Okay, Mr. Smarty-pants. You criticize how HR and hiring managers treat applicants. You say we don’t respect job candidates. You seem to think we’re here to baby them and show them a good time. Let me remind you that we have to deal with hundreds or even thousands of applicants for every job. (No matter what anybody says, we get too many applications, not too few!) You don’t like what you refer to as the impersonal nature of it all. So go ahead — tell us the “right” way to handle them. I can’t wait.

Nick’s Reply

respect job candidatesIt’s hard enough to identify top job candidates and entice them into an interview, and even harder to hire them. The last thing you want to do is alienate a potential hire by subjecting them to an unpleasant, disrespectful interviewing process.

In many years as a headhunter, I’ve seen companies conduct interviews that drive away the best people. I’ve also seen companies conduct interviews that leave candidates panting for a job offer. If you want your company to be the kind that candidates are eager to join, here are a few DOs and DON’Ts about how to treat people you hope to hire.

1. DO give the candidate an agenda.

Job applicants come to conduct business and to derive some benefit. Respect job candidates as you would a prospective customer meeting you for the first time. Before any interview, provide an agenda that will inform, please and stimulate them. More than a job description, this demonstrates you know what you’re doing and what they must do to get a job offer. It tells the candidate this is a business call, not an awkward interrogation or, worse, a waste of time. If you can’t produce a solid agenda, you have no business conducting a job interview. (This is why 5 or 7 or 9 interviews are never justified, no matter how you rationalize them. It reveals you don’t know what you’re doing.)

2. DON’T set a negative tone.

As the host, you set the tone. A first interview is not a place for personnel jockeys to screen applicants whose work they don’t understand. (If you haven’t already screened the person, why are you even meeting them?) The candidate comes to meet the manager they will be working with, and to get an impression of your company’s acumen. A respectful meeting with a job candidate should be a challenging but appropriate engagement of two professionals. It’s not the time for filling out forms, and it’s not for asking presumptuous questions. (For example, “Why are you interested in this job?” — when you recruited them.) Set a positive tone: talk shop.

3. DO state your business clearly.

You’re the host. You asked for this meeting. So take the lead. What does your company do? What are the deliverables for this job, at 3, 6, 12, 18 and 24 months? What are the immediate challenges? The problems you’re facing? What’s your interest in the candidate? Then invite the candidate to show how they’d apply their skills and abilities to the work. The tone, substance and outcome of an interview are largely determined by the subject of the interview. (That’s why a written agenda is crucial.) Make sure everyone on your end is clear about what the interview is for. “Getting a feel for the candidate” is a poor excuse for taking up anyone’s time.

4. DON’T be presumptuous.

Don’t ask candidates to open their kimonos until you’ve opened yours. Don’t poke and prod too soon. Imagine going on a first date and asking a person you barely know about the facts and figures of their life: Who are your parents? How were you raised? Why are you attracted to me? How much do you earn? How many kids do you want to have? Don’t laugh. The analogy is very apt. Nothing upsets a job candidate like a presumptuous interviewer. Show some respect. For example, tell them the salary range in advance. They’ll tell you whether it’s enough.

5. DO put your best foot forward.

A personnel jockey or an A.I. or video bot is not your best introduction. It tells the applicant you think their time is less valuable than yours. Never allow anyone but the hiring manager to make first contact with the candidate. (Do job applicants send proxies to meet you?) Then introduce candidates to their peers immediately — the people they will be working with. (Remember what HR loves to proclaim: People are our most important asset! So show off your people!) Your goal is to assess the candidate, but it is also to establish your team’s credibility. You cannot recruit effectively if you cannot impress the candidate at the first step.

6. DON’T schedule irrelevant interviews.

Your interviewers should be of a such caliber that they could win this job if they were interviewing for it. A personnel clerk who isn’t expert in the work of your department is not the person you want to represent your company to the candidate. Likewise, when you schedule those 3 interviews, why would you let a junior team member whose acumen isn’t a match question the candidate? Why let a clerk quiz a programmer about their long-term career goals? If the manager is not technically savvy enough, then find someone who is and include that person in the meeting.

7. DO cut to the chase.

If you want to show a candidate true professional respect, don’t interview them. Instead, roll up your sleeves and have a working meeting. Your discussion shouldn’t be about the candidate or where they see themselves in 5 years. A manager’s first contact with a candidate should be to lay out a live problem and to present the work as concretely as possible because that’s the first deal-breaker. If there’s not a match, you’ll both know right away. This discussion opens up all the other hidden doors to a candidate’s personality, character, work ethic, experience and background — and to the manager’s too.

