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Computers in
Human Behavior
Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398
www.elsevier.com/locate/comphumbeh

E-recruitment and the benefits of organizational


web appeal q
Lori Foster Thompson a,*, Phillip W. Braddy b, Karl L. Wuensch c
a
Department of Psychology, North Carolina State University, Campus Box 7650, Raleigh, NC 27695-7650, USA
b
Center for Creative Leadership, One Leadership Place, P.O. Box 26300, Greensboro, NC 27438-6300, USA
c
Department of Psychology, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858-4353, USA

Available online 8 April 2008

Abstract

This study examined the influences of website design on prospective job seekers. A total of 182
participants accessed and reviewed an online job ad. Afterwards, they rated: (a) the attractiveness
of the ad’s formatting, (b) the usability of the website, (c) overall evaluations of the organization’s
web appeal, (d) impressions of the organization, and (e) willingness to pursue employment with the
hiring organization. Although both the formatting attractiveness and usability of online recruitment
materials influenced participants’ inclinations to pursue jobs, formatting was more important than
usability. Moreover, impressions of the employer mediated the relationship between satisfaction with
the website and willingness to pursue employment with the organization. Overall, this research
advances knowledge by applying signaling theory to the web-based recruitment domain and by test-
ing a mediated relationship implied therein. In addition, this is the first study to introduce relative
weights analysis to the recruitment literature.
Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Job seeker attitudes; Organizational websites; Relative weights analysis; Signaling theory; Website
characteristics; Web-based recruitment

q
Portions of this research were completed while the first two authors were affiliated with East Carolina
University. This research was presented at the 19th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and
Organizational Psychology, Chicago, IL, April, 2004.
*
Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 919 513 7845; fax: +1 919 515 1716.
E-mail address: lfthompson@ncsu.edu (L.F. Thompson).

0747-5632/$ - see front matter Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.02.014
L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398 2385

1. Introduction

The recruitment of high-quality employees remains a fundamental goal for organiza-


tions. Now more than ever, researchers and practitioners recognize the need to understand
the manner in which prospective applicants are attracted to organizations and jobs (Lie-
vens, van Dam, & Anderson, 2002). Meanwhile, advances in technology have transformed
the way recruitment can be handled, and the past decade has seen a marked trend toward
Internet-based recruitment, especially among large, multinational organizations (Ander-
son, 2003; McManus & Ferguson, 2003). Currently, however, little is known about appli-
cants’ reactions to e-recruitment procedures because research has only begun to explore
this issue (Anderson, 2003; Cober, Brown, Keeping, & Levy, 2004; Williamson, Lepak,
& King, 2003). The present study addressed this void by examining the degree to which
people’s perceptions of an online job ad’s format and usability forecasted their intentions
to apply for the position. We also tested whether impressions of the employer mediated the
relationship between prospective applicants’ reactions to an organizational web page and
their willingness to pursue a job with the institution in question.

1.1. Web formatting, usability, and the attraction of e-recruits

There has recently been a ‘‘headlong rush” to use the Internet for recruitment, with
some reports indicating that as many as 90% of large US companies are now recruiting
via the web (Anderson, 2003; Cappelli, 2001). Online searches have proven to be quite
popular among job seekers. When Feldman and Klaas (2002) asked graduate business
school alumni to indicate which job search strategies had been most helpful in getting
promising job leads/offers, Internet job hunting ranked second – behind personal network-
ing but ahead of headhunters, newspaper advertisements, and a variety of other
techniques.
The popularity of web-based recruiting is perhaps unsurprising in light of the conve-
niences it offers to applicants and hiring organizations. Online tools can be exploited to
direct job seekers to suitable vacancies, and they can ease application logistics. Recruits
filling out web-based forms presumably incur fewer costs (in terms of time and money)
than do those mailing paper application packets. Further, organizations can utilize the
Internet to sort through résumés and contact prospective applicants (Cappelli, 2001). They
can also add recruitment pages to existing organizational sites to attract candidates by
advertising position openings and marketing themselves to job seekers spanning the globe
(Galanaki, 2002).
With regard to attracting candidates, individual company web pages play a critical role
in the electronic recruitment process (Zusman & Landis, 2002). Organizations’ web pages
can provide candidates with the opportunity to learn about the institution (e.g., corporate
values, benefits, and the like), search for and preview job ads, submit résumés, and/or fill
out application forms (Lievens et al., 2002). Corporate home pages are therefore the first
place many people look when evaluating potential employers (Cappelli, 2001). Even appli-
cants using third-party sites (e.g., job boards and job search engines) are exposed to orga-
nizations’ websites early in the job search process because third-party sites often link
applicants to individual companies’ pages (Zusman & Landis, 2002).
Because prospective employees commonly encounter companies’ electronic representa-
tions early in the job search process, organizational home pages should be designed with
2386 L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398

