click all of the buttons if you don’t care that much :)

          There was actually one job on there that I cared enough about to do it “right” and required a rather customized resume. I actually did make it far enough to be phone screened — about two months after application. By that point I had one offer on the table, and got another two days later, so I withdrew.

          But I did get a call from another agency, which kind of surprised me.

      2. Dan*

        I applied to two jobs that used GreatJobs. They were both in the transportation industry, so required 10 years of background information.

        At both companies, when I got to that step, I got some sort of SQL error and the page wouldn’t come up. I was also told that I had 48 hours from the time of resume completion to finish the data entry, but there was no person to contact to say the website crashed :(

  9. James M*

    I bet someone could make a blog about disastrous online job application systems. The worst ones are so invasive that they require medical information (not naming names here) and family info.

    Since someone clearly believes that online applications have some value, I wonder if there is a format for such a system that is both useful to HR and easy for applicants to use. I’m thinking of a simple form that asks for the user’s name, email, resume and cover letter, then asks the user to rate their proficiency in each skill listed in the job listing. Obviously that’s just a brainfart, but it would be a great FOSS project if a few companies would support it.

        1. BeenThere*

          Ah I was beaten to the post!

          I would guess that what these companies really need to do is configure Taleo properly. I’m sure you can set what fields you need and then request more as the applicant moves through the stages.

          IMHO I don’t think those skill rating lists are any good they are far too subjective.

          1. Stephanie*

            Yeah, they’re subjective and the average person is going to list herself as proficient just to get past the screen. Plus, it’s never clear from those what’s “must have” vs. “good to have” vs. “awesome if you have, but we’ll willing to train.”

              1. BeenThere*

                Yes this exactly what I started doing to get past HR and to get to someone who understand technology and transferrable skills.

    1. Mike C.*

      Don’t be afraid to name names. :)

      You’re not accusing them of a crime, you’re pointing out that their online form asks too many personal questions.

  10. Dang*

    Don’t waste anyone’s time if you think they are overqualified or under qualified. You’ve seen their resume before you meet them. Don’t give this as an excuse for not hiring them.

  11. S.A.*

    I keep meeting people who violate #’s 1, 3, 4, and 8 all the time and then wonder why they can’t find or keep people with the company.

    Ironically they claim it’s the employee’s fault all the time but anyone can see right through that nonsense. Don’t hire an employee for one job then claim their description can change on a whim and include duties for two jobs with no pay raise. Stop wasting people’s time and lying about how “great” the company is.

    There are usually several good reasons why some companies have horrible reputations but they earn it buy jerking around employees. Word gets out and other avoid them. It’s great to see a comprehensive list and I’d add one more. I make it a point to ask what a typical day is like and how the project pipeline works to ensure accountability down the line. If the interviewer draws a blank look RUN out of there! Red flag alert! I have avoided some close calls by simply asking basic questions.

    It would be good to encourage people to ask about a company even after they have done the research to see what other employees know as well. Great list and thanks for the comprehensive information.

  12. Mints*

    I was JUST browsing CareerBuilder and when I saw this title, I thought “Jargon!” #1
    I realize there are some jobs that require industry knowledge, and the farther along you get, the more you’re expected to know, but some listings are almost unreadable and simultaneously claim no prior experience necessary. I think they’d benefit from giving the description to a friend who has a totally different job to see if they can at least follow along

  13. Stephanie*

    #2: When would even be an appropriate time to tell an employer their application system is horrible?

  14. Erik*

    Excellent article Alison! Very timely too.

    My thoughts on the items:
    #1 – This is a big problem with engineering jobs. They’re nothing more than acronym soup. All buzzwords, but what will I actually do??? Another problem is “product mangers” that are really “individual engineer contributor” positions in disguise.

    #2 – YES YES YES!! Taleo is evil. There should be a special place in Hell for those people. I tried applying for a job with one very well known company and their Taleo kept kicking me out, and I just gave up.

    #3/#5/#6 – Yes. Nothing more needs to be said.

    #4 – I little appreciation goes a long way. I had a company call me up and tell me that an interview was cancelled because the job was pulled. I thanked them for taking the time to call me before I spent lots of time preparing for it. Most companies don’t even bother.

    #7 – Companies seem to forget this aspect of interviewing. I examine every aspect of my interview, from first contact through the final offer. If anything seems out of place, I take note of it.

    #8 – I’ll take a lower salary for a better working environment any day. No amount of money will make a rotten workplace better. Word of mouth is a powerful tool, and there are many well known companies on the “best companies” lists that I will never work for because they’re awful when you get the real dirt from insiders.

    1. Sharm*

      For #8, how do you get the real dirt, especially if you don’t have any contacts at the organization in question already?

      1. Stephanie*

        Glassdoor or Indeed is good for this sometimes. The reviews skew toward extremes, but you can look for patterns in the reviews.

      2. BeenThere*

        Ask your network, this is where LinkedIn shines.

        A former colleagues reached out to me after seeing I was following company B on LInkedIn. Turns out they had a friend who worked at company B and offered to contact them on my behalf. When they did they confirmed what the GlassDoor reviews were saying all negative I’m afraid. It saved me lots of time applying, the company and positions would have been great with my mixed skillset however the culture was rotten.

        (I really had no idea how many people respected me until they all reached out after I was laid off. Restored my faith in humanity and myself)

        1. Sharm*

          Helpful, thanks! I live in a very small community where I’m still making contacts, so I worry if I start asking around, it’ll come back to bite me. But I think the longer I stay here and build my reputation up, the easier this will get… I hope so, at least.

