Candidate Personas: Your Recruiting Team’s Starter Guide (Updated for 2018)

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What are candidate personas? Why use them when recruiting? How do you build them? This quick guide will answer your questions and get you started.

Example of a candidate persona used by recruiters in talent acquisition

Credit: Christian De Pape

What is a candidate persona? Good question. It’s a tool that is very similar to the buyer personas used in sales and marketing. Here’s a definition:

candidate persona (recruitment)

A fictional representation of your target hire, based on existing employee data, market research, and educated guesses about experience, goals, motivations, and concerns.

Why use candidate personas

If your talent acquisition team doesn’t understand who they’re speaking to, who they’re working to attract, successful recruiting is much harder to do.

A candidate persona answers the following questions:

  1. What does the person we’re looking to hire need?
  2. What motivates them?
  3. What fears and concerns do they have?
  4. Where can we find them?
  5. What is the best way to engage with them?

By highlighting this information, personas help you and your team empathize with your target talent audience. They help you select relevant job titles and write job descriptions that appeal specifically to them. They help guide your sourcing strategy and send reach-outs that get replies. They help you produce employer branding content that provides timely information, addresses concerns, and answers common questions. They also help you deliver that content through the recruitment marketing channels your target talent uses most.

When to use personas

In an ideal world, you’d develop a candidate person for every role. But this isn’t an ideal world. You don’t always (ever?) have the time or resources to do that.

The effort is particularly worthwhile for evergreen jobs (e.g. server at a restaurant chain) and highly-specialized competitive roles (e.g. iOS developer). You can also develop personas around business functions (e.g. People Operations), teams (e.g. Internal Sales team), role-types (e.g. Creatives), locations (e.g. Tampa office), or job statuses (e.g. Employed but open to opportunities).

The idea is to equip yourself with personas that address your most difficult, urgent hiring challenges. Personas help tame those challenges.

How to build a candidate persona

How do you assemble a useful persona? Research. Here’s what you need to do:

Magnifying glass
1. Talk with top performers

First, identify your top performers. Who is excelling in the role or on the team? Ask hiring managers. Look at performance data.

Then, schedule some one-on-one time to sit down and learn about them: their background, experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and motivations. This type of research is called ethnographic interviewing.

Questions to ask:

  • What is most important for you to be successful in your job?
  • What do you wish you had more of?
  • What do you worry about?
  • What made you decide to join the company?
  • Where do you spend your time online?
  • What affects your career choices?

Listen for attitudes and beliefs. These keywords signal emotional states. Absolutes – “always,” and “never” – and judgments – “deserved,” “should have” – are good clues. Phrases that suggest a perceived lack of choice, or points to an external authority, provide clues to the hidden beliefs people hold.

Make sure to take notes. If you can, record the conversations to capture comments verbatim – word choice is important and will influence your persona.

Identifying insights
2. Identify trends and insights

Along with the notes from your research interviews, gather relevant data from your applicant tracking system (e.g. source of hire numbers), insights from employee engagement surveys (e.g. “What words would you use to describe our culture?”), details from hiring manager intakes (e.g. “What is the ideal personality for someone in this role?”), and key documents that define the workplace culture (e.g. core values statements).

Analyze this material. You might use a structured exercise like the affinity process to organize your research. Pinpoint themes that stand out – details and traits that should shape your persona.

Candidate persona document
3. Assemble the persona

Here we go! Using the trends from your research, put together a plausible, grounded in reality representation of who you want to fill the role:

  1. My name is … Give them a name to serve as a shorthand reference, e.g. Riya.
  2. I am a … Name their occupation, e.g. recruiter.
  3. I live in … Name the location they call home.
  4. The first few things you should know about me … Outline background information that influences their career.
  5. My work style? Well, I’m a … Growth-seeker or stability-seeker; delegator or do-it-yourselfer; thinker or doer; etc.
  6. In my life, I care most about … List motivations and values.
  7. My biggest challenges are … Identify the pain points in their life.
  8. Right now, my main career goals are … Identify their career goals.
  9. To thrive at work, I need … List what most influences their success.
  10. When I’m online, I’m usually on … List the platforms and places they frequent the most.

Personas typically include a photo to make them feel “real.” Be careful, though. You don’t want to reinforce discriminatory stereotypes (e.g. software engineers look like white men, nurses look like women). A simple illustration of a face is another option. Illustrations provide a visual you can identify with without defining exactly what the person looks like.

On a similar note: don’t include demographic or personal information unless it affects career decisions and personality.

Finding the right job candidate
4. Use your candidate persona

Your candidate persona is like a wanted poster. Put it up where everyone on your talent acquisition team can see it.

Create message templates targeted to that person. Articulate how your company can help them solve the challenges they face and achieve their goals. Include an elevator pitch to include in job postings, social media campaigns, emails, phone calls, and interviews.

Christian De Pape, Head of Brand and Operations at Recruiting Social; employer branding and recruitment marketing expert; design thinking and service designer.
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand and operations at Recruiting Social. He is an expert in user-centered branding, communications, and content for recruitment. Connect with Christian on LinkedIn.

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