potential recruits in mind (Cappelli, 2001). In all likelihood, attractive formatting and
straightforward functionality (i.e., user friendliness) are two factors that will enhance a
website’s appeal. Cober, Brown, Keeping et al. (2004) include website facßade and percep-
tions of usability among the important drivers of applicant attraction in their model of
organizational website recruitment. Similarly, Cober, Brown, and Levy (2004) indicate
that website content is not the only important component of an organization’s recruitment
strategy: Form (e.g., aesthetics) and functionality matter too.
Due to the importance of aesthetics, the meaning of ‘‘attractive formatting” has been
considered in the literature. Although some authors have suggested that bulleted text in
lieu of paragraphs augments the attractiveness of an online job ad (Metz & Junion-Metz,
1996; Zusman & Landis, 2002), research by Braddy, Thompson, Wuensch, and Grossnic-
kle (2003) does not support this assertion: Two groups in their study who were exposed to
either bulleted text or text presented in paragraph format did not form significantly differ-
ent perceptions of an organization’s recruitment image. Attractive formatting may be
achieved, however, via bold colors and creative fonts (Metz & Junion-Metz, 1996; Zusman
& Landis, 2002). Zusman and Landis examined a priori groupings of low, moderate, and
high-quality organizational websites and found that moderate sites with engaging fonts,
colors, and layouts were preferred to low-quality sites with limited black-and-white text
in a traditional read-only paragraph format. More recently, Cober, Brown, Keeping
et al. (2004) stated that unity and contrast are critical to website design. When components
of a website are visually connected in a meaningful way, unity is achieved. Contrast
involves maximizing the distinctness of design elements that are conceptually different.
A website’s appeal can also be enhanced by ensuring that it functions reliably and is
easy to use. Organizations should therefore provide tools for easy navigation and allow
direct access to the information the viewer wishes to see (Hannon, 1998; Zusman & Lan-
dis, 2002). Research by Zusman and Landis has indicated that high-quality organizational
web pages containing attractive colors, pictures, exciting/bulleted/concise text, and a tool
bar allowing for easy navigation are preferred to moderate-quality sites simply character-
ized by engaging fonts, colors, and layouts, but no pictures/navigational toolbar. When
Feldman and Klaas (2002) asked job seekers for advice on how to make online recruiting
more applicant friendly, 2 of the top 5 suggestions focused on usability (i.e., improve pro-
cedures for submitting résumés; make website navigation more user friendly). A study by
Braddy et al. (2003) confirmed that navigational ease enhances the appeal of online job
ads.
While the preceding discussion focuses on factors that influence the general appeal of
organizational websites, it is also important to consider which variables actually shape
job seekers’ application decisions. To date, ‘‘we know very little about which information
from Internet-based job sites applicants use and how they use that information to apply or
to advance in the job search process” (Lievens et al., 2002, p. 587). The previously cited
studies by Braddy et al. (2003) and Zusman and Landis (2002) provide some initial insights
into this issue. After viewing the low, moderate, and high-quality websites described
above, Zusman and Landis’ participants rated their inclinations to pursue employment
with the corresponding organizations. Although results did not reveal significant differ-
ences between the high-quality and moderate-quality pages, participants expressed a
greater willingness to pursue employment with the organizations characterized by moder-
ate/high-quality pages compared to those represented by low-quality sites. Braddy et al.
L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398 2387

found that people viewing easily navigated websites were more willing to apply for a job
than were individuals using sites that were difficult to navigate.
In light of prior findings suggesting that website attractiveness and usability may shape
people’s decisions to apply for jobs, the following prediction was tested:

