Improving Sourcing: Techniques for Identifying Which Sources Work and Which Don’t

Recruiting is a relatively simple four-step process, the first two steps of which are called “sourcing”: First you make potential candidates aware of your firm and its job opportunities. Second, you convince candidates to actually apply for the job. Third, you assess them. And last, you try to “sell” the final candidate on your job. When you prioritize each of the four steps, sourcing is beyond a doubt the most important. That’s because, if you use the “right sources” consistently, you will invariably get a pool of great candidates to later screen and sell. On the other hand, if you use bad sources (and thus assure yourself a pool of weak candidates), no matter how good your screening or selling processes are, you will have doomed your firm to a weak hire. Sourcing in business is much like sourcing in college football. If you source exclusively from weak high schools, you will lose many more games than if you recruit exclusively from championship high school teams. Knowing which sources work is the key to success in recruiting. Nothing else approaches the positive impact that great sourcing has on producing great hires. It’s difficult to know upfront which sources are the best (i.e. which sources produce the best performing hires), but if you develop a process for accurately determining which source produced which candidate, you can later determine which source produces the very best and the very worst hires. A major problem arises at most corporations, though, when they realize that matching sources with candidates is much more difficult than most people outside of recruiting realize. In this article, I will highlight several approaches that make it relatively easy to identify which candidate came from which source and, eventually, which sources are the most effective. What’s Wrong With Most Sourcing Identification Processes?On the surface, it seems relatively easy to identify the source that produced a particular candidate. Nearly every automated ATS allows recruiters to mark or tag the source of a candidate’s resume. Unfortunately, many recruiters routinely ignore that field or just put in a standard answer in order to save time. Most recruiters fail to take source identification seriously either because they haven’t been educated about the value of identifying the correct source or because they are simply rushed and overworked. In fact, I estimate that over 75% of the sourcing systems that I have seen produce inaccurate sourcing data. Some of the many reasons why source identification processes can be ineffective include:

    • Treating them equally. Most systems attempt to identify the source of every applicant. By treating all candidates the same, you unfortunately raise the probability that the ones you really need to know (candidates selected for interviews and as finalists) will be the ones with no or inaccurate source codes.


  • No penalty. There is no penalty to the candidate or the recruiter for omitting the source code. Many applications and websites don’t even ask for the source that triggered the candidate to apply, and few applicant tracking systems identify recruiters who inaccurately identify sources.
  • The real source may be hidden. Recruiters often record the “final” source of a resume they receive, which can be misleading. For example, the resume might have actually been pulled from the firm’s website, but the “real source” that prompted the candidate to apply to the website in the first place might have been an ad, the result of a branding campaign, or some other source. Identifying the real source takes some time and effort. This is especially true when you extensively pull candidates from large Internet job boards ó first, because you cannot always tell the original source that they came from, and second, because “you found them” it’s impossible to identify which factors interest them about your firm or job.

Approaches to Aid You in Identifying Effective Sources There are several approaches that recruiting managers can take to improve the effectiveness of source application. Some of them include:

  • Ask only new hires. Rather then asking every candidate, most of whom you will never interview or hire, which source triggered their application, I instead recommend that you focus only on those that you actually select for hiring. In this case, you are only identifying the sources that actually work to produce a hire. The best time to ask them is on their first day during orientation. Just ask them directly these two key questions: 1) “Which source first made you aware of our job opportunities?” and, 2) “Which source ‘convinced you’ to actually submit an application?” In the short term, you now know that this particular source actually produces hires. If you later identify the performance appraisal scores of these new hires (after one year), you can statistically determine which sources produce the best on-the-job performers. Connecting sources and on-the-job performance is known as quality of source. Remember, you can also use this process to ask about how the candidate was treated during the recruiting process. You can use this information to refine your recruiting and “selling” processes.
  • Ask only finalists. Rather then asking every candidate how they applied, you might consider asking every finalist. Finalists are important because they have demonstrated that they meet the position’s qualifications. Although they may not eventually get the job, it’s clear that the source that produced them, at the very least, should be rated as very good. It’s generally best do ask finalists during interviews, but you can also use an email survey to ask the two key questions.
  • Ask a random sample. Email surveys are great way to identify sources. However, in order to save money, you can produce excellent results, while at the same time limiting the number of people you survey, by using a random sample of applicants. This approach can give you a basic idea about which sources (approaches) are the most effective in making the candidate aware of our jobs and which source or approaches are most effective in convincing the candidate to apply.
  • Differentiate between jobs. Remember also to be aware of “averages” (the best source, on average, for all jobs), because the source that works for large volume hiring jobs may be ineffective for professional or mission-critical jobs. Instead, stratify or separate your results into job families. Report the best source for each job family rather then the best source overall (unless they happened by coincidence to be the same). It might be valuable, for hard-to-hire jobs, to directly interview finalist new hires to get more detail not just about which sources or approaches worked, but also about why they worked. Some organizations use focus groups at industry events to gather in-depth information that allows them to further improve their sourcing process.

Lessons Learned Focusing on identifying the best sources is the single most important thing you can do to improve the quality (on-the-job performance) of hires. If you follow the above approach and track sources over a period time, you will invariably find several things to be true. Some of them include:

  • Top employee referrals, industry and professional association meetings, and employment branding are the most effective sourcing approaches.
  • Many of the sources identified by either applicants on their application or later by recruiters are inaccurate.
  • Many of the traditionally “most used” sources like newspaper ads, job fairs, and large job boards turn out to be the least effective source of producing top performers in key jobs.
  • Even after you identify which sources are the most effective, a majority of recruiters and managers will still persist in using their “old tried and true” sources, unless you track, measure, and reward the use of the very best sources. Recruiting and recruiters consistently want to use “their guts” rather then data and facts to make decisions.
  • The effectiveness of sources changes with many factors, including the unemployment rate and the rate of economic growth, so it’s important to continually evaluate and change sources. It’s also true that effective sources become ineffective sources rather quickly once other firms adopts them. Source loyalty is always a mistake without data to back it up. In addition, constant source experimentation is extremely helpful in identifying currently underutilized (by other firms) sources that also produce great results.

Conclusion Identifying which source made candidates aware of your job and which approach convinced them to actually apply are the two most important bits of information any recruiting manager needs. Armed with this information, recruiting managers can shift budgets toward the more effective sources and “educate” individual recruiters and managers about where they should focus their sourcing efforts in order to produce the best results.

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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