Powerful Actions for Convincing Top Prospects to Apply in the Public Sector

In today’s highly competitive recruiting market, convincing public-sector recruiting prospects to actually apply for a job requires unique and powerful selling approaches. So if you’re tired of struggling to reach your recruiting goals, and you’re ready to abandon your traditional cookie-cutter approach, here are the most effective actions for encouraging top applicants to apply (this list was originally developed for the public agencies in the state of Washington — WAPELRA).

The Top Eight Most Powerful Selling Actions for Public Agencies

The most powerful selling actions for convincing prospects to apply appear first in the list.

Recruiting Action No. 1 — Grow a pair and be prepared to accept criticism of your selling approach

If you are offended by the phrase “grow a pair,” you may be part of the problem. Because with record low unemployment rates, we are all currently involved in a “war for talent” where the competition is extremely aggressive. And that means that if you expect to compete against firms like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, or big cities like Seattle for top talent, your recruiting and branding approaches need to be bold. You have no choice but to use recruiting approaches that will startle many. Your agency’s bold recruiting approaches will help build its reputation as an innovative place to work. In fact, the mere use of bold and aggressive recruiting approaches is likely to get you a great deal of free local and state press coverage. 

The first step in minimizing this inevitable criticism is to make a strong business case showing the dollar costs and the negative community impacts that result from understaffing and weak hiring at your agency. Also, be prepared to show senior management and the public how other leading-edge agencies have already successfully used similar approaches without any of the hypothesized negative impacts. If you’re not sure about what is meant by aggressive recruiting, it includes bragging about your best features, directly recruiting away top talent from other agencies, and spreading the word using unusual media channels (Amazon once placed recruiting ads on the dating site Tinder).

Recruiting Action No. 2 — Stop using the excuse of low pay and emphasize meaningful jobs 

Recruiting success begins with assuming that most candidates want a job that “makes a difference.” For example, a Harvard study by S. Achor and A. Reece found that 69 percent were motivated by “highly meaningful jobs.” Don’t assume that the reason you can’t compete with private-sector jobs is because of your lower compensation. That same study surprisingly found that workers would sacrifice a whopping “23 percent of their lifetime earnings in order to work in a job that is always meaningful.” Despite a significant pay gap, you can still succeed if your recruitment marketing clearly reveals to applicants that their work will always be meaningful and that they will make a difference. Incidentally, if not being able to offer continually rising compensation is a problem, ask each applicant to force rank a list of job features, and avoid hiring those who rank money first. 

Recruiting Action No. 3 — Emphasize “the attraction factors” that top applicants care about 

Great attraction, like championship fishing, requires you to use the most effective bait. In order to attract the best, you must emphasize the precise “attraction factors” that top prospects use when they decide what jobs to apply for. Unfortunately, because most public-sector recruitment marketing is gut and not data driven, the elements of the job that actually end up being emphasized often have low attraction power. The best organizations survey a target group of applicants to identify their ranked attraction factors. The most powerful ones are then “boasted about” in job postings, job descriptions, and on the agency’s websites.

The best also survey their own top employees to identify “why they stay.” And when you find out that your agency actually has most of the most powerful attraction factors, provide potential applicants with real-life examples from your “story inventory” that verify how attractive your agency and your jobs actually are. Common key attraction factors often include an opportunity to have a high impact, above-average opportunities to grow, exciting operational approaches, and working in a desirable community. Recruiters and managers should also know the common “deal breakers” that discourage applicants, like bureaucracy, old technology, and little training. Recruiters should be trained in how to alleviate any potential fears that applicants might have about these deal-breakers.

Recruiting Action No. 4 — Make it easy to feel the excitement

You and your colleagues clearly love working at your agency and in your community. But you dramatically hurt your recruiting if an outsider doesn’t share that feeling of excitement. So, to stand out in an intense recruiting competition, test and retest your messaging until it’s extremely easy to find and feel your excitement. Once you identify those excitement factors, use the most powerful words and media channels (including podcasts and videos) so it is instantly easy for outsiders to feel your excitement. Also proactively encourage your employees to make positive comments on employer comment sites like Glassdoor.com to further spread your positive message (Amazon does this).

