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May 31, 2019

One thing I learned early in my career is that sometimes the best ideas come from the most unexpected places. For example, I used to manage a website development team. Our job was to build large websites for customers like Popeyes, Transamerica, and Ryka. My role as the manager of the team was to make sure that we not only developed the site to match the requirements specified by the client but to also make sure we made money on the project by minimizing the hours and costs.

Naturally, a lot of what we did relied on a well-defined process. And while we were always refining and improving the process, our inspiration for improvement didn’t come from other website companies; instead, it came from outside industries like manufacturing and product development which had already perfected processes like Lean Six Sigma. Stealing these ideas from other industries helped us build one of the best website agencies in town while also making money.

The same holds for talent acquisition. I think TA teams can find inspiration from seemingly unrelated disciplines. Of course, recently, one area of inspiration has been marketing. But I think some of the most important and most impactful ideas come from an even less obvious discipline: psychology. Let’s take a look at how.

Tap Into the Minds of Job Seekers by Understanding How They Tick

At the end of the day, a recruiter’s job is to persuade someone (a job seeker) to take some action (respond to a LinkedIn message, start a conversation with a chatbot, apply to a job). And to be good at influence and persuasion, you have to understand how other people’s minds work which is known as psychology (unless, of course, you are the mind-controlling supervillain, Killgrave, from the Marvel series, Jessica Jones).

In his top-selling book, “Influence: The Power of Persuasion,” Robert Cialdini outlines six ways in which we can use psychology to influence and persuade other people. Those six ways are:

  • Reciprocity
  • Social proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Consistency
  • Scarcity

In this post, I am going to explore the first two (reciprocity and social proof). But before I dig into these specific techniques, I wanted to set the stage by giving you an example I think we are all familiar with that will help explain how these psychological techniques work.

This example has to do with price. If we see that the price of something is expensive, we almost automatically, without thinking, associate that something with high quality. Whether it is true or not, our mind tends to make that conclusion first. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but in general, this is the type of stuff we’ll be exploring: trigger and predictable response.

Returning the Favor

One of my favorite examples in Cialdini’s book has to do with reciprocity. Cialdini, who is a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State, describes an informal experiment conducted by one of his professor colleagues. This professor wanted to test our tendency to feel obligated to return a favor (a.k.a reciprocity), even if a stranger did that favor. So he sent out a bunch of Christmas cards to strangers. And what happened? A bunch of these strangers returned the favor by sending the professor a Christmas card! Again, these people were complete strangers randomly selected from the phone book. They still felt obligated to return the favor. Crazy.

Our desire to return a favor is strong. Just think about the last time someone opened a door for you. Didn’t you feel obligated to return the favor by finding the next door to open?

The bigger question is, how can we apply this concept to recruiting? I think the low hanging fruit for recruiters and sourcers is to offer small favors to the people who you are targeting to join your team. The offer has to be something of value like a resume review or suggestions on ways to improve their LinkedIn profile. Offer the favor, provide value, and then, and only then, can you ask for something in return like taking your phone call or applying to a job.

Or, you could take it to a whole new level like the famous Steve Levy did a few years ago. You may have heard this story but when Steve was in recruiting he identified a restaurant and bar where many of the employees at his biggest competitor hung out after work for dinner and drinks. And so he decided to do something nice for them. He went to the restaurant manager and said that he’d pay for anyone’s dinner who put their business card in a fishbowl that sat up front at the host stand.

And guess what? Steve got a ton of leads, contact information and all, because those employees, like all of us, are slaves to reciprocity. You do me a favor (buy me dinner) I feel obligated to return said favor (give your business card).

Reciprocity is a powerful technique. So use the heck out of it.

The Canned Laughter Paradox

Social proof is also a powerful psychological technique. To prove it, Cialdini conducted an informal survey of his own, and he asked a bunch of people if they liked canned laughter. Unsurprisingly, 100% of respondents said no. Yet the funny thing is (pardon the pun) sitcom producers continue to use canned laughter in their shows. Why? Because we are programmed to mimic our fellow homo sapiens.

And even though canned laughter is not real laughter, when we hear it, we automatically fall in lockstep and laugh longer, more frequently, and harder. This is all according to studies that compare our laughter during shows with canned laughed to shows without canned laughter.

Okay, so how does this concept of social proof apply to recruiting? Well, I think it emphasizes the importance of your review strategy. It means you should be investing heavily in getting more reviews on Glassdoor.

I spoke with Jennifer Newbill, Director of TA at Dell, on just this topic a few weeks ago (you can check out the full interview here). While I suggest you watch the full interview, her advice boils down to two strategies:

  • How to get more reviews: We are all motivated by something and just asking employees to leave reviews is typically never enough to spur new reviews. But what Jennifer and Dell found was that if you show current employees the data behind how many people are reading reviews on Glassdoor, it motivates employees to leave reviews. Makes sense. I don’t want to take time out of my day to write a review if I don’t believe anyone will see it.
  • The importance of responding to reviews: Make sure you are actively responding to reviews. For example, Dell had a former employee leave a review about how the office space at Dell is one big cube farm. Not good. And while this was true at one point in the history of Dell, the truth was that the current facilities had gone through a massive redesign. The facilities and office space were pretty impressive. So, Dell, had one of their facilities leaders write a blog post about the changes. And then Jennifer posted a link to the blog post as a response to this former employee’s review on Glassdoor. Now people reading the reviews can see that Dell is listening to its employees (current and former) and making changes for the better. What a great branding play as well!

There are many other ways you can use this concept of social proof in your recruiting beyond just Glassdoor (see employee testimonials and your referral strategy) so make sure you are taking advantage of it.

Take the Shortcut

We, humans, are smart, creative, and innovative. Yet, all this higher level thinking requires a lot of mental energy and if we had to stop and think about every single thing we encountered throughout the day we’d never make it past our breakfast. This is ultimately why our brains have evolved to take these so-called shortcuts. And lucky for you, if you know how these shortcuts work (and now you should) you can get top talent to do just about anything you want.

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