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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Corporate recruitment efforts have evolved from traditional newspaper want ads to highly sophisticated, rhetorically powerful recruiting Web sites or “career sites.” This e-cruiting phenomenon offers a unique opportunity not only to examine organizations’ persuasive attempts to recruit potential applicants online, but also to uncover contemporary corporate representations of the meaning(s) of work. Using a random sample of recruitment Web sites of Fortune 500 companies, we employ content analysis and rhetorical criticism to catalogue content types, identify persuasive structure, and analyze rhetorical themes in representations of work. The investigation reveals that career sites are not merely places to post job openings, but reflect corporations’ attempt to sell a glorified image of work, one which positions workers as powerful actors and employers as kind benefactors. In view of current reports on working conditions, we argue these glorified representations reflect a rhetoric of idealization and discuss potential consequences of such a strategy.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

The popularization of the Internet has changed the way people seek employment and the way organizations recruit employees. For the job seeker, most steps in the job search process can now be done online, including preparing a resume, searching for openings, and submitting an application. According to a recent report, 52 million people in the U.S. have turned to the Internet to search for jobs and more than 4 million do so on a typical day (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2002). These figures represent a 60% increase in Internet job searching since March 2000. Joining the digital bandwagon, organizations have already adjusted their recruitment practices to address this trend. Moving beyond the traditional newspaper want ads, most large organizations today use the Internet to recruit potential candidates—a phenomenon some call “e-cruiting” (Koong, Liu, & Williams, 2002; Peters, 2001; Piturro, 2000). Surveys report that up to 90% of large U.S. companies communicate employment information via their corporate Web sites (Cappelli, 2001).1

Many of these companies not only post job openings, but also craft strategic content to attract potential employees (Cober, Brown, Levy, Keeping, & Cober, 2003; Pearce & Tuten, 2001). In a set of employment-related Web pages, or a “career site,” companies present compelling descriptions of the company, employee benefits, workplace culture, along with other information which may increase the likelihood that individuals will adopt a positive image of the organization and perhaps submit an application. These career sites are usually positioned prominently in relation to the companies’ Web presence, which is defined as a collection of sites produced and/or controlled by a single entity or organization (Foot & Schneider, 2002), which is typically one click away from the home page of a company’s main site (iLogos Research, 2003).2

Corporate e-cruiting has grown in popularity for a number of reasons. First, the cost of online recruiting in general, and especially through the use of an internal career site, is significantly lower3 than other recruiting methods, such as the use of major newspapers, headhunters, and online job banks (Cober, Brown, Blumental, Doverspike, & Levy, 2000). Using their own career Web site, companies can post limitless job openings and generate a pool of applicants for minimal cost (Peters, 2001). Second, unlike job banks run by third party service providers, company-produced career sites provide organizations the freedom to present information and recruiting strategies in their own way. Third, recruiting online saves time and significantly decreases the hiring cycle. Online applications enable recruiters and hiring managers to collect information about applicants more quickly than traditional methods. Companies can cut more than 11 days off its typical hiring cycle of 43 days by using online applications (Cappelli, 2001). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, career sites are actually influential in attracting candidates (Cober, Brown, Keeping, & Levy, 2004; HR Focus, 2003). According to one study, more than 50% of job seekers have become interested in working for a company based on a visit to its career site, and nearly 25% have rejected a company because of a poor experience with a career site (Wetfeet, 2003). Because a company’s recruiting Web site is critical to its sourcing success, no wonder companies produce well-developed pages with powerful texts, images, and audio/visual presentations, user-friendly interfaces, customized features, and robust databases and tools. These sites have become an important part of organizational Web communication and deserve careful study.

Career sites represent an intriguing aspect of organizational communication. These sites are strategic, influential, and meaningful, capturing not only an organization’s persuasive attempts to recruit new employees, but also a public declaration of its idealized self-image—how an organization sees itself, or at least, how it wants prospective employees to see it. Although several studies have established the effectiveness of career sites in attracting applicants (Cober et al., 2003; Cober et al., 2004; Pearce & Tuten, 2001; Williamson, Lepak, & King, 2003), little attention has focused on how they go about doing so. In other words, these sites warrant further analysis from a rhetorical perspective. Beyond discussions of usability, utility, and efficacy, we explore questions of means, meanings, and consequences. We aim to provide a fuller understanding of career sites as communication phenomena by cataloging the various content elements utilized in this genre of organizational communication. Moreover, this study provides a critical analysis of the rhetoric of career sites. We first set a context for the study of career sites, drawing on related work in organizational communication, and recruiting studies. Then, we outline the qualitative and quantitative methods we employed in this study of Fortune 500 career sites and present our findings. Finally, we discuss these findings in light of extant data on current U.S. work practices and trends. We argue that the construction of work in career sites occurs through the strategic idealization of work, worker, and employer.

Career Sites and Online Corporate Communication

Many scholars have studied company Web sites as a relatively new medium of organizational communication, focusing on content characteristics and organization (Aikat, 2000; Esrock & Leichty, 2000; Joyce, 2003; Will & Porak, 2000); content efficacy (Durham, 2000); image management (Chun & Davies, 2001; Esrock & Leichty, 1998); service to the public audience (Esrock & Leichty, 1999; Liu, Arnett, Capella, & Beatty, 1997); and cross-cultural comparisons (Singh, Zhao, & Hu, 2003; Tsao & Chang, 2002). Few scholars have analyzed career- or job-related content on the Web, and those who have done so focused primarily on want ads posted on newspaper sites (Jackson, 2001; Koester, 2004; Kotamraju, 2002; Skipper, 1978) or online job banks4 (Backhaus, 2004; Koong et al., 2002). Referring primarily to job advertisements in newspapers, Koester (2004) identified four general movements in the way companies present their case to job seekers: 1) introducing the employer and giving credentials, 2) giving profile of applicant sought, 3) describing benefits of the job, and 4) giving information about application process. One question this article explores is whether these movements appear in the rhetoric of career sites. Backhaus (2004) studied hundreds of brief textual corporate descriptions on Monster.com, one of the most popular online job banks in the U.S. She discovered that organizations, given limited space, place significantly more emphasis on firm attributes (e.g., company size, products, scope, profitability, success history) to market themselves to job seekers than other information, such as advancement opportunities, culture or climate, work/family balance, compensation, supportive work environment, etc. This present study explores what companies do when their space is not limited and they have full reign of textual, graphical, and multimedia online features. Further, this study examines not descriptions on job banks and newspapers, but what companies produce themselves as part of their own corporate Web communication and recruitment practices—an area that warrants more investigation since the Web is an increasingly important medium between employers and prospective employees (Backhaus, 2004).

