How to be a vulnerable recruiter

Have you ever met someone who immediately made you let your guard down? You’re talking to a stranger, and all of a sudden you’re telling them your life story, revealing raw emotions, painting pictures of your hopes and dreams. Something about them tells you that it’s perfectly safe to be vulnerable with them, so you just do it.

And it feels amazing! Deep, meaningful connections are formed out of vulnerability. One of my close friends is the kind of person that brings vulnerability out in others, and it fascinates me to watch her meet new people. After observing her emotionally disarm a small army of unsuspecting individuals, I’m convinced I understand the secret: to invite vulnerability from another person, you have to first offer up vulnerability yourself. My friend’s secret is to start saying vulnerable things, and voila!, the other person responds with vulnerable things in return.

As a recruiter (or hiring manager or interviewer), inviting candidates to be vulnerable is an important part of the job. You want to see them for who they really are—not some façade put up due to insecurity or fear or eagerness. (No judgment here—I do it too!) As a recruiter, if you only see a façade, you have no way of knowing if someone is actually a good fit for your company, which can lead to bad hiring decisions.

The problem is that we often expect candidates to be vulnerable with us—jump through evaluatory hoops and submit answers to our questions for harsh scrutiny and judgment—but we insist on never being vulnerable with them! I think this is one of the cardinal sins of interviewing… how can you reasonably expect someone to open up to you with all honesty and good faith when you won’t even do that with them?

Here, I’d like to share some tips on how to offer up your own vulnerability as a recruiter. Doing so leads to better connections with your candidates, and that leads to better hiring decisions in the end.

Signaling vulnerability as a recruiter #

Introduce yourself properly #

One thing I insist on doing during my interviews is taking up some of our precious interview time to properly introduce myself. I walk the candidate through a full 3-minute explanation of who I am and why we’re talking. I don’t limit the exposition to the company I’m at—I give the candidate a birds-eye view of my life and what brought me to this very conversation. After I introduce myself, I say, “So that’s my story! I’d love to hear a similar thing from you—life from a birds-eye view if you will.”

Doing this makes the candidate feel less like they’re being interrogated by a cop who just stormed in the room and demanded information. Instead of feeling grilled by someone anonymous, they’re engaging in a conversation with someone they were just introduced to—it sets up a completely different dynamic. As a bonus, it primes them to give the type of information you actually want to hear from them in their own introduction.

Explain your questions #

When someone asks you a direct, personal question, it’s natural to wonder what their intentions are. What are they really trying to find out? How will they judge my answer? What will they do with my answer? Even in an interview setting where questions are expected, they can seem opaque and ominous to candidates. With all these anxieties occupying their headspace, it’s harder for candidates to provide clean, honest answers. If you explain why you’re asking a question, these anxieties dissipate and clear the path for more honest answers. For example, “What is your dream role? I’m asking because I want to make sure that what we have to offer is aligned with what you’re looking for.”

Doing this makes the candidate feel less like they’re in a poker game against a World Series of Poker player with sunglasses on. Show your cards before you ask them to show theirs. Contextualizing your questions also has the benefit of revealing the true intention of the question, which reduces the chance of a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

React genuinely to their answers #

When a candidate responds to one of your questions, they crave some sign that you understand what they’re saying. Imagine being at a party where you make some comment (one you thought was witty) and receive nothing but crickets in response—it’s one of the worst feelings! Don’t do this to your candidate—don’t ask a question, receive the answer, respond with some half-hearted, minimal, or canned acknowledgement, and move straight to the next question. This signals to the candidate that you either didn’t understand what they said or didn’t care for it. Instead, say something like, “What you’re saying really resonates with me because…” or “That’s an interesting idea because…” to signal to the candidate that they are heard and understood.

Doing this makes the candidate feel less like they’re climbing up on a stage at a theater audition under bright lights and judging eyes. An interview, when conducted correctly, should be a conversation—a lopsided one to be sure, but a conversation still. You need to let your own guard down and do your part to contribute. As an added benefit, I find that reacting to a candidate’s answer often pulls out deeper thoughts. With some encouragement from you, candidates will often double down on their answer and explain their thoughts in greater detail, giving you more signal.

Takeaways #

For everyone:

For recruiters:


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