In recent years, Talent and Recruiting teams have seen record spending on top-of-funnel efforts to source and attract candidates for hard-to-fill roles.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in an epidemic of wasted time, money, and resources as those same TA teams report low candidate engagement, unwanted candidate drop-off throughout their hiring funnel, and worse, poorly performing hires. Whether we’re facing a bullish or bearish economy (but *especially* the latter) it’s imperative for modern TA teams to make every candidate interaction count, which means doubling down on candidate experience.

After years as a talent acquisition leader and nearly a decade working with the most successful talent teams and leaders on the planet at Resource (acquired by Gem) and Guide, I’ve learned a better way to achieve superior hiring results with a candidate-centered strategy.

In this post, I share a new way to define, measure, and improve the candidate experience - which I call the Candidate TRUST Framework. If you hire humans for a living, this framework applies to you, regardless of your industry, job function, or hiring philosophy.I'm excited to share what I've learned. Let's dive in.

The Big Debate About Candidate Experience

For years, a circular and unproductive debate has been raging among Talent Acquisition leaders: what is candidate experience exactly, and how should we measure it?

Talk to just a few TA leaders and you’ll quickly learn that “candidate experience” means different things to different people. Definitions vary from “the series of interactions a job seeker has with your organization throughout the recruitment process” to “how a job seeker perceives a company's brand throughout the hiring process.” But what does this mean in practice?

Of course, if we can’t agree as an industry on a definition for candidate experience, we can’t agree on a way to measure it. And that’s a problem for all of us. Without a universal framework for measuring candidate experience, the TA industry deprives itself of practical benchmarks, shared best practices, and other vital tools for improvement. This hurts organizations, TA teams, and candidates alike.  

This ambiguity has forced talent acquisition teams to repurpose metrics from adjacent verticals in hopes to capture some way to measure candidate experience. Or worse, they don’t measure it at all. Have you used NPS (a customer experience metric), CSAT (a customer satisfaction metric), or a cocktail of others to measure your candidate experience? I certainly have.

Why should you care about candidate experience?

If you've read this far, I'll assume you already understand the importance of a quality candidate experience. Here's today's reality: job candidates now view their interview experience as a window into what it’s like to actually work at the organization. Many industry studies have reported on factors such as the percentage of unhappy candidates who share their experience with family and friends (72%); who won’t do business with you again (41%); or who actively avoid companies with poor Glassdoor reviews (57%).

  • A bad candidate experience can lead to lost talent, higher recruiting costs, slower time to hire, and negative Glassdoor reviews.
  • A positive candidate experience can lead to a contagious talent brand (even and especially amongst rejected candidates), increased referrals, lower recruiting costs, faster time to hire, and a competitive advantage for an organization.

Think back to the last time you had a poor interview experience: how did it impact your perception of that organization?

Any TA leader who doesn’t understand the business impact of a great candidate experience soon, I’m afraid, may not be a modern TA leader for long.

A New Definition for Candidate Experience

Before we dive into how to measure and improve candidate experience, let's agree on a definition. Let’s first break down the phrase into its constituent parts, “candidate” and “experience.” This sounds silly but it’s important, so bear with me.

What is a "candidate"?

From the point of view of a talent team, what exactly qualifies someone as a candidate?

I’m a fan of the definition Kevin Grossman’s proposes in his book, Candidate Experience: How to Improve Talent Acquisition to Drive Business Performance:

A candidate is anyone who has formally expressed an interest in working for you, qualified or not.

This alone un-muddies the candidate experience waters a bit.

Ok then, what is "experience"?

Where does the candidate experience start and when does it stop? When our definition of “candidate” is layered against a simplistic hiring funnel (see below), it becomes more clear what part of the experience happens during candidacy, and what doesn’t.

The recruiting funnel

I propose that a candidate is still a candidate (and having an experience...) until their first day of work when they become employees, governed by the employee experience.

Lastly, most (if not all) definitions I’ve heard in my career are framed from the point of view of the employer. This is antithetical to the very essence of what we're after. Remember, it’s the candidate’s experience we’re talking about, not the employer's (or talent team’s).