The use of career sites to attract applicants has received some attention by scholars in the field of organizational and industrial psychology. In general, this body of work centers around finding empirical and/or theoretical support for career site content and characteristics that have a positive relationship to organizational attraction (i.e., the extent to which job seekers are attracted to the organization). According to these studies, career sites increase organizational attraction when they are easy to navigate (Cober et al., 2003), incorporate methods for the user to envision a fit with the organization (Cober et al., 2000; Dineen, Ash, & Noe, 2002), include content useful to the user (Williamson et al., 2003), elicit positive affect from the user (Cober et al., 2004), focus on “selling” the company rather than gathering applicant screening information (Williamson et al., 2003), and include compelling information about training and development, corporate culture, and compensation (Cober et al., 2003). Previous research on career sites, however, is limited because the research either uses fictitious sites produced for controlled experimental designs (e.g., Dineen et al., 2002; Williamson et al., 2003), or assesses just one or two examples of actual career sites (e.g., Cober et al., 2003). In an effort to deepen and broaden what is known about career sites specifically and corporate e-cruitment in general, this article offers a multilevel analysis of a broad range of actual corporate career sites and their methods of attracting applicants. Furthermore, while previous research has been psychological in nature (i.e., investigating how users react psychologically to career sites), this study employs a rhetorical lens, focusing primarily on the content of career sites as rhetorical acts and emphasizing the persuasive power and potential consequences of this online organizational communication genre.

Career Sites as Rhetorical Acts

Scholars have begun to develop an array of strategies to examine the rhetorical structures and ideologies embedded in Web sites (e.g., Craig, Garrott, & Armenic, 2001; Frobish, 2004; Warnick, 1998; Zickmund, 1997). Of these, Marschall’s (2002) analysis of online recruitment practices, wherein he frames career sites as containing ideological constructions, is most relevant to this study. He examined the historical evolution of e-cruiting, focusing on “discursive domains” that emerge among collections of online recruitment sites. In his brief analysis of career sites of three large corporations, he identified a recurring discourse of “unbounded opportunity” which promotes the ideology that individuals can reach their full potential only by integrating their identities with a larger corporate entity.

In keeping with Marschall, we argue that company-produced career Web sites offer more than just job descriptions; as a recruiting tool, these sites often provide rich, compelling depictions of the company itself. Internet recruiting consultant Stephanie Cook (2001) explains:

A corporate site is the first opportunity to make an impression on a prospective candidate. The new breed of Web-savvy, generation X job seekers will scour your site to get an indication not only of your business and direction, but also your “vibe” and gather some cultural cues. (p. 55)

Beyond simply providing job descriptions, through these career sites, corporations attempt to make a persuasive first impression. We argue that these impressions represent ideological constructions of the meaning of work in contemporary corporate America.5

As such, these career sites are examples of rhetorical acts—strategic persuasive communication designed to elicit action. Bound by time and context, rhetorical acts reflect social norms and beliefs. Career sites can be viewed as artifacts on which cultural codes and systems of thought are indelibly engraved. Specifically, they reflect a knowledge system about the meaning of work and workplaces in modern organizations. Rybacki and Rybacki (1991) liken rhetorical acts to “time capsules:”

Much can be discovered about a society or cultural era by studying its communication artifacts … By studying rhetorical activity, we learn what issues were significant to a society, who was important enough to have discussed and debated them, and what forces shaped society. By discovering who controlled the issues, we learn who had the ability to affect social change and perceived reality. We can also ascertain what the society perceived to be “truth.” (p. 9)

As strategic public communication, these career sites depict the kinds of workers deemed good, the kinds of workplaces considered effective, and the kind of work worth doing, in the view of corporations as they are recruiting prospective employees. In short, these career sites are windows into how organizations construct work for the purpose of employee recruitment at this stage in the U.S. capitalist system.

In summary, scholarship on the meaning of work has yet to analyze representations of work as represented on company Web sites, which have become a key realm for the production and display of current corporate representations of meanings of work. The following research questions guided this study and enabled a multifaceted analysis of how corporate career sites are utilized as strategic communication vehicles.

RQ1: What are the most common types of content on career sites?

RQ2: How do these sites attempt to attract applicants?

RQ3: What meanings of work emerge from these career sites?

By investigating these questions, this study builds on and diverges from extant literature on the meaning of work in four distinct ways, by: 1) focusing on actual (rather than fictitious) Web sites produced by modern corporate organizations; 2) employing a combination of qualitative and quantitative content analysis methods to explore representations of work; 3) focusing on “idealized” representations of work; and 4) analyzing these in a rhetorical framework.

Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

The first research question called for a quantitative examination of a large set of company Web sites, focusing on a structured set of measures. The second and third questions required a closer, more in-depth look at a smaller subset of Web sites, allowing for deeper qualitative analysis. Both methods are described below.

Key Concepts

Company Web site

This is a Web site produced by a company to provide general information about that organization, including product/service information, company history, mission and values, organizational structure, key corporate messages, public relations information, etc. (see Aikat, 2000). Typically, company Web sites in the U.S. follow a commercial Web domain convention: www.nameofcompany.com.

Career site

This is a section in a company Web site targeted primarily toward potential employees. Typically, a link to the career site, usually labeled “career” or “jobs” can be found on the company’s home page. In many cases, typing the company’s URL and adding a slash and the word “jobs” (/jobs) will lead to the career site (e.g., www.ibm.com/jobs or www.microsoft.com/jobs).

