Effective recruitment advertising: using an evidence-based approach
This article was originally published in In Practice March 2022, vol 44, pp 109-112
The recruitment crisis
Does this sound familiar? ‘We are looking for an enthusiastic colleague to join our busy five-vet practice. We are a friendly, dedicated and supportive team who strive to provide the highest standards of patient and client care. Our practice is very well-equipped with digital x-ray, laparoscopy and hydrotherapy pool. We offer 15-minute appointments, one in five Saturday mornings and no out-of-hours. CPD is encouraged and funded.’
The phrase ‘recruitment crisis’ has been rather prevalent in the veterinary press over the past few years. Reports suggest that over half of veterinary practices are currently recruiting – or attempting to – and that there is a severe shortage of qualified staff to fill the vacancies available. The reasons for this continue to be debated but, essentially, come down to three factors: fewer people joining the profession, higher numbers leaving, and an increased demand for veterinary services.
Exploration of the underlying reasons for the recruitment problem has found many factors including Brexit, high numbers of vets and vet nurses choosing to diversify their careers away from clinical practice, and a boom in pet ownership, in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic (Jarvis 2021).
So, with more vacancies and fewer applicants, what can practices do to attract potential new recruits to their team?
One of the most important early steps in the recruitment process has always been advertising. ‘Help wanted’ adverts have been published since the earliest days of Vet Record in the late 19th century. In more recent years, a large proportion of recruitment advertising has moved online and larger veterinary groups have whole departments dedicated to recruitment and ‘talent resourcing’.
However, anecdotal reports suggest that much recruitment advertising is ineffective and unhelpful. It’s not unusual to hear from desperate practice managers that they’ve been advertising for months and received only a handful of applications – or none at all. But the evidence suggests that some recruitment approaches are more effective than others.
What is the purpose of a job advert?
The primary purpose of a job advert is of course to broadcast that you have a vacancy, and to attract candidates to apply for it. Additionally, the content of the advert will help to screen out applicants with inappropriate knowledge, skills or abilities to do the job, and encourage potential applicants to match their wishes with what is offered by the organisation.
However, it’s important to remember that job adverts are as much a marketing tool as a recruitment one. They are usually the primary means of initial communication between a hiring organisation and a potential candidate; moreover, the advert will be seen by a much wider pool of people than those necessarily suitable for the role being advertised – they may work in the sector and might form opinions about different organisations and what it would be like to work there. Feldman and colleagues (2006) reported that a potential applicant’s first ‘critical contact’ with the recruiting process via a job advert will play an especially large role in shaping their views about the role and the organisation; this is particularly acute with younger applicants and those with less work experience. Indeed, early in the job search process, potential applicants are likely to be gathering information about many different opportunities without yet having contact with anyone from the organisation; therefore, how you present your practice at this early stage is crucial.
What should a job advert contain?
Practice and role details
The amount of information included in a job advert must be carefully balanced. Including broad, non-specific information might potentially appeal to more applicants, giving you a wider applicant pool, but increased numbers do not necessarily translate into suitable applicants, and more time and money may be lost having to filter through those who apply.
Likewise, this approach may actually deter those who are highly focused in their job searches (Feldman and others 2006). Including generic information also runs the risk of misinterpretation; for example, when you say ‘no out-of-hours’ in an advert, what does that actually mean? Are those applying expected to work a 9 to 5 shift, or work late evenings? Does it mean there will be no overnight work but you will be expected to work on Saturdays? Make sure that you are clear from the get-go.
Specific role or practice information should provide a realistic portrayal of practice life. This leads to a better match between expectations and reality, and therefore increased satisfaction with the role and less likelihood of a newcomer leaving. How many times have we heard ‘it wasn’t what I expected’, or ‘I didn’t get the support I was promised’ from someone who has left a job? The degree of detail and specificity in an advert is positively linked to how attractive it is and how well the information sticks in the mind. This is thought to be due to this higher level of detail providing ‘enhanced message vividness’ and greater ‘cognitive elaboration’ – so, the more detail an advert provides, the less work the reader has to do to picture themselves as part of the organisation (Haugtvedt and others 2018). Indeed, the stronger the match, the more likely someone is to make an application.
Nonetheless, care must be taken not to discourage people from applying who may be a great employee but do not see themselves as fitting in to the organisation – there is a potential to create a barrier to inclusivity, so be careful.
Liu (2020) found that more detailed messaging positively correlates with a company’s perceived prestige, and also that more detailed adverts made readers feel that the employer valued potential employees. Identity theory tells us that people want to work for organisations that enhance their self image or the esteem in which they are held (ie, people want to be proud of working somewhere), and this is certainly a factor here.
Specific advertising messages are more credible and more believable than vague ones, and advertising that presents differentiating brand information (ie, ‘what makes us different from the others’) is more effective in encouraging positive consumer responses: decision making, advert likeability, and attitudes towards the brand (Roberson and others 2005).
In summary, generic information is perceived by readers as less believable, and promotes negative attitudes towards both the advert and the advertising organisation. Therefore, when your job advert is written, ask yourself (or ideally someone else) if it could equally apply to a neighbouring practice, or any other competitor. If it could, revise it and be specific about how your practice stands out.