Recruiting Action No. 5 — Use data to identify the most effective convincing tools

It’s almost impossible to have a strong competitive advantage in recruiting if you use the exact same tools and approaches as every other agency. The best corporations and agencies use data to identify the most effective approaches for convincing top prospects to apply. Go beyond the traditional cookie-cutter approach of job fairs and “post and pray” on job boards. Instead, emphasize unique “selling approaches” that have been proven to convince top prospects to apply. The most powerful convincing approaches often include employee referrals, compelling videos, texting, employee profiles, side-by-side opportunity comparison sheets, recruiting at professional seminars/conferences, and selling the family on the community.

Recruiting Action No. 6 — Use data to identify the best communications channels for reaching prospects 

The best recruiting messages can’t have an impact if they are never seen or read. So the best agencies use data to identify the most effective communications channels and media for reaching top prospects with recruiting and employer branding messages. Start by surveying your own professionals and applicants to identify where they would most likely see and read a recruiting message. Find out if it would be in an article, blog, job board, using CRM tools, or on social media. The best channels often include writing on the Internet, speaking at conferences, text messages, communicating on LinkedIn groups, and video outlets. Have your agency and its practices “talked about” in the channels that your top prospects frequent regularly.

Recruiting Action No. 7 — Continually compare to ensure that your convincing approach is superior to your competitors’

Even when you have a successful attraction process, others will copy it. It must be continually updated so that it provides your agency with a continuing competitive advantage. Periodically make a side-by-side comparison with the recruiting approaches used by your competitors. In the end, your job postings, employer branding, and even your job’s features must appear to be clearly superior in the eyes of applicants.

Recruiting Action No. 8 — Extend your selling approach by building a “someday you may like to work here” talent pool

Top prospects and candidates have so many job choices. Less glamorous agencies and those located in less-popular communities often need more time to sell the best prospects. Extend your selling approach over many months by using a talent pipeline approach. Prospects that “someday might want to work at your agency” are invited to join an online talent community. With this talent community, you have more time to communicate, build trust, and convince members that their next job should be at your agency. Once they join your community, they are usually sent a monthly newsletter, recruiting materials, and notices of relevant job openings. This community should also include applicants that were determined to be promising but that were not hired on their first job application attempt.

Additional Effective Approaches for Convincing Top Candidates to Apply

After taking the above recruiting actions, if you are still having a hard time getting targeted prospects to apply, here are some additional bold and unique “selling tools” and approaches to consider. 