Hypothesis 1. Perceptions of the formatting attractiveness and usability of online


recruitment materials will positively predict inclinations to apply for jobs that are
advertised on the web.
To date, there has been a dearth of research conducted to determine which aspects of
recruitment websites most influence prospective applicants’ attraction to an organization
(Cober, Brown, Levy, Cober, & Keeping, 2003). This may be due to the historical difficulty
of assessing the relative weights prospective applicants place on various recruitment fac-
tors when considering a job or organization in question. Asking applicants to self-report
(e.g., rank) the importance of website features is problematic due to a lack of self-aware-
ness (Judge & Bretz, 1992). While policy-capturing methodology overcomes this problem,
it commonly requires people to make numerous judgments in response to various hypo-
thetical scenarios and has been criticized due to the artificiality of the task and judgments
required (Johnson, 2000). Multiple regression allows researchers to identify the recruit-
ment factors (e.g., website features) that predict job pursuit intentions. However, beta
weight comparisons do not necessarily provide information regarding the relative impor-
tance of predictors due to non-zero predictor intercorrelations.
Johnson’s (2000, 2001a) relative weights analysis is a somewhat recent solution to the
long-standing problem of how to determine the relative importance of various factors
driving job pursuit inclinations. A relative weight reflects the proportionate contribution
each predictor makes to R2 when considering both its unique contribution and its contri-
bution when combined with other predictors (Johnson, 2000). Because they sum to R2, rel-
ative weights can be expressed as percentages of the predictable variance, thereby
providing easily interpretable indices that are used to compare and contrast the influence
exerted by multiple predictors (Johnson, 2001b). Although this analysis has not been pre-
viously applied to the recruitment domain, it offers a viable means for comparing the rel-
ative importance people place on different website features when considering a prospective
employer. Because no past work has attempted to evaluate the relative importance of for-
matting versus usability, the present study extends the literature by using Johnson’s (2000,
2001a) relative weights analysis to investigate the following issue:
Research Question: To what degree do website attractiveness and usability differentially
influence inclinations to apply for jobs advertised online?
Information concerning the relative importance of attractiveness and usability can
inform practice by steering web design efforts in the most fruitful directions possible. If
one variable emerges as relatively more important, then organizations should make that
variable the priority when designing web pages to attract candidates.

1.2. Signaling theory and impressions of the organization as a mediator

As noted above, past research has demonstrated that website features can affect peo-
ple’s inclinations to apply for jobs. The reason behind this finding, however, is uncer-
tain, causing some authors to call for a greater emphasis on the cognitive processes
2388 L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398

through which web-based recruitment features influence outcomes like attraction (Wil-
liamson et al., 2003). Meanwhile, other authors ‘‘plea for more theory-driven research
in the domains of applicant perceptions” (Lievens et al., 2002, p. 595). Why might fea-
tures as superficial as formatting affect significant decisions regarding whether to submit
a job application? Perhaps surface characteristics become important because they signal
vital messages to applicants.
Selection procedures are commonly considered a critical source of information for
applicants; consequently, the image created by a selection procedure is believed to affect
an organization’s ability to attract candidates (Mecan, Avedon, Paese, & Smith, 1994;
Richman-Hirsch, Olson-Buchanan, & Drasgow, 2000; Smither, Reilly, Millsap, Pearlman,
& Stoffey, 1993). Signaling theory, which applies this logic to the recruitment domain,
asserts that job seekers form impressions of organizations simply based on their impres-
sions of the recruiters who represent them (Rynes & Miller, 1983). This phenomenon arises
because people perceive recruiters as signals of how it would feel to work for a company.
The signaling process can occur under various circumstances, but it is especially likely
when applicants must make employment decisions based on little information about orga-
nizations under consideration (Rynes, Bretz, & Gerhart, 1991). This is frequently the case
when people are searching for jobs online.
Signaling theory implies a mediated model wherein: (a) impressions of the recruiter
shape impressions of the organization, and (b) impressions of the organization in turn
affect applicants’ inclinations to pursue employment. Research has supported the first link-
age in this model. For example, Rynes and Miller (1983) examined this issue by asking
participants to evaluate companies after viewing videotapes of recruiters portrayed as hav-
ing either negative or positive affect (i.e., frequent smiles, good eye contact, encouraging
nods, and knowledgeable demeanor). Results indicated that people not only formed more
favorable impressions of companies represented by recruiters with positive affect, but they
also believed these companies treated employees better than those represented by the
recruiters with negative affect. Studies such as this provide evidence that applicants per-
ceive recruiter characteristics to forecast what it would be like to work for a company rep-
resented by a particular recruiter.
Additional literature supports the second linkage (i.e., the relationship between impres-
sions of the organization and willingness to pursue employment) in the mediated model
implied by signaling theory. For example, Gatewood, Gowan, and Lautenschlager
(1993) asked participants to rate the images portrayed by various companies and then
indicate the probability that they would pursue employment with each organization.
Results revealed that image was positively related to willingness to pursue employment
with the organizations under investigation. The finding that organizations with favorable
images are especially attractive to candidates has led a number of researchers (e.g., High-
house, Zickar, Thorsteinson, Stierwalt, & Slaughter, 1999) to apply marketing principles
to the recruitment domain.
Although the preceding research was conducted outside the area of web-based recruit-
ment, we propose that signaling theory can be generalized to explain why superficial web-
site features affect decisions to pursue an online job posting. Similar to when the medium is
the recruiter, applicants may make certain judgments about companies on the basis of
their web pages. This may occur because applicants perceive the web page to signal the
standards of excellence they would experience while employed with the company. As
one of Zusman and Landis’s (2002) participants stated, ‘‘The presentation of the Web
L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398 2389

