This post is Part 5 of Tell Candidates What They Really Want To Know: A step-by-step guide to storytelling for recruiting” a collaboration between Job Portraits and Zoomforth. Starting point for Parts 1–5 here.

Throughout this series on storytelling for recruiting, we’ve relied on our frequent conversations with candidates to provide you guidance on how to engage them in new and useful ways. But, as we’ve said ourselves, nothing builds trust like hearing something straight from the source.

And so, specially for you, we performed a handful of tightly structured interviews with engineering, sales, and support candidates who are actively looking for jobs. They identified several places where companies can make big improvements with small strategy shifts, and, although our sample size was too small to be scientific, we’ve focused on ideas that align with what we regularly hear from candidates. Here are five common misconceptions recruiters have about candidates, along with ideas for how to shift the dialogue.

1. We need to show candidates how wonderful we are!

“I want to know what happens if I struggle.”

Real Talk: When companies market their jobs like unbeatable, life-altering products, savvy candidates lose trust. When companies instead address the hard stuff, three big doors open. First, candidates suss out the kinds of problems they’ll be empowered to solve. Second, candidates see that learning is valued above bluster. And finally, the hard stuff can help poor-fit candidates self-select out, which saves everyone time.

One junior sales rep we spoke with, referencing a job ad at a tech startup, explained: “I want to know what happens if I struggle. I want them to tell me, for instance, ‘We had this one salesperson who was struggling with his numbers, but then he met with this mentor and is doing really well.’ Or even, tell me about a customer who lost her job and how your platform is helping her start a new career. As cheesy as that is, real world examples really help.”

And don’t forget that the desire for authenticity extends to visuals, too. A different candidate bemoaned the use of stock photos on career pages. While reviewing one page he said, “These photos have nothing to do with the company and I’d be pretty surprised if they were even at their offices. They’re just look so generic.” To add insult to injury, those photos were real, but the company had put so much emphasis on looking polished, the candidate wrote them off as fake.

Try this:

  • Find a specific story of how someone was struggling, but with the company’s support was  eventually able to succeed. And just generally tone down the boasting, please.
  • Stock photos have a ‘look’ you probably want to avoid. And when you gather photos, include a few intense moments, too. No one believes everyone at your office is smiling 24/7.

2. We need candidates who check every box

“I’m more inclined to apply for a position that lists novel things rather than stuff I’m already comfortable with.”

Real Talk: Many recruiters see reqs as “who I need today.” But candidates see job descriptions more like “who I will  become if I take the job.” They’re as interested in what they can learn as how they can help. That means the people who can truthfully check all your boxes are likely to think your job sounds boring.

While observing an experienced engineer reviewing job descriptions, we heard: “I’m more inclined to apply for a position that lists novel things rather than stuff I’m already comfortable with. There needs to be room to grow. If I don’t have half the requirements, I’m not likely to apply. But I also don’t want to be experienced with more than three-quarters or so.”

Try this:

  • When listing skills in a job description, be clear about which the person needs to already have experience with, and frame the others as topics candidates should be excited to learn more about.

3. Candidates only care about the job they’ll be doing

“I want to see how this matters to my friends or family.”

Real Talk: We were heartened to hear that candidates care about who a company helps. This goes beyond an interest in “social good” companies to a basic interest in who a company’s customers are, and whether those customers are happy. This may be especially important on the sales side, since candidates know it’s easier to sell a product they can genuinely claim is useful.

After reviewing a careers site, a candidate told us: “Just because I understand the product, that’s not enough to convince me. I want to see how this matters to my friends or family, even to the person next to me on the bus. I want to know why this company is important in a normal person’s words.”

Try this:

  • Incorporate customer stories into your employer story. When possible, draw a clear line between something an employee did or created and the customer they helped.

4. Candidates are good at research

“I kept thinking, this is an amazing role, but I don’t know how much I like the company.”

Real Talk: When we walked through a sales candidate’s research process, it lasted less than five minutes and consisted of a quick Google search, Glassdoor reviews, and scanning social media for contacts at the company. Don’t forget, candidates only look for jobs once every year or two, so it’s dangerous to assume they are good at it or will find what you want them to.

A phone screen  is an opportunity to provided information the candidate hasn’t discovered himself, so use that time wisely. One candidate told us about a recent screening call where the recruiter focused so much on the details the conversation ended there. “They didn’t really sell me on the company,” he explained. “I kept thinking, this is an amazing role, but I don’t know how much much I like the company.”

Another time on a phone screen, the same candidate was asked what he thought of the company’s business model. His response? “I thought I was going to learn that from you! This is the field you guys are passionate about. If I work with you I’m going to take that and turn it into my own, but I’m not gonna lie to you and say I was born interested in this area.”

Try This

  • Once a candidate is engaged in the conversation, don’t worry about overwhelming them with information. If they are interested, they want to know all the things as quickly as possible. Either in your outreach email or in a follow-up after your first phone call, include any information that could possibly get them excited about your company.
  • Don’t just focus on the role. Share content about your market and even competitors. Candidates want to have in-depth conversations, but they might not take the time to research your marketplace specifically.

5. Candidates are just skimming job descriptions

“I pick up a lot from titles. The worst is when I see things like “Senior Engineer Two.”

Real Talk: Candidates are savvy interpreters of language, and they often pay closer attention to how a job description is written than what’s actually in it. This can be a minefield if the recruiting team doesn’t have a deep understanding of how candidates think.

Here’s an example of how things go wrong. We asked an engineer to think out loud as he reviewed a job description. Engineer: “I thought they were a startup but now I’m confused. They call this role a Senior Architect, and companies with architects generally have a lot of hierarchy. That says they have management, middle management, and upper management…they probably have hundreds of employees.

“I pick up a lot from titles. The worst is when I see things like “Senior Engineer Two.” What’s the difference between a Senior Engineer and a Senior Engineer Four? I don’t have any idea, but I do know there’s a lot of hierarchy. If I see a company that’s looking for a “rockstar,” there might be less hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean I want to work there, either. My current company hires rockstars, and our office culture is really aggressive and macho, which I’m not interested in.”

He was surprised when we told him that particular engineering team actually has only 40 people, peer mentorship is central to their work culture, and the very word “hierarchy” makes them cringe.

Try this:

  • Explain what titles mean, what responsibilities fall under them, and who they support. This is especially important in the startup world, where the same title can mean something very different from one company to the next.
  • Again, be careful boasting about how big your company is or how fast you’re growing, as candidates may fear being lost in a faceless sea of employees. Be specific about the team and people they’d be working with.
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