Make a Good First Impression

By Martha Frase-Blunt Apr 1, 2004

HR Magazine, June 2004Your corporate career web site can become one of your most effective recruiting tools.

Michael Roseman is on a surfing safari. For the past 18 months, the second-year MBA student at the University of Texas at Austin has been clicking his way through the web sites of dozens of companies, from the Fortune 500s to smaller upstarts. His destination is often their careers pages, where he peruses job opportunities and sometimes applies online. But primarily, as he sifts through the glowing “why-you-should-work-here” verbiage and puts the site’s navigation tools through their paces, Roseman is compiling a mental portfolio that will determine if he does, indeed, want to work there.

“A lot of what I’m looking for is a good fit,” he says. “I can tell a lot about how a company regards its employees from its web presence, particularly the parts designed to attract applicants. But so many corporations’ recruiting sites don’t seem to understand that the candidate is the customer in the relationship.”

Roseman admits he may be particularly sensitive to matters of customer service because he spent 10 years in retail with Neiman Marcus in Dallas. But you don’t need a sales background to be put off when you can’t upload your resume in its original format, or when a job database won’t allow you to search by job location. “I want to search keywords and locations; that’s essential to me. I need that functionality,” Roseman says. “But some sites take you 10 clicks to get to the job listings; others make it impossible to find your way back the next time you log on.”

Other turnoffs are sites that don’t have real jobs listed, but instead seem to be collecting stacks of resumes for a database. Worse are those that lazily point the surfer straight to an outside job board such as Monster or CareerBuilder. “That’s horrible, but it happens with companies large and small, I’ve found,” Roseman says. “Why would they send you someplace where you can view the jobs of their competitors?”

Steve Pollock, president of WetFeet Inc., a San Francisco recruitment technology provider, has researched practices in corporate recruiting web sites. The best, he says, “make it simple for candidates to apply for jobs, provide a wealth of information about companies and leave candidates with a favorable impression.” WetFeet research has consistently found that about half of job seekers say they became more interested in working for a company after visiting its web site, while approximately one in four refused to consider a company based on their visit, Pollock says.

Corporate recruiting sites need to perform well in four areas: content, navigation, branding and functionality, he says. “A good web site should look different from every other site. It has to capture the unique experience that individual will have at that company,” he says. “It’s like looking at cars; you want them all to have certain standard features, but expect them to be very different in the experience they offer.”

While some companies have recognized the value of their web sites in recruiting efforts, others aren’t maximizing the potential of their Internet presence. (See “Easy Enhancements to Your Corporate Career Site.”)

Still Not Getting It?

“In the three years we’ve been collecting statistics on online recruiting, we’ve seen corporate web sites become a major resource for job seekers, but many still have a long way to go in providing a useful experience to job seekers,” says recruiting strategist Mark Mehler, who, with partner Gerry Crispin, publishes CareerXRoads (MMC Group, 2004), a comprehensive guide to job and resume web sites.

Their most recent white paper, “The Job Seeker’s Experience: Who Really Cares?” analyzes the staffing pages of Fortune 500 firms to see which offer the best online job-hunting experience. The paper details results of the 2003 study, in which 25 HR professionals posed as the same imaginary job seeker and tried to apply for a management job at each of the Fortune 500 companies through their corporate web sites. Here’s what they found:

  • 28 companies (5.6 percent) of the 500 firms have no trace of recruiting or hiring activity on their sites.

  • 79 companies (15.8 percent) had staffing pages with no job postings and a few pages of general company information or a few job listings and no information about the company at all.

  • At 304 companies (60.7 percent), jobs can be found and applied for, benefits are itemized, and, in many cases, special categories of applicants are identified and offered unique information.

  • 89 companies (17.8 percent) fell into the “best practices” group. “These are the ones that have taken care to let their visitors know even more about what it takes to succeed, what you’ll get if you come here, what will happen next and why,” says Mehler.