  15. Greg*

    Another thought tangential to some of the points on AAM’s list: You know those things candidates do that drive you crazy and cause you to immediately send their application to the circular file? Guess what? Candidates react the same way when you do them. That includes typos in your job description, inconsistency on the job title (ie, calling it a director-level job in the headline and manager-level in the text immediately below), failing to prepare for interviews to the point where it’s obvious you’re seeing the resume for the first time, and treating the admin staff poorly, among many others.

    1. voluptuousfire*

      +1 on the inconsistent job titles. When I was job searching, I looked primarily at recruitment coordinator jobs and it was always annoying to see the title of “recruitment coordinator” as the headline and the body of the ad had “recruiter” peppered throughout it. It was a waste of time if you were looking for a more admin-focused RC role, which not all of them are.

  16. a ninny mouse*

    #6 Is so true. I applied for a national restaurant chain a few months ago. All the manager kept saying during the interview was about how nice and great he was. He also claimed that when he left the previous restaurant he worked at all his subordinates missed him so much they cried. He also jet saying about how fun the job was. Now that the restaurant is open all it gets is bad reviews about how poorly it is managed.

    #4 Is good. I can’t say how many interviews I’ve been to where I’ve had to wait an hour to be interviewed not at a cattle call type interview. Especially when the person forgot about me or holds casual conversations with other coworkers.

  17. Greg*

    Oh, one more thing (that actually happened to me earlier today). Make sure that the people interviewing candidates are genuinely enthusiastic about the company. I think sometimes interviewers (especially HR) feel like they have to maintain a certain emotional distance, and deliberately come across as clinical, even cold. But when you’re talking to a representative who clearly loves their job, it makes a huge impression on candidates.

    Of course, the key word there is “genuine”, which goes to No. 8. If your company isn’t worth working for, your employees won’t be able to manufacture much enthusiasm.

    1. Dan*

      I’ve passed on jobs because the people there came across as robots.

      I’ve accepted jobs because the people there look like they have personality.

  18. Boo*

    I had a really bizarre interview experience recently when I went for a PA job with a publisher and it’s tickled me how many of the things in this list I can tick off. I’m quite tempted to email it to HR (although obviously I won’t!) as they’d mentioned having trouble filling the role…

    2) It was a three stage interview process starting with about 10 candidates. Also no travel reimbursement offered, which I think would have been nice by the final interview. First stage was 40 minutes worth of IT tests, followed by an interview with HR; second stage was a further interview with HR and the Director of Operations; final stage was meeting the owners who I’d actually have been working for. If I hadn’t been so interested in them because of what they do, and I won’t lie, also being a bit desperate as I’m being made redundant, I’d probably have given up.

    4) The final stage of the interview was held at 5:30pm, and they kept me waiting for an hour.

    5) Admittedly part of the person spec listed under its desirable criteria was an interest in what the organisation published, but quizzing me about what tv shows I like, why I don’t have Sky and why I don’t download/fileshare (um, it’s illegal?) was intrusive and utterly bizarre.

    6) All the way through the process, everyone had said how important it was to be flexible and mentioned the possibility of working late. Turns out what that meant was staying until 8:30pm throughout the summer to arrange calls abroad. To be fair, I should have made them clarify this earlier, but like I said, desperate.

    7) Apparently they get really cross if you do something wrong and don’t tell them, or allow them to forget something, or prioritise the wrong thing when given conflicting tasks. Which, ok I guess but it came across as “we will be quick to tell you when you mess up, and ignore you when things are going smoothly”.

    8) Yeah, pretty much no benefits. One of the IT tests was copy typing a document about how they don’t do a pension scheme. Pay/holiday wasn’t that great either.

    Luckily I’d already had a better offer elsewhere and this interview basically made up my mind for me about which one to take :)

    1. Anonymous*

      8 on your list is totally weird! Like they are trying to tell you that the benefits suck without just coming out and saying it. So strange it’s kind of funny.

      Congrats on the better offer somewhere else!

      1. Boo*

        It was easily the oddest interview process I’ve ever been through. And I forgot to mention, another part of the final stage was yet another test (minute taking)…if it was so important I can’t imagine why that wasn’t part of the original tests held in the very first stage. So weird!!

        Anyway…thank you very much! I’m really happy about New Job. We seemed to get on well during interview and apparently they were very impressed with me and rang with an offer within half an hour which was really lovely. It was a nice “we want you” vibe as opposed to the “are you good enough for us” vibe from the publisher.

        1. Boo*

          (By the way, partial credit for New Job must be given to this site, which I discovered a few months ago. I’ve been trawling the archives and using the interview/cover letter advice and it’s been invaluable so thank you Alison and the commenters here).

  19. SadLittleMonkey*

    Related to #7: I wish more employers monitored the initial phone screen between recruiter/HR and candidate (like the “This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes” intro you hear on customer service calls). So many times I’ve been interested in a position, only to run far, far away after getting treated badly/rudely in the first phone screen–sometimes in just the first 5-10 minutes of the call! Don’t employers understand that “You only get one chance to make a first impression” goes both ways?

  20. Treehugger*

    Just once I would like to be asked what kind of tree I would be…but I’m a forest ecologist. I would be an aspen.

  21. Dang*

    I just have to share this here because I am FLOORED by the ridiculousness.

    I have a phone interview with an highly-regarded institution. They sent me a fair amount of annoying paperwork/questions to fill out prior to the phone screen.. which is silly enough (I’ve spent 2+ hours answering questions, etc, before even talking to a human being at the place).

    The REALLY ridiculous part is the background check info. Again, I haven’t talked to anyone yet and I don’t even know if I’ll progress to an in person interview. The worst part is it asks for social security, drivers license number, ALL CRAZY IDENTIFYING INFORMATION… on an UNSECURED website. Seriously?!?! There’s not a chance I’m filling that out.

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