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How applicants feel about the hiring process should matter to employers

Associate Professor Julie McCarthy from the Department of Management at U of T Scarborough.

How we react to an organization’s job application process matters, from how they choose to conduct their candidate testing to how they manage their public brand.   

And as a new review study published in the Journal of Management points out, many of those effects have significant implications for organizations. 

“Many organizations use standardized tests to select job applicants,” says lead author Julie McCarthy, an associate professor at U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management.

“If an applicant feels the process is unfair or biased and comes away from it with a bad taste in their mouth, it can have a host of negative downstream effects.”

The study, which McCarthy co-authored with colleagues from the U.S. and U.K., focused on three main areas within the field of applicant reaction research. In addition to exploring whether applicant reactions actually matter, they also looked at changes in the field over the past 15 years while also exploring areas for future research.  

McCarthy says that when properly conducted, standardized tests, such as cognitive ability tests, work samples, personality tests and situational judgement tests are valuable tools for selecting the best applicants. It’s for this reason that they are becoming the norm in many organizations.

An important finding is that applicant reactions to the test process matters very much—from how they influence attitudes about the organization, to even how the process can affect actual test and job performance.

The model advanced by McCarthy and her colleagues, including Professors Talya Bauer and Donald Truxillo from the U.S. and Professors Neil Anderson, Ana Cristina Costa and Sara Ahmed from the U.K., even highlights the effects of applicant reactions on current and potential future customers.

“There’s strong evidence that if people feel the process is unfair, biased, or causes anxiety, it can lead to negative reactions towards that organization,” says McCarthy, an expert on organizational behaviour.

She points to studies that have found a negative job application experience can affect levels of organizational attractiveness, which can result in a host of consequences.

“That person may be less likely to recommend the organization to others. Even if they accept the job they may be more likely to quit. It can even have an effect on job performance,” she says.

Also interesting is the effect a negative application process can have on current and future customers. The model advanced by the study indicates that if someone enjoys a product but has a negative experience after applying to the company, they will be less likely to buy products from them in the future.

“This is particularly problematic for large corporations that receive hundreds, or even thousands of applicants a day, as a poorly conceived application process could affect their bottom line,” says McCarthy. 

While standardized tests used by organizations run the gamut from the “fair and proven” to the “odd and ineffective”, McCarthy says applicant reactions matter and organizations need to pay attention and to ensure that applicants’ react positively to their techniques.

The research, which was partially funded by McCarthy’s grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC), also outlined areas for future research, most notably in terms of how organizations are evaluating potential job candidate’s through technology, including their social media presence.

“Technology is driving revolutionary changes in the way that organizations recruit and select employees,” says McCarthy, pointing to things like online tracking of applicant test scores from one employer to another, real-time test feedback, and even neuroscientific tools.

“It’s critical for future research to determine the nature, meaning, and implications of applicant reactions to these new technologies,” she says. 


© University of Toronto Scarborough