How Delta Is Working to Improve Its Candidate Experience by Designing for the Disappointed

April 18, 2019

In a 2016 interview with NPR’s Marketplace, Delta CEO Ed Bastian was asked to describe his job in five words. Without hesitation, he replied: “Taking care of our people.”

For Jennifer Carpenter, vice president of talent acquisition at Delta, this answer also holds the secret to an exceptional candidate experience: caring. By showing you care, you leave candidates with a positive impression of your brand, even if they don’t ultimately land the job. “Every candidate is either a colleague or a customer,” Jennifer says, and caring for both matters.

Considering that Delta has to disappoint 99% of the million-plus candidates who apply every year for just over 10,000 jobs, candidates’ impressions can have a major impact on the airline’s brand — and its bottom line.

That’s why Jennifer and her team are “designing for the disappointed” when it comes to reimagining Delta’s candidate experience. They aim to delight every candidate no matter how far they get in the process, making them feel taken care of and exemplifying the Delta difference.

“We care because we believe our candidates are our customers,” Jennifer says. “We always strive to put ourselves on the other side of the counter to treat our passengers as we would want to be treated. We also know that people talk, both the delighted and the disappointed. For good or for bad, a tweet or text or review site post travels around the world in moments, creating either a halo or a hellish effect for your brand.”

At Talent Connect 2018, Jennifer shared the five key tenets of her “design for the disappointed” approach — and how it will continue to impact Delta’s employer brand.

1. Let candidates tell their story: Delta uses video interviewing tools and AI to get to know candidates and remove bias

One of the biggest changes Delta has made is at the very top of the funnel. The airline uses HireVue’s video interviewing tools to move beyond the resume and learn more about its applicants.

“Just as we believe that every passenger on our airline has a story about where they’re coming from and where they’re going, we believe every resume is a person with a story to tell,” Jennifer says. “We are all far more than what can fit on a nine-by-eleven inch piece of paper. So we’re using technology to allow candidates to add their voice to the recruiting experience and to share their stories.”

This approach doesn’t just ensure that candidates feel heard. It also enables the recruiting team to make better, fairer decisions about who to move on to the next stage.

For its flight attendant positions, Delta uses HireVue to learn more about applicants’ intrinsic motivations and traits. It does this by asking them to record answers to questions like, “Tell us a story about how you helped somebody.” Using the platform’s built-in artificial intelligence capabilities, Delta can then gain deeper insights into how that person will perform on the job.

“We can consistently and fairly evaluate the thousands of people that are sharing their stories with us,” Jennifer says. “We can be more responsive and, above all else, fair.”

In a four-month period, Delta receives over 300,000 applications for an average of 1,000 flight attendant openings, so this technology has made it possible to embrace storytelling at scale.

But the company doesn’t just use this approach for high-volume hiring. Last fall, they invited some local students who were about to embark on MBA programs around the country to come to its World Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. There, after getting to know the students better, the recruiting team invited them to record their stories, such as the accomplishment they’re most proud of.

“We were able to take those stories to our leaders so that they can begin building relationships with these (hopefully) future Delta employees,” Jennifer says, “so that two years from now, when they graduate and they’re being courted, they’ll remember Delta — and when they come home to Atlanta, we’ll be an employer of choice for them.”

Since the students had likely been toiling over MBA applications for months, Jennifer says that the team took pains to make this process as simple as possible for them. This commitment to walking in a candidates’ shoes has also allowed Delta to make one crucial improvement to its HireVue screening process.

“We turned on the ability to re-record an answer,” Jennifer says. “Simple right? Previously, you had one shot. You had to master an unfamiliar technology, share your story, get your answer and your hair right, the lighting, the angle — all in one try.”

Today, 60% of Delta applicants use the re-record option. In the first few months after making that change, the company’s net promoter score jumped seven points — taking it to a staggering 95% for this part of the process.

“Regardless of the outcome, if we are asking people to spend time with us, we want to give them the time to be their best,” Jennifer says. “And the candidates are telling us, thank you.”

2. Create conversation starters, not dealbreakers: after realizing its application process was too long and tedious, Delta focused on removing barriers

Getting candidates talking and sharing their stories has been a major step for Delta. But when Jennifer’s team took the time to sit down and go through its own application process, it discovered the process itself was likely stifling many voices.

“We knew it was bad,” Jennifer says. “We didn’t know how bad. What we discovered was that our online application took about 60 minutes. Could you imagine booking a plane ticket with Delta and it taking an hour?”

Delta’s application process wasn’t just long and tedious. It also couldn’t be completed on mobile devices. Jennifer’s team started from scratch, introducing a simple quick-apply function that can be completed in five minutes on any device.

“For the 99% who will walk away disappointed, at least now we’ve given them back an hour in the process,” Jennifer says.

This leaner application gets candidates in the door, rather than turning them away. From there, they have a real chance to show what they’re made of, without it feeling like they’re dropping their resume into a black hole.

“We believe in conversation starters and not dealbreakers,” Jennifer says. “So often, we design experiences that actually discourage candidates instead of catering to the curious. With unemployment hovering around 4%, if you’re putting up any roadblocks to the curious, you’re doing so at your own peril.”

3. An informed candidate is the best candidate: Delta recruiters use videos and guides to help candidates self-select and be successful

Beyond removing friction in its application process, Delta also focuses on helping candidates to self-select out. They do this by providing plenty of information about what the job entails, since public perceptions of airline jobs don’t always tell the whole story.

