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Recruitment 101: Candidate Personas Explained

Anna HR 02 Feb 2017


Fed up with low-quality job applications every time you advertise a job vacancy?

Candidate personas could be the answer.

What is a Candidate Persona?


two business people walking
A candidate persona is a depiction of the perfect candidate for a specific job role.

Candidate personas are just like buyer personas - but you're not looking to find new customers. Instead, you're after an employee.

In practice, a candidate persona is a document that includes numerous characteristics of individuals who would be a good fit for a job vacancy at your company. This might include their ambitions, the problems they have in their current role, and the types of websites and publications they like to read.

You might assign this fictional persona a name (such as 'Rory the Recruiter') and even a stock image. The idea here is to turn a list of abstract characteristics into a 'real', tangible individual.

The persona ends up looking like a profile or short bio - just without specific information like date of birth, height, or how they take their tea.

Candidate personas tend to be used by big businesses to focus recruitment resources in a way that maximises return on investment.

However, smaller businesses can also benefit from creating candidate personas.

In today's blog post, we look at how SMEs can build, use, and refine candidate personas - and why they might be useful to you.

The Benefits of Candidate Personas


The benefits you gain from candidate personas ultimately depend on how you create and use them.

You should be aiming for at least one of the following outcomes:

  • Improved recruitment ROI. A persona helps you target specific groups of candidates, instead of spreading your recruitment resources across a series of platforms. Personas should help you find higher quality candidates more quickly, reducing the need to sort through applications from candidates who don't fit the bill.
  • Find candidates that 'fit'. Personas usually include the types of working environment a candidate excels in, so a recruitment strategy focused on a persona should help you find candidates who match your company culture.
  • Improved job descriptions/adverts. Again, focus helps you create a job advert built for your ideal candidate. You can change the content and tone of your job descriptions and ads based so that they specifically target your persona, increasing their success rate.
  • Stronger employer brand. By communicating through the recruitment channels that your personas tend to read or use, you'll maintain a strong employer brand - you won't dilute it by communicating to the wrong subset of candidates.

Overall, if you'd like to bring more focus to your recruitment process, candidate personas will certainly help you do that.

How to Build a Candidate Persona


employee in meeting writing on paper
Big businesses use vast amounts of data from their own HR systems and employee surveys to create and refine their candidate personas.

Smaller businesses may not be able to gather quite so much information about their employees or might have a sample size of only 10 or 20 employees to work from.

In these situations, we recommend sending out a single round of short employee surveys to staff to gather a small amount of data, and combine it with some common sense and educated guesses!

Employee survey

Choose only a handful of these questions to keep responses accurate. You can also use multiple choice questions to make data collection easier.

  1. How did you first learn about our company?
  2. Where/how did you apply for your current job role?
  3. What did you like about the recruitment process?
  4. Use three words to describe the office culture.
  5. What are the best things about working here?
  6. How would you describe the management style at this company?
  7. What motivates you?
  8. Which websites do you visit regularly in your spare time?
  9. Why did you accept the job offer for your current role?
  10. What's your academic/work background?

Send out this survey electronically, preferably using a survey platform that lets you keep answers anonymous, such as SurveyMonkey or TinyPulse.

Assembling the persona

With the data you've collected, plus a few educated guesses, you can start to imagine the ideal candidate for your job vacancy.

It's best not to dwell on demographics (age, gender, location) as these aspects are less important than other characteristics - and you might even end up with a discriminatory recruitment process.

Instead, write a persona with these categories:

  • Background. Which other companies have they worked for? Do they have a degree? What kind of roles have they worked in the past?
  • Current 'pain points'. What problems do they have at work? Do they dislike certain management styles? Are they frustrated by the limits of their role?
  • Wants. What's their overall career goal? What's their preferred management style? What would a new job have to offer to make them leave their current role?
  • Job-searching habits. Do they look for jobs actively, passively, or not at all? How do they search for new jobs? What makes an employer brand appealing to them?
  • Values. What motivates them at work? What does work-life balance mean to them?

We recommend answering these questions in the first person. This approach really helps you step into the shoes of your persona.

Example

It's up to you how you format your candidate persona - it's really the content that's most important. Meet Cal the Copywriter.

I'm Cal - I've always wanted to become an author, but when that didn't work out I figured copywriting would be the next best thing. Now I'm several years into my copywriting career. Recently, I've been concentrating on freelance work. I love the flexibility self-employment provides, but I could really do with some stability in my finances - I get frustrated that I can't plan holidays or other big purchases because I simply don't know where my bank balance will be at the end of the month.

Ideally, I'd love to work part-time as a copywriter at a small business. It's important to me to be able to have a real impact on the creative direction of the company's copy, and big companies have too many guidelines to ever let me achieve that.

I also miss the social aspects of office life and would like to work within a small, supportive team under the guidance of a manager who takes a 'hands-off' approach.

I check job sites infrequently but get frustrated by the number of fake adverts and the number of companies who never respond to applications and waste my time.

Cal's clearly tired of job searching but is hopeful that there's a company out there that can provide him with a job role that's flexible and creative.

How can your business appeal to people like Cal?

Using Your Candidate Persona


business handshake
Now you have the persona in front of you, it's time to put it to good use.

First, review your job adverts, careers page and job descriptions. What would your persona like to see? For example, Cal would be reassured if your advert mentioned that you were looking for someone to take a creative lead. He would click away if he read that he needed to report regularly to multiple managers.

Second, change the recruitment channels you use to appeal to your persona. Consider social media channels, specialist job websites, your own careers page, local press, and your shop window.

In Cal's example, he would be most likely to find your ad if you used Twitter (and a hashtag) to share it.

Next, consider tweaking the recruitment process as a whole to appeal to your persona. This might mean giving candidates the option of a phone interview, carrying out competency tests instead of focusing on experience, or completing the whole process within two weeks of the advert being displayed.

Cal would probably appreciate some flexibility regarding interview dates, and because he places such a high value on the quality of the team around him, would like to meet other team members before accepting a job offer.

Of course, the specifics here will vary depending on your candidate persona.

A Word of Warning


Sure, candidate personas can be effective - but they're not perfect.

Most importantly, there is a chance that you could needlessly restrict your search for candidates to a pool that's simply not large enough. By trying to appeal to a specific persona, you might appeal to no-one at all.

Similarly, a poorly-designed persona could actually lead to discriminatory recruitment practices. You shouldn't be limiting your search based on demographics.

There's also the risk of reducing the diversity of your workforce if you focus too heavily on cultural fit. Fresh viewpoints and differing opinions are essential if your company's to innovate and stay relevant.

It's important to point out that you won't need candidate personas for every vacancy. If you already get plenty of high-quality applications for certain roles, don't waste time with a persona!

Personas are best used for roles that you struggle to fill. Maybe there's a skills shortage in your region, or you're hiring for a highly specialist position.

You should also create personas if you have to recruit for this role relatively frequently, to maximise the benefits you gain from the persona.

Why should small businesses bother?

Candidate personas don't need to take days to build. Neither do you need huge databases of employee information to make them work.

In fact, you can create a useful candidate persona purely by sitting down and having a chat with a few colleagues - maybe someone in HR, perhaps an employee with the same role as the vacancy, or maybe their manager.

By working together to envisage a candidate persona for that hard-to-fill role, you can better understand the job seeking habits of suitable candidates.

That makes it far easier to spend your limited recruitment budget in the right places.

And once you've decided which candidates to invite to interviews, you'll want to ask them the best interview questions you can think of...