Units of Analysis

This study employs December’s (1996) definitions of “media instances” and “media objects” as the units of analysis. In this case, media instances refer to specific company Web sites captured on a particular date range. The analysis focuses on the job or career sections of corporate Web sites and includes all content (media objects) on the front page of the career site as well as secondary internal links.

Case Selection

The 2004 Fortune 500 report was the sampling frame for this study. This industry standard list is a popular source for identifying top U.S. companies in terms of revenue, market capitalization, and profits, and earlier editions have been used in previous content analysis studies as a sampling frame (Aikat, 2000; Esrock & Leichty, 1998; Esrock & Leichty, 1999; Liu et al., 1997). Typically, these successful companies are also America’s largest employers and as such, may be more likely to have developed career sites with large potential audiences of job seekers. The Fortune Magazine Web site (http://www.fortune.com) provides a list of Fortune 500 companies, including a link to each company Web site.

To address RQ1, this study used a systematic random sampling method to select 100 companies listed in the 2004 Fortune 500 list. After a random start, every fifth company was selected yielding a total of 100 companies. To address RQ2 and RQ3, a smaller sample set (n = 20) of the 100 cases was used. Specifically, Web sites that were more robust in their use of persuasive methods were selected for more in-depth, qualitative analysis of rhetorical strategy.6 For instance, career sites that had compelling company descriptions, multimedia presentations of work environment, and in-depth information about work life offered more opportunity for deeper examination.

Coding/Analysis Procedure

To develop a coding scheme for investigating RQ1, we explored several career sites on the Fortune 500 to get a general account of the types of features and content elements included in typical career sites. We then drafted a coding framework, designed to establish the presence or absence of a number of Web site elements, including types of information (e.g., information about the company, benefit programs, workplace culture, etc.) as well as features (e.g., resume submission tool, profile builder, job finder, etc.). Based on this framework, a coding instrument was created and pretested on several career sites to ensure the measures covered the types of information and features on career sites. An intercoder reliability test of 10% of the career sites demonstrated a range of 60% to 100% in the level of agreement for each measure (Average = 88%).7 Coders then reviewed measures that received less than 90% agreement and recalibrated the instrument accordingly.

Rhetorical analysis, focusing on the process by which rhetors use symbolic means “to induce cooperation” from their audience (Burke, 1969), was employed to investigate RQ2 and RQ3. In this study, rhetors are American corporations who have produced career sites as a part of their recruitment efforts. From a rhetorical perspective, we posit that the primary aim of these career sites is to induce cooperation from an audience of potential job applicants who visit the Web site. Career sites aim to paint the company in a positive light and ultimately convince appropriately qualified visitors to respond by submitting an application for employment. With this conceptual framework, we analyze the persuasive strategies and approaches that career sites utilize to attract potential employees.

Going beyond the rhetor-audience construct, rhetorical force is also exerted when career sites explicitly describe the nature and meanings of work. Though less polemic, descriptive communication is also powerful rhetorical action in that it creates constructs of reality, knowledge, and values—what Scott (1967) calls the epistemic aspect of rhetoric. When a career site describes work, it also conveys its corporate producer’s underlying assumptions about what work is (is not) or should (should not) be. A rhetorical perspective views the concept of work as socially constrained and shaped by rhetorical forces. That is, meanings of work do not just exist, but they are constructed and constantly revised, and more importantly, such construction occurs through the manipulation of symbols (e.g., language). A critical analysis of the epistemic power of rhetoric is the framework of our investigation of RQ3.

For our rhetorical analysis, unlike the content analysis method used for RQ1, we did not begin with a predetermined coding schema. Whereas quantitative content analysis is more deductive, rhetorical analysis is more inductive (Foss, Foss, & Trapp, 1991). We conducted the rhetorical analysis by delving deep into the content, exploring language, metaphors, dichotomies, hypertextuality, images, and other rhetorical devices used (see Craig et al., 2001). We then organized themes and clusters of ideas, and finally, formulated a construct that best explains the persuasive and interpretive aspects (i.e., the rhetoric) of career sites, especially in terms of how work, worker, and employers are represented.

Findings pertaining to RQ1, (the prevalence of elements provided on career sites), RQ2 (strategies career sites use to attract potential employees), and RQ3, (representations of work, workplace, and workers), are presented below.

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

RQ1: What are the most Common Types of Content on Career Sites?

Of the 100 companies in sample for this study, 95 had career sites. This finding is consistent with previous research (Cappelli, 2001) reporting that over 90% of large companies have career sites. Not only are these career sites prevalent across corporate Web sites, their primacy is well established in that 86% of the corporate Web sites featured a link to the career site on the home page of the main site. For the rest of the companies, the career sites were two to three clicks away. It can be argued that companies view career sites as an important part of their overall Web presence. A list of the elements assessed and the percentage of sites on which they were observed is presented in Table 1.

Table 1.  Frequency of content types on Fortune 500 career sites (N = 95)
Core Content 
Application information97%
Job descriptions96%
Company background88%
Employee benefits85%
Secondary Content 
Work life, work or company culture78%
Diversity72%
Corporate citizenship46%
Employee education opportunities44%
Compensation44%
Tertiary 
Locale information37%
Employee profiles and testimonials31%
Core Content: Introducing the Company and Presenting Open Positions

By far the most frequent elements found on career sites are information about open job positions and instructions for accepting resumes and applications. This finding suggests that career sites are first and foremost a recruiting vehicle, which like their predecessor, newspaper advertisements, are designed to collect applications from potential candidates. Unlike newspapers, however, career sites go far beyond job descriptions. Most career sites (88.3%) provide detailed information that helps create the company’s identity, such as company history and background, overview of products or services, vision, and mission, lofty descriptions of the organization, accolades garnered for work environment,8 etc. Compelling examples include:

Get to know Northrop Grumman. You’ll see more than amazing products. More than talented people. You’ll see an organization that, when judged by the sum of its parts, is the very definition of excellence.9