8. DON’T conduct a psychological strip search.

Having recruited and enticed a desirable job candidate to come visit, many companies administer a battery of personality and aptitude tests — before the candidate gets to see the manager who’s supposedly interested in meeting them. Many qualified candidates simply walk away when confronted with this kind of intrusive questioning. Always give candidates solid reasons to consent to detailed assessments — like a chance to confirm there is serious mutual interest in working together before investing more of their valuable time.

9. DO show respect to all candidates.

Interviewers are not excused from professional courtesies and responsibilities. No matter what HR says, recruiting and interviewing are not an administrative process, and job applicants are not supplicants to abuse — even when you must reject them. Recruiting and interviewing are a highly social art: the art of tactful influence. You’re guiding professionals into your fold. You want them to fall in love with you. Do it gently. Do it responsibly. Make sure when they depart they’ll say good things about you to their professional community because lack of respect on your part will damage further attempts to recruit from that community.

A few more ways to respect job candidates

I’m repeating some of the same ideas, but I like this short list for stimulating discussion. Share it with your team and let them fill in the details.

  • Don’t make the candidate wait.
  • Don’t send a clerk to meet a professional.
  • Don’t run candidates through a gauntlet of lackeys.
  • Do be glad to see the candidate.
  • Do welcome the candidate as a valued guest.
  • Do personally escort them into your office.
  • Do thank the candidate for accepting your invitation and taking time to visit.
  • Do stimulate the candidate’s professional interests and goals immediately.
  • And do offer your candid, honest opinion of the prospects of working together each time you’re done talking with them.

It doesn’t take much to make job candidates feel your respect, if you just remember how much you need them.

Which rule is most important to you if you’re a job seeker? If you’re an employer? What rules would you add that I’ve missed? Which of these rules do most employers seem to follow, and which do they commonly disregard?

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  1. “Never allow anyone but the hiring manager to make first contact with the candidate.” This should be carved on a stone and put on the desk of every HR manager on the planet.

    I know that to cover the entire gamut of interviewing would require volumes, but here or two more:

    1a. Never EVER use “Dialing 4 Dollars” recruiters to find or screen candidates for your firm. The hiring manager should know where to find the people he or she is interested in. Let them. HR does not, the D4D Recruiters do not, and if the manager does not then there is your problem.

    9b. Always keep the communication open until your decision is final. Email is cheap, but companies kept candidates in the loop even in the days of an army of stenographers, typewriters, and the U.S. Mail.

  2. I just went through a lengthy but very positive interview process with a company whose offer I gladly accepted. They followed these rules almost exactly and it made for one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my (long) career. Here are some of the things they did right (and one or two things they could improce on).

    1. They told me their salary range for the position in the first phone call I had with their internal recruiter. No guessing, no beating around the bush, no trying to make me come up with a number first and risk low-balling myseld.
    2. They kept in touch with me through the entire process, including a 2 month wait while some internal things were worked out. When these were resolved, we picked up where we had left off.
    3. Their internal recruiter briefed me on each step of the process, laying out who I would be meeting, what their position in the company was, and what they would be asking me. I have NEVER been prepped so well, even by professional recruiters who were supposed to do that.
    4. Every person I met with had already been briefed on me. There was no on camera running through my resume or asking me the same questions that others had already used.
    5. There were no “stupid questions”. No :”what is your major weakness” or “where do you see yourself in 5 years” – none of that. Every conversation was focused on the type of work the company does and how my skill set could compliment this.
    6. They told me upfront that when they make an offer, it is non-negotiable. I appreciated this – no game playing. They asked me what my number was to come and make this move. I named a range within the band they had named in our first conversation that I was comfortable with and then they came back with an offer $5000 above my top number. They let me know that they really wanted me.

    Here are a couple of things that could have been better:

    1, There were a LOT of interviews:
    initial phone screening with their internal recruiter – 45 minutes
    initial phone meeting with hiring manager – 1 hour
    first panel interview with 5 people – 3 hours
    second panel interview with 5 people – 3.5 hours – this included my presentation of a deck they asked me to create illustrating how I would proceed on my first 4 months with the company, should I get the position. Creating the presentaiton took me about 3 hours. It was rather a lot.

