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Stop losing top candidates: How to improve candidate experience in software engineer hiring

Demand for software engineers, especially senior-level candidates, is growing—even in today’s economic climate. Companies need to create a positive candidate experience in their hiring process to secure a “yes” from these top candidates. In this article, Industrial-Organizational Psychologist Hayley Walton, MA, of CodeSignal’s Talent Science team, offers research-backed best practices to improve candidate experience when using a technical assessment. 

Many of us know the feeling of going through a series of lengthy interviews only to come away with no clue why we didn’t advance. Or we’re met with time-consuming take-home assignments that make us question whether we even want to work for a company. These kinds of negative experiences are unfortunately common, but they don’t have to be. With careful consideration and planning, you can improve candidate experiences by emphasizing communication, consistency, and relevance in the hiring process. 

Candidate experience matters because, even as many companies slow their hiring, demand for experienced software engineers remains high. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, predicts large amounts of growth in the artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics sectors [1] in the upcoming few years. This will only increase already high competition [2] for companies seeking senior-level candidates and those with specialized backgrounds. Even as many organizations make tough downsizing decisions, teams still sorely need to hire qualified engineers—and emphasizing candidate experience helps secure a “yes” from highly sought-after applicants.

Why does candidate experience matter?

Candidates can have deep personal reactions to a hiring process. Sometimes these are reactions to specific experiences, like negative feelings about invasive questions or positive feelings about opportunities for two-way communication. Other times, they stem from an overall perception of fairness or equality. In both cases, these reactions can be key indicators of a candidate’s future success and of public perception of the company.

Those that enjoy the hiring process are more likely to accept employment offers and to recommend the organization to others [3]. They’re also more likely to perform better on the job [4]. In contrast, when candidates perceive the hiring process to be unfair, this can lead to legal vulnerability [5]. By planning and monitoring the candidate experience each step of the way, you can lay the foundation for more positive interactions.

How can we improve candidate experience during the engineer hiring process?

It takes a holistic view and ongoing effort to improve the candidate experience. Before starting to welcome applicants, spend some time examining the needs of the role and get your team on board. Prior to candidate evaluation, check your tools for consistency and relevance, and inform candidates about the process. And after evaluations are validated, encourage feedback and have open and transparent conversations with candidates.

While no one can ensure that every candidate walks away perfectly happy, the following guidelines can serve as a checklist for each stage of your hiring process.

1. Planning the hiring process

  • Define your selection goals.

First, choose your core metrics. These metrics, which will form the basis for the hiring process, quantify your goals. You’ll come back to them when determining which evaluation strategies make the most sense. Common metrics include which technical roles you’re hiring for, how many openings there are, and a realistic time-to-hire. Understanding what your core metrics are upfront helps your team be on the same page about hiring, and makes the process quicker and more efficient to implement.

Determine what skills a candidate would need in order to accomplish a given role’s responsibilities. In this job analysis, consider day-to-day tasks as well as overarching objectives. Listing out these specific skills can aid in making plans for things like onboarding and training content, job descriptions, and performance evaluations. A thorough job analysis also sets up well-defined expectations, which can support additional defensibility for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) compliance standards.

  • Determine an evaluation strategy.

The most effective evaluation strategy for your hiring needs will depend on your hiring goals and the number of available roles, as well as on the size of your candidate pools. One common choice is leveraging a technical pre-hire evaluation. These evaluations provide a consistent candidate experience and can give the hiring team valuable information about candidate readiness for a role as you move forward into the selection process. It’s important to choose tools that accurately predict a candidate’s success, and prioritizing valid and inclusive measures [5] can help foster positive experiences.

With any evaluation strategy, be careful not to creep into invasive or demanding territory, which can make candidates withdraw. Lengthy assignments can cause a candidate to question whether a job prospect is worth their time. Investigations into social media accounts can similarly lead to negative feelings about the intrusion into their personal life. Choose an evaluation strategy that has real meaning for the skills relevant to the role.

  • Choose a pre-hire evaluation.

Technical skills evaluations and personality assessments are just some of the options you can choose from for pre-hire evaluations. Your choice should be based on your hiring goals and selection strategy. For example, an asynchronous technical evaluation may be beneficial for a company hiring for a software engineering role. In high-volume hiring, these evaluations at the top of the funnel can make the selection process more efficient by validating candidates’ skills in a consistent, standardized way.

The type of pre-hire evaluation chosen can also influence how candidates respond to the hiring process. Interviews and work samples [3] are often well-perceived by candidates, since they more clearly map to real-world skills used on the job.

  • Help get your team on board.