Putting them together

Therefore, any acceptable definition of candidate experience must be defined from the point of view of the candidate:

Candidate experience is the emotional journey of a candidate from the moment they apply until their first day of work.

This emotional journey is the result of all interactions a candidate has with your company. This includes with your technology, hiring team (recruiters, hiring managers, interviewers, and any other representation of the company), your employer brand, and more. The candidate’s perception is the cash value of all investments you make in your candidate experience.  

I believe this definition serves as the most effective foundation for instrumenting a measurement framework and making improvements.

The Candidate TRUST Framework

After surveying thousands of candidates across hundreds of companies on their emotional journey during the hiring process, we’ve uncovered the core underlying emotional driver of a positive candidate experience: trust.

The 5 pillars of an exceptional candidate experience

That’s right: candidate experience should be measured by the degree of trust the candidate feels throughout their hiring journey. This is the core insight of the TRUST framework.

The Candidate TRUST methodology is a new way to measure and analyze the candidate experience throughout the interview journey, designed specifically for talent acquisition teams. It is a framework that allows talent teams to identify a specific driver contributing to a poor candidate experience so they can focus efforts to improve it. Most importantly, it is designed to help talent teams and their organizations look through a new lens: the candidate's.

The 5 Pillars of Candidate Trust

There are 5 key measures (or “pillars” as I call them) which, when measured and summed, equate to the level of trust you’ve earned in the eyes of your candidates at each stage of the hiring journey.

By measuring each pillar, we can then calculate the Candidate Trust Score (more on that later) to understand the impact and effectiveness of your candidate experience efforts.

TRUST is an acronym for these 5 underlying pillars that drive the oh-so-elusive emotional state we’re looking to create:

  1. Transparency
  2. Reciprocity
  3. Unity
  4. Speed
  5. Truthfulness

Now, let’s dive into the importance of each pillar.

T- Transparency

Does the candidate feel your organization has been sufficiently transparent throughout their candidacy?

The highest-ranking organizations on the transparency pillar deliver consistent and proactive candidate communications from application to onboarding. This includes:

  • Clearly-set expectations up-front about what the hiring process entails from start to finish
  • Detailed information about the next step of the interview process
  • Robust responses to candidate curiosities, and over time, proactively sharing answers to previously asked questions (think: a candidate FAQ doc)

If your candidates are left wondering “what’s next?”, “when will I hear back?”, “how did I do?”, “when will there be space to ask questions” at any point during their experience, you are at risk of scoring low on the transparency pillar and losing the candidate’s trust.

R- Reciprocity

Does the candidate feel an equal sense of give-and-take throughout their candidacy?

The highest-ranking organizations on the reciprocity pillar make the candidate feel fully invested in and respected. This includes:

  • Demonstrating respect for the candidate’s time by following through on commitments made and sharing the “why” behind changes (when rescheduling an interview, for example)
  • Addressing candidate questions or concerns as they arise (instead of setting aside time at the end of the process)
  • Proactively offering opportunities for candidates to “reverse interview” current employees

Teams who leave candidates feeling that they’ve invested more in the interview process than has been reciprocated are likely to rank low on the reciprocity pillar. In contrast, candidates who perceive the information exchange and time investments as equal on both sides score higher on this pillar of trust.

U- Unity

Does the candidate feel they’ve been treated fairly and inclusively throughout their candidacy?

We call this “unity.” The highest-ranking organizations on the unity pillar make the candidate feel included and treated fairly. This includes:

  • Stating clearly how the candidate will be evaluated at each step of the interview process, and how the hiring decision will be made
  • Adequately training each interviewer and ensuring a structured hiring process is in place
  • Decisions - especially rejections - are communicated directly and with empathy, and include helpful feedback the candidate can learn from when possible

Candidates who feel like outsiders to the organization struggle to imagine themselves as part of the group. This perception can lead to the organization ranking low on the pillar of unity. Leaning into the tactics above can garner higher scores on this pillar.

S- Speed

Does the candidate feel the pace of progress has been ideal throughout their candidacy?