    2. This is something that all companies seem to do – they do a background check but there is never a communication saying that this has been successfully completed. It drives me a little crazy. I know that I always clear them, but it alwasy makes me nervous to have someone digging in my past and it would be nice if I could get a “thumbs up – all clear” at some point. It would cut down my anxiety drastically. I realize that if something dire had occurred, they would have rescinded their offer, but the waiting gets me every time.

    All in all though, I think they handled the process very well and I am excited to start my new position.

    • @Kukla: Thanks for sharing that. I love hearing a story about a company that does it right amidst all the employer scofflaws. Offering you a few bucks more than you asked is an outstanding investment – it’s a gesture that buys an employer so much because it instantly highlights that company against its competitors.

      Which brings us to your suggestions, which are simple common sense. It seems over-interviewing is the latest corporate virus. If a manager can’t make a hiring decision after 2-3 interviews max, then either they’re talking to the wrong candidates, or they’re doing it all wrong because they don’t really know what they want.

      Glad it worked out so well for you! You could share your suggestions with them, or just give them a link to what you posted here and let them see for themselves. This is a great story and an instructive one! Thanks again!

      • Thank you for being another voice of reason and sanity in the world of recruiting.

    • Doubtless they are oblivious that a lot of interviews could signal indecisiveness. But from the overall way they recruited I don’t think so. I’ll be they practice a concept called “buyin” I’ve seen companies do this in development of a new process, product, whatever. They want to feel that everyone has had a say & as such that everyone buys in & is behind a proposal. What it does is instill delays in the process. In this case stretching out an applicants involvement.
      Conversely there’s an approach that say’s a few key people are involved & decide. It’s a “the SMEs and hiring manager have spoken, we’re moving on & expect you to support the decision.
      Back in my day I had a manager who recruited by himself. He’d meet, talk with interview & if he saw a fit. Done. He’d extend an offer. It would be accepted. Then he’d tell his team I hired Mr/Ms X, starts on Y. Assign a mentor. On Y he’d intro X around & the person would join in & start working. Done. Believe me it was fast. His approached worked just as well as the buy in approach.

  3. “we have to deal with hundreds or even thousands of applicants”

    That is a YP, not an MP.

    Almost every time I have discussed problems with someone in a organization who [should] has the power to change things, the answer begins with “what you need to understand…” In other words, they are not interested in making the process better.

    Ultimately, for organizations that are serious, *wait for it*….Networking!

    Organizations can network for qualified employees. Make it a deliverable for Hiring Managers. Two hours a week meeting people. Meet one person a week for coffee. At the end of the year, that is 50 now people in their network.

    An aside: Where all of this is really disheartening is when companies declare “people are our strategic differentiator!” Then they outsource the process.

    Ultimately, the truth is that most companies do not really care about finding and retaining solid employees. Maybe a few senior executives. Possibly a few stars. But other than that, people a a fungible asset.

    • @Gregory: My advice to all employers is, if your managers aren’t spending 1-2 days per week networking and recruiting (especially when they’re not hiring!), then they’re not managing. HR cannot and should not be doing it because HR cannot talk shop with the professional community from which your company recruits. This is 90% of what’s wrong with America’s employment system — the people that need the workers (hiring managers) are largely cut out of the recruiting process, leaving personnel jockeys to create a phantom “recruiting” system that uses a sieve to carry water. It just doesn’t work.

  4. “You seem to think we’re here to baby them and show them a good time. Let me remind you that we have to deal with hundreds or even thousands of applicants for every job.”

    No one seems to be concerned with the obvious here: you’re using a system that will yield hundreds or thousands of applicants for each job. That’s the root cause of the problem.

    Maybe if you worked smarter not harder….

    • You should consider examining your job specifications. No, not make them another mile long. Put into the job description exactly what it is that you want the new hire actually to do; what the deliverables are as per above 6, 12, 18 etc months away. And as said, also above, the salary range, specifics on all benefits. I said specifics. OK to specify some education only where it is actualy specifically relevant. Tell me why I would want to work there: training, responsibility, promotion path and speed, yes speed, and I would prefer the salary progression amounts and time periods required. No bull; just the facts m’am.

      I can’t tell you how manhy job ads I ignore because nine of this is provided. You will claim it is proprietary; but aren’t you fairly well informed on your competitiors’ salaries, benefits, etc? Duh.

      And an A-men to having a flunky interview, who knows nothing about the professio0nal requirements or anything else.

  5. Heck, I’d settle for a form-letter e-mail rejection following in-person interviews. I’m a big boy, I can take the rejection.