The most well-intentioned strategy can falter at the starting line if the people implementing it are in disagreement. To facilitate cohesion and consistency in the interview process, host training sessions [7] on topics such as interpersonal communication skills for recruiters, interviewers, and other stakeholders. Training on specific types of hidden biases can empower interviewers to be actively respectful and empathetic toward all candidates. Candidates should feel treated with respect regardless of when they leave the hiring process. Providing interviewers with interpersonal and other kinds of training can help mitigate bias and differential experiences [8], building a solid foundation for inclusion and belonging, both before and after selection decisions are made.

2. Preparing for candidate evaluation

  • Ensure the evaluation is job-relevant.

Any technical assessment is only really useful if it measures skills applicable to the role at hand. You can support this by matching the content of the technical evaluation with the core skills for the role identified earlier. A relevant evaluation means you’re making the most of the time you have with candidates in the hiring process. In addition, perceived job relevance in evaluations has also been shown [3] to lead to positive candidate reactions. Candidates appreciate being asked in pre-hire assessments to apply job-relevant skills and solve the kinds of problems they’d encounter day to day in the role.

  • Check for consistency in your tools and methods.

We’d all like to be certain we’re being consistent and reducing bias, so make sure to check that your hiring process is the same for all applicants for a position. This means sending the same technical evaluation (if you’re using one) to all potential hires. It also means conducting structured interviews and asking all candidates the same questions. Research shows structured interviews have higher validity [9] and help reduce bias in hiring decisions. When candidates are asked the same questions, their answers can be compared without bringing in unconscious biases. All of these concrete markers of consistency can make candidates more trusting of the selection decision [10], no matter what that decision is.

  • Inform candidates about the process.

When candidates are more knowledgeable about a hiring process, they may regard it as more fair and transparent and have better reactions down the line. To promote awareness, recruiting and talent acquisition teams can provide information on the tools they’re using, including what they’re measuring and how they’re measuring it. They can also share details like how long evaluations will take and what materials the candidate will need to prepare. These kinds of details can make candidates feel more comfortable [11], less anxious, and more prepared. In turn, this may even help improve candidates’ performance [12].

3. After the selection process

  • Provide timely feedback.

Lack of timely information can be stressful to candidates, who often have applications pending elsewhere or are wondering whether they need to make arrangements to accept a new offer. Applicant tracking systems (ATS) can be useful in ensuring candidates hear back in an efficient, consistent manner and know where they are in the selection stages. You can also share detailed scoring reports (such as CodeSignal’s Coding Score and candidate reports [13]) with candidates, which can help them know where they stand. Whether or not a candidate progresses through the selection process, they’ll appreciate having constructive feedback to understand improvement areas and build up skills for future applications.

  • Be honest with candidates.

Not every candidate is going to be hired, but giving candidates information about the rationale behind the decision [14] can assist in mitigating negative reactions. While difficult, taking the time to explain tough selection decisions to rejected candidates can foster understanding and positive experiences. Communicate with all candidates, even the ones who are not selected. Encourage those not selected to apply in the future. Above all, treat all candidates with respect for the time they’ve spent in the selection process. Transparency can encourage candidates to remember their experience in a positive light, even when news of rejection is naturally disappointing.

  • Make space for two-way communication.

Communication with prospective hires has a tendency to be unnecessarily unilateral. Decisions are handed down to candidates with no room for meaningful conversation. This leaves candidates with a negative impression and also deprives the company of the opportunity to gain valuable insight. Two-way communication can help your organization learn about the selection process from the candidate’s perspective, and how it might be improved. By training your interviewers [8] to be good listeners, you can make it more likely that candidates feel heard. When candidates feel heard, they are more likely to walk away with a positive perception of the company, and you get the benefit of learning from their perspective.

How do I put these ideas into practice?

To encourage positive candidate reactions, start laying the groundwork well before a candidate’s first interaction with the company. Putting in work beforehand to support consistency, communication, and relevance in the hiring process can reap dividends for your recruitment team down the line. The above guide can help you and your team ask questions as you build a hiring framework, making hiring a more consistent, fair, and positive experience for software engineering and other technical candidates.

Interested in learning about how CodeSignal’s Hire suite can help make the hiring process a better experience for you and your candidates? Schedule a discovery call today.

About the author

Hayley Walton, MA, is an Assessment Research Consultant at CodeSignal. In her role, Hayley acts as a strategic partner and subject matter expert in the IO and talent assessment space to collaborate with both internal and external stakeholders. She received her Master’s degree in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Tulsa, and is an active member in the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology (SIOP).


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