From our origins as a transporter of goods and currency across the American frontier, we now have a worldwide customer base bringing in over $21 billion in annual revenues. We are committed to providing outstanding products and services to our customers worldwide and we are determined to win in all the businesses in which we compete. If you’re interested in working at American Express, take a look at the various careers we have on offer.10

Employee benefits information was another core element in career sites, found in 82% of the sites examined. Typical benefits described include health insurance, 401K, and life insurance. Other benefits are more unusual, such as Mutual of Omaha’s on-site dry-cleaning and film development service.11 Many of the companies position benefits as a key employee value proposition. For instance, Rockwell Automation’s career site states:

We help our employees succeed by providing health packages, life insurance, tuition reimbursement, adoption assistance, accident insurance, income protection in the event of disability, and a liberal vacation and holiday schedule because, let’s face it … life doesn’t begin and end at work. We believe it’s important to provide programs that help bring balance into our lives. So we can cope. So we can succeed. If you want to work for us, you’ll find that our benefits help you succeed fully.12

Secondary Content: Selling the Employer

A secondary set of content types, though not as frequent as the core content, were found on many sites and could be characterized as “selling” the company to the user (see Williamson et al., 2003). Of the sites examined, 78% include descriptions of the company’s work culture or environment. Many of these career sites tell compelling stories of what it is like to work for the company—stories that range from texts that describe corporate culture and values, to compelling multi-media testimonies from employees. Cober et al. (2000) argue that including thorough work culture information has critical advantages. Such information allows the applicant to make a more informed assessment of his/her fit with the company. Individuals who do not feel they will fit within an organization’s culture will be deterred from applying, thus saving the company’s recruitment resources time and effort. Moreover, Cober et al. (2000) argue that people who align well with a company’s work culture are more likely to be productive, long-term employees for that company.

Most company career sites in the study (72%) include information about the company’s commitment to diversity in the workplace. When diversity is mentioned, it is usually presented as a major header in the site along with benefits and job search. Most of the content on diversity referred to more than just equal opportunity and went beyond race and gender. For example, the career site for the Clorox Company states:

In addition to physical traits such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age and physical ability, we define diversity as all of the differences that make us unique individuals—things like education level, personal experiences, work styles, viewpoints, culture and religious affiliation. Our aim is to create an inclusive environment where people’s differences are embraced, employees are recognized and rewarded based on merit, and everyone is treated with fairness, dignity and respect—knowing we are all equals in the pursuit of Clorox’s goals.13

Many companies, including Ford, position diversity as a business imperative: “At Ford Motor Company we recognize that diversity is not only a reality of our global nature, it’s a distinct advantage, and one that we value and embrace.”14 In a similar vein, AT&T explains: “Employees of AT&T Wireless represent various cultures and geographies. … Their diversity of thought is key in developing solutions for our customers.”15

Information about corporate citizenship, educational opportunities, and compensation were found less frequently in career sites. When the topic of corporate citizenship was mentioned, typical examples of outreach included community projects for low-income families, contributions to local educational programs, environmental causes, or minority outreach programs.

Educational or training opportunities were mentioned by companies such as Ford, IKON, Navistar International, Hartford Financial Services, U.S. Steel, USAA, and United Technologies, which devote an entire section in their career sites to the topic of employee education and development opportunities. Some sites feature internal corporate “universities” where employees can access myriad educational programs (e.g., Mc Donald’s “Hamburger University” or Johnson & Johnson’s “J&J eUniversity”).

Of the 95 career sites examined, 44% briefly mention compensation as part of the company benefits, and only 10% of sites provide major sections on compensation. When compensation is mentioned, typically, it is described simply as “competitive.”

Tertiary Content: Adding a Personal Touch

Locale information and employee profiles and testimonials, which serve to make the site more personal to the user, are surprisingly the least common content elements in career sites. Providing locale information presents the company as caring for needs and interests outside the workplace by helping potential applicants to consider weather and recreational activities in their decision to pursue employment with a company.16 Likewise, employee profiles and personal testimonies provide the user with an “inside” look through the eyes and voices of “real” people. The underutilization of these types of personal content could be a strategic mistake by producers of career sites because the inclusion of personal accounts from employees draws applicants and helps to reveal the human side of the organization (Cober et al., 2000). When companies create a warm, personal experience on their career site, they enhance their “presence” (Lombard & Ditton, 1997), and in doing so, help the user to transcend a mediated-communication interaction and move one step closer to creating a human-to-human experience online.

RQ2: How do Career Sites Attract Applicants?

The process of answering RQ1 enabled us to explore RQ2 more fully, for only after we surveyed the landscape of communication in these career sites were we able to map patterns in persuasive appeals employed by companies.

Four Key Movements in Career Sites

The intentional ordering of information and hypertextuality of a site can reveal the structure of the site’s rhetorical strategy (Craig, Garrott, & Amernic, 2001). The sequence and flow of how the Internet site, and the information within it, is revealed to users as well as how the site positions hyperlinks to connect the information presented, are all part of the persuasive appeal of online communication. An in-depth structural analysis of these 20 career sites suggested a pattern of persuasive “movements” in attempting to attract applicants:17

  • 1
    Introducing the company (personality, values, motive, credentials)
  • 2
    Building a case for the company as employer of choice
  • 3
    Sampling the workplace
  • 4
    Enabling the job search and application process

The rhetorical structure of career sites begin with a movement that introduces the company as a workplace—a movement which occurs primarily on the career site home page.18 After introducing the workplace, career sites then present a variety of paths leading to more information, including a preview of the workplace, details of employee value propositions, and instructions for job search and application. Through a nonlinear hyperlinked experience, users travel across these movements in their own unique path by clicking on topics they find most interesting, in the sequence they prefer. For instance, one might start by doing a job search (fourth movement) before learning more about the workplace (second movement).