“An informed candidate is the best candidate,” Jennifer says. “In thinking about how to keep them informed, we want to make sure that we’re creating realistic job previews. And it starts even before applying to Delta is more than a passing thought. We need to make sure that we’re marketing jobs realistically and effectively so candidates know what they’re signing up for.”

In the case of its flight attendant roles, Delta makes sure candidates know it’s not all jet-setting glamor before they apply. It’s 12-part “Earning Our Wings” video series shines a light on the rigorous training program that trainees undergo.

Even after a candidate has decided to apply, Delta aims to keep them as informed as possible throughout the process. Flight attendant candidates who reach the interview stage are sent a handy digital magazine that contains FAQs and tips on how to best present themselves during the remaining steps in the process.

“We need to invest in our candidate’s success,” Jennifer says. “By creating this engaging guide, you get to meet some flight attendants, and you get tips on how to be successful. It’s showing our candidates that we care enough about them to make them feel comfortable.”

Jennifer also takes the time to let candidates know who their interviewers will be, sharing their LinkedIn profiles and details about what they want to talk about. In time, she hopes to get hiring managers involved, creating short, personalized pre-interview videos for candidates that talk a little about the team, its challenges, and what the interviewers want to learn about the candidate.

“It sets a candidate at ease. They’d at least be able to pick me out from a crowd when I go to the lobby to pick them up for the interview,” she points out. “We all have the technology right now in our pockets to do this quick and cheap — our phones.”

4. Transparency creates trust: beyond keeping candidates informed about where they stand, Delta’s candor helps candidates make smart career moves

For the candidates who don’t make the cut, Jennifer is careful to avoid a common recruiting mistake: leaving candidates hanging.

“I have a theory on why we make them wait. It’s easier to be nice than it is to be kind,” she says. “It’s really uncomfortable to be transparent to someone, especially when you have news they don’t want to hear. But we think that by being transparent, we can create trust. Candor creates connections with our candidates.”

This kind of transparency is something Delta practices with its customers too. Jennifer says that on a recent flight, her pilot provided her and her fellow passengers up-to-date information about a delay — even though the delay was only 10 minutes. This empowered the passengers to finish making phone calls and to get settled in.

“That’s what we offer candidates when we let them know where they stand,” she says. “Let them go spend their time better elsewhere where they’re going to have an opportunity to be successful.”

Delta aims to be so transparent, in fact, that it will even admit to top candidates when the role isn’t right for them.

This is especially true for the IT recruiting team. After taking time to source and interview in-demand tech talent, knowing these candidates likely have competing offers, the team sits down with them and acts as a career coach to help them decide what’s best for them. Kayla Nall, who manages the IT talent acquisition team, says that recently her team let a great candidate go because he really wanted to work with technologies that Delta couldn’t offer.

“During that time, we were hoping that the trust and the candor that we were displaying with him would allow him and other applicants to think of us when they have a choice in the next move in their career,” Kaya says. “Hopefully, Delta is one that they trust and will come back to.”

5. Give back to move forward: Delta is experimenting with ways to help rejected candidates improve their skills, which also supports its pipeline

Jennifer’s favorite core tenet was borrowed from Oprah: to move forward, you have to give back.

“At Delta, we give back till it hurts. Quite literally — the American Red Cross named us the number one corporate donor in blood,” she laughs. “This is a bedrock for Delta’s culture, so it’s something that we felt was incredibly important to weave into our principals as a TA team.”

One way the team aims to give back is by providing candidate feedback — something candidates deeply want. For flight attendants, this involves a “talent card” outlining their customer service skills, framed around the candidate’s strengths.

“We want our flight attendants to know what we learned about them, what they’re good at, so that even if they don’t proceed to the next stage in our process, they take something away from the experience that helps them know a little more about themselves,” Jennifer says. “We think that’s incredibly important. We want our candidates to know we see them, we hear them, we’re curious about who they are as people. And this is one way we’re bringing that to life.”

Another step Jennifer hopes to implement is inspired by something Delta currently offers to its customers. Thanks to a partnership with LinkedIn Learning, passengers on Delta flights can access video courses on their in-flight entertainment systems. Jennifer would like to do something similar for all applicants.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could help candidates close skill gaps — give them that gift of knowledge throughout their recruiting experience?” she says. “It’s certainly one way of tempering people’s disappointment if they don’t get the gig.”

This act of giving back isn’t just designed to improve the candidate experience. It could also help the company identify candidates that are worth watching, based on whether they actually make use of the resources offered.

“It’s the curious folks, the ones that invest in themselves, that start to demonstrate those traits that we’re looking for,” Jennifer says. “The candidates that you extend the apple of knowledge to that take a bite are the ones that we want to talk to.”

Looking ahead: focus on the long-term, while making intentional impact along the way  

Since Jennifer joined Delta in early 2018, she’s brought about some major changes that have helped to quickly transform the candidate experience for every applicant. But she admits there is still a long way to go.

“We’re just getting started,” she says. “It might sound like we’ve got it all figured out, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. Progress is better than perfection, so we’re not waiting for things to be perfect. We’re not always getting it right, but we’re making progress.”

For companies that want to follow in Delta’s footsteps, this guide to creating a world-class interview process can help. After all, if it’s only a positive experience for the people who ultimately get hired, it’s not truly world-class. Jennifer also has one final piece of advice: treat candidates as well as you do customers — and as well as you’d want to be treated yourself.

“I hope that if people ever ask you to describe your job in five words," she says, "you’ll easily reply, ‘Taking care of our candidates.’”

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