Michelle Flynn: on the applicant experience.

We spoke with Michelle Flynn about the impact that an applicant's experience can have on your employer brand and the likelihood of finding the hire you need.

First of all, how would you describe what you do?

So, this is a slightly confusing one. My background is recruitment. I started off my recruitment career working for one of the largest agencies called Computer Futures Solutions. I was there for eight and a half years and that was very much where I learned how to recruit. I left there and then went on to become the in-house recruitment manager for a company called Conchango. That was an amazing company to work for and it's probably where I really learned about the candidate experience, because when you're working for an agency, and you're in the agency office, you don't necessarily see the whole story.

I spent eight years working there. And then these last eight years I've been running my own little in-house recruitment business for multiple clients.

Great. So how does your business help companies?

Where I fit in is for people who potentially don't need a full-time in-house recruiter. Maybe they only need to hire 10 people over the year; they want to be able to offer the right candidate experience, but they don't need someone there doing it full time. Or maybe they do want to hire somebody, but they just – up until this point – haven't found the right person. And because my network is very much within the .NET space, I have quite a lot of contacts. So, it's not the only area that I'm recruiting for – because when I'm recruiting for a company, I recruit whatever technical roles they need – but they do tend to be companies using the .NET stack.

So, what steps do you go through with these companies? What's your process?

First, I do workshops with them to understand what they're actually doing today in terms of recruitment – what's working, what's not working so well. We basically go through a complete audit. Then we actually work out what good looks like. And that is everything from the very initial stage of we want to hire somebody, to who is the person that needs to sign off that role, who's responsible for the budget, is it the right budget, all the way through the process of how we're going to write the job specs, source the candidates, all through the interview process of onboarding, starting, getting them through probation. Because often I think people assume that it stops on the day that the person either resigns or starts, and it doesn't.

Okay that's good, so it's like a whole end-to-end process basically?

Absolutely.

In terms of companies that you've helped, what are the biggest candidate experience challenges that they faced and how did you unravel them.

Okay. I think candidate experience is key. And I think, just from a process point of view, the biggest problem is time, and people not moving candidates through the process quickly enough. So, you get a CV, and that CV might sit on the hiring manager's, or the recruiter's, or somebody's desk for days. And then when they do get into the process, getting them through the phone interview, maybe technical tests, the face-to-face interview, and then to offer… it's just taking too long. And the market is moving so quickly now. It's very much candidate driven. And the good candidates? They go. laughter

Often, they don't even get on the job market, because they know people and they will go and work with people that they know. So, if you find a good candidate that is actively looking, you have to fast-track them through the process. Therefore, that is one thing I very much focus on.

But then, even before that, the question is, "how do you get the candidates to apply to you in the first place?" It's all well and good if you're Facebook or Google, because I'm imagining they get absolutely inundated and probably have the reverse challenge of, "how do you find the right people in the volume." But for most brands, if you're not known within a certain space, why would someone come and work with you? So a lot of what I do is building the brand for the clients, so that the candidate then knows to go and approach this company because they're a great company in the .NET space, or the Java space, or wherever they're working.

Like recruitment-facing employer branding?

Absolutely. And companies that aren't doing that are going to struggle. Because even if you're a household name, and a company that we would use in our personal lives, that doesn't mean that people are going to think about them as an employer of choice. So, this is becoming more and more important that employers really focus on this and there are so many different ways that they can do that. But from the candidate point of view, that can be the first connection that they will have with that company. So it's about what story that company is telling the candidate. Is the business purpose driven? What's important to that business as to why someone would want to work there? People have got so much choice now, how do you stand out to the people that you want to attract?

So on that note, let's say a company approaches you. What's something that would make you realise that their employer branding needs some help.

The first thing I always look at is their website. That would be… well, actually, before that, if it was a company that I knew, whether they were a company that I believe had the same sort of values as me. I have sort of personal choices as to companies that I would not work with.

But outside of that, the first thing I would do is look at the website, see what's on there. Lots of websites don't even have careers pages, or if they do, they don't have job adverts on there to explain what they're looking for. They don't detail the benefits or… a lot of it is the bits behind the job spec. So, I would want to know, outside of the fact that you're looking for these technologies, what's it actually like to work there?

And then beyond that I would start looking at their social media presence. I'd be looking at LinkedIn, the people who work for them. Do I know anybody that has worked there or worked their previously? I would look at GlassDoor, although I must admit, personally, I take it with a bit of a pinch of salt. It's like TripAdvisor, everyone either loves somewhere or hates somewhere, people don't you just put "okay". I would question the company if there are a lot of bad reviews on there, I'd want to know why, but I wouldn't rule it out completely on that.