Movement 1: Introducing the Company as Workplace

Whereas the main home page of a corporate Web site typically introduces the company as producer of products or provider of services, a career site’s home page introduces the company as employer, thereby establishing instantly the employment context which surrounds the content found on these sites. The home page sets the tone for the career site, hints at the personality of the organization, and previews the company’s case for the workplace. For example, American Express’s career sites opens with a home page that features an image of two individuals speeding through a trail on mountain bikes.19

Clearly American Express has nothing to do with making, selling, or riding bikes, but this image and the accompanying text projects an energetic, fast-paced environment where “dynamos” work. Another notable example is C.H. Robinson Worldwide’s20 career site home page, which is structured as an interactive game show inviting users to “play.” Though uncommon, this creative approach still effectively introduces the company as a workplace, in this case, putting forth an organizational personality that is fun and out of the ordinary. In contrast, Northrop Grumman’s career site presents a more serious militaristic personality by featuring images of a satellite in orbit and a naval ship.

A recurring rhetorical device used in this introductory phase is a recruiting tagline. Typically found on a career site home page, a recruiting tagline reflects the company’s stance on work and workplace, captured in just a few words and often woven throughout the site. Examples include:

How far can you go? (Microsoft)

Give your imagination some serious competition. (Northrop Grumman)

Work to win. (AT&T Wireless)

How fast can you drive? Accelerate your career. (NCR)

It’s your path, choose wisely (C.H. Robinson Worldwide)

Small-company environment, Big-company impact (Johnson & Johnson)

These taglines carry out two key persuasive strategies: 1) they quickly frame work in context of a grander vision, and 2) they explicitly or implicitly suggest how the workplace offered in the company promotes this positive frame. When Microsoft opens its career site with the words How far can you go?, it creates a vision of work that transcends the office cubicle or manufacturing plant—work becomes a journey, adventure, or mission. Moreover, the tag line and the text surrounding it suggest that Microsoft is the workplace where such a journey can begin:

Imagine having the resources to influence tomorrow’s reality today, and having fun while you do it. That’s Microsoft. Right now, we’re looking for people who think big and dream big—people a lot like you. If you’re ready to discover just how far your talents can take you, we invite you to explore this site. From there, how far you go is up to you. (Microsoft career site home page)21

Many of these taglines are rhetorically bolstered with images that pictorially depict the spirit of the message. For instance, Microsoft’s tagline is placed within an image people meeting in a vibrant office environment and an arrow icon which suggests movement in the right direction. This image not only situates the tagline in the context of work and workplaces, but also implies the kind of work environment one will find at Microsoft.

Movement 2: Building a Case for the Company

The next major movement in career sites involves offering compelling reasons why the company is an employer of choice. To stay true to the primary purpose of this recruiting vehicle, career sites must build a convincing case for the company. It is important to note that, unlike newspaper advertisements, which tend to focus on building a case for the job (Koester, 2004), career sites focus more on the bolstering the image of the company. This strategy reveals the company’s intent to “sell” more than just a job, but a workplace. This case begins right away with the content and structure of the home page. Beyond introducing the company as a workplace, in many cases, the home page also starts to build a case for the company. For example, American Express opening image is flanked with the “American Express Promise” to employees:

American Express values its people and rewards their performance. We’re committed to making a positive contribution to our customers’ lives, and to the lives of our employees as well. That commitment results in a winning strategy across all segments of our business.22

Based on the in-depth analysis and confirmed by RQ1 findings, four topics emerge as core arguments used in building this case.

1) Employee benefits. As discussed in RQ1 findings, most career sites in the sample (N = 95) include descriptions of employee benefits, and in particular, this information is presented as a primary employee value proposition—what an employee “gets” in return for working in the company. The Microsoft career site claims: “Microsoft provides one of the most flexible and comprehensive benefit plans around. … Our benefits plan and resources are designed to keep our most important assets—our employees—healthy, happy, and moving ahead at optimal speed.”23 Though benefits appear in almost all career sites, and typically featured on the home page, structurally, the benefits hyperlink is never on top of the list. Usually, company background, diversity, and/or work culture take precedence. This positioning suggests that though benefits are clearly a major pillar in the case for the company, it is not the primary differentiator.

2) Commitment to a diverse workplace. “Our success as a company is partly attributed to our emphasis on Inclusion—recognizing and valuing our differences. To this end, Diversity and Inclusion are woven into the fabric of our company. We invite you to experience us and to understand our vision—the Schwab beyond the verbiage, the accolades and the notoriety.”24 Statements such as these, found in many of the sites, express the company’s commitment to a diverse workplace and simultaneously, use diversity to build a case for the company. Diversity is presented less as an employee value proposition, and more as an organizational promise, especially for underrepresented groups who may be questioning their opportunities in the company.

3) Corporate citizenship. Building a case usually includes some content about the company’s track record in contributing to social or environmental causes. Employee-led and funded efforts are especially highlighted as in this example from Clorox:

We believe in giving back to communities where we live and work. Through The Clorox Company Foundation, we support education and youth development, as well as cultural and civic organizations. Since its inception in 1980, The Foundation has awarded grants totaling more than $55 million to nonprofit organizations, schools and colleges, and each year donates more than $4 million dollars worth of products to those in need. Clorox employees have long fostered a culture of personal generosity by donating time and money to help others. The Foundation matches eligible donations from employees to the nonprofit organizations of their choice.25

4) Educational and professional growth. Finally, career sites point to career advancement, training opportunities, and professional development as a general element in building a case for the company. This content is either housed in a dedicated section, usually labeled Career Development or Training & Education, or woven into general text and images and employee testimonials throughout the site.

