3 Important Lessons We’ve Learned About Candidate Personas

What’s your type? Not exactly an HR-appropriate question, is it? And yet … More and more organizations are developing candidate personas—fictional representations of an ideal job candidate.

Just like in marketing, where they take the time to define target audience (through the use of buyer personas), recruiting teams use candidate personas to determine who is most likely to succeed at their company. Then, they steer their marketing efforts towards these personas. (Disclaimer: Marketing towards a persona should never equate to screening against applicants who don’t fit that persona. Never conflate candidate personas and actual candidates. If you do, you leave yourself vulnerable to discriminating candidates.)

We’ve seen quicker and better hires as a result of our own candidate personas and decided to share some thoughts on the matter. Here are three important lessons we’ve learned about candidate personas:

1. You know more than you realize. There are great resources to learn how to build a candidate persona online, but the truth is you probably already know how to start. Recruiters and HR pros are keen to observe what personalities lend themselves to success in certain roles. The longer you’ve worked with candidates, the more likely you are to have a basic understanding of what you are and aren’t looking for.

It’s almost always helpful to follow patterns of success. Look for patterns and similarities between different candidates (as we’ll discuss later) but make sure they’re rooted in logic. It doesn’t matter that your top salesperson wears lots of orange clothes, and this candidate is wearing an orange tie. That means nothing. But if a candidate is an obsessive runner and chess player with a long history in tech sales—just like your top salesperson? Maybe you’re on to something. The point is, as you begin to flesh our candidate personas, look for meaningful patterns, and you’ll realize you already have personas in mind.

2. It takes deliberate effort. Whenever hiring for a position, you need to have a clear plan. Having a plan means consciously hiring to fill a specific role and purpose, knowing how that role will help the organization, and what type of person you need to fill it. Indeed offers three steps to do this:

Evaluate your top performers. Look at your best employees—specifically those in similar roles to the one you’re hiring for—and find trends. Look at performance data, consider background, experience, and personality. Are there any commonalities between those who thrive? (Or, on the flip side, are their commonalities between those who struggle?) Candidate personas often reveal themselves when you consider the question, “What kinds of personalities are really attracted to this kind of position?”

Use your own hiring data. How did your best employees come to work on your team? Did they come through a specific channel? For example, if your best people all came from referrals, maybe you need to focus more on referrals. Was there a particular message that resonated with top performers in the recruiting/hiring process? Assuming you keep good records in your ATS, you’ll be able to parse your existing data and records to develop a consistent message to attract these right people.

Document your personas. Sit down with all the relevant parties (e.g. HR, hiring managers, recruiters, marketing) and work through these details. Compare notes and what has and hasn’t worked. Make sure everyone is on the same page on what is on brand and what isn’t. And then flesh out some candidate personas. Give them names, personalities, backgrounds, ages, and any other relevant information. And make sure everyone is considering these personas as they begin to market towards would-be candidates in your marketing efforts. Then, take all that you’ve learned, and make sure you’re selecting the right bait to catch the right fish.

3. It’s only a shortcut, not a foolproof plan. Candidate personas help get you on the right track, and—if done correctly—will get you more interviews with the right kind of candidate. But they aren’t perfect. And just like good recruiting, candidate personas will always be in need of tweaking. Once you develop your personas, use them only as much as they are helping. As time passes, the data will change, and with that change may come the realization that your candidate personas need to change, too.

It’s important to understand that candidate personas are only valuable to a certain point. Again, market to the personas you find useful, but don’t screen applicants based on them. Your goal is to avoid attrition, not segregate would-be good employees. Once you are in the final interview stage, get very thoughtful and strategic on a case-by-case (person-by-person) basis. Some of your best people will seem like the opposite of your candidate persona (and vice versa), and that’s okay. At the end of the day, your only focus should be to find the best people. A candidate persona is a great tool that will help you do that, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Thoughtful recruiting is.