pages (color, picture, options, etc.) definitely made my emotions towards the companies
different” (p. 294).
In short, both signaling theory and qualitative excerpts from the literature imply that
impressions of a hiring organization mediate the relationship between evaluations of the
organization’s web page and job seekers’ inclinations to apply for a job. The present study
was designed to test this hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2. Individuals’ impressions of an organization will partially mediate the


relationship between their reactions to the employer’s web page and their intentions to
pursue a job with the organization.

2. Method

2.1. Participants

One hundred and eighty-two students enrolled at a large southeastern US university


voluntarily participated in this study. The sample consisted of 74% Caucasians, 15% Afri-
can Americans, 3% Asians, 2% Hispanics, 1% Native Americans, and 5% of participants
who self-identified as ‘‘other”. Approximately 66% of the participants were female, and the
mean age was 20.2 (SD = 3.2). Participants indicated that they spent an average of 9.0 h
on the Internet per week (SD = 7.6).

2.2. Experimental stimuli and design

Participants viewed one of four versions of an organizational website supposedly


maintained by a fictitious company called ‘‘The Family Development Association”.
Each of the four websites displayed identical organizational pictures and logos (see
Fig. 1) and contained links to additional information related to the organization’s mis-
sion, the services and resources it offered, and a job ad that broadly described one of
its openings for the position of an ‘‘Outreach and Program Development Associate”.
To some degree, the advertised position was described as one that would be tailored
to the interests and skills of the employee selected for the job. It was designed to be
flexible so that it would capture the interests of people with a wide variety of career
goals.
The four aforementioned organizational websites were equated with respect to informa-
tional content, but they differed with regard to two dimensions referred to here as website
usability and formatting. Usability reflected whether the job ad for the ‘‘Outreach and
Program Development Associate” mentioned above was easy or difficult to find. Specifi-
cally, usability was operationally defined with regard to the number of web pages that a
participant had to traverse (and the amount of time required) to locate the job ad. In some
instances, participants had to visit only a few web pages to locate the job ad (i.e., ‘‘high
usability” websites), whereas in other cases, participants had to obtain a difficult-to-find
four-digit job code from the organizational website and in turn use this to access the tar-
geted job ad. The effectiveness of the usability manipulation was confirmed by the results
presented later.
2390 L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398

Fig. 1. Screen shot of organizational web page viewed by participants.

Website formatting was the second dimension on which the four organizational web-
sites differed. Specifically, some website job ads were presented in paragraph format, while
others were presented using bulleted lists.
The manipulations of website usability and formatting as described above resulted in
the four organizational websites used in this study: one was easy to navigate and had a
job ad that was presented in paragraph format; the second was easy to navigate but con-
tained a job ad that was presented in bulleted lists; the third was difficult to navigate and
contained a job ad that was presented in paragraph format; and finally, the fourth website
was difficult to navigate but displayed a job ad using bulleted lists. Participants were ran-
domly assigned to one of these four websites and then asked to locate and review the
aforementioned job ad for the ‘‘Outreach and Program Development Associate” position.
With regard to our study design, this multivariate research included the following five
predictor and criterion variables: (a) perceived attractiveness of the online ad’s formatting,
(b) perceived usability of the website, (c) overall evaluations of the organization’s web
appeal, (d) impressions of the organization, and (e) willingness to pursue employment with
the Family Development Association.
Note that the effects of the website manipulations described above were not the focus of
this study.1 Instead, people’s perceptions and reactions to the websites (measured on a
continuous scale) were the central predictors in our research hypotheses. Nevertheless,