Along with these four topic areas, many career sites customize their case by highlighting other propositions that set the company apart. For example, Johnson & Johnson weaves its “small company feel, big company impact” theme throughout its career site as way of calling out the company’s unique offer of a decentralized organizational structure within a large multi-national company. Other propositions include:

Mutual of Omaha:a stable company
Charles Schwab:opportunity to innovate
Avery Denison:competitive pay
Microsoft:passion for technology
Bank One:flexibility
Lehman Brothers:a flat organization
Ford:affect millions of lives
CH Robinson Worldwide:become part of the family
Movement 3: Sampling the Workplace

It seems many large companies view workplace environment as an important factor in organizational attraction since many of their career sites offer users a great deal of information that provides a glimpse of what working in the company is like. Career sites sample the workplace by reserving a section in the site for textual and visual representations of the workplace culture and climate, company values, and generalizations about employees. This section, usually labeled, Who we are, Working Here, or Life at <name of company>, provide narrative proof in the form of employee testimonials. For example, Schwab’s career site features a “day in the life” interactive, multi-media overview of what a typical day looks for five employees, Angela, Bill, Regina, Steven, and Sarah.26 Through these individual’s personal accounts of their daily work, Schwab creatively presents a workplace that is fast-paced, customer-centric, meaningful, and fun. Rockwell’s “Working Here” section presents the company as a place where people continually learn and develop. A candid snapshot of two employees appear, one of which represents “Julie” who writes, “I have been able to develop my marketing expertise in an exciting, global environment. … Our commitment to professional development has allowed me to enhance my leadership and communication skills.”27 Whether it is “Matt” who says “Clorox does a great job of making me feel valued.”28 or “Mary” who underscores Mutual of Omaha’s “friendly, pleasant environment to be in each day—every day,”29 these carefully selected (or crafted) employee testimonials rhetorically present a seemingly unbiased, “insider’s view” into the company.

Movement 4: Enabling the Job Search and Application Process

Usually presented as the final movement in career sites, information and tools that enable and facilitate job searches and the application processes complete the persuasive argument by calling for action. As a recruiting tool, a career site’s central purpose is to cast a broad net to collect a multitude of applications from which the organization can select prime job candidates. In effect, the other movements, from introducing and previewing the workplace to building a case for the company, ultimately, lead users towards this final action movement. This movement is typically presented as a dedicated set of pages which include a list or database of current job openings along with job descriptions and instructions for the application process. This section is often divided into two categories, college recruits and experienced professionals. The sites are generally similar with information regarding campus recruiting events, internships, and typical majors recruited added to college recruit sections.

RQ3: What Meanings of Work Emerge from these Career Sites?

Findings from the RQ3 analysis reveal a common theme in the rhetoric of career sites: Career sites construct idealized images of work. In nearly every case, employers focus primarily on what companies have to offer and how employees can benefit from employment, while concealing what the company expects in return. Through compelling texts and powerful images, work is presented as nearly perfect. Work overcomes the mundane and gives meaning and purpose to one’s life. The employer is a kind benefactor who sustains the workplace as community, and workers are partners, co-creators in the vocational commitment. In presenting aggrandized images of work, career sites are, in effect, silent about less than ideal aspects of the job and the costs of working in a large corporation. From a critical lens, one needs to examine not only what is said, but what is left unsaid. Doing so brings to light clues to the motives and function of corporate career site rhetoric.

The construction of work in career sites is accomplished through discursive strategies that reflect what Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) call the dissociation of concepts. By contrasting terms such as “work,”“employment,” or “job” with other terms such as “career” or “mission,” career sites call forth assumptions regarding the original synonymy of these terms, and significantly modify the relationship between them—casting the latter terms as meaningful in dissociation from work, employment, or job. For instance, career is not work. This rhetorical device is seen in how career sites depict work as careers, workers as agents, and employers as benefactors.

Work as Career

In the career sites of Fortune 500 companies, the recurring image of work is one which transcends the actual tasks being accomplished as well as the transactional relationship between worker and employer. Work is not laborious, but challenging; not mundane, but ceaselessly meaningful; not just a job, but a limitless path to individual growth. In fact, the words “work,”“employment,” or even “job” are deemphasized, and in their place, the term “career” becomes the overwhelming symbolic representation of labor.30

Work as career is a major theme in many of these career sites, including Lehman Brothers’, which places careers and business on equal planes by using the tagline, “Building Businesses. Building Careers.”31Work as career becomes a powerful device especially when dissociated with work as job as in the following examples:

A career at Microsoft is more than a job. It’s a path to improving your skills, knowledge, and capabilities as you enhance your current role or, possibly, take on a new role within the company.32

At the AIG Companies, we believe that a job is more than a place to earn a paycheck. It should be part of a larger vision which motivates you to come to work every day and inspires you to grow with the organization. It should be part of a career.33

As rhetorically constructed in these career sites, work is not merely regular activity performed in exchange for compensation, but a profession, an occupational path, a life’s pursuit. In fact, as mentioned earlier, compensation is rarely discussed in great depth in career sites. The meaning of work, as corporate America presents it, transcends pay for performance and becomes something more meaningful (e.g., “a larger vision”). Also demonstrated in the two examples above, “career” is often presented in terms of growth. In other words, what separates careers from jobs is the opportunity for employers to grow. “Every day we all bring out the best in each other. Join us and see if we can’t bring out the best in you,” proclaims Northrop Grumman.34 Presented as “career advancement,”“personal development,” or “continuous learning,” career growth is a recurring theme in the meaning of work in Fortune 500 career sites. Almost all career sites in this study express this view of work by directly using the word “grow,” while some present the same concept through related metaphors such as: “accelerate your career” (NCR),35“explore new paths” (Charles Schwab),36“a talent workout” (AT&T Wireless),37“push your imagination and yourself” (Northrop Grumman),38“realize your full potential” (Microsoft).39 One of AIG’s employees shares a story via streaming video:

I spent my first three to six months at AIG filing and doing administrative work. Now seven years later, I am a VP responsible for 60–70 million dollars in assets. That just proves that at AIG, the opportunity is endless.40

Presenting work as career, corporations construct an image of work that transcends the mundane tasks of today (e.g., filing and administrative work) by creating the possibilities of significant future growth and self-actualization.

With the emphasis on career and growth, one may wonder if work actually involves getting work done. To address the “work” part of work, career sites employ a euphemism, describing careers as “challenging.” In fact, almost all the career sites in the study somewhere on the site describe work as “challenging.” This recurring euphemism serves to diminish or, in some cases, glorify the laborious aspect of work. Though the work may be “challenging,”“fast-paced,”“hard,” even “chaotic” and “insane,” ultimately, workers will reap the rewards. CH Robinson Worldwide describes its work environment as

fast paced, with people typically talking on two phones and/or doing three things at once. These qualities make up a team-driven, motivated, decentralized workforce that thrives on action. … It’s an atmosphere that makes other so-called fast-paced companies seem like punch-in-punch-out, dead-end jobs.41

Instead of describing work as easy, career sites glorify the frenzy and labor of “challenging” careers, and in doing so, further bolster the symbolic power of presenting work as a career.