“Speed” often means a faster hiring process, but not always. The highest-ranking organizations on the speed pillar move at the ideal pace as perceived by the candidate. This includes:

  • Ask the candidate up front what their preferred pacing would be during the interview process (ie. are they hoping to move as fast as possible because of a time constraint, or do they want to move slowly to account for their other priorities?)
  • Where possible, changing the interview pace at various junctures during the interview process based on candidate preferences
  • Clearly communicate the timing and pace the candidate can expect at each step, regardless of whether it aligns with their preferences

Moving at the ideal pace isn’t always possible, but it does help to build trust with the candidate. Organizations who simply ask candidates up front for their ideal timeline receive higher scores on this trust pillar, even if they couldn’t fully honor this preference - as long as that expectation was clearly communicated. When all else is controlled for, on average, the faster an organization can evaluate a candidate and arrive at a hiring decision, the higher their score on the speed pillar. Faster interview processes also correlate positively with fewer candidate withdrawals and higher offer acceptance rates.

T- Truthfulness

Does the candidate feel your organization has been truthful with all information shared throughout their candidacy?

If at any point during a hiring process your candidate feels you’re not being truthful, it undermines the goodwill built within any other pillar, and thus, reduces trust. This includes:

  • Providing honest feedback and accurate information throughout the interview process, and proactively correcting for any inaccurate information shared unintended
  • “Showing the blemishes” - being open and upfront about the challenges the company faces, or with not-so-positive news that arises during the process (ie. addressing negative press or managerial changes)
  • Following through on the commitments made by a representative at the company (ie. updating the candidate when promised or providing a “no update update” if there isn’t news to share as expected)

This might be the most counterintuitive pillar to put into practice for talent teams, as we tend to avoid these tactics in hopes to build more trust. But instead, it does the opposite and drives trust scores down. Teams who “hug the elephant” learn quickly that it earns trust and drives up win rates.

The Candidate Trust Survey

Measuring candidate trust in practice means surveying candidates and calculating your Candidate Trust Score (CTS) from the results. Below I cover how to successfully conduct the survey and calculate a Candidate Trust Score across all five pillars, as well as a score for each pillar - so you know exactly where to improve.

Candidate Trust Survey Methodology

Survey type

A survey is like a snapshot: from one survey, you can only draw conclusions about a single time, place, and group of people. And often, that’s all you need to know.

But in the case of candidate experience, we want to understand how the candidate’s experience changes over time at various points during their candidate journey. For that reason, one single survey, or snapshot, isn’t enough, so we need to repeat surveys at several “moments” during the interview process to track and understand trends over time, illuminating when and where trust is built or lost with candidates throughout their experience.

To understand changes in candidate trust over time, we’ve chosen a survey that lets us “follow” the candidate (or group of candidates) and ask the same questions over a period of time - for days, weeks, or even months - to gauge their emotional state at various moments throughout their experience. In Nerdlandia, this is called a “longitudinal” survey.

Survey questions

To measure each pillar of candidate trust, we chose what the survey research field calls the “agree/disagree” approach, which gives candidates a range of answer options from strongly agree to strongly disagree. It allows candidates to answer each question more precisely and it provides you with more nuanced responses to analyze.

The following questions were developed to measure each of the 5 pillars of candidate trust:

  1. [Transparency] I have felt a high degree of transparency during my interview experience so far.
  2. [Reciprocity] I have felt an equal sense of give-and-take during my interview experience so far.
  3. [Unity] I have felt a high degree of fairness and inclusion during my interview experience so far.
  4. [Speed] I have felt satisfied with the pace of my interview experience so far.
  5. [Truthfulness] I have felt a high degree of truthfulness during my interview experience so far.

Example:Q: I feel {{company}} has been transparent with me throughout my interview experience.