1
The degree to which variations in the sites affected perceptions of web page attractiveness and other outcome
variables is not addressed here but was considered elsewhere using a subset of the data examined in the present
study (see Braddy et al., 2003).
L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398 2391

the inclusion of several different organizational website stimuli in this research was consid-
ered critical. Presenting a variety of websites to our sample encouraged variable reactions
to the company and its Internet recruitment ad. This helped prevent a restriction of range
on the predictor and criterion variables of interest, which may have occurred if everyone in
the study had viewed the same website.

2.3. Procedure

Data collection took place in a research laboratory. The lab contained four IntelTM Pen-
tiumÒ-class computers, each within a cubicle that visually isolated computer users from
participants at neighboring workstations. All four computers were installed with Micro-
softÓ Internet ExplorerTM software. Data collection sessions included 1–4 participants,
depending on the number of volunteers who signed up for each time slot.
Upon their arrival to the lab, participants were asked to use a computer to access and
review the Outreach and Program Development Associate job ad. Participants were led to
believe that they were each assessing a different organization’s web page. They were told
that both the company and job ad under investigation were real; however, names and web
addresses were changed to protect the organization’s anonymity. They were asked to
notify the experimenter (who remained in the lab for the entire experiment) once they
had read the job ad. If participants did not find the four-digit job code needed to access
the Internet job ad within 15 min, the experimenter gave them the job code and helped
them access the job ad. After reading the job ad, participants were asked to imagine that
they were qualified for this job, which was in their field of interest. They were then given
the research questionnaire that is discussed next.

2.4. Measures

The research questionnaire collected information on demographic characteristics, aca-


demic status, and past experiences with technology. It also used a 1 (strongly disagree) to 5
(strongly agree) scale to solicit perceptions pertaining to the predictor and criterion vari-
ables, which were measured via the items described below.
To assess reactions to the organization’s web page, the research questionnaire included
five items. One of these items gathered specific opinions about the attractiveness of the ad’s
formatting (‘‘The formatting of this company’s job advertisement was appealing”), one
solicited usability perceptions (‘‘I had a hard time accessing this company’s online job
advertisement”, reverse scored), and the remaining three items gathered general impres-
sions of the online job ad (e.g., ‘‘The Family Development Association’s online job adver-
tisement was well-done”). The first two items were examined individually in the test of
Hypothesis 1 and were also combined with the three general questions to form the 5-item
scale measuring organizational web appeal (a = .78), which was used in testing our second
hypothesis.
Next, a 5-item scale (a = .86) was used to assess the mediator included in Hypothesis 2,
i.e., participants’ impressions of the hiring organization. An example item is ‘‘I was
impressed with the hiring company”. Two of the items from this scale were drawn from
a study conducted by Turban and Keon (1993).
Finally, a 3-item scale (a = .86), also adapted from Turban and Keon (1993), measured
the criterion variable included in Hypotheses 1 and 2, i.e., participants’ inclinations to pur-
2392 L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398

sue employment with the hiring organization. An example item is ‘‘If given a chance, I
would try to get a job with this company”.

3. Results

3.1. Manipulation check and relationships with demographics

Consistent with the subset of data presented by Braddy et al. (2003), the results of the
current study showed that participants in the low-usability condition traversed signifi-
cantly more web pages to find the job ad than did those in the high-usability condition
(see Table 1). As shown in Table 1, it also took participants assigned to the low-usability
condition significantly more time to locate the targeted job ad, whereas those in the high-
usability condition were able to find the ad more quickly. Taken together, these back-
ground analyses confirmed that participants collectively experienced varying amounts of
navigational difficulty.
Next, we examined whether various demographic groups differed with regard to the five
study variables of interest. Correlational analyses revealed that age was not significantly
related to the measures investigated in this study. Moreover, independent samples t-tests
and a series of ANOVAs indicated that gender and ethnic subgroups did not maintain sig-
nificantly different perceptions regarding the attractiveness of the online ad’s formatting,
the usability of the website, overall evaluations of the organization’s web page, impres-
sions of the organization, and intentions to pursue employment.

