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From flattery to frustration. Where headhunting is going wrong & how to fix it

Recruiters are under a lot of pressure to get great candidates and they simply have to go chase after those prospects that would be a great fit for the company, even if they are not actively looking for a job. I get that. This is supposed to be a win for everyone involved – the recruiter gets great candidates, the candidate gets a better job or a better deal on the same job, and the hiring manager gets a great new addition to their team. Unfortunately, the average selection process is nothing like a win-win, but rather a process that causes headaches and frustration for everyone involved. The good news is that you – those of you who are responsible for designing the selection process – can do many things to improve this process and really turn it into a win-win.

Let me paint the picture for you and make a few suggestions for improvement. Mine are just a few of many and not necessarily the best suggestions, but the point is: the process needs to change.

I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse

Headhunting is a funny business. When it comes to certain positions, there simply aren’t enough applications coming in to provide a company with the strongest pool of candidates to select from. As a result, recruiters scour LinkedIn, GitHub, Xing and…the entire internet with fancy Boolean searches to find the best profiles out there. Once they find these desired candidates, the woo-ing process begins.

In most cases, because of the stringent qualifications required for the job – certain hard to find specializations, years of experience, great education etc. – these candidates are happily employed and well remunerated experts, who are not looking to switch jobs. Which is precisely why the recruiters have to make them “an offer they can’t refuse” – in case you ever wondered why they called it headhunting ;-). Luckily the mafia analogy stops there, as the recruiters’ weapons of choice are flattery, promises of great compensation packages and idyllic descriptions of the job. They not only make the job look great, they insist that YOU are exactly what they are looking for. They want YOU for this job – no, they NEED you.

The carrot always comes with a stick

After such a compelling message, who wouldn’t be flattered? Most of us would take a look at the company and the job, and if it’s something we could consider, why not accept the interview? And this is how the circus starts.

I’ve talked to many people who have been through the headhunting process up until the last interview, and they all share the same frustrations. (*Yes, these are the people that didn’t get the job, but that’s the point: most candidates don’t). They went to the first interview expecting to find out right away whether they were the right match for the job and company. When they passed the interview, they got excited about the job, so they went on to spend their weekends preparing to jump through the next hoop and the hoop after that. Each time, they passed and, with each stage, they got more and more invested in the job. This process took weeks – sometimes even months! Finally, the last interview came. Naturally, the candidates were relieved and expected it to be more or less a formality; “if everything goes well with the hiring manager, I’m it.” But they weren’t.

The reasons for rejection were multiple – ranging from bad cultural fit with the company or no fit with the team, to not the right qualification, no experience in X, disagreement on the compensation etc. – but they inevitably felt like ridiculous excuses to these candidates. Now you may be thinking that they are just sore losers because they did not get the job and now they’re blaming the process. I’m not saying that they should’ve got the job. They most likely were the wrong fit. But that is precisely where the candidates’ frustration comes from.

The problem

The problem is that all these rejections were based on facts that could have been determined much sooner in the process. Of course, the recruiter couldn’t have known all of these things before sending the seductive message, but everything pertaining to experience, salary expectations and qualifications could have been determined from the first or second call, before even entering the process. As for the cultural and team fit, that could have been easily determined in the first actual interview. And this is precisely what all the candidates expected.

Waiting until the last round to bring up elements that should have been obvious from the beginning shows that the process was designed with the company in mind and not the candidate. While being rejected for a job is not a pleasant experience, having been lured into applying for a job, given the impression you are a great fit, gone through a lengthy process, only to be rejected on facts that were or could have been disclosed in the first conversation is incredibly frustrating. Just think about it: “You come to me, you say you need me, then you ask me to do all sorts of things to prove myself to you and then you tell me that I never had what you wanted in the first place (i.e. qualification, experience, fit). Then why did you approach me to begin with?” Being headhunted and applying on your own are not the same thing. When you’ve been approached, you’d expect to take a different route – and rightfully so.