How would you define the applicant experience. What is that? Where does it start, where does it end, what does it involve?

It's everything and companies often forget the fact that their marketing isn't just for them finding new customers, their marketing also needs to involve people they want to employ, so it is from the first time that the person sees your brand.

Whether that is an advert on the tube; whether that is an advert that pops up on Facebook; whether that's your Instagram account; whether that's the people that work for you that are talking at an event. It's every single interaction that you have with that candidate because at any one of those points the candidate can decide they don't want to work for you.

What would be a good applicant experience, in your opinion?

For me it doesn't necessarily have to be a known brand because that's not always the case. But for me. Let's assume that the candidate, sort of, has applied, so whether they've responded to a job advert or whether I had reached out to that candidate, but let's assume that they're interested. For me, then it's about honesty. It's about trust. It's about returning phone calls. It's about responding to emails quickly. So, I would hope that the candidate, at every point would know what's going on; even if I don't know the answer, I would tell them I don't know. We all know there's nothing worse if you're trying to buy a house and the estate agent goes quiet. If you've got no news tell me you've got no news.

If anything, I over contact my candidate. laughs Because now with email, we don't have to be speaking to people on the phone all the time. You can drop someone a quick email or WhatsApp to say: "I still haven't heard yet on interview, this is the reason why, David is out of the office and he hasn't had a chance to catch up with the team". Or "The intention is to put an offer to you but it's with HR and it just needs to be finalised"; as opposed to silence. Because I just think that, ultimately, as a human being myself that has applied for jobs, I know how I want to be treated.

Basically, treat people the way you want to be treated.

It's so true; and don't lie to people! I always said that, as an in-house recruiter, I can't lie to you because you're going to come to my desk and say, hang on, you told me the walls are green and actually they're blue. I can't hide.

So, be honest about it. If there is a challenge in the business, be honest. If the business is going to relocate tell the candidate. I've seen people join companies because of where they've been located and then the company relocate within weeks. The company knew that that was going to happen, but no one mentioned it.

People don't mind waiting if they know what they're waiting for. Whereas most people assume that if there's no news, then it must be bad and that I am no longer being considered, whereas that may not be the case. It's just getting the team together to discuss things. If things are taking too long, then I would also work with the team to get them to speed up the process, but sometimes things happen. And it's just about knowing that the candidate actually trusts what you're saying.

So, what do you think is the key struggle with the applicant experiences for companies?

I think everything's fixable if you make it a priority. I think the problem is, companies often don't make recruitment a priority. But then, they're dealing with all of the challenges of not having the team that they need.

So often, when I'm talking to companies, rather than just talking about the specific hires they need to make, I want to know, well, what happens if in six months you haven't hired these people? How is that going to impact you personally?

I think that everything is fixable if people prioritise it and communicate and listen to each other. So if I'm giving a company advice about a technical test and at what point it is in their process, I would suggest that I'm not giving the advice just because I'm trying to be difficult. If the technical test is meaning you're losing people out of your process, then maybe put the technical test at a different point in the process.

I think that recruitment is actually very easy if you make it a priority, but it has to be led from above. Because everybody's busy and people have their day jobs to do as well as interviewing people. So if your boss isn't making it a priority that you can take time out of your day to go and do the interview, or whether that's your project manager or whoever is responsible for the time in your day, recruitment has to be seen as a priority.

I think that's another issue that a lot of people have as well, that some of the interviewers that come in are not actually prepped for the interview. So, they're sort of told, someone will walk up to their desk and say oh we've got a new candidate, why don't you go speak to him, see if he's a good fit for your team. Have you encountered that kind of thing?

I don't let that happen with my companies! laughs But yeah, absolutely it completely does, it just gets dropped on people's desk. They haven't seen the CV, they don't know what stage of the process it is; as you said, it's just: "Go in and have a chat and see if you like them". That puts people on the spot and for some people that's fine, because they might be experienced interviewers, but for other people that's a really uncomfortable situation to put someone in.

Plus, the candidate is interviewing the interviewer, as well as the other way around, and some companies forget that.

What do you think are the biggest effects of a bad applicant experience?

Oh, it can be disastrous. Because people talk. And we all know that sort of, what is it, one person tells people when something good happens, but 10 people tell when something bad happens. Or something like that – it was a Post Office advert years ago in the tube!

If you have a bad process – whether it takes too long, or you never get feedback, the interviewers weren't particularly prepared or friendly – then you have to be very careful because the industry is small, and people will talk. And it's just going to make things even more difficult for you. Whereas, when you've got a good process everyone also talks about that. I mean it makes recruitment significantly easier.