Workers as Agents

As with work, workers are also idealized in career sites, described as “talented,”“respectful,”“passionate,”“smart,”“driven,” enthusiastic,”“dedicated,”“caring,”“extraordinary”, and “inspirational.” The central theme in the image of workers is that of active agents. Workers are not just employees, but “associates” and “team members.” This theme aligns well with the image of work as career; if work is more than just a job, then workers are more than just employees. Workers drive their careers, reach for their dreams, and play an active role in shaping the workplace. For instance, NCR, in regards to career acceleration, asks potential applicants: “How fast can you drive?”42 A similar theme is found in Microsoft’s opening text:

Imagine having the resources to influence tomorrow’s reality today, and having fun while you do it. That’s Microsoft. Right now, we’re looking for people who think big and dream big—people a lot like you. If you’re ready to discover just how far your talents can take you, we invite you to explore this site. From there, how far you go is up to you.43

Employees are nothing like drones or lemmings; they drive their own fate. How far they go, is up to them, not the company, not the employer. Lehman Brothers goes even further and positions the worker as co-owners:

BUILD YOUR VISION AT LEHMAN BROTHERS. Our people are the keepers of our franchise. We are the ones who protect and promote our culture. This, above all, is what underlies our success and sets us apart from our peers.44

Employers as Benefactors

The recurring image of the workplace in career sites is that of a community of caring people whose lives are interconnected, whether at work or at home. Relationships among coworkers are described as “team,”“family,” or “friends.” For instance:

We’re a team at ALLTEL.45

Mutual of Omaha is a solid, family-oriented company, built around one simple idea: providing “no limits, no boundaries and nothing but opportunity” for our associates to grow both personally and professionally.46

Haven’t you ever dreamed of running a business with a bunch of your friends? Here’s your chance. (CH Robinson Worldwide)47

If you’re looking for a relationship with a company instead of just a job, check out our career opportunities. (Ashland)48

In this context, the workplace is not just a place where people are employed; rather, it is a community where people gather to care for each other and do purposeful things together. Inevitably the employer emerges as a kind benefactor who sustains this community. This is most clearly seen in how career sites typically position employee benefits in terms of “work/life” balance:

It’s about understanding that life doesn’t start and end with your job—so we provide the types of benefits that work for you, your family, your situation, your life. (Rockwell Automation)49

A balance between work and life is an integral part of what makes Liz Claiborne a successful company. (Liz Claiborne)50

Your work and your life outside of work can be hard to separate. Balancing the two is no longer enough—people want to integrate them successfully. Our Worklife specialists can help you do just that. (Bank One)51

We recognize you do your best work when you can balance your challenging and rewarding working life with other interests and commitments—to your community, to your loved ones, and to yourself. For Ford Motor Company, helping you find that balance is a corporate commitment. (Ford)52

The workplace and, in turn, the employer is depicted as committed to honoring the needs of employees outside of work. The voice of the employer comes through less as a “boss” but rather as a kind, inclusive, and generous benefactor who recognizes that there is more to life than work, balancing the company’s interests with the employee’s needs. In effect, the largest and most powerful companies in the United States appear to care personally about each employee, as friends and family would care for each other.

Idealization and Concealment

The rhetorical construction of work in career sites is markedly characterized by a rhetoric of idealization. Work is not presented as the factory line or office cubicle with alienated workers each doing their part (tediously) to build a widget or push paper. Work, instead, transcends anything laborious, mundane, or trite. Workers are powerful cocreators and employers are altruistic benefactors. Employing aggrandizing metaphors and euphemisms, corporate career sites attempt to attract potential applicants through enticing utopian images of the workplace. In doing so, companies may also be concealing the darker, less than ideal aspects of labor in a corporate setting. Granted, there might be a strategic need to do so, since attracting qualified workers requires organizations to entice potential applicants with positive aspects of the organization rather than the negative.

When work is “not just about earning a paycheck” but is in fact a “career,” workers are positioned as agents. In this idealized construction, corporations exist to serve workers, to help them grow, to present them with challenges that exercise their talents and intellectual prowess. The negative consequences for workers in the current capitalist market structure and some less than workercentric business practices (e.g., lay-offs, wage cutting, mandatory overtime, etc.) are elided. For instance, the “challenging” nature of work can be both an attempt to construct the worker as more than a commodity or drone, as well as a rhetorical strategy to gloss over potential employees’ concerns about the company’s stance on issues such as workweek increases, and the erosion of wages and overtime pay. Work/life balance, or even more telling “work/life integration,” as Ford calls it, can be construed as a deliberate attempt by corporations to euphemize and justify the corporate or market economy colonization of the “lifeworld” (Habermas, 1987). If there are no walls or boundaries, then work is everywhere, all the time and consequently, the lifeworld is colonized by work system. The contractual nature of the worker-employer relationship is replaced with compelling, albeit idealistic, metaphors of community, family, team, and friendships. While presenting the employer as a benevolent family caretaker instead of boss and/or owner of labor, this reframing conceals what employers want in return (e.g., more work with less pay, enduring loyalty, unwavering obedience, etc.). If work is more than just a paycheck, then it is worth sacrifice, just as participating in a family or a team requires personal sacrifices.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Historical context is important in interpreting the findings presented above, and for RQ3 findings in particular. Data for this study were collected towards the end of 2004, a period during which the U.S. economy was emerging from a recession, and national unemployment rates were high (Reuters, 2004). Between January 2001 and August 2004, the U.S. suffered a net loss of 913,000 jobs in the non-farm private and public sectors (Lang, 2004). High unemployment suggests that there was a “buyers market” for labor during the period of this study, i.e., that the supply of workers exceeded the demand, which put corporations with available jobs in a more powerful position than if unemployment rates were low. The fact that 57% of unemployed workers who found jobs since 2001 accepted lower-paying positions than the jobs they lost further both points to a high level of what might be called “underemployment” and underscores the power of those who were hiring during this study (U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2004). A recent survey found several indicators of alienation among U.S. workers, including that 70% report that they are often or sometimes “not engaged in work” or “actively disengaged,” one in six are actively seeking new jobs, and more than one-third said that they have no trust in statements from management (Goll, 2004).

