Get to the Source

Technology can track where an employer’s best hires come from, and that knowledge is powerful.

By Dave Zielinski Nov 1, 2012
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1112cover.gifAccurately identifying the sources of newly hired employees has never been easy, given the longtime dependence on unreliable tracking methods such as applicants' self-reports and the lack of sophisticated reporting technology connected to online job ads. Today, that challenge can be akin to playing pin the tail on the donkey, given the byzantine routes that job seekers often take en route to filling out applications.

Consider Mary Smith, a prototypical job seeker. Mary starts her search on Facebook by telling her friends she's looking for employment. A suggestion to check job boards takes her to sites such as or CareerBuilder, where a few ads catch her eye and she clicks through to companies' careers sites to explore the positions. Mary visits one intriguing company's Facebook and Twitter careers pages to learn more about its culture. Via LinkedIn, she seeks a recommendation from an old colleague who works for the targeted company.

She applies for a job on the company's careers site and makes the initial cut, but doesn't land the position. However, the recruiter encourages her to join its talent community, where she can receive e-mail updates about future job openings. Three months later, she receives such an e-mail, reapplies and is hired.

When asked "How did you find us?" during orientation, Mary names the initial job board—hazarding a guess, since she has forgotten its name—in the single-choice drop-down menu on the applicant tracking system. When a recruiter follows up to interview Mary about the process, he decides to change the primary source of hire to Facebook.

The talent community's outreach e-mail is never credited for its role in the hiring.

Data Shortcomings

Candidates today can seek information about prospect companies or directly apply for jobs through job boards and job aggregator sites, via search engines and social media networks, or by visiting careers portals. The major hurdle for recruiters trying to determine where their best hires are coming from remains reliance on a dubious tracking method—candidates' self-reporting.

According to the 2012 Sources of Hire study from talent consulting firm CareerXroads in Kendall Park, N.J., the largest proportion of responding organizations—67 percent—said they rely primarily on self-reporting as their chief tracking method. Respondents included staffing leaders from 36 North American companies that vary in size from 1,500 employees to 10,000 or more.

Self-reporting is flawed because many applicants forget where they started their job hunts, don't give the question much attention amid the many others they have to answer, or aren't provided enough choices.

Continued reliance on self-reporting is troubling, say recruiting experts, given the huge sums organizations spend on recruiting across diverse channels.

"If you worked in manufacturing, not knowing your error rate would be unacceptable. Yet that's what happens when recruiting functions can't accurately track the sources of their best hires," says John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University.

Breaking Codes

Some progressive companies are using alternatives to self-reporting, such as:

Source codes.

Embedded custom source codes on websites or recruiting channels like job boards or social networks create a trail of "bread crumbs" that an applicant tracking system can recognize when candidates apply. In the CareerXroads study, 25 percent of the responding companies said they employ a version of this strategy, using Internet Protocol addresses to track sources of hire.

At United Parcel Service, every job advertisement placed on a job board, the company's Facebook or Twitter careers pages, or other online channels carries a unique URL that feeds back to the company's careers website,, says Matt Lavery, director of talent acquisition, so he knows exactly the source of each applicant or new hire. Recruiters who interview new hires also enter a source-of-hire code into the system, but the "hard-coded" source attached to those URLs for each job posting is used as the data of record, Lavery says.

"We don't want to rely solely on the applicant's memory, or those interviewing new hires," Lavery says.


When Annette Foght moved from an operations role to director of national recruiting at HCR ManorCare, a Toledo, Ohio-based company that runs nursing care, assisted living and hospice facilities, she wanted to change the recruiting function from one that made decisions based on hunches or habit to one driven by analytics. Foght turned to a recruiting dashboard from vendor Jobs2Web, a SuccessFactors company based in Minnetonka, Minn., for insight into what channels were delivering the biggest bang for her company's dollar. The dashboard integrates with the applicant tracking system and now provides more actionable reports—delivering trend data via designated timelines, for example—and tracks how many candidates come from other channels to the HCR careers site.