Where headhunting goes wrong

Let’s retrace our steps. Before the candidates even agree to enter the process, they have a few calls with the recruiter. This would be the perfect opportunity to ask all those questions about prior qualifications, salary range etc. But this rarely happens. Most recruiters act more like coaches than interviewers and spend more time trying to convince the candidate to apply, than to figure out if there’s a real match. Sure, it’s not the recruiter’s job to determine the match, but they could still gather the information and pass it on to the manager. That is, if the manager took the time to explain what they wanted and what would constitute a deal-breaker. #Mistake number 1: bad communication between the hiring manager and the headhunter. Which inadvertently leads the recruiter to create false expectations for the candidate. #Mistake number 2: bad expectations management.

Now let’s go back to why the candidates become frustrated. Most people can accept a loss, if it’s perceived as fair. In our case, candidates would have accepted a rejection in the last interview round if it was based on hard facts – say a low score in a test. They would have accepted a rejection based on cultural fit as well, but only in the first two rounds of the interview. Granted, there may have been some doubts along the way, but still decided to give the candidate another chance. #Mistake number 3: lack of feedback for the candidate. Nevertheless, since cultural fit is a rather subjective criterion the reasonable expectation is that it would be dealt with early on in the process, as a sign of respect for the candidates’ time and effort. #Mistake number 4: wrong order of interviews. Decision makers should find a way to determine the candidates’ cultural fit and fit within the team before asking them to spend weeks in tests and interviews. Easier said than done…since decision makers don’t have the time to see everyone. So, is this a Catch22?

Maybe not.

Suggestions for improvement

I guess that by now it’s clear where I’m going with this. So here are a few tips for improving the process:

#1. Recruiters and hiring managers should agree on more than just the job description. Understand what kind of person they are looking for, what personalities are needed to complement the team, think of someone in the company that might exhibit those traits to establish common understanding. Add to this budget considerations, time-frame to compete the hire and deal-breakers. The more details the better.

#2. Headhunters have a responsibility towards the candidates they approach as well, not only to the company. How they frame the job and what expectations they create for the candidates is of crucial importance. They have to walk a fine line to convince the candidate to apply for a job they were not looking for, while still being honest with the candidate about how well they fit the profile.

#3. Manage expectations and disclose concerns. It starts with that first message to the candidate, but it doesn’t stop there. If the candidates receive feedback every step of the way and know what concerns the company may have, they will have a better understanding of the outcome.

#4. Establish cultural match and team fit as soon as possible. This is a two-way street. The candidates would like to know who their manager will be and what kind of team they’d be working with for most of their waking hours, just as much as the manager and the team would like to know the candidate. If there is a mismatch, it’s a disservice to everyone involved to find that out after having spent weeks in the process – like a band-aide, it has to be pulled out quickly.

The challenge here is to meet the team and the manager early on, without spending a lot of time on interviewing at this stage in the process. I have 3 suggestions here:

  • #Lunch. Invite all the candidates for a lunch with the team and the manager. They spend an hour together, they can chat, ask questions, see the atmosphere and look for mutual fit.
  • #Chat. Hiring manager can have a 10-15 minutes’ chat with the candidate just before the candidate goes into another interview. That way, they get to meet and judge the fit, without dragging on the process.
  • #Video interviews. Use pre-recorded video interviews to introduce the team and the manager and ask a few questions to the candidate. The candidates can just send in the answers. It takes 5 minutes to review the interviews and, trust me, they are very telling. When it comes to judging the personality of a candidate they are as accurate as a 1-on-1 meeting. I should know – I work with video interviews all day at Cammio and haven’t yet met someone I saw on video that surprised me in person.

I’m sure there are other options too. But bottom line is – find a way to respect your candidates’ time and effort and be mindful of the fact that when you approach someone it is your responsibility to determine the fit and not waste their time.

Happy hiring to us all!


Infographic | Why Video Recruitment Works | Download