We actually did a study recently where we asked applicants what within an interview would be a red flag for them. Overwhelmingly, people said the interviewer basically makes or breaks their opinion of the company.

Without a doubt, because they're just thinking that this is someone I'm going to work with. Am I going to learn from them, do I like them, do we share similar values? It's absolutely key, so when you send someone in as an interviewer, and you haven't given them any interview training… If someone's not comfortable doing interviews, don't make them do interviews.

Maybe that interviewer is better off in a pair programming situation where they're at a desk with someone and maybe it feels a bit more relaxed than being in an interview room. But people don't necessarily think about who is involved in the interview process. And I've had people removed from the process, because they don't like doing interviews, they don't want to be doing it. The candidates know that, and I said there was no point.

I think that's one of the things where the honesty comes in again. If there is something that is going to cause the candidate experience to fail, you can either say nothing and then let the process keep failing, or you can actually honestly talk about it and say what can we do differently?

You need that external eye to come in and look at it objectively. Someone to say, I know how you've been doing it, but this is the only way you can untangle it, let's try this and see if it works.

Absolutely and some companies that I don't actually recruit for, but I just do workshops with, it's exactly that. It's an external person coming into the room to lead a workshop with all of the key people involved in the process. Firstly to commit time to talking about recruitment, but also to see how they can actually make it the best process possible.

And it's still surprising how many companies just say: "Oh we're looking to hire someone; okay, let's just get on with it", but don't actually think about what that looks like.

Have you had any first hand encounters with a company that's had a bad applicant experience, when basically when you parachute in and something very clearly is not quite kosher and you realise something needs to give or change.

Yeah, and I see a lot of it even from the minute I've turned up a company, from the minute I arrived at reception. If I don't have a good experience, firstly, of how to find the company. When I get there, not knowing how to find reception, or then if the person on reception, maybe isn't as friendly. Or the person who is coming to meet me is late or not prepared.

Every bit of that touch point is giving me an experience of the company. So I've certainly seen companies like that and most of them will take on the feedback and make the changes because, ultimately, they're paying for my service to do that. Some of them won't. And they will be the people that this time next year they'll still have the same problems with recruitment.

What are, let's say, the top five issues in the applicant experience? So not giving proper directions, would that be number one?

Definitely not preparing the candidate in advance for the interview, whether that is directions, whether that is dress code, whatever that might be. So that would be number one.

Number two, not having the person – the interviewer – ready for when they arrive, so that they turn up at reception and no one's expecting them. Even before that point, one thing is the point that you put the technical test in the process. I think that definitely causes companies to lose good candidates.

Then when you are in the interview, if it doesn't feel like a two-way process. Because it is a two-way interview. The candidate has got to decide if they want the job, as well as if you want to offer. And then time. Time, yeah absolutely.

So then when is the best place for the technical test? Because you've mentioned this twice now I think laughs?

Yes, I have quite a big issue with technical tests, can you tell. I think they're very, very important ultimately. In a technical job, you need to know the person can do the job.

My view is, and the process that I work to with all my clients, is that you have a telephone interview first of all. So I would do my pre-screening up front, but when they're then in the official process you do a telephone screen with someone technical. My view is that at that point the technical conversation should be detailed enough for you to know that you want to meet this person.

If someone's got some personal projects or some GitHub that they can show people then great. But the minute you put a technical test in at that point, unless you are the only company that person wants to work for, everyone is really busy. Expecting them to find three hours, four hours to do technical tests… or some free work! Chances are you're going to lose the candidate.

So my view is use really good phone interviews, get enough technical knowledge that you know that this person is of interest. Sell enough back to the candidate so that they're going to be interested in taking the time to come for a face-to-face interview, and then bring them in.

I always do it all in one go, so people come in for three hours. You start off with pair programming at the desk so you can actually see how you would work with that person on a day to day basis; the next hour is spent doing sort of architectural drawings and having a technical conversation. And then the third hour is much more of an informal Q&A and just a chance for the candidate to have met more of the team. Because if they only ever meet one person in the interview process, how do they know if they're going to want to join that company?

You need to show people to culture as well.

Absolutely.

What do you think are the key elements applicants look at when they're in the interview room? They're thinking about maybe or maybe not taking a job, what do you think are the key things that they look at?

The people that they've been interviewed by, without a doubt, number one most important. The second one is the technology, assuming – obviously my background is technical recruitment – the technology that they're going to have the chance to work with.

