Students Carry Preconceptions About Employers

By Eilene Zimmerman

Aug. 1, 2005

Academics have long struggled to come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why some recruiting practices work better than others, but Cornell’s Christopher Collins has his own theory.

    Collins’ gut instinct years ago when he began studying the recruitment of people early on in their careers was that job seekers made decisions based on preconceived notions about a company they had from being a customer and from consumer advertising campaigns. His recent research into college recruitment bears that out. (Two other academics, Dan Cable at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Daniel Turban at the University of Missouri, are currently conducting similar research.)

    “Students aren’t really blank slates,” says Collins, an assistant professor in the school of industrial and labor relations and a former staffing consultant. “If they have ever used a Dell computer, bought Nike shoes or used a Sony MP3 player, they already know something about those companies, and to some degree it has influenced how they feel about working for that company. If they’ve seen ads for Intel or a consulting company or an investment firm on television, they have started to form an idea about what it would be like to work there. And that idea isn’t always accurate.”

    Part of the problem, Collins says, is that students go straight through college, sometimes through to their master’s degree, without actually working in their field. “They don’t have enough work experience to really know what work is and they develop these highly idealistic notions of what it’s like to work at a particular company.”

    Collins cites Intel an example. He says that Intel over the years has had creative, hip television advertisements, and because of that has also had a relatively easy time attracting talent. “People perceive it as a fun, exciting place to work, but if you work in fabrication, in a clean room, it can be very boring and monotonous work. And misperceptions like that can cause high turnover. Sure, you want to attract a lot of people. But you also want to attract the right sort of person with the right expectations,” he says.

    Collins talks about his recent research and gives advice to companies trying to get the attention of job candidates.

    Workforce Management: You examined the campus recruitment marketing tactics of big and small companies. What worked best to influence students?

    Collins: We surveyed students at three different engineering schools on the East Coast, because engineering is a very high-demand labor market, to find out the extent to which they had been exposed to five companies. We first asked about general beliefs, positive or negative feelings the student had about the company and what that they thought the company would be like as an employer.

    Then we looked at general publicity: How much publicity is there on a college campus about various companies recruiting there? We also looked at buzz marketing tactics–the relationship companies build with faculty and career services that provide good word-of-mouth. The hope is that faculty will use your company as a positive business example in class, and that career services will talk about the company as a good one to work for.

    We found that the most effective method was the social networking, the word-of-mouth. If you see a brochure in the college office you know it’s biased; if you read something in the newspaper, you don’t know if it’s true. But if your professor says this is a good company to work for, that carries an awful lot of weight.

    Most companies don’t spend a lot of time building those relationships. It requires a commitment of some resources, taking people out for lunch and dinner, spending time on campus, meeting with faculty in their offices. But it’s better than just showing up at a recruitment fair; faculty members and career services counselors are a direct link to students.

    One surprising thing we found was that sponsorship activities–like sponsoring tailgate parties at football games or concerts on campus–didn’t seem to have a very positive effect on a student’s feelings about the company. At the time of this particular study, in 2002, it was considered a novel way to get a student’s attention and use it for recruitment, but it wasn’t effective. What we found worked best was companies using more than one strategy. Combining different approaches, one might be ads on campus or postings in career centers, even the sponsorship stuff, as long as you do networking too. The more approaches, the more positive the student’s impression.

    WM: Your most recent study looks at how a company’s consumer advertising affects college students’ beliefs about what that company would be like as an employer. On what do students base their decisions to apply for a job?

    Collins: Students see companies with strong corporate brands or reputations as more attractive; students believe the jobs and the company are better. And this is where we see that students know things about the company based on information other than recruitment information.

    In one study I did with a faculty member at the University of Maryland, we showed students the names of companies, and if they didn’t know anything about the company or had never been exposed to it they assumed the worst about it–unless there was something about their name or industry that seemed intriguing. Software companies, for example, they tended to have positive feelings about, because they thought a software company would be cool to work for. It was that simple.

    My personal belief is that a good percentage of students don’t follow up to see if their assumptions are true. That’s why we see a remarkable number of companies with high turnover in that first year after hire.

    WM: How would you advise a well-known company like Apple or Intel–companies with very specific images in the marketplace–to handle recruitment?

    Collins: The first thing Apple should do is figure out who their target markets are, because they have multiple groups to go after. Marketing, research and development–those are probably the more exciting jobs. But they are also going after highly trained people for manufacturing and quality improvement, less exciting and less dynamic jobs.

    We found the quality of the applicant went up when well-known companies provided detailed information about requirements, responsibilities and necessary attributes for a job. You have to understand what your different markets are looking for in a job and what they think of Apple. Let’s say you find out that R&D job seekers like working independently and your R&D employees have that autonomy and really like it. You use that in your R&D recruitment pitch, but it might not be important in quality engineers, so you don’t use it for them. For quality engineers, it might be they want new line manufacturing technology or job stability.

    The idea is to give a realistic view of what it’s like to work at this company, because you don’t want to hire people that, three months later, want to leave. People who say, “If I had just known X, I wouldn’t have taken the job.” Nike could be another example. Nike could put out information on campus about actual jobs at the company and what the real work environment is–for instance, information about a day in the life of a marketing person–so that when the company goes to interview on campus, 17 of the 20 interviewees (won’t be) guys who just want to play sports all day.

    WM: What about a startup with virtually no name recognition?

    Collins: We found that if you are unknown, you will be more successful if you use what’s known as low-involvement tactics. These are posters on campus or full-page ads in the student newspaper that contain general positive images of the company but don’t have any real information. Just the company’s brand name and photos of students or young employees having fun at work. For companies with no real strength of name based on advertising and reputation, these low-involvement strategies have a really positive effect on students. The companies that did this on campus got significantly more candidates, although they didn’t get a huge bump in quality of candidates.

    If your company has a low budget, volunteer to teach a class at the business school or help develop a case (study) around your company as a way to expose the company to students. Sponsor a club or sponsor a competition, like a marketing or advertising competition. You provide the idea, the judges and some sort of prize, maybe $500. You can get an enormous amount of positive exposure that way. Marketing the company this way might cost anywhere from nothing to $1,000.

    I remember a small company who came here to Cornell two years ago during a recruitment fair and had three people on their interview schedule for two or three internship openings. It was their first time on campus and no one had heard of them (even after the fair).

    WM: Did they do anything as a result of the poor turnout? Anything to make students aware of them?

    Collins: Yes. That spring they had no luck, but the following fall they sponsored three research fellowships, giving each student a $5,000 stipend for the year. The students wrote a paper and presented it. The company also got involved in classroom activities, did a guest lecture in a large lecture class and a lecture at an undergraduate-student SHRM club. Those things led to a huge change in the company’s visibility on campus: The next year it had 17 people on its interview schedule.

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