Recruitment Sources

Recruitment sources are one of the most frequently studied aspects of employee recruitment. Recruitment sources are the avenues that organizations use to reach applicants. Evidence suggests that the choice of recruitment source(s) is a strategic decision, in the sense that there are relationships between recruitment sources and employment outcomes. However, the exact nature and reasons for those effects remain ambiguous.

Traditional recruitment sources include employee referrals, employment agencies (including campus placement offices and executive search firms), newspaper and radio advertisements, employee referrals, and unsolicited applications (known as walk-ins). Newer recruitment sources that are growing in popularity include job or career fairs and Internet-based recruitment through electronic job boards or the organization’s own Web site.

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Recruitment sources can be either formal or informal. Formal sources typically involve a third-party intermediary that assists in the recruitment process, such as an employment agency, a college placement office, or a newspaper or online advertisement service. Informal sources typically involve direct contact between the potential employee and the employer and include such techniques as direct applications, referrals, and the rehiring of former employees.

Initial Research on Recruitment Sources

A significant body of research on recruitment source effects has accumulated over the years. Initial research was primarily descriptive in nature and explored the relationship between recruitment sources and posthire outcomes such as employee satisfaction, retention, and absenteeism. The most consistent finding of this research is that informal sources (referrals in particular but also walk-ins and the rehiring of former employees) tend to have positive associations with posthire outcomes: lower turnover and, in some cases, better work attitudes and job performance.

Recruitment scholars soon began to propose and test explanations for these findings. The two most commonly studied explanations are the individual differences hypothesis and the realistic information hypothesis.

First, regarding individual differences, it has been suggested that different recruitment sources yield individuals with different characteristics. These individual differences ultimately lead to different posthire outcomes. For example, employee referrals might be an effective hiring source because employees choose to refer only individuals who, in their judgment, would be effective employees. This method of screening would produce a group of applicants that is superior to other groups on important job qualifications.

Second, regarding realistic information, it has been proposed that applicants recruited from different sources have access to different information. In particular, individuals recruited through informal sources may have access to more extensive, more specific, or more accurate information about the new job. Having that information might provide greater role clarity and more realistic expectations for those applicants, which, in turn, could lead to better adjustment and therefore better posthire outcomes.

Research on the validity of these explanations has yielded mixed support. In support of the individual differences hypothesis, associations have been found between recruitment sources and individual characteristics such as age, education, experience, and physical abilities. In support of the realistic information hypothesis, informal sources have been associated with greater amounts of realistic information. However, these findings are not universal. Furthermore, relatively few studies have been able to verify that the relationship between recruitment sources and posthire outcomes is mediated by these intervening variables. Some studies found only a modest, if any, relationship between recruitment sources and posthire outcomes.

Contingency Perspectives on Recruitment Source Effects

The inability of the most popular explanations of recruitment source effects to fully explain the relationship between recruitment sources and employment outcomes has led to speculation about contingency factors. Based on a limited number of studies, there appears to be some merit to the argument that the proposed processes hold in some cases or situations but not in others. For example, one study found differences in source effects across racial and ethnic lines: Employee referrals were associated with lower turnover for White applicants, but employment agencies yielded the lowest turnover among Blacks. Another study found that the use of employee referrals in Mexico was associated with higher turnover, the opposite of the effect observed in U.S.-based research. A full range of contingency factors for recruitment source effects has not yet been specified.

Recruitment Sources and Diversity

Despite the observed advantages of informal recruiting sources, heavy reliance on these sources does raise concerns. Several studies found differences in recruitment source use by gender and by race and ethnicity, with White males more likely to use informal recruitment sources than are women or people of color. Therefore, organizations that rely on informal recruitment to reduce turnover may be trading opportunities to diversify their workforce. A complete assessment of recruiting source effectiveness should incorporate a variety of recruiting goals, something that is not always done in recruiting source research.

The Internet as a Recruitment Source

A recruiting source that is growing in popularity and in research attention is the Internet. Descriptive research suggests that Web sites are already among the most commonly used recruitment sources across a wide variety of jobs, and their use is expected to grow. Recruiters cite perceived benefits of online recruitment that include low cost and high speed. It is also possible through Web-based recruiting to provide rich, detailed information that is comparable to the information that applicants recruited through informal sources might receive.

A disadvantage of Web-based recruiting is that the large quantity of applications generated may not be particularly high in quality. Also, because of the “digital divide” in access to computers by race and ethnicity, it has been suggested that this source may have negative implications for diversity.

In fact, recent research suggests that Internet-based recruiting may provide a compromise between formal and informal sources. One study indicated that online recruiting yields applicants who are more diverse than those recruited through informal means (but less so than those recruited by formal means) and is more successful in recruiting qualified applicants than traditional formal methods (but less so than informal recruitment sources).


  1. Barber, A. E. (1998). Recruiting employees: Individual and organizational perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Carlson, K. D., Connerly, M. L., & Mecham, R. L. (2002). Recruitment evaluation: The case for assessing the quality of applicants attracted. Personnel Psychology, 55(2), 461-490.
  3. Chapman, D. S., & Webster, J. (2003). The use of technologies in the recruiting, screening, and selection processes for job candidates. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 11(2/3), 113-120.
  4. Linnehan, F., & Blau, G. (2003). Testing the impact of job search and recruitment source on new hire turnover in a maquiladora. Applied Psychology, 52(2), 253-271.
  5. McManus, M. A., & Ferguson, M. W. (2003). Biodata, personality, and demographic differences of recruits from three sources. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 11(2/3), 175-183.

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