Hiring in the digital age

For a corporation, hiring looks quite straightforward! By using all legal means available, you simply need to find the right person for the right job. Just the right amount of method, a good deal of know-how, an appropriate strategy to attract candidates and next to select them…and that’s all there is to it. Particularly if the corporation can take advantage of the attractiveness of its « employer brand » and knows how to handle digital tools. According to « specialists », digital technology here would provide unexpected potentialities.

However, in actual fact, academic or professional studies over the last years have shown that, for a number of professions, hiring proves to be both complex and full of obstacles, likely to turn into a « real headache » for hiring managers. Studies also uncover the drawbacks of those general technical methods and recipes, advertised as adjustable to any kind of hiring. The research presented here means to depict another kind of hiring landscape, far from those representations conveyed by some « experts » and specialized media.



Attracting candidates? Of course, but how?

Hiring is as old as organizations. As soon as they grow, their managers have to meet candidates, assess their competences, have them sign a work contract. Challenge number one is to attract them. In the pre-internet era, job offers, reputation and word of mouth used to get the organization buzzing.  It was then up to the hiring manager to advertise the position in the right kind of paper, to be in the right professional networks and to meet the right person. A lot of contacts, connections, a little media coverage and, of course, no digital technology.

Since the development of the Internet, candidates now use organizations’ websites or job boards, which put job offers online (for example, Indeed) to read  offers and then apply for an interview, in short, a large amount of technologies, of media coverage and little interaction. Hiring is extensively digitized and this trend has been growing with the development of « chatbots ». These so-called revolutionary tools are advertised enthusiastically and supported by Y or Z generations as a whole  who are said to use and rather naively rely on them.

Attracting is also the characteristic of the marketing industry able to talk customers into buying goods and services, so why not candidates! This logical analysis first led to the construction of the concept « employer brand » in the late 1990s (Ambler et Barrow, 1996). The objective was to ensure employers would be made out as unique, different …and attractive brands.  In short, candidates would buy their position in the organization they would have selected just as they do for restaurants, cars or clothes. Things sound straightforward and the operation can be caricatured as follows: to make hiring easy, develop an employer brand and make use of the latest digital tools! It will be the end to your problems of attractiveness, particularly with the younger generations who are widely known for enjoying the Internet and buying brands!

But the difficulties faced by many organizations apparently stress that hiring is much more complex. So as to understand the situation, stepping aside has proved necessary to carry out this research as briefly summarized here: it has first and mostly focused on…candidates. As a matter of fact, their behaviors which are often referred to, seem to be more dreamt up of rather than really known. What do they think of methods and devices? Are they receptive to the employer brand? Are they all madly into digital technology? Were they aware of the digital tools used in the organizations they applied to? In order to address these issues, individual and collective meetings were held with over eighty young graduates.


  • Ambler T., Barrow S.,1996, “The employer brand”, The Journal of Brand Management, vol.4, n°3, 185‑206.

Observing uses rather than recording discourses

The first important step was to devise a method that would help address these issues. It was decided not to be content with the candidates’ statements about current hiring trends (summarized above) to avoid the risk of conventional comments, eventually considerate of the researcher, but which would not match their lived experiences.  That would actually mean looking for the distant echo rather than for the primary source of the sound.

Two methods have been associated to get a clearer idea of how digital hiring resources are actually used: first, focus groups, i.e. collective interviews focusing on a specific theme followed by mere self-confrontation. The latter consists in asking the interviewee to comment on her/his own web browsing. Sportsmen and their coaches are familiar with this approach when watching their latest match. Some researchers in social science also use it to understand web browsing.  The results presented here have been reached likewise: the young graduates were invited to comment on their browsing targeted on the communication hiring sites of a bank and to report on the representations they formed about the organization analyzed and of the hiring system.

What do these result show? Rather than supporting the universalistic trends of digitization and employer brand, the young graduates we met describe a contextualized and more complex reality.

Candidates and digital hiring devices

If the bank analyzed had had an employer brand, the young graduates would have identified the different and unique characteristics of the organization just like a customer who identifies the characteristics of the product she/he is buying on a platform. But, they mostly highlighted common points and shared elements. Rather than stressing differences, they looked for similarities like a customer who would rather by a computer than a Mac for instance.

The young graduates associated the bank they analyzed with a large organization which they then related to a set of features concerning mobility, stress, wages, competences, etc. The organization was more akin to a large corporation than to a bank, it was not a particular bank, different from others. They markedly approached the websites as naturalists, scrupulous classifiers, analytical observers rather than as customers.

Do these young people who belong to the so-called « highly digitized » generation share hiring managers’ enthusiasm for digital resources? There again, their discourses when analyzed do not match promises, particularly concerning   Facebook. Several banks created Facebook pages dedicated to hiring, especially targeting young generations. Most young interviewees were surprised by the practice. They often found it out in the course of the interview and some tried to account for it by stressing the relation between digital tools and their generation. However, in most cases, they analyzed the use of Facebook, which they see as a resource for their individual life, as incompatible with professional life. For these young people, Facebook is sometimes a friend, but not a colleague.

They also noticed another resource: company review platforms such as Glassdoor. Since the early 2010s, employees can review their organization online as client review hotels on Tripadvisor. The young graduates interviewed found it interesting but remained extremely cautious: they are familiar with the dangers of fake news, the risks of misinformation and see these sites just like customer review sites, that is, useful for what they are worth. Like in the case of Facebook, these young graduates insist on the necessity of contextualizing one’s use as well as on the importance of social representations in uses.

Hiring: developing a complex relationship

The results of the study, briefly summarized here and in less detail than in the actual research work defended, do not really praise the effectiveness of a « 2.0 recruitment » largely relying on digitized technology and marketing strategies. Our study is obviously a first step, with some limitations partly due to its small sample with a specific « Graduate » profile more or less in line with the banking sector. Other studies have been carried out by researchers in information and communication science (Yao, 2013; Corbillé, Foli et Tassel, 2018…) whose complementary and critical analysis is necessary to assess the phenomenon.

In addition, other disciplines rightfully study the process of hiring and the issue of organization attractiveness. For instance, management science and sociology often address this complex issue strongly impacting current developments. But very few researchers construct the process of hiring as a « communication » issue.

Addressing hiring as a complex communication process allows to strip practices from their commercial and digital finery to rediscover its essential connecting nature. Incidentally, ambassador networks or the use of Linkedin which directly connect candidates and hiring managers are part of these relational trends in some digital resources and go back to what is fundamental in the process without yearning for the pre-digital era.

Hiring is a major concern both for organizations and candidates who are kind of told to follow these trends without always embracing them, as shown by the results of this thesis. Taking a step forward would already imply avoiding to construct a «best candidate » according to generalizing representations so as to better understand this complex process and better take into account candidates’ actual expectations thanks to comprehensive studies. However, the « employer brand » which is a registered trademark and the growth of digital devices such as chatbots are also supported by social stakeholders whose short and long-term interests do not really require any in-depth understanding of a manyfold, changing social reality, therefore all the more difficult to grasp.

Last of all, among the stakeholders concerned by the recruitment of young graduates, teachers do play a major role in shaping candidates’ representations. It is clear that, beyond the economic and professional concerns mentioned in this article, hiring, i.e. the transition between the academic world and the world of work, also raises educational issues.



Crédits images en CC : Flaticon Freepik, Flat Icons


Daniel Pélissier

IDETCOM (daniel.pelissier@iut-rodez.fr)

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