3.2. Influence of formatting attractiveness and usability

Hypothesis 1 indicated that perceptions of formatting attractiveness and usability


would predict inclinations to pursue employment. To test this hypothesis, responses to
the ‘‘willingness to pursue employment” scale were regressed onto the first two items from
the ‘‘organizational web appeal” scale. The two predictor variables, which were not signif-
icantly related to each other (r = .10, N = 182, p = .18), were significantly associated with
the criterion of interest: our multiple regression analysis revealed a value of R2 = .19, F (2,
179) = 20.68, p < .001. Both format attractiveness perceptions, r0 = .41, b1 = .40,
t(179) = 5.83, p < .001, and the usability perceptions, r0 = .18, b2 = .14, t(179) = 2.12,
p = .036, had significant partial and zero-order correlations with willingness to pursue
employment. Hypothesis 1 was therefore supported.

Table 1
Effects of website usability manipulation on ease of accessing job ad
Measured variables High-usability Low-usability
M (SD) M (SD) df a t p d^
Web pages accessed prior to job ad 10.20 (13.78) 50.34 (42.33) 108 8.47 <.001 1.26
Minutes elapsed prior to job ad 2.48 (2.90) 7.05 (5.03) 149 7.53 <.001 1.10
Note: Within each usability condition, the data were collapsed across the two text-formatting levels.
a
The degrees of freedom within groups were adjusted downward, and a separate variances test was employed
when the two conditions failed to demonstrate homogeneity of variance. The number of web pages accessed prior
to the job ad was not recorded for the first ten participants; thus, N = 172 for the first dependent variable, and
N = 182 for the second dependent variable.
L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398 2393

To address the research question posed earlier, we examined the relative influence of
website attractiveness versus usability on inclinations to apply for jobs advertised online.
Johnson’s (2000, 2001a) relative weights analysis was used to determine the manner by
which participants arrived at overall judgments concerning their willingness to pursue
employment with the Family Development Association. Table 2 shows the relative weights
of our two predictor variables (see Johnson, 2000, 2001a; for computational details). These
results indicate that when considering the likelihood that they would pursue employment
with the Family Development Association, participants put more weight on the attractive-
ness of the online job ad’s format (85.7%) than on usability (14.3%). In accordance with
the guidelines set forth by Johnson (2000, 2001a), a bootstrap procedure was used to help
interpret these differences. A total of 300 random samples (with replacement) of size N
were taken, relative weights were calculated for each sample, and the standard deviations
for the 300 sets of relative weights were computed. These standard deviations, which rep-
resented the standard errors of the relative weights, were then multiplied by ±1.96. These
products were added to our relative weights to construct 95% confidence intervals around
both, thereby allowing us to interpret the differences between the relative weights of the
predictors. As can be seen in Table 2, participants considering the possibility of employ-
ment with the Family Development Association saw formatting as significantly more
important than usability, as indicated by the fact that the confidence intervals around
these two predictors did not overlap.

3.3. The mediation model (signaling theory)

Our second and final hypothesis predicted that signaling theory would explain the rela-
tionship between website design features and inclinations to pursue employment with the
Family Development Association. Specifically, we expected participants’ evaluations of
the hiring organization to partially mediate the relationship between their impressions
of the organization’s web page and their willingness to apply. A path analysis was utilized
to test this prediction, and the results revealed that all four of the requisite conditions for
mediation outlined by Baron and Kenny (1986) were satisfied. In the context of this study,
these conditions were as follows: (a) participants’ evaluations of the website were corre-
lated with their willingness to apply (r = .59, N = 182, p < .001); (b) perceptions of the
website’s appeal were correlated with impressions of the hiring organization (r = .66,
N = 182, p < .001); (c) willingness to apply was significantly predicted by the impression
of the hiring organization when controlling for the effect of the evaluations of the website’s
appeal (b = .63, N = 182, p < .001); and (d) the partial relationship between evaluations of

Table 2
Weights reflecting the relative importance of web page format and usability on assessments of whether to apply
for a job advertised online
Predictor SE Relative weight percentage (%) 95% Confidence interval
Format attractiveness 9.54 85.7 67.0–104.4
Usability 9.54 14.3 4.4–33.0
Note: Johnson (2000, 2001a) can be consulted for an explanation of the calculation of raw relative weights.
Relative weight percentages were computed by dividing individual raw weights by their sum and multiplying by
100.
2394 L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398

