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SHRM Foundation Research


The Impact of Explanations to Applicants: Reactions, Consumer Behavior, and Employee Outcomes

Funded: November 2010     Completed: December 2013

Autumn D. Krauss, Ph.D., Kronos, Inc. and Portland State University
Donald M. Truxillo, Ph.D., Portland State University
Talya N. Bauer, Ph.D., Portland State University

Executive Summary
Online employment applications, often integrating pre-employment assessments, are standard operating procedure for most organizations these days, particularly for those in industries such as retail, grocery, and hospitality, who are hiring large quantities of field employees and need a quick and cost-effective way to screen and prioritize candidates.  The challenge comes when this type of hiring process makes applicants feel like they are not given personal consideration, often not even getting the chance to speak to an actual person about their qualifications. This potentially isolating and sterile experience can leave a bad taste in applicants’ mouths, always a concern for companies but even more so when their applicants are often their customers. The crux of the problem is how to create a favorable and personalized applicant experience without it being too resource-intensive or costly for organizations to implement within their high-volume and automated hiring process.

This research program explored the potential benefit of a relatively easy and low cost way to improve individuals’ reactions to an online application process, namely by the presentation of explanations to applicants.  In this field experiment, real applicants to various retail and grocery store-based positions completed an online application process, including a pre-employment assessment.

During the application, they were asked a series of questions about their experience with the online application process and associated assessment. In one condition, they did not receive any explanation – they just continued on with their application process after they answered the questions. In another condition, they received a static explanation, a short statement that conveyed the company’s appreciation for their application and assured the applicant that it would be thoughtfully considered.

We know from organizational psychology research that being generally sensitive to applicants during the selection process results in more positive applicant reactions, so our thinking here was that at least showing some sincere consideration during the selection process would give a boost to applicants’ perceptions of their online application experience. In the last condition, applicants received a tailored explanation to the specific concerns, if any, that they expressed in their survey. For instance, if an applicant indicated that they were skeptical about whether the questions on the application were actually relevant to the job to which they were applying, the next page would dynamically present a short explanation describing how current employees in the job had indicated that the questions were relevant to their work.

Here are the different types of concerns that applicants could have raised in their survey – if applicants indicated that any of these bothered them, they were presented with an explanation that was written to address their specific concern(s): whether  people’s responses on the assessment actually predict whether they are good employees on-the-job, how long the online selection process takes, how the information that they share on the application will be handled, meaning whether it will be stored securely and remain confidential, whether the questions that are asked on the assessment are relevant to the job, whether they have had a sufficient opportunity to show their strengths during the online application process, and whether the questions asked on the assessment were not intrusive or inappropriate.

We also had the applicants answer some questions about their perceptions of the company at the beginning of the application and then also asked them some other questions about their overall reactions to the application process when they were just submitting it.  We then followed up with a small group of the overall study sample a couple months after they applied, some of which had been hired by the company and others of which had not.  For select applicants to one of the participating companies, we even sent out some coupons for groceries and tracked whether they used them as a way to see if people’s applicant experiences impacted their likelihood to be customers afterwards.


  • Overall, 83,280 applicants participated in the study. While the large majority of these applicants did not express any concerns with the online application process, the three most prevalent concerns were about whether the assessment was job-related, whether they had an adequate opportunity to show their qualifications, and why the process had to take so long. 
  • When looking at all different types of outcomes collected during the application (e.g., perceived fairness), those applicants who received the tailored explanation had significantly better reactions across the board. The differences were not large, but they were notable.  Interestingly, those who received no explanation reported more positive outcomes than those who received the socially sensitive explanation. 
  • For those applicants who were not hired, their reactions during the application process did significantly predict how attractive they perceived the company a few months later and also whether they would recommend the company to others, though not whether they intended to apply to the company again.
  • For those who were hired, they reported that their application experiences influenced their employment decision and their perceptions of the organization, but there was no effect on their job attitudes or work behavior.  Grocery coupon usage was also not affected by anything that happened during the online application process. 


These are several implications for HR practice that can be drawn from these findings: 

1. First, companies should be measuring applicants’ reactions to identify what, if anything, is concerning to them. We know from research that employees in general appreciate the opportunity to voice their opinions, and applicants are no different. For those in HR who are responsible for their companies’ online hiring processes, efforts to streamline these (without losing their effectiveness) would likely be appreciated by applicants, as this was an area that they noted as a concern more than others.

2. Second, finding a creative way to tailor explanations to applicant concerns is better than offering what is possibly perceived as an automated or “canned” show of consideration by a computer, as we did with our socially sensitive explanation.

3. Third, it appears that people’s online application experiences at most impact their recommendations of the company to others and their likelihood to take the job if offered it. These are important; however, there are equally important outcomes that are not as influenced by applicants’ experiences during the online hiring process – whether they apply again (big economic influence), whether they remain a customer (again, big economic influence), and how much they are committed to and support the company after they are hired (actual work experiences a bigger influence here). 

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