  • Employee referrals are tops at convincing — because they already work in the job, current employee referrals are the most effective and authentic approach by far for selling prospects. So, encourage your current and former employees to become your 24/7 “brand ambassadors.” Suggest that they make only top-quality referrals for the good of the team, and not for a monetary reward.
  • Get “your agency” talked about — set a primary goal to become a “talked about agency” by highlighting your best practices, awards, and accomplishments. Proactively spread the word about your agency externally so that your best features come up during an Internet search covering functional topics or agency excellence. 
  • Powerful job postings are essential — because it’s the first thing that potential applicants may see, use data to sculpt your job postings so that they are more compelling when they are compared side-by-side to those of your competitors. Also use the appropriate tools to make sure that they don’t contain unconscious biases.
  • Executive calls can excite — there is nothing more powerful than having an executive call a prospect directly to encourage them to apply. Employees who are already on the team can also be effective in selling their future peers. 
  • Make the application process less painful — many who already like your agency will be quickly discouraged if they have a bad candidate experience, which might include a slow or painful application process. In fact, research by SmashFly revealed that 74 percent of potential applicants who start the application process drop out before completing it. So, make it easy for a prospect to initially apply by just posting their resume or in some cases, simply by supplying a LinkedIn profile. 
  • Side-by-side comparison sheets reveal your superior selling points — compile side-by-side sheets that compare the major features of your job with the features of your major talent competitor. Recruiters and managers can use the sheets to effectively show prospects the areas where your jobs are clearly superior. 
  • Show them that “people like you” already work here — one of the factors that make people reluctant to apply for a job is that they are afraid that they won’t “fit in.” You can partially alleviate those fears by providing information on your website that demonstrates that “people like you” already work here. This information can be provided in statistics or with employee profiles that demonstrate that employees from their current agency now work and are happy here.
  • Highlight your community — if you want a prospect’s family to support a move, highlight the strong educational, recreational, cost-of-living, civility, and quality-of-life aspects of your community. Start by working with business groups to get your city or state placed on “best places to live” lists. Also, seek out individuals who rate the features of your community/region near the top of their personal “where I’d like to live/ work” list. For public safety personnel, also highlight your employee safety record and community support for first responders.
  • Speed makes a difference — because today the very best candidates are quickly off the job market, design your recruiting process so that it can be completed as fast as the recruiting process at your best talent competitor. 
  • Show them your agency is a talent launching pad — if your agency isn’t large or it is not in a big city, show that it has frequently served as a “talent launching pad.” Show how others were successful in the past when they wanted to move up to a bigger agency where there was more room for promotions.
  • Prioritize your jobs — with limited recruiting resources, focus the most resources and your best recruiters on the jobs that have the highest impact within your agency. Typically, prioritized jobs include leadership positions, cybersecurity, AI, data, and technology positions.
  • Show them where they are likely to be in three years — all top candidates want an opportunity to grow and learn. Be able to show them, under normal progression, where others have ended up in terms of rank, pay, and skills.
  • Use a story inventory — stories are the most effective way to convince a prospect. Capture and provide your recruiters and managers with access to a wide range of stories about your agency that have proven to impress prospects.
  • Become an agency of choice — many potential applicants use “best place to work” lists” to choose their next employer. Encourage your HR team to take actions in order to increase your agency’s placement on these lists. 
  • Personalized recruiting — if you want to land top talent, realize that the most effective recruiting is personalized because it fits the unique needs of top applicants. Take the time to make your messages to your key prospects appear personalized and targeted specifically to them and their needs.
  • Emphasize diversity — having a diverse workforce is a compelling sales feature for almost all prospects. Be sure and include data and employee comments to show that diverse thinkers are welcomed.
  • Emphasize stability and security — if you’re competing against corporations for top talent, realize that when there is a possibility of a turbulent economy, the relative stability and job security of the public sector may be an increasingly effective selling point.
  • Emphasize progressive management — working under great managers is a key selling point for top talent. Make sure that you highlight your best managers and show that the entire department is open to new ideas, freedom, innovation, and change.
  • Hold a film festival — if a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a video must be worth a million. Challenge your employees and teams to make short authentic videos revealing “the excitement” within your firm and post them on YouTube or your own site. (Deloitte made this approach famous).
  • Target new residents — work with local “welcome wagon” services, banks, and realtors. Remind those who have recently moved or expressed an interest in moving into the area about your public-sector opportunities. If your region is frequented by tourists, find a way to encourage them to stay permanently and work at your agency.
  • Right day recruiting — if you’re trying to draw employees from the private sector, rrealize that your chances improve dramatically if you contact your targeted prospects on the “right day.” This might be around the time when there are dramatic budget cuts, ethical issues, or layoffs. Or when a merger is announced or when an important executive or colleague leaves your targeted firm. 

Final Thoughts

Over the years I have advised hundreds of corporations and public agencies on the most advanced recruiting methods. However, I have personally worked in the public sector for nearly 40 years, and I find it strange that most public agencies assume that they are at a disadvantage in recruiting. In fact, they offer the best chance for making a difference, helping the environment, and improving the lives of every citizen in their community. At least to me, that makes a job that involves simply moving gigabytes of meaningless data a few nanoseconds faster at a firm like Google seem dull by comparison.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s Recruiting Conference in October in Washington, D.C.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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