How to be an honest recruiter

There have been two times in my life that I was misled by a recruiter. The first time, I lasted 11.5 months on the job before realizing I just couldn’t do it anymore. The second, I lasted 1 year and 7 months before quitting. Both times, I walked away with emotional scars that linger years later.

I’ll keep the sob stories short, as I know most of us have experienced this to one degree or another. The first time I was misled, I was told that the big tech company I was interviewing for operated more like a startup. (I’m sure almost everyone is cracking up at the fact that I even fell for that, but give a new grad a break 😉) I quit, in tears, because the bureaucracy and office politics eventually wore down my sanity.

The second time I was misled, I was told that I could interview for a PM position even though that position wasn’t really open and I was instead being interviewed as a software engineer. (I was told that I was doing coding interviews because the company’s PM needed to be highly technical 🙃) To be fair, I didn’t quit precisely due to this mixup, but the confusion discombobulated me to a degree that had severe negative effects on me.

It’s important to point out that the damage of being misled wasn’t just felt by me though—the company that hired me surely felt it as well. In the first case, they had to backfill my position after less than 1 year. In the second case, they lost an immense amount of productivity out of me because I was confused and unhappy.

Now, I won’t comment on whether the misleading was intentional—I am a recruiter myself and can empathize with the predicament we’re in when trying to balance the need to impress a strong candidate while also being accurate and honest. And while the title of this post might imply that it will include some kind of moral judgment, it does not. Instead, I wish to take a more pragmatic look at the importance of honesty during a recruiting process by examining the concept of honesty through a practical lens, not a moral one.

The advantage of honest recruiting #

Society lauds people who are honest and shames those who are not because honesty is evolutionarily advantageous. When you look at honesty through an anthropological lens, it has been found—if I may summarize so boldly—that honesty leads to better cooperation, and cooperation is a mark of higher-order societies. Basically, things are generally better when people are honest.

I argue that this idea applies to recruiting as well—it pays to be an honest recruiter. If the two stories above don’t demonstrate the concept explicitly enough, misleading a candidate (intentionally or unintentionally) negatively impacts both your company and your candidates. The corollary of this is that being as honest as possible during the recruiting process leads to better results for everyone involved. Performance, retention, satisfaction—these are all boosted when honesty is maximized first.

So, be an honest recruiter. Easy, right? Alas, being honest as a recruiter is not so straightforward, as honesty is a multi-dimensional concept that can be hard to pull off in all its colors.

The many colors of honesty #

Honesty is a complex thing. I won’t dive into the general semantics, but I will provide five flavors of honesty that a recruiter needs to keep in mind throughout the interview process.

As a recruiter, it’s important to be:

Be truthful #

In other words, don’t misinform. This is easy and hard at once. It’s easy to not lie about things that you know. It’s especially important to not lie about the expectations of the role—if the expectations do not align with the candidate’s and you end up hiring them, you’ll find yourself in a world of pain.

What’s hard is not misinforming about things you don’t know. In order to avoid doing this, steep yourself in the role and align yourself closely with the hiring manager so that you are essentially an extension of them. If you know everything that the hiring manager knows about the role, then you can provide truthful information to the candidate. If you’re playing a guessing game, you are sure to misinform.

Be open #

In other words, invite questions. Remember that it is your responsibility to make sure that candidates have their questions answered—it’s part of your job as a recruiter. If you don’t foster an open, welcoming, warm persona, candidates will not feel comfortable asking you tough questions (nor will they trust your answers to the questions they do ask).

Conveying an air of openness is not always easy and is usually the result of many small efforts. Good-humored self-deprecation goes a long way in breaking down walls, as does humor in general. Being vulnerable with the candidate in your introduction makes them feel more comfortable being vulnerable with you, and asking questions is an act of vulnerability. And of course, asking, “Do you have any questions for me?” in a genuine, inquisitive way, and with ample time left on the clock, is a no-brainer.

Be transparent #

In other words, don’t be cryptic. Candidates will often ask precise questions even when they’re curious about more general things. If you answer all of their questions literally without offering up helpful contextual information, the candidate will walk away only knowing a partial truth, which may be confusing or misleading to them.

One technique I use to boost my transparency is to extrapolate a bit beyond the candidate’s literal question. For example, if a candidate asks, “How much funding do you have?” they are probably trying to get at the financial stability of your company. In this case, I would answer their question first and then provide some color to it, explaining where we get our funding from, how much runway we have at our current burn rate, and perhaps a brief statement about our spending philosophy.

Be frank #

In other words, don’t sugar coat things. Note that sugar coating is different from portraying something in a positive light. Sugar coating is deception. Portraying something in a positive light is optimism. When a candidate asks you a tough question, it’s important to answer it as directly as possible while imbuing your answer with optimism.

How do you do this? I have a two-step formula. First, answer the question truthfully, as we discussed earlier. Next, make a statement of optimism. Statements of optimism can come in different forms—if the answer to their question seems like a downside, try to think of one of your teammates who sees the upside and convey their sentiment. If you can’t do that, try stating ways that your company is actively trying to ameliorate the problem. As always, don’t make anything up! Become a detective for silver linings, then communicate those silver linings to the candidate.

Be forthright #

In other words, offer information proactively. Remember that a candidate doesn’t know what they don’t know—especially a candidate who hasn’t interviewed a lot or very recently. You can’t always rely on them to ask salient questions. As a recruiter, it’s your job to identify what information is salient, in general and to a specific candidate, and then offer that information up on a silver platter.

One way that I do this is to interject useful information in response to candidate’s answers to my questions. For example, if a candidate talks about wanting to be in a learning environment, I would respond by telling them whether or not they’ll find that kind of environment in their role. If their learning and growth will be fostered, that’s great! If they will be expected to run on their own without much mentorship, you need to tell them. Oftentimes, a candidate’s answers to your questions contain implicit questions back to you—keep an eye out for them and offer information proactively.

Advice for candidates #

Similar to how you can’t choose your parents, as a candidate, you have no control over who you get as a recruiter or interviewer. Because of this, the burden is on you to advocate for yourself and reap as much useful information as you can throughout the interview process.

You can do this by:

Takeaways #

For everyone:

For recruiters:

For candidates:


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