Determining the Correct Source of Hire: the First Step in Recruiting Excellence

One of the worst-kept secrets in recruiting is that source of hire data is inconsistently gathered and rarely accurate. To many corporate recruiters, the validity of source of hire data is a non issue; after all, once the hire is generated, their role is over.

However, if you view recruiting as a marketing and sales job (as I and many strategic recruiting leaders do), knowing what channels brought the prospect to the organization and what messages led to conversion (talented individual > applicant > candidate > hire) are by far the most critical bits of data the function can collect. Without this information, it’s extremely difficult to scientifically budget for sourcing or build strategic sourcing systems capable of impacting organizational performance.

Luckily, however, there is a simple approach that ensures much more accurate and helpful information that doesn’t rely on transaction-minded recruiters documenting the source of hire.


If you rely on weak sources, chances are you’ll get weak results.

Why Source of Hire Data is Almost Always Wrong

There are numerous reasons why corporate efforts to capture accurate source of hire data are almost always doomed to failure. Some of those reasons include:

  • Recruiters don’t care — not all recruiters are involved in selecting the sourcing tools they will have access to or even using them in general, so coding applicants is an activity that realizes little apparent direct benefit. Even recruiters who do source or play a role in their organizations’ sourcing strategy tend to be overconfident that they already know which sources work and don’t need data to inform them. Other recruiters are just old-school and will use the same sources over and over no matter what. Unless recruiters are made aware of how identifying source of hire accurately is critical to their success, no one is going to spend a lot of time on capturing it accurately.
  • Conflict of interest — while some recruiters may care about scientifically validating which sources produce which results, the truth is that capturing data that makes the recruiting function more efficient is seen by some as identifying ways to make line recruiters less necessary.
  • Not asking in a systematic way — most corporate recruiting processes are relatively flexible and give the recruiter a lot of leeway in determining source of hire. It’s rare to find a process that forces recruiters to specifically ask candidates which source most influenced their decision to apply. In other cases, the way the question is posed to candidates is so inconsistent that it dooms the reliability of the answer.
  • Not segmenting clouds the data — many organizations that do collect source of hire data do so in such a way that the value of the data becomes so diluted it is virtually useless. For instance, can you segment your source of hire data by manager perception of candidate quality (used to validate their assumptions) or by post-hire performance rating? Knowing how top and bottom performers approach the organization is much more valuable than knowing the most common source, or how the average employee is found. Further, knowing how sourcing effectiveness varies by job family or region is essential.
  • Technology forces bad choices — many corporations use applicant tracking systems to capture the source of hire data at the time of application. Although this is a good concept in theory, studies show that asking prior to hire doesn’t always yield the accurate answer, but rather the answer the applicant thinks might result in the best result. When recruiters enter applicants who have come via internal channels or who have been direct sourced, they tend to choose the first source in the drop-down list available. Few systems send validating questions periodically to confirm applicant data downstream, so errors in the front of the process produce bad data at the end of the process.
  • Forcing a single source — it is common for active candidates to use any and all sources available to apply to an organization, while passive candidates may first be exposed to an opportunity via one channel, but ultimately apply via another. Few data-gathering approaches identify how the opportunity was first encountered, what channels influenced a decision, and what channel ultimately produced the application.

Perception Isn’t Always Reality

Periodically testing assumptions or perceptions is key to being a good leader. In 2007, we surveyed more than 15,000 hiring transactions, comparing the pre-hire documented source of hire to results from a post-hire candidate experience survey. The results were shocking, even for those of us who tend to be cynical. Only 26% of the time did the post-hire result match the pre-hire entry.

Further, the variances were much higher with certain sources than others. While recruiters and recent hires generally agreed on the percentage that resulted from employee referral and events, they radically disagreed on the percentage that resulted from the corporate career sitejob boards, and even third-party recruiting partners. In the 2007 study, only 12% of new hires attributed the corporate career site as their source of introduction, while the pre-hire data attributed the career site with 57% of hires.

Gathering Valid Sourcing Data the Quick, Cheap, and Easy Way

Sales and marketing professionals have for years used a simple solution to accurately identify the “real reason” why people make the decisions they do. They ask after the decision has been made.

After a product has been purchased or a job offer accepted, the prospect has no reason to lie. The answer will not influence the process. Telling a salesperson that you only came to their dealership because you are interested in a car that only they have in inventory is a fact that could impact the dealer’s willingness to negotiate.

Shifting data collection to follow completion of a transaction removes any value of manipulation.

