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Candidates' Perception of Unfairness in the Recruiting Process

A review of thousands of responses to the Talent Board's Candidate Experience Survey reveals some troubling themes that companies simply can't afford to ignore. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017
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Every year, hundreds of millions of applications are submitted for jobs, and the overwhelming majority of them are rejected. The reaction of individuals who aren't selected can range from indifference to rage. Thanks to new tools now available that can correlate candidate dissatisfaction to bottom-line results, employers are becoming more aware of the business benefits of treating candidates fairly and respectfully. Disappointed candidates are an inevitable byproduct of the recruiting process, but candidates who feel they've been treated unfairly are particularly toxic. A review we undertook of the largest candidate survey conducted in the United States reveals troubling themes among candidates who perceive unfairness in the process.

Source of Data

The 2015 Talent Board, North American Candidate Experience Research Report collected survey data from 130,000 candidates who applied for jobs at more than 200 companies. Survey participants replied to as many as 70 questions, including: Was there anything you wish you knew about [the company] or the job BEFORE you applied that would have helped your decision to go forward -- or not? The question was open-ended. Fifty-five thousand participants provided answers. The answers were manually coded for up to three themes, including fairness. 


To some extent, all candidates who apply for a job but are not hired feel the process has been unfair.  Candidates rarely apply to jobs that they do not think they are qualified for. When they are not selected, they tend to believe that they were eliminated for reasons other than their qualifications, which feels intrinsically unfair. The source of the perceived unfairness clusters in distinct categories. 

Sample Comments from Candidates

Arbitrary Rejection

"[I wish I knew] … if they used job-filtering software … which often unfairly eliminates resumes from being read by hiring managers, even though the applicant is qualified for the position (but the system eliminates them due to a lack of specific KEYWORDS in their resume)."

"My education and experience was above the positions for which I applied, yet it appears little to no consideration was given to me as a candidate."

"I wish I knew if a person reads resumes, instead of some pointless keyword program that spits out "top" candidates for HR to pretend they care about (or even know about how [the applicant's] background actually fits the job), instead of just hiring someone they planned to hire before posting the job."

"I would never have wasted my time filling out an application if I knew that I would be overlooked."

"Maybe an applicant-screening process that would facilitate a guaranteed "efficient and fair" process, without the typical experience I've had with most, where the application[s] are electronically screened based on private criteria that excludes truly qualified candidates from advancing through to the true interviewing process."


Recommendation: Compare your job posting to your actual selection criteria.  If you require "5 years sales experience" but only interview individuals who work for a direct competitor, modify your posting to include the actual screening criteria. 


"I just thought that [the company] was only looking for young candidates.  My resume reflected many years of job experiences and I am convinced that I was disqualified based on age. Unfair!"

"If I had known that I was going to get a rejection email within an hour of my application, I would not have bothered applying. I feel once they saw my age I was automatically disqualified from consideration."

"Application process too time consuming.  I stopped my application process due to being asked what year I graduated high school.  I am a mature woman with many, many years of experience.  If I had put year of graduation, I was concerned I would be disqualified due to my age (50's)."

"I was not aware that [this company] discriminated about age. I had 12 very good years with [this company] in the past as an outstanding and recognized employee."

"[I wish I knew] their opposition to people of color. I was a consultant on their business with my previous company and an employee later informed me of their discriminatory practices."

"[I wish I knew] how distasteful the interviewing experience was with the person's comments about my accent. It was quite embarrassing and humiliating, both professionally and personally."


Recommendation: Acknowledge that discrimination seeps into every process and ensure you have implemented procedures to minimize the problem. Job postings and applications can be checked for gender bias, structured interview slates (minimum number of diverse candidates) can be mandated, and diverse recruiting teams can help mitigate issues.


"I would have liked to have known that it's nearly impossible to be hired unless you know someone who works there."

"I wish I knew how stagnant the company was and how far off from best practices they were, as how unwilling they were to allow change. I wish I knew how much nepotism and "good old boys club" there was within the company."

"The job application process online was a joke. The hiring happens from within -- apparently, based on who you know and face-to-face encounters. An applicant from the outside without connections to [the company] is rarely hired via the application process."

"It seems you have to know someone to get a job there or be related in some way. They don't consider resumes with all the right experience."

