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Violating Expectations in Talent Acquisition

By Peter Weddle, CEO TAtech

Expectancy violation is a communications theory which explains the reactions people have in their interactions with others. It is often used to help people better understand and tolerate (or at least accept) the way another person behaves toward them in a social setting. There is, however, another application of the theory that can actually improve interactions during the preparation for and conduct of talent acquisition. This use substitutes the predictive focus of the traditional application with a prescriptive approach that helps both employers and solution providers improve the reactions they get from job seekers and talent technology customers, respectively.

As with many social science theories, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of expectancy violation. A browser search of the term yields 273,000,000 results, so there are plenty of rifs on the theme. For our purposes, however, a satisfactory definition is simply that it “is a theory of communication that analyzes how individuals respond to unanticipated violations of social norms and expectations.” On the one hand, the theory can explain why someone behaves as they do during an interaction with someone else. And, on the other, it can provide a justification for and roadmap to an organization’s optimization of its future interactions with other parties.

That latter application describes the theory’s potential value to those in talent acquisition, specifically employers and talent technology solution providers. The key for both is to leverage the negative or gloomy expectation of others with whom they interact in a way that creates a WOW moment – an surprisingly positive experience. In other words, the way to turn an expectation violation into a useful or beneficial reaction – that is, one that serves the interests of an employer or solution provider – is to violate a low or negative expectation with a pleasant or helpful one.

The experience is similar to that of going to see your favorite sports team play – the one that has a long tradition of losing – and watching them actually win instead. You will savor the victory, of course, but even more powerfully, you will enjoy having your expectation of seeing a loss violated. The surprise of a positive outcome reinforces your joy, and not unimportantly, your loyalty to the team.

The facts! In a talent market that is more competitive and less understood than at any other time in history, it’s the facts that matter most. And TAtech’s biweekly Start Smart podcast focuses on the facts. Join me, my cohost, Shelia Gray, VP of Global Talent Acquisition at Quadient, and our guest Stephen O’Donnell, TAtech Chief Growth Officer, as we examine the findings from the latest talent acquisition research and explore their implications for recruiters and job seekers. This week, we discuss a recent report from market research firm Aspect 43 entitled “The Talent Acquisition Technology 2022 Market Guide.” We’ve called our conversation “The Times They Are a-Changin’” because the report describes a major transformation in both the talent market and the role of technology in talent acquisition.

So, what expectations should employers and solution providers violate?

Expectations are trends, but they are not universal tenets. While many members of a group may hold a certain expectation, there will be others that do not. That doesn’t mean those “outliers” don’t benefit from addressing the common expectation. In fact, they do. Indeed, I believe the Golden Rule of Expectations is simply this: What you do to positively violate a generally-held expectation will also benefit those who do not have that expectation and similarly serve your interests.

Therefore, employers should strive to violate the expectations of job seekers, while solution providers should do the same for their customers. Specifically:

• For employers trying to fill openings in today’s tight talent market, recruiting outcomes can be improved by violating job seekers’ bleak expectations for the return they will receive on the time and effort they invest in applying for a job. The scope and content of the violation is only limited by an organization’s imagination, but can range from the minimum of a courteous and respectful candidate experience to a more robust level of agnostic career support that promotes individual success, regardless of whether they are actually hired.

• For solution providers seeking to reinforce their brand, customer satisfaction can be improved by violating recruiters’ apprehensive expectations about the time commitment and hassle involved in the implementation of a new technology. Here again, the scope and content of the violation is only limited by a provider’s imagination, but can range from the minimum of providing a single (and knowledgeable) point of contact during the process to the more robust level of a dedicated support team that provides both initial and ongoing assistance.

At its heart, a positive expectation violation is all about delivering a good surprise. And in these difficult times, something as simple as an unanticipated delight can have a truly significant impact on performance. For both employers and solution providers.

Food for Thought,

Peter Weddle is the author or editor of over two dozen books and a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He is also the founder and CEO of TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions. You can download his latest book – The Neonaissance – FOR FREE at And, if you don't have time to read the entire book, just download a short excerpt of his inspirational message.