“The results [of the study] demonstrate that many companies still don’t understand one of the core values of the corporate recruiting sites,” says Crispin. “It’s not a source of candidates; it’s a destination for them. This is the home you want them to come to, so how do you make them stay? When firms start thinking of their web sites as a place to market the company, they will begin to invest in it differently, and treat it as more than a database.”

Are You Talking to Me?

Offering a strong careers site pays off for employers. “People who go to an employer’s web site tend to be a higher-quality candidate, we’ve found,” says Kent Kirch, global director of recruitment for international professional services firm Deloitte & Touche, based in New York. “We hire a larger percentage of candidates from our own web site than [from] any other job sites.”

Visitors to the Deloitte careers site often arrive via a prominent link from the corporation’s home page. From there they can search job opportunities, submit or build a resume, review a calendar of career events, and get the lowdown on the company culture. Digging deeper, potential candidates can get a personalized perspective through the site’s “Where Do You Fit?” feature, which offers a detailed look at the company’s business areas, from emerging markets to human capital. A click on the “Opportunity Analyzer” lets visitors follow a decision tree to determine which careers might be most appropriate for them.

This type of targeting is what Crispin and Mehler call “candidate recognition,” and it’s key to effective web site recruiting, they say. “It tells individuals that the company has a specific interest in them and offers them a path to learn more,” says Crispin.

Other companies address recognition by creating special sections for categories of job seekers, such as college graduates, returning military and even competitors’ employees.

Targeting categories of candidates with special messages or information usually starts by identifying who is visiting the site. “We look at traffic patterns on a monthly basis to find out where visitors to the careers pages are coming from, where they go first, where they stay longest and where they exit, among other information,” says Valerie Kennerson, who leads Corning Inc.’s Recruiting Center of Excellence in Corning, N.Y. “As demands require, we try to customize our entry pages and messages to particular audiences.”

The Corning site uses a “domain radar” so that, for example, “When someone comes from a university site, the front page they see will be co-branded with the university’s name and may contain related information, like when we will be on campus,” Kennerson says. Corning has done the same for visitors coming from corporate sites, even Corning’s competitors. “It’s a more subtle message, but enough to understand we are speaking directly to them,” she says.

But speaking directly to candidates is not intuitive to many companies. “What we all struggle with is that we know what we want to say, but that may not be what the candidate wants to see,” notes Kirch. “So we try to take an ‘outside-in’ perspective. Right now we are looking at the way we categorize our job postings. We have a tendency to set up search terms based on our internal vocabulary, so we are trying to move toward generic terms that a broad spectrum of site visitors would use.”

For example, an HR position might be internally classified as administrative, “but that’s not intuitive to job seekers. It may seem like a small thing but it’s a huge usability issue,” he says.

Beyond the Brochure

Many visitors to corporate career sites are not looking at job listings, but have already pinpointed an opportunity and are sleuthing for information about whether the company is a good fit.

For instance, Barton Crist, a senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is on the hunt for a financial or consulting opportunity, preferably in the high-tech sector. “I’ve been getting plenty of interviews through our college career center and meeting with employers who visit, but I always make a point of surfing the company’s career site before meeting with them.” Crist says he especially enjoys reading testimonials from employees “to understand their impressions of the company.”

The “sales brochure” aspect of the corporate recruiting site can’t be overlooked, but a lot of companies make the mistake of putting a high-gloss finish on their story, when candidness might better serve them. “If working 50 or 60 hours a week is part of the culture, people need to know this,” says Pollock. “HR can save themselves and applicants a lot of time and trouble by being honest.”

Corning made its site more straightforward with an overhaul four years ago. “We took our time and crafted a market research approach—our product being employment opportunities at Corning,” says Kennerson. She and her team conducted focus groups among recently hired staff, especially those who had relocated to Corning’s somewhat remote upstate New York headquarters. “We sliced and diced the focus groups to reflect where we felt our hottest jobs would be over the next two years, then we talked to them about what they found most helpful in their decision about joining us. What surprised them? Did their expectations meet reality?”

The findings showed Kennerson that many candidates are energized by the opportunity to work in an advanced technology environment, “so in going after the hot talent, we focused on our history of innovation; a lot of the first screens they see talk about exciting technology,” she says.