Additional Reasons Why Asking Post-Hire Is a Superior Approach

  • As new employees, new hires may respond more thoroughly to questions out of a newfound sense of obligation to help out the new employer.
  • Post-hire collection instruments can be built to collect smaller fragments of data over time as part of the onboarding process, allowing for both better collection activities and validation efforts.
  • You’re only capturing data from the highest-quality applicants; in other words, those you actually hired.
  • The risk-adverse worried about privacy issues might be more than willing to provide this type of information post-hire once they are made aware that the information will be used exclusively to help recruit high-quality teammates for them to work with in the future.

Action Steps to Implement a Post-Hire Source Identification Process

Consider the following tips when designing and implementing a post-hire source capture process:

  • Ask during onboarding — while recruiting doesn’t always own onboarding, recruiting should be permitted to use the onboarding process to collect information from new hires. Ideally, a recruiter can ask the questions and probe for more information in person, but surveys work almost as well. Work with the onboarding team to ensure that the source of hire questions are always completed. If recruiting does not own the onboarding process, using secret shoppers to occasionally test that recruiting-prescribed activities are being completed as desired is advised.
  • Email a questionnaire — if an onboarding option is not available, send a questionnaire or survey invitation via email to the individual before they start (because they are new, they are likely to spend some time on it).
  • Ask when the candidate accepts — because recruiters administer the selection and offer presentation phases of the recruiting lifecycle, a possible alternative is to include an acceptance criteria survey in the actual offer acceptance process. After thanking them for their acceptance, ask for their help in improving the process of identifying future top-quality candidates like them.
  • Educate the new hire — the first thing you want to do is educate the new hire about the importance of the process and how capturing the right sources will result in them eventually working along-side some other great hires. Educate them about the different factors that you’re most interested in; company awareness factors (employer branding factors) and how they learned more about the company/opportunity; what specific sources made them aware there was a current job opening; and what factors triggered their decision to actually apply.
  • Ask the right questions — after “when you ask” and “who you ask,” the next most critical factor in getting useful data is what you ask. The following are the minimal questions I recommend. You shouldn’t limit respondents to one answer, but rather allow them to choose all that contributed to their decision to apply. Consider providing them with a detailed list of answers to choose from, based on the sources used and past new-hire answers along with a few blanks. When multiple factors are identified, ask them to rank them in descending order of the importance.

Recommended Questions:

  1. Which source made you aware of our company as a desirable place to work?
  2. What factors about our company or opportunity best got your attention?
  3. Which source or factor made you aware that we had a current job opening in your field?
  4. What factor or source convinced you to take action and apply for a job?
  5. Were there any sources that provided information that discouraged you from considering our firm or applying for a job? If yes, what were those negative factors?
  6. What were the key factors that convinced you to accept this job and what aspects or factors of the hiring process had no value or discouraged you?
  7. Who else is exceptional at your previous firm that we should consider hiring?

Note: other powerful recruiting questions that you should be asking can be foundhere.

  • Improving the accuracy of your current system — if you choose not to adopt a post-hire approach or if you decide to run tandem data capturing processes pre and post hire, it is still important to improve your current data capture process. Run a validation study that collects post-hire data for a limited time and compare the data received from the traditional approach to that collected. If both processes produce similar results, there’s no reason to change your approach. If you continue letting recruiters enter the data, spot check or use a random validation study to periodically check the accuracy rate of their entries. One recruiter throwing bad data into the system can throw off all of the results. Merely knowing that there is a chance that entries will be checked periodically will drive most recruiters to improve their accuracy. Adding a reward for accuracy will further improve results.

Leveraging Source of Hire Data

Collecting data and doing nothing with it should be a cardinal sin in a corporate setting.

Recruiting leaders need to develop a formal process at least twice a year to review sourcing data and adjust sourcing processes accordingly. Adjustments should include dropping bad sources, modifying recruiter training, shifting budget allocations, and determining the impact of sourcing changes on new-hire retention rates and job performance.

Final Thoughts

There are some in the recruiting profession who look down on sourcers and the sourcing function as something that’s necessary but not mission-critical. In contrast, there is nothing more important than great employer branding and placing the right message in the right communication channel to drive the desired action by the right people.

If you recruit basketball players for an NBA team from elementary schools, you’ll never win a single game, but if in contrast, you recruit exclusively at NBA All-Star games, no matter how bad the rest of your recruiting processes, you will have some great hires. I go by the axiom that “great sourcing is everything.” If you believe so too, you will act immediately to eliminate actions that lead to unreliable sourcing data. Using a post-hire source capturing approach is cheap, quick, and much more accurate than pre-hire source identification. It’s a slam-dunk.

As always, if you have tried this approach and want to make others aware of your success, or have questions/suggestions you would like others to focus on with regards to improving the process, please post them to the comments section following this article.


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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