"I not only can see what recruiting sources are best in driving applicants to our site, but which are best in producing actual hires," Foght says. "We also can see how many applications it takes from certain sources to get a hire. That's critical, because for positions where we get a lot of applicants, it's inefficient and costly for our HR managers to have to wade through a lot of nonqualified apps."

Using dashboard analytics, Foght has made changes to HCR's recruiting strategy, such as centralizing decisions about the use of major job boards. In the past, human resource managers in the company's 500 locations could essentially "go shopping" on the company credit card for job advertising channels. Because many of those decisions weren't cost-effective or didn't yield expected results, HR managers now choose "basic" or "premium" advertising options. Basic equates to a standard or nonurgent hiring need, while premium indicates a critical request. "Depending on the job category and the geographic region, we then decide what job boards those basic or premium requests go to," Foght explains.

Source-of-hire metrics have helped HCR slash its recruiting budget without adversely affecting quality-of-hire or time-to-hire rates. For instance, the company canceled a contract with one major job board in 2010 and reduced spending on another. "We reduced the company's job advertising spending by 50 percent in 2009, and when you're talking about millions of dollars in savings, that's substantial," she says.

Source-of-hire metrics have helped HCR slash its recruiting budget without adversely affecting quality-of-hire rates.

Sphere of Influence

Industry experts say the next frontier in source-of-hire reporting will go beyond simply recording the place where a candidate completes a job application to examining every stop or contact on the route to that application. Known as "source of influence" tracking, it identifies the positive or negative effects of all recruiting touch points. It's a technique marketers have used for years to pinpoint variables that influence consumers' buying decisions.

"What companies really want to know is, when a candidate woke up in the morning, where did they start the job search and where did they travel on the path that eventually convinced them to apply?" says Mark Mehler, a principal with CareerXroads.

Ryan Cook, SPHR, global recruitment operations leader for CH2M Hill, a design and construction management firm in Denver, considers source of influence a key recruiting metric. Because most applicant tracking systems record only the first or last source code collected in a job search, they usually leave out links in the middle of candidates' searches. That leads to over-representing a company's careers site as the source of hire, Cook says, since that is the last stop and where most people apply for jobs.

To combat that, Cook's system collects all source codes from a candidate's path as he or she passes from URL to URL in the job hunt and "stacks" them for analysis. "That's allowed us to get away from looking at source of hire as a one-to-one relationship and look more at the multiple sources of influence," Cook says.

Source-of-influence tracking also enables Cook to conduct nuanced analyses of recruiting results. Consider the insight that the accumulated source codes for 100 new hires might yield. "We can see how many times showed up in those hires, how often LinkedIn showed up or how often other channels did," Cook says. "So you know efforts to post there paid dividends, because we hired people from those sites."

Such data also helps Cook make recruiting decisions based on what he calls "quality of channel" metrics. "We can determine which of those recruiting channels was most influential in terms of candidates being hired following interviews," he says. "For example, our data show that certain channels give us a bigger volume of candidates, but we end up interviewing less of them. Conversely, we know that other channels provide fewer candidates, but we interview more." In addition, Cook found that some sources prove better for hiring electrical engineers, while others yield better wastewater engineers.

At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., director of recruitment strategies Brent Bultema uses technology that tracks primary and secondary sources of candidate hires. Say a candidate starts a search on a job board, links to the Mayo Clinic's careers site and applies for a job, but isn't hired. Recruiters might ask him to join to its talent community to stay apprised of future openings. Three months later, he receives an e-mail about an opening, reapplies and is hired.

The primary source of that hire would be listed as the original job board, and the secondary source would be the talent community e-mail, Bultema says. "We can now rely on technology to ensure that sourcing information is as accurate as possible," he adds.

Despite growing use of custom source codes and source-of-influence tracking, some recruiting experts are convinced that the most accurate gauge of source of hire remains decidedly low-tech: simply asking employees in the orientation process what convinced them to apply.

The author is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.

Web Extras

Online Sidebar: Eye on Quality

SHRM article: Hire Intelligence (HR Magazine)

Study: 2012 Sources of Hire (CareerXroads)​​

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