    • …even a canned “thanks, but no thanks” email.

      The funny thing is, nobody has trouble spamming me with job opportunities.

      • You’d think that an ATS could do that for every applicant that isn’t selected. When I was in college that were classmates who papered the wall or their dorm room with the hand-typed rejection letters they’d received following their on-campus interviews. (This was before word processors, mail merge, and laser printers could churn them out by the ream.) I’m certain that most people would prefer receiving a rejection letter/email than radio silence.

  6. Numbers 4, 7, and 1 are critical to me, in that order.

    4. At least post a salary *minimum* (range is better) so we won’t waste each other’s time!

    7. Let me *show* you what kind of employee I’d be!

    1. Give me enough information to prepare to demonstrate my best attributes clearly.

    I’m Autistic, so the “personality” tests are actually discriminatory against me. But I’m also pretty intelligent, so I know the “right” answers.

    But that presents a *huge* ethical dilemma for me:
    • Do I stick with my strong natural tendency and moral value of strict honesty and not get the job, OR
    • Do I pick all the “right” answers and get hired?

    For the record, I’ve been practicing pretending to be neurotypical (NT) my entire life, and I don’t fit most of the [generally inaccurate] stereotypes* anyway, so plenty of people are shocked if I tell them I’m Autistic.

    I just wish the world could accept people who are a little different. I see things differently from NTs, so I find different solutions to the same problems. I recognize patterns more easily, and usually different ones from NTs. I recognize inconsistencies immediately. I can see the forest AND the trees all at once. I’m an instinctive troubleshooter for both near- and long-term problems. I learn all kinds of complex concepts very easily and automatically test to see if they’re transferable to other circumstances.

    You would think employers would love those traits, especially in my chosen field of IT, but since I am horrible at office politics and incapable of kissing up (if I try to lie it’s literally written all over my face), it just never works out, no matter how good my performance and metrics and results are.

    *I am not a 12-year-old white boy; I can look people in the eyes; I can do chit-chat with strangers; I *AM* highly empathetic; I am very self-aware of my emotions and the reasons for them; I have maintained lifelong friendships; I’ve been married for 2 decades; I’m excellent at customer service; I enjoy public speaking and am good at it; I can be completely honest in a gentle way; I have diplomatic skills; etc.

  7. I applied for an office manager position in a small company. One of the “higher ups” scheduled a phone interview. He asked awkward questions and typical interview questions. He said he wanted to meet in person, so we agreed to a day/time. They had no reception area as you walked into the office, so someone at a desk asked me if I needed help. I told her I was here to interview with so and so. We went into a conference room, and I ended up doing all the talking and asking questions. I had to probe and probe to get information about the work to be accomplished, expectations, etc. He said to me at one point that “you have to be 100% accurate or you will be fired.” I then asked how they achieved a 100% accuracy rate in the company? Got no answer on that one. He never offered to show me around or introduce me to people in the office. He was part owner too. If that was my company, I’d be thrilled to show off my business to a perspective employee. That was in early April 2022. The job is still open today. Either they are not serious about hiring or something else is going on. I dodged a bullet on that one.

    • They are still waiting for the 100% accurate unicorn / purple squirrel.

    • I had an interview at a small printing company for a graphic design position. One certainty about graphic design interviews is that there is always some kind of on-site test and this place was no exception. There was a recreation of a business card to exact specifications, corrections to a flyer, and building from scratch a logo, letterhead, envelope and business card – all within 20 minutes. I am here to tell you that even one of those projects, if done properly and accurately, would take longer than 20 minutes, but I gave it the old college try. I completed the business card to look exactly like the sample when the owner declared my 20 minutes was up. We went upstairs to his office for the interview. I was expecting the usual “tell me about yourself” tedious questions, but he surprised me by saying that my resume was solid and he was satisfied with my experience and the link I provided to my portfolio. He asked me if I had any questions, and the first one I asked was “How did this position come to be open?” His answer was probably the biggest red flag I have ever encountered in a job interview. He said that his current graphic designer was not making the grade. He did not elaborate, and I was dying to ask why. Maybe that was another test. I wondered why he was even telling me that, and I got the distinct sense that if I were hired, he’d be standing over my shoulder every minute of every day being nitpicky over everything I produced. I asked a couple more questions, but by that time, I didn’t really care about the responses, which had to do with how his company was weathering the Covid pandemic and what their economic prospects would be like going forward. But after that first answer, I decided that if I were offered the job, I’d turn it down. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about, as I got a rejection email two weeks later. I dodged a bullet as well, but I felt bad about the hapless designer who was on the verge of being fired.