Impression of
the Hiring
Organization
.63**
.66**

Evaluations of Willingness to
.18* Pursue
Organizational
Website Employment

Fig. 2. Mediated relationship between evaluations of the website and inclinations to pursue employment. Note:
The direct and indirect effect coefficients were .18 and .42, respectively. The indirect effect coefficient was
computed by multiplying the path coefficient between the impression of recruitment image and the impression of
the hiring organization (.66) by the path coefficient between the impression of the hiring organization and
willingness to apply (.63). *p < .01, **p < .001.

the website’s appeal and willingness to apply, holding the effect of the impression of the
hiring organization constant (b = .18, N = 182, p = .008), was smaller in magnitude than
the zero-order correlation between the evaluations of the website’s appeal and willingness
to apply (r = .59, N = 182, p < .001). Fig. 2 offers a graphic representation of the relation-
ships mentioned above, which provided support for Hypothesis 2.

4. Discussion

Despite the rapid growth of online job postings, there is a great need for more research
directed toward e-recruitment (Rozelle & Landis, 2002). The present study began to
address this deficiency and demonstrated several noteworthy findings. First, although both
the formatting attractiveness of online job ads and organizational website usability appear
to shape prospective applicants’ intentions to pursue employment with a given organiza-
tion, the former predictor is more important than the latter. As an anonymous reviewer
pointed out, one can perhaps use Tversky and Kahneman’s (1973) work on memory to
explain the importance job seekers place on visual appeal. Their work indicates that people
rely more heavily on, and exhibit preferences for, stimuli that are easily accessible in mem-
ory. Similarly, job applicants may place more weight on, and exhibit preferences for,
attractive websites if they remain more accessible in memory than unattractive websites
maintained by competing organizations.
Second, our results demonstrated that impressions of an organization partially mediate
the relationship between the organization’s web appeal and job seekers’ willingness to pur-
sue employment with the institution in question. This finding indicated that signaling the-
ory can be generalized to the domain of Internet recruiting, thereby addressing the call for
theory-driven research in the area of e-recruitment. It also helps explain why features as
superficial as a web page’s aesthetic appeal may affect a decision as significant as whether
to submit a job application.

4.1. Limitations

It is important to attend to several limitations when interpreting the pattern of findings


described above. First, the sample investigated was largely female, which may limit the
generalizability of our findings. It is encouraging to point out, however, that there were
L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398 2395

no apparent gender differences with regard to the measured variables examined in this
study.
Second, our reliance on a student sample may also restrict this study’s external validity.
However, it should be noted that many organizations implement online recruitment for
the express purpose of attracting passive job seekers and young graduates (Galanaki,
2002). In addition, a number of jobs are filled using college recruitment tactics, such as
the placement of recruiters on campuses (Rynes & Boudreau, 1986). Thus, the sample
under investigation may share some important features with individuals whom organiza-
tions spend significant resources trying to recruit.
Third, we should emphasize that signaling theory predicts that peripheral features of a
recruitment medium, such as website design, may have more influential effects on individ-
uals’ organizational perceptions when they have little knowledge of a hiring organization.
Though in many cases applicants applying for jobs online will not have access to a lot of
organizational information prior to starting their job search, they may generally have
more organizational information than did participants in the current study given that
we used a fictitious organization and website. At present, it is most appropriate to gener-
alize the current findings to job seekers who lack prior knowledge of a hiring organization
of interest. Because an organizational website is the first place many job seekers go to learn
about a hiring organization (Cappelli, 2001), this type of scenario is not necessarily
uncommon.
In reality, deciding whether to apply for a job is a matter most people take seriously.
Considering the high stakes associated with this decision, actual job seekers are probably
more motivated and attentive to their job searches, compared to participants taking part
in an experiment. Actual job seekers may be especially apt to use any available informa-
tion to sincerely try formulate judgments about a prospective employer. If this holds true,
website usability and attractiveness issues could be even more salient to actual job seekers
than they were to our participants. In short, it is important to point out that our data may
provide a conservative estimate of the phenomena of interest when they occur in the ‘‘real
world”.

