Behavioural science and it's impact on recruitment - Part 1

Behavioural science in action
Tom Stroud
Reading time:
9 mins
June 13, 2023

The subject of behavioural science is far-reaching and fascinating in equal measure. It is used to understand and influence many aspects of our daily lives, mostly without us even realising it. In this series of articles, I will be looking specifically at the impact behavioural science has on the recruitment and selection process. 

Behavioural science studies how people behave, make decisions and why they make certain decisions or act in specific ways in different situations or environments. It examines the factors that drive our actions, examining elements like social context, cognitive biases, emotions, and economic variables.

There are several fundamental principles in behavioural science. These include concepts such as cognitive biases (for example, our tendency to more strongly weight initial information or 'anchors' in decision-making), the 'nudge theory' (where small changes in how choices are presented can significantly influence the decisions people make), and the influence of social norms on our behaviour.

It has many applications, from improving public health and influencing policy decisions to optimising customer experiences and improving employee engagement within organisations.

Over the course of this series, I will be looking at the impact of behavioural science on three main areas of the recruitment and selection process: 

  • Attracting and engaging the people you need
  • Developing an assessment and selection process
  • Improving candidate experience

The first, and in many ways the most crucial stage of your recruitment process, is to attract people to apply for your roles. So, let's dive in and examine how behavioural science can improve your chances of encouraging suitable candidates to apply.

Job adverts: framing for success

Job adverts serve as the initial handshake between an employer and potential candidates. The language and structure of your job adverts significantly impact the quantity, quality, and diversity of applicants. If you want to optimise your job adverts, it is crucial to leverage the insights provided by the concept of 'framing.'

Framing refers to the way information is presented, which can dramatically influence perceptions and decisions. This is especially pertinent in job adverts, where the framing of job responsibilities and opportunities can directly impact a candidate's inclination to apply.

In a striking 2019 experiment by the Behavioural Insights Team, two identical job adverts for a coding role were posted, differing only in their framing. The first advert highlighted the opportunity to 'master' coding, emphasising continuous learning and skill development. In contrast, the second advert emphasised 'utilising' coding skills, presenting the role as a chance to apply existing abilities. Despite the role being identical, the 'master' version, framing the role as an opportunity for growth, garnered 139% more clicks. This illustrates the power of a growth-oriented frame, appealing to candidates' desires for self-improvement and advancement.

In addition, framing also plays a significant role in attracting a diverse pool of candidates. Research from Harvard Business School indicates that gender-neutral language in job adverts fosters a broader range of applicants. This is particularly vital for sectors struggling with gender imbalances. Terms like 'ninja' or 'rockstar', often seen as male-oriented, could deter female candidates. Instead, using inclusive language that appeals to all genders, such as 'professional' or 'expert', can help attract a diverse range of applicants.

Further, the framing of company culture and values in job adverts can significantly influence candidate attraction. Emphasising values like 'work-life balance', 'diversity and inclusion', or 'continuous learning' can resonate with candidates looking for more than just remuneration from their job. For example, a company emphasising its supportive work environment and mentorship opportunities may attract candidates who value personal growth and a positive work atmosphere.

Lastly, how requirements and qualifications are framed is also crucial. Instead of listing an extensive set of 'required skills', consider framing it as 'desired skills'. Research has shown that candidates, particularly women, are less likely to apply unless they meet 100% of the criteria. By framing them as 'desired', it can encourage more candidates to apply, even if they don't meet every single criterion.

Outreach programmes: fostering inclusivity

Outreach programmes form a critical pillar in a company's recruitment strategy. They extend beyond the confines of traditional recruitment channels and create a bridge between organisations and untapped talent pools. Utilising the principle of 'social identity', can make these initiatives more effective and inclusive.

Social identity theory, posits that individuals are inclined to form associations with groups where they see similarities with their identity. This sense of affiliation and belonging can influence a potential candidate's attraction towards an organisation.

In the realm of recruitment, this translates into tailoring your outreach programmes to reflect the diverse identities of the talent pool you seek to attract. This could involve spotlighting employees from diverse backgrounds in recruitment materials, hosting open days aimed at underrepresented groups, or collaborating with educational institutions or societies that represent these communities.

One compelling example of behavioural science applied to outreach programmes is the Australian software company, Atlassian. They recognised a need for more female representation in their engineering roles and responded by revamping their outreach strategy to better appeal to women in the tech industry. This included showcasing female engineers in their recruitment materials and promoting their commitment to gender equality. The results were striking, with an 80% increase in female technical hires within two years.

However, fostering inclusivity extends beyond gender diversity. Consideration should be given to other aspects of diversity, such as ethnicity, socio-economic background, age, and disability, among others. Outreach programmes designed to attract such diverse groups can benefit from partnerships with specific communities, charities, or institutions that support these individuals.

Take the example of the global accounting firm, Ernst & Young. They introduced a neurodiversity programme in their recruitment process, aiming to attract individuals on the autism spectrum. Their outreach programme connected with organisations and institutions supporting neurodiverse individuals, leading to an influx of unique talent.

Furthermore, inclusivity in outreach programmes also pertains to the candidate experience. Prospective candidates should feel valued and included throughout the entire recruitment process. This can be achieved by ensuring transparency about the process, providing timely updates and feedback, and offering support where necessary, such as accommodating individuals with disabilities during assessments or interviews.

