They’re Not Candidates, They’re Volunteers: A Q&A with James Ellis7 min read

August 21, 2019 Ask a Recruiter

James Ellis, a go-to expert on recruitment marketing and employer branding, shares his thoughts on how to build a candidate experience that is more authentic, human, and better reflects your employer brand.


James Ellis refers to himself as a marketer by birth. Throughout his career, he’s helped B2B, B2C, nonprofit, and government organizations tell good stories, offer value, and engage more people. Most recently, he’s become a go-to expert on recruitment marketing and employer branding, coaching companies around the world on how to attract talent with storytelling that provides value to candidates throughout the hiring process.

At Yello’s annual talent acquisition conference, #STRIVE19, James spoke about how to reimagine your recruiting processes, take better control of your employer branding, and build more human connections with candidates. We caught up with James after the conference for additional thoughts on how the candidate experience is an extension of the employer brand, and vice versa.

What is “candidate experience?”

There are two answers to that. There’s the capital “Candidate Experience,” where someone gets paid to present the best possible picture of an employer. That goal makes sense, but I think we overstate its value, and that way of thinking diminishes what the candidate experience can and should be.

Then there’s the lowercase candidate experience. It’s as simple as a candidate going through the hiring process—from doing research about your company, starting the application, talking on the phone with a recruiter, visiting the office for an interview and getting an offer.

Why is the candidate experience so important?

Up to the point of the offer — and to some extent, even beyond the offer — that’s called the candidate experience, because that is when the candidate is learning the most about you. When someone is thinking about working for your company, every little detail creates a picture: every handshake, every wallpaper, every email signature, every interaction, every website, every job posting — everything matters, and can be the difference between a candidate working for you or moving on to someone else.

Some companies spend a lot of effort giving candidates a white glove experience, where everything goes smoothly and they only see the best parts of the office and everybody’s happy to see them. And I say, that’s great if your company is that way. But what if the candidate experience doesn’t match the employee experience?

My favorite example of a great candidate experience is the armed forces. Before you can become a SEAL, you have to go through rigorous training where they shoot at you, they put a 45-pound backpack on your body, you run down the beach until you want to puke, run, run, run, shoot, shoot, shoot, climb that thing, puke. It’s just insane. But, that’s the job — and that is the best possible candidate experience because it’s a microcosm of what the job is really going to be like. It’s not inauthentic.

“For so long, companies have assumed that because they’re offering a job, they have the power. And that’s just not true. Candidates are the ones that have a choice.”

At #STRIVE19, you explained that candidates are volunteers, and we should be asking (not pushing) them to join us. Can you elaborate on what that means?

Every single person chooses to work where they work every day. And anyone with any skill or ability is getting approached left and right by recruiters — talent today has their pick of the litter. If they want to work somewhere else, they’ll work somewhere else. If they want to stay put, they’ll stay put.

But for so long, companies have assumed that because they’re offering a job, they have the power. And that’s just not true. Candidates are the ones that have a choice.

So when a candidate has 10 companies that are offering them a job for about the same pay, in the same working conditions for the same reason, how are they supposed to decide? It’s the company that says, “Look, we know you could work anywhere, and here’s why you should choose to work here” that wins.

“If you think of candidates as volunteers — I’m going to volunteer 40 hours a week to this mission, because the pay is effectively the same across the board — that’s how recruiters should communicate with people.”

It’s the same concept with non-profits. If you’re volunteering to save the puppies, it’s because you love puppies. If you volunteer for your university, it’s because there’s something about your alma mater that you love. You want to give back. You have a reason why.

Why do you go to work every day? Because they pay you. But when you could work anywhere else and do the exact same thing, companies have to provide their employers with a core reason why they’re there every day.

If you think of candidates as volunteers — I’m going to volunteer 40 hours a week to this mission, because the pay is effectively the same across the board — that’s how recruiters should communicate with people. That’s how you get people to go, “Oh, that’s why I should work there, and that’s why I should volunteer my time, my energy, my sweat, my blood, my tears, my passion, my love, my interests, my instincts.” Otherwise, they’re job hoppers because you haven’t given them a reason to stay.

Watch James’ #STRIVE19 presentation, “How to Sound Smart About Recruiting”]

What obstacles do recruiters face in providing a positive candidate experience, and how can they address them? (In other words, why doesn’t every company already have a perfect candidate experience?)

I adore recruiters, but the job is so strange. They’re expected to go off on their own, make magic happen and bring candidates back. But the truth is, they’re infinitely more effective when they can work together. But it doesn’t happen often enough. Recruiters don’t have enough opportunities to share best practices. They don’t talk to each other. Somebody taught them how to use their ATS and then learning stops.

It’s really about learning how to work together and defining who you are and what your candidate experience and employer brand is collectively. Think about the company culture, your employee experience, the people you’ve hired, what they say about the company, and refine it to something clear. That takes guts, and that means leadership needs to make a philosophical and strategic change. Having the commitment from leadership to say there is a transition phase is hard to do. 

Whoever is defining the employer brand needs to be best friends with every single recruiter because they are the front lines communicating these messages. There are so many different touchpoints that a candidate will come in contact with: job postings, ads, Glassdoor, recruiter conversations, interviews, the offer letter, and the salary. Making sure the whole team is on the same page will ensure there’s a cohesive story for candidates throughout the hiring process. 

James Ellis refuses to comment on the rumor that he was bitten by a radioactive recruiter and suddenly discovered he had strange new powers. But he will admit that he is an employer brand consultant at Universum Global and has run The Talent Cast podcast for the last two and a half years. He currently resides in Chicago with his wife and daughter. You can find him on Twitter @TheWarForTalent.

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