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Somewhat disagree
  3. Neutral
  4. Somewhat agree
  5. Strongly agree

Conducting the Survey

When administering the survey, there are a few principles to follow to ensure the integrity of your results, reduce bias and encourage candidate honesty:

  1. Anonymous submissions: To increase survey response rates and ensure candidates feel safe being honest, ensure their identity is protected (and they know that).
  2. Escrowed responses: Take anonymity one step further by letting candidates know that, although you’ll be surveying them at various points during the interview process, their responses are only reviewed after the hiring decision has been made. And in no circumstances will their survey responses impact the hiring decision. Reassuring candidates of these “escrowed” responses will increase survey response rates and improve the honesty of the responses.
  3. Interview stage-based triggers: For a longitudinal survey like the CTS, you’ll want to decide how frequently to survey candidates. If you conduct surveys too frequently, you’ll risk wasting resources and time since not enough time may have passed for any change to occur. If you conduct surveys too infrequently, you may not be able to detect the key moments where candidate trust changes. We’ve found the optimal timing and frequency to survey candidates is immediately after they complete the final interview within each interview stage.
  4. Consistent questions: For a longitudinal survey like the CTS, you’ll want to keep the questions identical each time you run the survey. Research shows that changing the way a question is asked can result in substantially different answers, even from the same respondents. So to analyze results with the highest accuracy, you should ask the same questions in every survey you repeat.

Calculating the Candidate Trust Score (CTS)

Once you’ve instrumented the survey using your preferred survey tool (we’ve included a Google Form template at the bottom of this post), it’s time to calculate your Candidate Trust Score.

Scoring each pillar

For each pillar of TRUST, you can view the data using a bar graph to understand that pillar’s health. As responses come in, you’ll notice visually where the survey responses skew. For example, the graph below shows the majority of candidates who responded (roughly 70%) either somewhat disagree or strongly disagree that they have felt a high degree of transparency during their interview experience.

Transparency survey question

As you can see, each answer option carries a value from 1 (for strongly disagree) to 5 (for strongly agree).

This allows us to easily calculate a score for each pillar by averaging the response values. Continuing with the transparency example above, we get an average transparency score of 2.18 by adding each response’s value together and then dividing by the total number of responses.

In this example, 20 respondents chose “Strongly disagree” each of which has a value of 1. 26 respondents selected “Somewhat disagree,” each of which has a value of 2. And so on. So the equation we arrive at is:

(20*1) + (26*2) + (10*3) + (8*4) + (2*5)  = 144

We then divide that number (144) by the total number of responses (66) and we get a transparency score for this cohort of 2.18.

144 / 66 = 2.18

Averaging the 5 pillars to get the Candidate Trust Score

Once you average each pillar, you then average the 5 scores together to get your overall CTS. Furthering the example, suppose your surveys resulted in the following scores for each pillar:

  1. Transparency score = 2.18
  2. Reciprocity score = 3.12
  3. Unity score = 4.5
  4. Speed score = 2.2
  5. Truthfulness score = 4.3
Trust score by pillar

Average these 5 scores together and you’ll have a Candidate Trust Score of 3.26.

2.18 + 3.12 + 4.5 + 2.2 + 4.3  = 16.316.3 / 5 = 3.26

The “X-Ray” - Graphing CTS Across the Candidate Journey

As you gather data for candidates at multiple stages of the interview process, you can then plot their Candidate Trust Score over the course of their journey. This becomes powerful since you can then create the same graph for an individual candidate, a group of candidates (e.g. by department or role), or all candidates throughout the interview process for that cohort of candidates.

Your end result will be a visual representation of where candidate trust rises and falls throughout the interview journey, illuminating where improvements can be made.

Interview process

A Trustworthy Future for Candidate Experience

I’m excited for a future where candidates genuinely trust the companies they’re interviewing with to be transparent, respectful, fair, fast, and honest. And it goes without saying but a future where companies trust they’ll get the same from their candidates. As humans, without trust, we have little holding our relationships together. Hiring great talent and finding work we love depends on those relationships.

If you're interested in calculating your Candidate Trust Score and are not currently using the Guide platform, I've created a step-by-step guide to measure it yourself using Google Forms. I'm excited to explore, adopt, refine, and improve this framework together.

In a future post, we’ll publish benchmarks and insights on how Candidate Trust Scores correlate to critical recruiting metrics like passthrough rates, time-to-hire, and offer acceptance rates. Subscribe to our blog to get the latest updates in your inbox.

Until then, I wish you the happiest of candidates ☀️