We need to do something about poor candidate experience

Jan 30, 2023 | Selection & assessment

Poor candidate experience can be detrimental to mental health and confidence, and something needs to be done, explains Ben Jackson at Cogency.

It was during my monthly rant with Cogency’s marketing lead about how poor candidate experience is, when she opened up about her own experiences of applying for vacancies on graduate schemes.

She’s smart: a recent graduate from a top university with a first-class degree. She’s working with us part-time while also studying to become a lawyer and has a training contract lined up with a magic circle law firm, so she’s no slouch!

Now I am not naïve; I’ve worked in recruitment in one way or another for almost 23 years and I’ve seen pretty much everything, from the abysmal to the world-class. But what struck me was the assurance that Katie’s experiences were very far from unique.

All of her friends had suffered similar things when applying for graduate roles. And worse than that, many of them had felt a significant collapse in confidence and self-esteem as a result of the experiences they’d had.

We decided to interview a group of graduates, 30 in total, to ask about their experiences and the results make for painful reading for talent acquisition (TA), a function that, let’s face it, doesn’t always get the best press.

Evidence of poor candidate experience

Out of the 30 interviews conducted, every graduate had experienced ghosting, with one even noting that “most of the employers I applied to ghosted me. I literally never even had an acknowledgement”.

Ghosting is often reported with a laugh and a shrug. But we need to remember that, for these graduates, it is their professional career at stake. It can have damning effects on candidate’s mental health.

As one of our interviewees put it, “it really does knock your confidence if you just don’t ever hear back. I put in all that effort, and no one was even bothering to reading it. I spent absolutely hours doing applications for no one to even care”.

For one graduate, “it got to a point where my mum was really worried about me. After consistent back-to-back ghosting, it started to actually take a toll.”

And as for feedback, in the majority of cases the candidates received nothing beyond generic rejection emails. As put by one of our interviewees, “if they’re expecting you to put that much effort in, it’s only fair that they give you the same effort back in terms of feedback”.

Candidates need to understand how they can improve. All that the graduates were looking for was some feedback, which helped them to understand what they could improve for future applications. This could be game changing for candidates’ sense of self-worth.

Read our findings and the full paper.

Worsening candidate experience

I’m angry about what we found and I think that something needs to change. For many years now, the issue of candidate experience has been at or near the top of the list of concerns in multiple surveys of TA professionals.

And yet, in 2023, we are still failing people and ignoring the massive mental health impact that poor experiences have on candidates who have – in most cases – worked really hard to get their degree, submit a great application and battle through an often complex, multi-layered assessment process.

In fact I’m going to go out on a limb and say that far from getting better over time, generally speaking candidate experience in recent years has got worse.

Is it just a graduate/student recruitment issue?

This isn’t just an issue in graduate/student recruitment. This is endemic across all recruitment, with candidates being ghosted, given conflicting information, having promises left unfulfilled.

No one likes rejection, but we now dish it out without thought, without concern for – or any sense of obligation to – the people (not candidates – let’s call them what they are: people) who have invested their time and their hope in applying for a role.

We have a mental health epidemic in this country. Young people are disproportionately affected, living as they do in an always-on and often antagonistic digital world, but more mature people may be struggling to pay their bills, may have been laid off and are desperate for a job to support their families. Don’t we owe them something more?

The fact is that the technology exists to all but eliminate these issues, while driving process efficiency can enable under-staffed recruitment teams to spend more time looking after the people that will inevitably get rejected from any recruitment process. That’s what’s so frustrating: TA claim to care about candidate experience, but starved of budget and resource, they can often only do the minimum possible in order to hire people and everyone else gets ignored as a result.

Read case studies, data and advice on supporting mental health in the work place


Does it matter though? Really matter?

Yes. Those candidates who have a terrible experience share the fact with their peers, and over time your employer brand becomes tainted. Not only that, but those candidates will never consider working for you in the future, because people have long memories for poor treatment. And trust in your business, so hard to win and so easy to lose, is eroded.

Ultimately, people will only work for you if they cannot go elsewhere and that is not in line with either your stated aim of becoming ‘an employer of choice’ or of seeking the ‘best and brightest’ talent.

Finally there’s the ethical dimension: the fact is that we are literally damaging people’s mental health by refusing to give them a) a fair chance, b) any useful learning and / or feedback from their application and assessment journey and c) a reciprocal level of respect and transparency to that expended by the candidate during the application process.

What can be done?

So here’s my call to action. We, as a function/an industry (call it what you will) have to do better. We have to educate the holders of the purse strings, we have to lobby our C-suites, and explain just how damaging it is that they don’t feel the need to give you the tools and the resources to give all candidates a better experience.

Read advice on creating a positive candidate experience

Join me in pursuing a candidate charter in which every candidate, whether rejected at application stage or at the final step of the process, is afforded transparency, feedback and respect.

This is our challenge in 2023. I genuinely believe that nothing else is as important and I think if we start to change our behaviours then something else will happen: self-esteem will return in spades to our recruiters. Because it’s not just the candidates who suffer from what is happening at the moment.

No one likes to be doing a poor job and I’d argue that recruiters have suffered enormously, knowing that it would only take the right tools and resources to enable them to deliver a decent, compassionate and valuable feedback process alongside nurturing and engaging the people who are successful in securing new roles.

Read more insight and advice on how to avoid a poor candidate experience

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