And then also the conversation around why they should join; so, what's it like to work for the company. Are there flexible working hours? Is it a casual dress code? Is there a training budget or is there a conference budget? So them understanding the things beyond the tech stack. Okay great you work with the latest versions of everything, brilliant. But actually to some people flexible working is the most important thing, or working from home, or being given time off to go and speak at conferences each year.

So yes the people, yes the role, but also looking at someone's own personal values, and what they care about and making sure they've got a chance to find that it matches.

On that note, that's obviously within the interview, but where else do you think applicants look for information? You've already mentioned GlassDoor but where else?

Company website, Twitter accounts, Instagram if they do that sort of stuff. Depending on the brand, blogs that the people within the company might be writing. They might have an engineering department blog; they might have podcasts. Their people might be speaking at events.

Certainly, within the London .NET user group there's some quite regular speakers. So when people were applying to work alongside those people they could go along to the meetups and meet them in advance in a more casual manner. There's a lot of opportunities for people to get very close to the brands before they even submit their CV.

One of the companies that I was working with and have worked with for about the last eight years, they have got a number of key members of the London .NET user group working for them. And to some point it made recruitment easy, because these people were always out showcasing the great work that they were doing, and therefore people wanted to work with them. When I was reaching out to people I could say: "Oh, you would have the opportunity to work alongside these types of people", and people would be interested in finding out more.

Obviously you encourage companies that you work with to manage these channels as much as possible. What are some of the key meetups, you know that you like to tackle?

Oh my goodness. There's literally hundreds; I think there's almost too many now. So when I first started getting involved in meetups 14 years ago, there were very few and we gave our office to the London .NET user group as a venue space. We then started up our own user group, the Silverlight user group, which has now died a death because of Silverlight.

But I couldn't even try and name how many there are now, because I think lots of companies have realised it's a very good way to attract people. So companies have started up their own user groups which I think, by this point, unless it's something brand new, we probably don't need another user group focused in .NET. We've got one, and if that's your space then support the already existing user group. Offer them your space, offer them money for sponsoring pizza, give them swag, get your team speaking at them. But I think that it's an amazing space for technical people because you can literally go to a new user group, every night of the week.

And it's great because for people who might be new to London, and they might not know very many people, as soon as you go to meetups you've got common ground. So, I just think they're brilliant. And actually, a number of people from the .NET user group were at my wedding because you form genuine friendships with people, because again it's about shared values and shared interests.

Do you still regularly go to meetups?

Not as much. Just because, more recently, I've been stepping away from being as active in recruitment because I'm now doing health coaching. Which is where my points at the beginning about what I do, can seem confusing to people, because recruitment and health coaching are very extreme career choices. But my view is I help hire people and then I help companies keep them.

So, definitely not as much as I did before. I still host some developer beers; I was doing it every quarter or so but again I need to get one of those in the diary. And I can have up to 100 developers there and what's lovely is they're people that I've known now for years, so it's just like having my friends around for a beer. But I would like to get more involved, it's just that there are so many. It's time.

Are you seeing any interesting trends that companies might be doing around employer branding and the applicant process?

I think companies are starting to jump on the podcast bandwagon, which I think is great because I listen to podcasts all of the time. And I think it can be a great way for candidates to actually get to hear the views of the team and see if they have similar ways of working.

I think companies are starting to realise that their careers page isn't just somewhere to sort of say, here's an email address and send us your CV. I think companies are starting to spend money on that. So lots more posts on LinkedIn, lots of photos of the team, lots of the charity events that we did.

I remember when I worked at Conchango I used to run a blog and my blog was "What's Not in the Job Spec". And I would talk about events and awards and our community days and anything I could really think of to talk about. And I actually won Computer Weekly's IT Female Blogger of the Year, which was amazing but quite funny because I'm not technical, I'm female but that was kind of the only bit that matched in that. But the point was that I was committed to writing the blog so regularly and I think companies are realising now that they have to attract the candidate, rather than it being the other way around.

If you could give one piece of advice to a company of any size to give their applicants the best possible experience, what would it be?

Make sure that the person who is managing the candidate through the process is… well, saying "the right person" is a bit broad, but is going to care about the candidate experience. Because the person that the candidate is being managed by and interacting with is the face of your brand.

So whether that is an in-house recruiter, whether that is an agency, whether that is the Hiring Manager; whoever is the person that is responsible for that candidate, they need to be absolutely on their game.

Because it's that person who is responsible for making sure that the candidate wants to work for your business. And it's that person who is responsible for making sure that the candidate has the information they need, gets to where they need to be on the right time. So for me, It's all about the person that the candidate interacts with.

First impressions absolutely last, so make the first impression a really good one, and then make every impression after it a good one. Then when you make an offer at the end of it, you're giving yourself a much higher chance of success.

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