Increasingly, applicants are seeking not only jobs that suit their skills, experience and professional interests, but also organisations that fit with their personal values. Job seekers use information during the recruitment process to infer organisational values, and information communicated in a job advert will be used as an indicator for broader organisational characteristics (Kuhn 2009). Although this is commonly perceived as a ‘millennial’ or ‘Gen Z’ trait, research shows that it is actually job seekers with more extensive work experience that tend to place more emphasis on finding an organisation that shares their values (Walker and others 2008). This is also something that can be taken into account by recruiters, especially if looking to fill a more senior role.
One example of this is in the case of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Numerous employee research surveys have reported that a significant proportion of employees would accept a pay cut to work for an employer that was environmentally and socially responsible, and are more likely to consider applying for a job that would enable them to make a difference in the world (Puncheva-Michelotti and others 2018). The research specifically mentions the environment, community relations, employee volunteerism and workplace diversity as being particularly effective in terms of employer attractiveness. In a strongly altruistically motivated sector, such as veterinary medicine, it is easy to see how highlighting these types of activities in a job advert could help attract applicants who share the same priorities and want to take pride in working for an organisation with a positive social and environmental impact.
If job seekers have relatively little information about an organisation, other sources (eg, social media, practice reviews, ex-employees and friends of friends) are used to fill in the gaps about unknown characteristics. Any available information will be used to make inferences about the company’s values if no information is provided, and these deductions will strongly influence how well a candidate feels they will fit into the organisation. By consulting alternative sources of information, job seekers are more likely to be exposed to negative or biased information, discouraging them from pursuing a position with the company.
'Using humour in job adverts has been shown to increase the likelihood that a reader will share it with others'
Providing insufficient information will also delay a decision to apply for a role while the applicant searches to fill knowledge gaps about the organisation – they will want to do this to try to reduce the risk of making the wrong decision and choosing an organisation that does not match with their personal values (Liu 2020). Not reporting basic information in job adverts is perceived by job seekers as disinterest or carelessness by the recruiting organisation (Uggersley and others 2012), both of which are values that would not encourage an application.
Interestingly, using humour in job adverts has been shown to increase the likelihood that a reader will share it with others, which is an important marketing response given the prevalence of social media and the importance of visibility (of both the job vacancy and the ‘brand’ of the organisation overall) for recruiters (Oikarinen and Söderlund 2016). A really well-crafted, funny and engaging advert that raises a genuine smile, if shared in one of the larger veterinary social media groups, will be seen by tens of thousands of potential applicants.
A better ‘values fit’ between employee and employer will naturally result in a high-performing, committed employee who is more likely to stay in the job. Barrick and Zimmerman (2009) found that the most valuable resource in attracting such applicants was actually the existing staff – applicants who knew one or more current employees (particularly if these were friends or family members) had higher performance scores after six months and were less likely to leave, due to having increased understanding of the organisation’s values and what the role actually entails before making the application. This also allows more accurate self-selection for the role to determine whether it will be a suitable fit – as well as more embedded social links with existing employees permitting an easier transition into the role. The lesson here is clear – your existing employees are your greatest recruiting asset.
The research on salary is clear:
- The more specific the pay information is in a job advert, the more likely an applicant is to apply for that job; and
- Vague statements on salary actively put applicants off applying (Verwaeren and others 2017).
It’s an interesting paradox that, although qualified vets and veterinary nurses are a scarce resource, and organisations will therefore need to offer attractive pay and benefits to attract good applicants, many practices remain hesitant to specify pay information in their job adverts. Knowing the pay scale for a potential new role is a significant factor that candidates use in determining whether the role matches their needs and expectations (Verwaeren and others 2017). Firfiray and Mayo (2016) found that more attention was paid to adverts that stated a specific starting salary rather than a general statement about pay and conditions. Research has also shown that ambiguous pay information in job adverts negatively affected applicants’ ratings of how attractive they thought the organisation was as a place to work (Verwaeren and others 2017).
Feldman and colleagues (2006) found that not including specific salary information was interpreted as disinterest or carelessness of the organisation by the applicant. To put it directly, statements such as ‘competitive salary’ or ‘salary dependent on experience’ are interpreted by applicants as ‘we want to pay you as little as we can get away with’. The fix for this is obvious – just state the rate.
Five key messages to take away
- Recruitment adverts must be tailored to the role and the practice, ensuring differentiation from your competition. Don’t just reuse the same template again and again, especially if you are part of a group practice.
- Include details that allow potential applicants to imagine themselves working in the team, without any barriers to diversity. Try employee quotes, typical days and video tours (or offer links to these on your website).
- Be clear on your practice values and how they are enacted – especially in terms of workplace diversity, environmental sustainability and community involvement.
- Always include information about salary, and make this as detailed and exact as possible. As a minimum, provide a range using actual numbers. Phrases such as ‘competitive salary’ or ‘attractive pay and benefits package’ actively put applicants off applying.
- Encourage your existing employees to reach out to connections – they are your biggest recruiting asset, and stronger personal connections result in lower employee turnover.
Despite the current challenges in veterinary recruitment, there are some simple techniques that practices can use to improve their application rates and attract the best people to their vacancies. Be clear, be specific, be different; ensure readers can picture themselves working in the team by highlighting your core values, and encourage as smooth a transition into a new role as possible.
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