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  • Op Ed: Why “GTW” Is a Toxic Career Fair Practice

    August 01, 2019 | By Mary E. Scott

    Best Practices
    A career fair is pictured.

    TAGS: best practices, student attitudes, journal

    NACE Journal, August 2019

    So, just what is GTW, you ask? It’s a three-letter acronym I created years ago as a result of listening to students in campus focus groups bemoan the common refrain that they are directed to “go to the website” when they attempt to engage in conversation with employer representatives at career fairs.

    With the 2019 career fair season fast-approaching, here is an explanation of why being told to GTW is such a powerful turnoff to students, and how employers can avoid what many consider to be a brand killer. Let’s start with some history.

    Origins of GTW

    The first sign that students were being advised to “go to the website” for answers to their questions surfaced in a campus research project I conducted way back in 2004. On a 10-point Likert scale, where “10” indicated strongest agreement that a factor was a best practice, the statement “Referred me to their website for additional information” was rated at 5.04 on average. In that same survey, the statement “Willing to take the time to answer my questions” was top-ranked, at 9.26 overall. Note that this survey was fielded as employers were beginning to build out careers sections on their websites, and the assumption was that students would use this electronic source to obtain information about opportunities and company culture—and to apply for positions. 

    Since that time, I’ve included questions about students’ use of websites in several of my annual campus-based survey projects, and, in 2010, focused an entire initiative on employer websites and online applications. During the focus group discussions that year, it became increasingly apparent that what was originally envisioned as a way to provide students with information had become a crutch of sorts for some employers’ representatives to avoid answering questions—and the students’ response to the practice was so overwhelmingly negative that the GTW acronym was born.

    As recently as this past semester, when I was conducting focus groups on campuses across the country, a student would invariably mention being told to “go to the website” when the discussion turned to least impressive employers’ recruitment practices. I typically interject, when the topic arises, that it’s a complaint that I’ve heard from so many students over such a long time horizon that I’ve created a three-letter acronym—GTW—as shorthand. From that point forward in the focus group, it amazes (and amuses) me that students will repeatedly use GTW in their comments, as though it’s “a thing.”

    Why Being Told “GTW” Is So Objectionable

    First, an important point of clarification: Students certainly expect to be advised that they need to complete an online application on an employer’s website, if that is indeed a process component. But, according to the students who complain about GTW, the issue is that, having waited in line at a career fair to speak with an employer’s team member, they are often handed a tchotchke of dubious value and, rather than being engaged in conversation, are advised to visit the website for answers to their questions. Not only can this be perceived as a disrespectful practice, but it fails to address why the student has waited in said line to speak with a recruiter: to have an opportunity to make an impression, network, and/or begin (or build on) a relationship with a real person.

    I’ve lost track of how many times students have commented, in person or in text responses, that “If you’re just going to tell me to go to your website, why are you here?” Students are baffled as to why employers would attend the career fair if they don’t intend to interact with those they’re ostensibly on campus to recruit. In a recent project I conducted on behalf of several career centers, students ranked “Learn about positions at companies that match my interests” as their top expectation of attending a career fair. Being told GTW falls considerably short of their being able to achieve that objective.

    Scott’s Hypothesis: Why GTW Is So Prevalent—and Why It Matters

    Although focus group discussions provide ample evidence that students believe employers who tell them to “go to the website” are simply being lazy and/or rude, I suspect there’s another issue at play here: Representatives who are “real people” (a commonly used student descriptor of those from a line of business, rather than HR) may indeed not know the answers to the questions they’re asked, and GTW simply becomes the default response. 

    That said, I would be hard-pressed to think of another recruitment practice that is so roundly panned by students—and, for the record, they’re the ones who surface it in discussions (and then pile on); I have not focused a research initiative on the topic of websites in almost a decade. In thinking about the context in which GTW becomes a source of complaint, it is within their unaided responses about “least impressive recruitment practices”—and seemingly telegraphs to students all kinds of negative employer brand signals. Students extrapolate from how they’re treated at a career fair to how they would be treated as employees, which is an important takeaway for representatives to understand.

    How to Avoid the GTW Pitfall at Career Fairs

    First, it’s important that every one of an employer’s campus team be aware that students form powerful impressions of the organization—and what it’s like to work there—through their interactions with their representatives. In the run-up to getting campus teams ready to staff booths and collect resumes (or not), the human element can often be overlooked or simply taken for granted. A key component of training should focus on not only making a positive impression on potential candidates but in understanding that students expect engagement at career fairs—not a “blow-off” to the website.

    As a second and related consideration, every representative should be equipped to field a wide range of questions—or be able to refer a student to someone who is able to do so. Clearly, most organizations are not in a position to send an army of representatives to each campus it targets; but careful planning and content-rich training can go a long way in offsetting what can be a complete turn-off, if the only interaction a student has is being told to “go to the website”—which one described as “toxic practice.”

    Career fair season is just around the corner. Here’s hoping that students hear less GTW this fall and that all parties benefit from the increased personal engagement that results.

    altMary Scott is founder of Scott Resource Group, an independent consulting, research, and data analytics firm that provides professional services to employers engaged in attracting and hiring university talent. Prior to establishing her consulting practice, she was director of staffing for Aetna. Scott earned her M.B.A. at University of Connecticut and her bachelor’s degree at University of St. Joseph. Scott regularly presents on and writes about student attitudes and behaviors as they relate to recruiting and employment. She is the author of Effectiveness of Recruiting Timing and Techniques, published by the NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition. She can be reached at Mary@ScottResourceGroup.com.