In their reciprocal pursuits of internships and interns, HBS MBA candidates and participating employers invest a considerable amount of interest, time and, in many cases, money. With so much at stake, both hopes and anxieties run high, creating fertile ground for miscommunication and even confusion.

“Consider Sara,” says Lauren Murphy, Director of Career and Professional Development at HBS. “Sara” is not a real student, but a hypothetical illustration of a real phenomenon Murphy has frequently witnessed. “She’s been interviewing with a company and has received an offer she feels good about,” Murphy continues. “But she has other options, and is taking the time to weigh them. Meanwhile, the company sends so many emails, so many phone calls – even direct texts from managers.” Over a few weeks, Sara’s impression of the company changes. “She goes from feeling valued to feeling harassed. To her, the company looks desperate, not attractive.”

What went wrong?

“The time between the company’s offer and the student’s decision is very important,” says Murphy. On one side of the negotiating table, students are considering multiple options to identify the best fit. On the other side, notes Murphy, “Companies have put tremendous time, thought and management resources into selecting and evaluating new talent, the potential leaders of the future.”

But it’s at this precise juncture, when the pressure is greatest, that companies need to take a step back. “Employers must be mindful of the delicate balance,” Murphy suggests, “between giving students the information they need, and giving them the space to make their decisions.”

Be aware of the signals you send.

“You’re always signaling what it’s like to work at your company,” says Murphy. “If you come on too strong, you’re sending the wrong signal – it can be a turn-off.”

Corning, a long-established leader in material sciences and manufacturing, has stepped up its engagement with HBS interns, moving from an average of one summer intern a year to as many as six; in the summer of 2017, they had four. As it has increased its investment, it has improved the way it communicates with prospective interns.

“We recognize, understand and respect student privacy and how inundated they are with classes and the whole recruiting process,” says Todd Stout, Manager, Global Talent Sourcing Strategies at Corning. “We have to balance their concerns with our need to communicate who we are and what we do.”

For Murphy, successful communications depend on careful listening, not just to the overt concerns students openly express, but also to the subtle cues to issues that students “may not feel comfortable talking about.”

Students, Murphy observes, are as mindful of making a good impression as recruiting employers. They may be reluctant, therefore, to initiate conversations about compensation, work-life balance, and the nature of the team with whom they may be working. “Any clarity you can bring – about the nature of your teams, how performance is reviewed, what the incentive structures are – will be helpful. Yes, it takes time, but the extra effort is worthwhile.”

At Corning, recruiters have turned inward to communicate outward. Kim Mosher, Corning’s Talent Acquisition Program Specialist, says, “What’s really been helpful is using HBS alumni at Corning, both recent hires and more senior leaders. They have no problem picking up the phone to initiate conversations with potential interns. We’ve found that when senior leaders reach out, we get immediate favorable reactions from students.”

“Students want to engage with alumni,” adds Stout. “It helps them understand what a career at Corning could look like for them.” In addition, Corning invites candidates to its campus in upstate New York. “Fit is important,” says Stout. “If you’re interested in the ‘big city’ experience, that’s not us. You have to have a passion for science and manufacturing, and a real appreciation for life in a smaller community.”

The extra efforts have paid off. “We increased our touch points on campus, then made our communications more personal through our HBS alumni, to increase our yield.”

Mosher concurs. “We realized we had to step it up with HBS,” she says. In addition to site invitations and alumni communications, Mosher credits “a strong relationship” with HBS’ Career and Professional Development office for its success. “They keep in touch with the pulse of the student body, which is constantly changing,” she observes.

Practical suggestions

Recruiters frequently ask Murphy about volume: how many contact points should they make with potential interns? “Enough to communicate that the student is valued,” Murphy suggests, “but not enough to harass.” She advises recruiters to openly “acknowledge the difficulty of the student’s choice, and to be respectful that the student needs information and time” before making a commitment.

“Send a consistent signal,” Murphy suggests. “Let them know that you don’t want to apply pressure, but that you’re always available to provide helpful information.”