Ultimately, a successful and inclusive outreach programme recognises and values diversity in all its forms. By adopting these principles, companies can create more effective outreach initiatives that resonate with diverse groups, expanding their talent pool and enriching their organisation's culture.

Social media networks: harnessing social proof

Social media has become an integral part of recruitment strategies in the digital age. The interplay between social media and behavioural science offers valuable insights organisations can use to attract candidates more effectively. A fundamental behavioural science principle relevant to this domain is 'social proof.'

Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon where individuals mimic the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behaviour in a given situation. Simply put, we're influenced by what others do. In a recruitment context, this means prospective candidates are likely to be affected by the experiences and perceptions of existing or past employees that they see on social media.

When using social media for recruitment, organisations can capitalise on the power of social proof by encouraging employees to share their positive workplace experiences. This could include posts about daily work life, participation in training programmes, team-building events, or any aspects of the job that employees find rewarding.

One example of social proof effectively used in recruitment is Cisco's #WeAreCisco campaign. The company encouraged its employees to share their personal stories on social media, using the hashtag to generate a buzz. This campaign provided an authentic and unique insight into Cisco's working environment, significantly increasing followers and application rates. The success of this campaign underscores the power of employee-generated content and authentic storytelling in enhancing an organisation's attractiveness to prospective candidates.

But it's not just about encouraging employees to share positive experiences; it's also about demonstrating a responsive and engaged online presence. Candidates often use social media to ask questions or express concerns about a company or role. Timely and respectful responses from the company can help to build trust and a positive image.

Another aspect to consider is the diversity of content shared. Different platforms have different strengths and are more popular with distinct demographic groups. For instance, LinkedIn may be more appropriate for sharing professional development stories, while Instagram could be used for showcasing company culture or CSR activities. Varying content across platforms can attract a wider variety of candidates.

Lastly, it's important to remember that social media can provide a two-way stream of information. While organisations can use it to project their desired image and values, they can also use it to understand what potential employees seek in a role or a company. This can provide valuable insights to refine recruitment strategies and make them more candidate-centric.

By harnessing the power of social proof through social media networks, organisations can create a more authentic, engaging and attractive image to potential candidates, enhancing their overall recruitment outcomes.

Employee referrals: encouraging active participation

Employee referrals remain a highly effective recruitment strategy, leveraging existing employees' networks to reach potential candidates. These referrals are often viewed as more trustworthy, leading to higher application and hiring success rates. To optimise this method, we can turn to behavioural science for guidance, notably the principles of 'ease' and 'altruism'.

'Ease' is a straightforward concept - the more straightforward a task is to complete, the more likely people will do it. In the context of employee referrals, this means simplifying the referral process to encourage participation. This could involve providing clear instructions on how to refer a candidate, reducing the number of steps in the referral process, or integrating referral options into existing digital platforms. Organisations can increase the number and quality of referrals received by making it easy for employees to refer potential candidates.

'Altruism', the selfless concern for the well-being of others, can also play a significant role in encouraging referrals. A study conducted by LinkedIn found that when the reward for successful referrals was a charitable donation, twice as many referrals were made compared to when a personal cash incentive was offered. This surprising result suggests tapping into employees' altruistic tendencies can boost referral rates. In practice, this could mean linking referrals to corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, such as donating to a chosen charity for every successful hire from a referral.

Taking the principle of altruism a step further, some organisations have begun to introduce 'social referral' programmes. These programmes encourage employees to share job vacancies within their social networks, even if they don't have a specific referral in mind. This broadens the reach of the job advert and fosters a sense of community and collective effort within the organisation.

However, it's important to note that the principles of ease and altruism should not stand alone in a referral programme. For a truly effective system, a sense of appreciation and recognition for successful referrals should be embedded within the company culture. This could take the form of public acknowledgements, personalised thank you messages or small tokens of appreciation.

In summary

The impact of behavioural science on attracting candidates to apply for a role is significant and transformative. By understanding and applying the principles described above, you can enhance your recruitment strategies across different areas:

  • Job Adverts: The concept of 'framing' in behavioural science plays a pivotal role in crafting job adverts. How job responsibilities and opportunities are presented can directly influence an applicant's desire to apply. Highlighting opportunities for growth and using gender-neutral language can attract a broader and more diverse range of applicants.
  • Outreach Programmes: Outreach programmes can be optimised through the behavioural science principle of 'social identity'. Individuals are inclined to form associations with groups they perceive as similar to themselves. Thus, designing outreach programmes that reflect diverse identities can attract a broader range of potential candidates.
  • Social Media Networks: The concept of 'social proof' suggests that people's actions are influenced by others' actions. In recruitment, prospective candidates can be affected by the experiences and perceptions of existing employees shared on social media. This can help create an engaging and attractive image of the company to potential candidates.
  • Employee Referrals: The principles of 'ease' and 'altruism' can be leveraged to boost employee referral programmes. Making the referral process simple and linking referrals to altruistic outcomes (like charitable donations) can encourage more employee participation.

In summary, behavioural science provides invaluable insights that can significantly enhance your organisation's ability to attract candidates. By understanding the principles of human behaviour, HR professionals, talent acquisition specialists, and hiring managers can make their recruitment practices more effective, inclusive, and candidate-centric.

In the next post, I'll explore how behavioural science can improve your assessment and selection process. In the meantime, if you'd like to discuss how Tazio can help improve your recruitment process, get in touch today.

Tom Stroud

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