Recent studies point to four trends in the economy and work practices that are salient to this study: 1) an increase in the length of the workweek and decrease in the number of paid vacation days provided for American workers (Inc.com, 2004); 2) reduction in the categories and numbers of workers eligible for overtime pay or compensatory time off (Eisenbrey, 2004); 3) decreasing wages or “wage erosion” (Christian Science Monitor, 2004); and 4) an increasing concentration of wealth, leading to increased riches for the rich and increased poverty for the poor, and a widening wealth gap between Caucasian and African-American and Hispanic families (Armas, 2004; Gorman, Doll, Abuaf, & Lavayssiere, 2004). The ideal images of work presented on career sites by corporations seem somewhat incongruous with these trends, and the contradictions invite critical reflection.

We suggest that the corporate images of work on career sites may hold persuasive power because of, not in spite of, the contrast they provide to the actual economic state of affairs and working conditions. That is, the fact that many American workers are overworked and underpaid and have very little time off, makes idealized representations of work, workplace, and worker all the more appealing. In a period of overwork for the employed, and high levels of underemployment and unemployment, a significant level of discontent on the part of both the employed and the unemployed is predictable. Therefore, basing appeals on idealized portrayals of work may be strategic for corporations in that such appeals address discontent and/or desires related to current employment conditions. However, presenting idealized images of the workplace may actually be detrimental to the recruiting process. Thorsteinson, Palmoer, Wulff, and Anderson (2004) found evidence to suggest that idealized recruitment messages are less effective in attracting potential employees than realistic recruitment messages (i.e., ones that include both positive and negative elements of work). Moreover, realistic job previews have been positively linked to long-term employee retention (Premack & Wanous, 1985).

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

In this study of e-cruiting on corporate career sites, we found that most Fortune 500 companies focus on content that introduces the company and its positions, and attempts to sell the company as an employer. The persuasive movements employed on career sites include sketching the company’s values, objectives, and credentials, building a case for the company as an employer of choice, sampling the workplace, and enabling the job search and application process. The representations of work displayed on career sites depict work as career-building, workers as agents, and employers as benefactors. These representations manifest ideals that contrast with current reports on working conditions and economic trends, and we suggest that the persuasive power of these representations may be exercised in the dissociations and contradictions between ideals and actual conditions and experiences. However persuasive an idealized appeal may be to a prospective employee, it is plausible that the discontent and disengagement reported by employees (Goll, 2004) are due in part to the gap between employees’ expectations and actual experience of work.

This study of Fortune 500 career sites contributes to a fuller understanding of corporate career sites as rhetorical phenomena by going beyond extant scholarship of usability, utility, and efficacy in illuminating the persuasive means of corporate recruitment via the Web, and corporate representations of the meaning(s) of work. Our findings contribute to the growing body of literature on Web-based recruitment in three ways. First, our research approach offers a viable multimethod model for studying corporate online communication. Few studies have analyzed corporate career sites using a large sample of sites, and only a handful have focused on the rhetorical aspect of these sites. A quantitative content analysis enabled us to scan 100 randomly selected corporate sites and chart the landscape of career sites in terms of content types. Then a more in-depth, qualitative rhetorical analysis helped to uncover recognizable patterns of rhetorical structure and ideological representations found in a subset of the sample. Future research might utilize this hybrid method to examine other domains of online communication.

This investigation also extends scholarship of Web-based recruitment by providing a catalog of core, secondary, and tertiary content types found in corporate career sites. This information helps to situate corporate career sites among other, more researched types of online recruitment forms, such as third-party job banks (Backhaus, 2004). Our findings also suggest how the rhetorical structure of online recruiting sites actually unfolds into what we identified as persuasive “movements.” These movements may provide a useful frame by which other forms and domains of Web-based recruiting can be analyzed. Furthermore, these movements help extend Backhaus and Tikoo’s (2004) theoretical work on employer branding, which they define as “the process of building an identifiable and unique employer identity, and the employer brand as a concept of the firm that differentiates it from its competitors” (p. 502). The three phases in the employer branding process include: 1) formulation of the value proposition the company offers employees; 2) external communication of the brand to potential employees; 3) and internal communication of the brand to current employees. The four movements identified in this study indicate how U.S. corporations utilize career sites to deploy the external communication phase of the employer branding process.

Finally, this study highlights a potential strategic flaw in the messaging strategy of career sites. As mentioned earlier, many organizations produce career sites with idealized images of the workplace, and in doing so may be sub-optimizing their recruitment efforts (Thorsteinson et al., 2004). The recruitment messages in these career sites can represent “psychological contracts” made to potential employees (see Backhaus & Tikoo, 2004). If after joining the company, employees believe these contracts have been violated, employees are more likely to be unsatisfied with the organization, perform less effectively, or even quit (Robinson & Rousseau, 1994). Therefore, on a practical level, the findings of this study points to a way organizations can enhance their Web-based recruiting strategy—to present a more balanced view of work, workers, and employers.

One of the limitations of this study is that it is based on observational data from career sites. It was beyond the scope of this study to assess the reactions of Web users to these career sites. However, it would be valuable to compare idealized corporate-produced representations of work on career sites to the perceptions that employees of those corporations hold of their work experience, through the use of surveys or interviews. Future research could also investigate how prospective employees interpret and respond to the rhetorical strategies employed on career sites; focus group interactions with career sites might be a useful approach to a study of this kind. A comparative analysis of the representations of work, worker, and employer in career sites with those in employment contracts would also provide an interesting test bed for further investigation of the construction of work in contemporary corporations. Finally, future studies of e-cruiting as a rhetorical phenomenon can also be expanded to the Global Fortune 500, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

Notes

References

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  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
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