Understanding Differentiation in Recruiting

Your organization’s success in the future will depend more and more upon getting the right people in the right seats to drive it. To accomplish this, corporate recruiters and hiring managers will need to become steeped in the art of differentiation. Unfortunately, few organizations have mastered this art from a recruiting point of view, despite having spent the last few years engaged in a war for talent. If you ask any employee, and in many cases any recruiter, what differentiates their firm or makes their company a great place to work, you will undoubtedly hear the exact same answer you would get if you asked an employee or recruiter from another organization. The most common answers include:

  • “We have great people!”
  • “Our offices are really nice!”
  • “We have great benefits!”
  • “We pay very well!”


If you truly work for a great place, as you were reading the short list above you were probably thinking to yourself, so do we. That’s the problem. Most organizations describe and define themselves using terms and statements that could easily be applied to most other firms, including competitors. The goal of differentiation is to set your firm apart, not tell others how alike you really are! Knowing What Differentiates Your Firm Most things in life can be differentiated, unless they have been specifically designed not to be. Your organization is no exception. If you are interested in developing a list of truly distinctive points about your organization, try the following exercise:

  1. Develop a list of points you think define your organization. This list can be things that make you thankful you work there, things which you think set your firm apart, and even things that people ask you about your company most often. Each point can be described as a paragraph or a sentence.
  2. Share your list with others and allow them to add to it. Be sure to ask people from varying backgrounds within your organization so that you get a broad perspective.
  3. Go through your list and eliminate any statements that would be true for your talent competitors, a group that includes both the direct competition, and related firms that could make use of your talent pool.
  4. Rank the list of elements left on your list in the order in which you find them most impressive. Share this list with others, and ask them to do the same, keeping your rankings hidden. Be sure to share your list with people outside your firm. After all, for recruiting purposes it is these people whom you want to impress.
  5. Combine the rankings from everyone you asked to participate in this exercise to produce a single ranked list of differentiation points.
  6. Finally, work with the language and style of each point to produce several polished points. At this point, all points should be reduced in size to a single sentence.

Using “Wow” Stories To Emphasize Your Differentiation Points A “wow” is a short story (one or two paragraphs long) that, when told, is so powerful that the person reading the story literally responds with a verbal sound: Wow! These are the type of stories people tend to remember and share with others. They help create a viral marketing campaign that places your organization on center stage. They also arm employees with powerful information they can use to help recruit others, thereby increasing the effectiveness of your employee referral program. Getting Started With “Wow” Stories Once you have selected a point of differentiation to focus on, you can improve it by adding to it a story that combines any of the following factors that have proven to make it stronger (more compelling for the application). Generally the more powerful elements (those that really make a good story into a great one) are listed first. Remember, stories with numbers and comparison figures are the best stories, and “individual testimonials” about one-time incidents that use just words are the least impactful.

  1. Comparison with industry average (best in the industry). Compare and show how your firm is superior to the “name” competitors on a side-by-side basis. The use of direct comparison percentages or numbers makes for an even better case. Being first in your industry or region to offer a program is also excellent.
  2. Comparison with last year or Your goal. Show how you have dramatically improved your numbers from last year (or any period).
  3. Defining what a good and bad number is. By including inside any story a description (with a number) of what good numbers and bad numbers are (and why), you can make a good story better and make any number more meaningful.
  4. Quantifying program results. Using statistics to demonstrate the business impact of a program is helpful. Using dollars as well as numbers to describe program outputs make any story stronger.
  5. Awards received. Programs or events that were recognized with an outside award are superior. Inside awards are less powerful, but still helpful.
  6. Degree of participation. Just having a program isn’t compelling if no one participates in it. Showing the estimated percentage of workers that participate in or actually use a program helps make the message stronger.
  7. Stories involving ordinary people. Stories that focus on the success of the “little guy” are great. Showing how the little guy matters and that they got some attention or benefit from a program is good as well.
  8. Stories involving diverse people. Stories that focus on the success of diverse employees are very powerful. Showing high participation levels or inclusion at higher organizational levels are great additions to any story.
  9. Demonstrating the amount spent or the program costs. Showing the large amount spent per employee (or as a large percent of all total expenditures) tells the reader right away you think this is important.
  10. “We have a program.” Often just having a program with a great name can make an informal event into something credible, because you have set up a program in advance to handle it. A “cool” name for any program makes it even better.
  11. Concern for environment. Demonstrating that your organization shows a deep concern for environmental issues helps gain points. Programs that conserve, protect, or support “green issues” are very important. Individual environmental and community work can also add value.
  12. Compelling quotes. A good story becomes a better one with a short memorable quote that one might remember and repeat. Quotes from “average” people about their jobs and experiences are great. Notable CEO quotes of commitment also add value to any story. Quotes from major publications add significant value as well. Customer quotes can also be compelling.
  13. Testimonials from individuals. Short testimonials from individuals outlining their passion for the firm are powerful. Testimonials about their treatment or experiences are a value add also. Videotaped testimonials can on occasion be powerful.
  14. Add a video clip. Some times words aren’t enough. Short video clips (three to five minutes long) can be included in supplemental materials. Reviewers won’t watch too long, but if a clip brings a dull program or event to life, feel free to add a video clip to the story.
  15. Add a picture. A picture that raises emotions can be a valuable addition to a story. Test it first to see if the picture does add real value.

Conclusion Securing the right talent to drive your organization at the right time requires that you be able to garner that talent’s ear at recruiting time. At best, you may get a few seconds before the target candidate has to make a decision to either let you proceed or cut you off, which is why it makes sense to stack the odds in your favor. Mastering the art of differentiation isn’t difficult; it just requires that you continuously evaluate what you say and how to say it to make sure that it has the desired impact. If you master the art, you will see 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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