4.2. Practical implications

The research-practice gap still exists in personnel selection, particularly in the area of
applicant reactions to online recruitment (Anderson, 2003; Lievens et al., 2002). Although
e-recruitment has seen phenomenal success within a very short period of time (Galanaki,
2002), the scientific literature offers little information regarding why this tool has been suc-
cessful and how practitioners can best exploit online resources to attract new employees.
This study begins to address the research-practice gap by providing the following data-
driven advice for organizations wishing to attract more and better applicants. Although
website formatting may seem superficial, its importance should not be underestimated.
According to this study, companies should spend at least as much time and money making
their recruitment sites visually appealing as they do ensuring their sites are easy to use.
According to Cober, Brown, Keeping et al. (2004), unity and contrast are critical aesthetic
properties that web designers need to pay attention to. With regard to usability, organiza-
tions can make their websites easy to use by placing their job ads no more than several
clicks away from their home pages. For example, an organization may consider including
2396 L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398

a link to ‘‘employment opportunities” on its home page, which in turn takes applicants
directly to a list of available job positions.
At present, it is not difficult to find organizations that would benefit from this advice.
Even a cursory review of companies’ web pages reveals considerable variability in the
attractiveness and user friendliness of recruitment sites available to prospective employees.
Although website design may seem like a frivolous or unnecessary expense to some orga-
nizational decision makers, the empirical link between recruitment sites and applicant
attraction suggests otherwise. As shown in this study, web design can have implications
for recruitment in the near term. As such, it may also have implications for workforce
quality in the long term, since large applicant pools allow organizations to be highly selec-
tive when hiring. Thus, decision makers responsible for resource allocations should view
their organization’s web page as an important communication, recruitment, and public
relations medium worthy of investment.

4.3. Research directions

In addition to its practical implications, this study offers avenues for further research in
the area of Internet recruiting. Future studies should be conducted to examine the bound-
ary conditions of our findings and consider additional variables that may influence appli-
cants’ decision processes during web-based job searches. For instance, it is important to
better understand what types of attributions job seekers make about companies when they
perceive various Internet features and characteristics. Perhaps user friendly recruitment
sites prompt particular assumptions (e.g., ‘‘the application process will be straightfor-
ward”) while well-formatted sites induce other beliefs (e.g., ‘‘employees at this company
are pleasant”, or ‘‘this is a prestigious organization to work for”). More research is needed
to shed light on the cognitive processes activated when applicants view websites during the
job search process.
Studies examining individual differences in reactions to recruitment sites would also be
helpful. Experience, work values, or other individual differences may predict which partic-
ular website features are considered appealing and easy to use. Additionally, research is
needed to determine whether the importance of user friendliness and formatting changes
as a function of other variables, such as prior knowledge of the company, job level, the
provision of particular benefits, or other website features.
Historically, researchers studying recruitment and job choice have used policy-captur-
ing methodology to compare the influence of various job or organizational features on
applicants (e.g., Aiman-Smith, Bauer, & Cable, 2001). The present study utilized John-
son’s (2000, 2001a) relative weights analysis instead. This allowed us to describe the rela-
tive influence of website formatting and user friendliness during the recruitment of
prospective employees, while avoiding some of the problems inherent in policy-capturing
(e.g., numerous judgments of hypothetical scenarios). To our knowledge, this is the first
application of relative weights analysis to the recruitment domain.
In the present study, relative weights analysis provided a useful mechanism for describ-
ing the explained variance in participants’ job pursuit inclinations. Specifically, it allowed
us to precisely communicate (a) the percentage of explained variance that was attributable
to perceived formatting attractiveness as well as (b) the percentage of explained variance
that was attributable to perceived usability. It should be noted that the predictors in our
study were not significantly related to each other. Relative weights analysis becomes a
L.F. Thompson et al. / Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2384–2398 2397

particularly powerful technique when predictors are correlated (which is not uncommon in
recruitment research). Considering the power of relative weights analysis, other research-
ers interested in online recruiting, and recruiting in general, may wish to incorporate this
analytic technique as an alternative to policy-capturing and as a supplement to multiple
regression. Such an approach could advance the field toward a clearer understanding of
the relative weight individuals place on various website characteristics when considering
a hiring organization.
Finally, there is a need for longitudinal research investigating the effects of website char-
acteristics over time. For instance, studies examining whether website formatting and user
friendliness predict actual job applications and acceptance rates would be a valuable addi-
tion to the literature. These and other longitudinal initiatives would prove informative,
thereby narrowing the gap between the science and practice of online recruitment.

Acknowledgement

The authors wish to thank William F. Grossnickle for his assistance with this study.

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