What kind of experience do you offer to job candidates who apply for open roles at your organization? If you work in talent acquisition, you might think you have a pretty good idea of your company’s candidate experience. But when was the last time you really put yourself in their shoes to get a firsthand look at your hiring process, from beginning to end, from the job seeker’s perspective?

To get this behind-the-scenes look, consider borrowing a technique used in retail and other customer-facing sectors like hospitality: mystery shopping. A mystery shopper is essentially “undercover,” someone who’s hired to observe, interact and report on their experience with a store or company. Organizations use this method to see how shoppers are treated and, ultimately, to understand and improve their customers’ journey.

In my previous work, I’ve seen these programs in operation and interacted with mystery shoppers, whose research runs the gamut from asking store employees hard questions requiring thoughtful responses to interrupting an employee midcheckout with something trivial, like how to find a product. The goal: create varying circumstances and live the customers’ experience. And this is where mystery shopping can benefit your candidate experience — by letting you live your hiring process from the job seeker’s perspective. 

Go with the flow

The first thing to do when mystery shopping your hiring process is apply to all of your company’s open roles. Take notes as you go and keep a record of typos, inconsistencies, confusing information and, generally speaking, anything that looks or feels off. Be sure to also count each click you make throughout the application process. 

Why? In a recent report on the state of the apply flow, InFlight, an employee experience platform, mystery shopped the career sites of Fortune 500 companies to gain insights into the application process for software developer applicants. On average, it took 51 clicks to complete an application. Even then, the candidates weren’t finished; they still had to hit “apply now” three or more times before their applications were finally complete. Not exactly expeditious. 

The application is only one part of the candidate experience, so once you’ve hit submit it’s time to sit back, wait patiently and see what happens. Do you hear back from a recruiter? Do they schedule an interview? Do you receive feedback? Or does your resume go into that big black hole and get lost? Consider how this would make you feel as an actual applicant — and what your experiences could mean for the company’s employer brand.

Now, repeat the same exercise with one of your competitors. Get as far as you can through the application process to develop a sense of their candidate experience from different angles. Then ask yourself: How do our processes compare?

Pay attention to detail

Beyond the number of steps in the process and any errors in the job description, dive deep into the application details. Keep in mind that a job description isn’t only what’s written — what you aren’t saying is worth noting, too. If your goal is to be more inclusive in your hiring process, are you communicating that to candidates? Are you explaining what steps you’re taking to support a culture of belonging? The same goes for other important employment aspects, such as work-life balance, flexibility and remote work. Make note of how much information your company shares in the job description and where what’s shared could be clearer. 

As you take a closer look at your hiring process, consider ease of use and accessibility. If your applicant pool is applying on mobile devices, remove any upload fields and make sure buttons and dropdowns display accurately across devices. And for those applicants with motor, sensory and neurological differences, the Job Accommodation Network offers suggestions for designing a user-friendly experience that’s accessible to all. 

Draw a map

When I was younger and worked in retail, a mystery shopper came up to me in the store I managed and said we needed a map. Her take was that the store was well-lit and clean and offered everything it should — but that customers didn’t know where to find what they needed. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was brilliant advice. 

Everyone in talent acquisition knows that candidates want to learn more, whether about the job, the hiring process or what it’s like to work for your organization. When you use mystery shopping to live and analyze your company’s candidate experience, you’re able to create a better map. Mystery shopping helps you fill in gaps in your existing map, adding the details you need to understand and improve the experience. From revealing missing bits of information in a job description to highlighting ways to improve hiring processes, the mystery shopper collects data that’s otherwise inaccessible. And, by allowing you to temporarily transform into the role of job candidate, mystery shopping provides the firsthand, human perspective that turns your map from grayscale to color.

To keep your map up to date and nip any potential issues in the bud, I recommend mystery shopping on a quarterly basis. Refer back to your map and update it each and every time you go mystery shopping. Use it to guide candidates on their journey — and keep everyone on the same page.