      • @Liz: There is something to be said for following your gut!

  8. Also, if hiring managers are not attending professional meetings for local associations to meet the kind of people they want to hire, then you are missing out. Those of you responsible for hiring need to know people in the professional community are talking about your company. I’ve gone to local meetings for an association where I was a member. During dinner we talked about our work, where we worked, etc. There were times I would hear conversations about certain companies–some good, some not good. And, people had no qualms about naming the companies. Word gets round about a company’s reputation. People tell others how they are treated while working there or while being interviewed.

  9. “My advice to all employers is, if your managers aren’t spending 1-2 days per week networking and recruiting (especially when they’re not hiring!), then they’re not managing. HR cannot and should not be doing it because HR cannot talk shop with the professional community from which your company recruits. This is 90% of what’s wrong with America’s employment ”

    I strongly disagree with this statement. It is 99%.

  10. Good post & answer Nick. Amen!

    2 days ago I received a long awaited email (form letter) from a leading financial firm informing that the opportunity has been cancelled. I run my own practice, so though biased, I feel particularly qualified for many roles at this firm at a mid+-senior level.

    Never once had I been able to correspond with or get in touch with a live person. The intro briefings were auto / robo, all instructions were robo, the interviews were robo & the response was auto / robo.

    As many corps do they espouse respect for individuals, are guided by a well crafted set up company values, strive for inclusion, support diversity, create a proactive corp culture, yadda, yadda, yadda. From where I sit they failed in all their proclaimed behaviors & every point you cited.

    I understand some of the original questioner’s perspective, but, at some point in a career a candidate should have earned greater respect & treatment. There indeed has to be & is a better way.

    Thanks for your efforts & advocacy.

  11. Nick may disagree with this Too bad. Two more points

    If the resume or your initial phone screen has left some questions as to current job responsibilities, e-mail. apologize you are not clear (when I take responsibility I open up communications.)on the of current responsiilities.

    Secondly don’t restrict them to the job you have recruited them for or be limited by a job objective on a resume (if they are naive enough to write one.) As a retired recruiter I can’t tell you how many of my candidates have ended up in a position other than what they recruited for. Don’t be limited by your tunnel. I once had four division presidents fighting over a product management director. I am sure Nick will concur with this observation.


  12. When you’re looking for work it’s easy to think about how badly you want a paycheck or a new job opportunity, so you look beyond the path to the goal. I’ve long advised people to really look at the hiring process from the employer’s side. It’s telling about how they run the business, what they think about their staff and how you can expect to be treated. I’ve never worked somewhere that in hindsight was much different from the hiring process. Think about the hiring process as an equivalent to getting to see the company’s resume. From the business side if you give people the impression they aren’t valuable or respected, then you shouldn’t be surprised when you don’t get their best work or keep good employees.

  13. I had a experience today that made me not think too well of the company. I applied for a position through LinkedIn, and a company recruiter emailed me to set up a phone interview. She told me that the salary for the position was X to X+$1,000 (!). This was below the minimum I’m targeting. I emailed back and told her that without specifying my minimum and asked if there was any flexibility. She replied “no” and added that the position was nonexempt.

    I was quite surprised to read this as the position requires a Bachelors degree, knowledge of various software, and 2+ years of experience. I didn’t say this when I replied to the recruiter. I told her thanks, but I’m targeting an exempt position.

    I’m not thinking well of this employer. If the salary is so specific, why not post it in the job listing? And why is a job that sounds like it’s an exempt position classified as nonexempt?

    I think this is an employer I don’t want to work at.

    • Good for u, Sia. The only time I had a near similar experience was in Seattle where the “leadership” was a group of hicks running a bank which the FDIC took over. Stupid and cheap was the name of their game.

      • Marilyn, I suspect that I would be bored in a position classified as nonexempt (although the title and job description didn’t read that way to me.)

        Also, I recently worked at a large public company where exempt employees were eligible for bonuses and nonexempt employees weren’t. My position was classified as nonexempt, and I believe it should have been exempt (position required a 4 year degree and technical knowledge.) I was hired in as part of a new department, and I think the positions were nonexempt so that we wouldn’t receive bonuses.

        I was desperate for a job at the time, so I took it. Now, I’m not desperate, and I think I can do better. So I passed on the interview.