"I wish I would have known that applying was a waste of my time and efforts. I wish I would have known they only hire those of minority status or those related to current employees!! People should be hired based on their merit and not their associations to others or minority status."

"I can tell you that for most internal positions, it is a personality contest. If someone does not want you for whatever reason, you will not get the job. Has nothing to do with you being qualified."


Recommendation: While employee referrals can be a rich source of candidates, the best candidates will not always be known by your current employees. Referred candidates should be "masked" once they enter the screening process.


Phantom Jobs

"I would have liked to know if the company was truly hiring before I went through the application process. It is unfair to job seekers for them to take time out of their schedules to complete the research and application process and never receive a response. Seems like they just post the job for legal reasons."

"If I knew they were going to interview an internal candidate later after me, I would have felt differently when I left the interview.  The lead interviewer stated I did well and was his pick.  I was there for over 5 hours for this interview, but never had a chance at landing the job."

"If the multiple opportunities I applied to were already going to internal candidates, or someone was already earmarked for a role, please remove it from public consumption.  Do not give false hope to individuals looking for jobs.  You'd rather know up-front that you have no chance other than to schedule a phone call, get excited, follow up for three weeks, only to be told the role was going to an internal.  I am happy for that person, and understand the need to post for a certain amount of time, but I would allow the potential candidate a realistic expectation about the opportunity."

"I wish I knew that supervisors only set up interviews because it give[s] the impression that every applicant has a fair and equal chance of getting a position.  However, the supervisors already have in mind who they specifically want for the job (friend/colleague) and still choose to waste other people's time and efforts."


Recommendation When internal candidates are fully qualified and likely to be selected, be particularly respectful of external candidates’ time. Keep strong external candidates in mind for alternate openings.


Bait and Switch

"[I wish I knew] that if you accept a job offer that it could end up not being what you actually do. You can get pigeonholed into another facet of the corporation that isn't what you signed up for."

"The 'Management Trainee Internship' is not really an internship. It is the exact same position as their customer service/ sales position; they just call it an internship for bogus reasons."

"Position listed as sales and driver, turned out position was sales and fill-in driver which could last up to three years before obtaining [one's] own route."

"[I wish I knew] that the advertised position, listed as management, was actually sales."

"Yeah, if I knew that they would 'bait and switch' by telling me that I would receive an interview and then didn't even hear back, I wouldn't have applied."

"I wouldn't have applied. The compensation/ duties do not correlate well at all with the job description."


Recommendation Honesty and transparency ultimately win. Deceiving candidates leads to inefficient recruiting, low yields, high turnover and a damaged employer brand. 



"I only wish every candidate had a fair opportunity [prior to] the formal interview process [to determine] whether they have the video technology or if they do not. Both should be accommodated, as I feel the company is missing out on some GREAT candidates using the current method -- very unfair."

"My only concern with this process was the video interview request. Despite the apparent benefits of video interviews, they do not allow interviewees to present themselves effectively."

"Having to do an impersonal video interview. It was a waste of my time and didn't feel as if it was giving me a true opportunity to expand on my resume and qualifications."


Recommendation Review all steps in the process to identify socio-economic, age, cultural and other barriers. Provide accommodations so candidates without access to webcams or other technology can be fairly considered.



"It would have been nice to know more about the tests that were required. I felt the tests were not disclosed until I had to take them. If I knew they were about things I didn't know, then I would have declined to take the test. They were unrelated to the job posting and I believe an unfair evaluation of my skills and knowledge. I felt like it was asking a doctor to take a competency test with questions based on what a lawyer might know. Completely unrelated."

"I knew about the test, just didn't think it was fair or pertained to the actual job."


Recommendation: Explaining the recruiting process (and estimated time) dramatically increases candidates’ perception of a positive experience. Add timelines and steps to the careers pages on your website or include them in your job postings.



Recruiting in an age when job postings are visible worldwide and applications can number in the tens of thousands, attempting to treat each applicant with individual consideration and respect is a formattable challenge. While most rejected applicants will feel disappointed that they were not selected for a job, they do not have to feel that the process was unfair. Honesty and transparency are the pillars of a successful candidate experience.  


Maury Hanigan is CEO of SparcStart, a member of the CandE Council, and an auxiliary analyst of the Candidate Experience research.  Coding and analysis for this article was completed by SparcStart.


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