But that wasn’t enough. “Candidates really needed more information to make an educated decision to relocate to our little town.” The company added a prominent sub-section called “A Place To Live, Work and Play: Corning, New York,” which serves up information about the cities, towns, villages and boroughs in the area, including information on housing, taxes, schools, elder care programs, child care facilities, professional support services, and social, cultural and recreational activities.

“We feel that this information will help weed out those who might not be retained, or would not have seen through the application process,” Kennerson says, noting that this section is the third most-visited on the site.

Don’t Be Undone By Technology

As Roseman pointed out, navigation is a stumbling block for many corporate sites. “Those that do a good job make information not only easy to find, but [also] easy to find your way back to,” says Pollock. “Candidates will go to a site from three to more than a dozen times as they go through the application and review process, so they need intuitive pathways.”

Poor technology can be another irritant that will drive prospects away. “If a prospect trying to apply online gets kicked out of the process a few times, they won’t have a good impression of that company as an employer,” says Pollock. Broken links, slow-to-load images and video, and pages that print poorly will also drive prospects away. “Unfortunately, weak technology is amazingly common. It astounds me how poorly large companies’ web sites function when they get into the application process.” (See “Career Portals Boost Online Recruiting.”)

Kirch admits to being tempted by the newest graphics and tools. “Sometimes we think we want something that is really neat, but we have to stay focused on the person on the other end, so we frequently test our site using a telephone connection to see how it performs.”

Linda Burns, new director of HR for NexMed Inc., a pharmaceutical company based in Robbinsville, N.J., recently emerged from her own job search with a pet peeve: sites that are clearly out of date. Like many candidates, Burns stalked corporate career pages to get a sense of the companies she was targeting. “I found you can really get a feel for the HR processes and values of a company this way,” she says. “But when you see job listings that are a year old, you know the company isn’t invested enough in its online recruiting to do the upkeep.”

Follow-up: Avoiding The Black Hole

That upkeep includes getting in touch with applicants. “The sun should never set on a customer inquiry,” says Roseman. “Companies must acknowledge everyone who applies on their web site, even if it’s just an automated e-mail. But every applicant should be given some type of timetable about when he or she can expect a response. There’s nothing worse than not knowing.”

Kennerson is keenly aware of what she calls the “big black hole” problem. “I know how frustrating it can be when you’ve drilled down into a company site, gotten excited about an opportunity and spent time building a resume and submitting it, then you wait for something to happen,” she says. “We want to be as engaged as possible with our potential candidates, beyond simply pushing out an automated reply. If I had a magic wand I would create a truly interactive experience—for instance, hosting live chats with HR professionals or hiring managers—but I’m not sure the capability exists for what we dream of doing.”

Kirch and his team are tackling this pipe dream in part with a new tool they’ve developed called “My Deloitte.” By leaving an e-mail address, interested visitors can set up an “agent” that will alert them to appropriate opportunities as they go live, send them events calendars and reminders as well as allow them to refer a friend. Deloitte also offers tailored e-newletters and lets visitors customize views and features. “Through this tool we hope to begin to develop a stronger online relationship with our candidates,” Kirch says.

Many of the “best practices” companies cited by CareerXRoads and WetFeet have similar tools, but, according to Roseman, plenty of black holes remain out there. “I can’t tell you how many companies I research that I felt had a phenomenal culture, but they never responded to my queries. That really colors my impression of them,” he says.

“Far too few companies do the type of research or thinking it requires to set up a site that appeals to the consumer,” says Pollock. “When you look at other areas of the web, like e-commerce, you can see how customer-centered and interactive the Internet can be. Corporate web sites are a generation or two behind, and many HR professionals still think they don’t matter that much because, in today’s job market, they hold the power. But companies that don’t give proper attention to their recruiting web presence will pay the price, and soon.”

Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Shepherdstown, W.Va., who has worked as a professional writer and journalist for more than 20 years. She also writes about workplace health for the Washington Post.

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect