The 7 Deadly Sins of Recruiting (and How to Overcome Them)

April 12, 2017

At the beginning my career years ago, I was chatting with a friend-of-a-friend. When I mentioned a new job in recruiting, he launched into a tirade about recruiters and his least favorite interactions with them throughout his career. “You seem nice, you probably won’t last long,” he said, with a look of pity.

I went home that night, worried whether I made the wrong career choice, one that would make me a social pariah. Surely, recruiters can’t be that bad?  

Instead of letting my worries become regrets, I decided to approach the new job with a learner’s mindset. This somewhat-alarming conversation actually served as valuable feedback about candidates’ common experiences, providing me a clear guide of what to avoid right from the get-go. I wanted to pay special attention and examine the ‘why’ behind these complaints, and resolved to be better if I ever found myself falling into similar traps (Spoiler alert: I did).

Here’s the thing - the industry has no shortage of respectable professionals recruiters who genuinely want to do good work in building great teams, matching people to the right opportunities. But many of us are suffering from similarly-rooted problems stemming from our environments, volume, incentivization structures, and lack of collaboration/partnership with our colleagues.

But awareness is the first step to progress. Here are common problematic patterns of recruiting that we’ll call The 7 Deadly Sins, along with why they the temptation gets to the best of us, and how to avoid them.

Recruiting Sin #7: Not following up and leaving candidates in the dark.

The most common complaint of candidates and why recruiters get a bad rap. You have a perfectly pleasant phone call, only to never hear back ever again. Or worse, you come in for an on-site interview, investing hours of your time, only to be “ghosted” and never hear an update.

Why this happens: There are a few things scarier than a busy recruiter’s to-do list. We juggle dozens of active candidates at any given time across multiple reqs, and that’s not even counting all the hiring managers, executives laying down the pressure, leaving hardly any room for project work. It’s not that you *mean* to leave anyone in the dark, but it… just… happens! Needing to see other interviews through, reqs getting put on hold, active negotiations, there are all kinds of ambiguities that can delay follow-ups.

Plus, let’s be real: rejections suck. Whether you’ve been in recruiting for a year or 20, telling people ‘no’ and potentially breaking hearts is one of the worst part of our jobs. Rejections get put off until tomorrow… until tomorrow…no really, I’ll call him on Monday… until it falls through the cracks entirely.

How to avoid it: Acknowledge that rejections are miserable, but a necessary part of the process. For candidates, bad news is better than no news: they’d much rather know that they’ve been rejected rather than get strung along indefinitely.. A When your candidates have taken the time out of their busy schedules to talk to you, the least we can do is let them know when we’re not moving forward. That way, they’re free to pursue other opportunities, instead of waiting around for an email never arrives.

Also, make sure you invest in an Applicant Tracking System like Lever – keeping track of candidates in a spreadsheet makes slips through the crack much more likely. Dedicate weekly time to power through rejections. Engage your teammates if you have to, and call the recurring calendar invite something silly to get through it together: “Bad News Bears Power Hour” anyone? How about “It’s Not You, It’s Me”? “Break Ups Support Group”?

Recruiting Sin #6: Not being prepared for interviews.

You know what candidates hate? Being able to tell that a recruiter has no idea who they’re talking to during a phone screen. On-sites too, “Thanks for coming in… [checks resume] Sally.” Or when the candidate is asked why they applied and they have to politely remind you that they were referred by your colleague.

Interactions like this aren’t exactly a vote of confidence – candidates know that if you saw them as a serious candidate and likely to convert to a hire, you’d be more likely to remember pertinent details.

Why this happens: Again, the huge volume of work that most recruiters are responsible for is the culprit here. Recruiters can have back-to-back interviews all day at a breakneck speed. One recruiter friend was averaging 13-15 half-hour phone screens in a day for a period. He barely had time to eat lunch or go to the bathroom – much less do all the work *around* one scheduled phone call, which is reviewing the resume, coordinating scheduling, preparing questions, typing up notes, and sharing them with hiring managers. So often, we’re flying by the seat of our pants, trying to keep up with call after call after call.

How to avoid it: Given how many people internally recruiting can involve, information can get scattered across recruiters, hiring managers, interviewers, and executives. Again, make sure you’re investing in a ATS that serves as “one source of truth” for every activity related to recruiting so you don’t have to go hunting for details. Many of them come with features around automatic upcoming interview reminders, so there’s no more interviewers running up to your desk right before an interview, asking for a copy of the resume.

Also, as much props I give my friend for that frenzied period of 13-15 phone screens per day, it wasn’t sustainable nor realistic. His work eventually suffered, and he needed to do a major reset in re-calibrating the hiring bar. You may simply be talking to just way too many people, and passing candidates through to next stages that shouldn’t be. Which brings us to...  

Recruiting Sin #5: Ignoring data and metrics.

Do you dread pulling weekly / monthly / quarterly reports for your hiring managers and execs? I used to get lost in spreadsheets, trying to figure out where exactly a number came from, sorting out discrepancies in stats, getting frustrated at having to run the same formulas manually, not knowing what other reports I should be running, and never feeling comfortable or confident in this ritual.  

There’s a lot of talk around data-driven recruiting these days. Most recruiters’ natural skillset is in emotional and social intelligence, as opposed to hard numbers. But it’s an increasingly important skill.

Why this happens: I totally get this one. Even the most tenured of talent professionals can break out in a cold sweat at complex Excel models or dread pulling reports from their ATS. Most don’t make things any easier, giving you a long list of reports that give no help in *interpreting* the story behind the data. But it’s one of the things I wish I started educating myself about earlier when I first started in recruiting. The payoffs from becoming more data-savvy are huge: by measuring and tracking your progress, you can make a business case for more resources, and ensure your efforts are strategic, as opposed to reactionary to the volume of work. (I wrote about other things I wish I knew as a first-time recruiter here.)      

How to avoid it: Before you become a data wizard, aim for baby steps and small wins to get comfortable using data in your work. Here’s a post on how to run, interpret, and apply 5 most basic reports in recruiting. And once again, be sure to invest in an Applicant Tracking System that allows you to track/measure everything in one place (last plug for Lever, I promise, but it really makes things so much easier!). This stuff is impossible to do manually, on top of everything else you’re doing – let technology help you.

Recruiting Sin #4: Blindly catering to the hiring manager’s whims.

Something else I wish I learned faster: some hiring managers have no idea what they’re doing, no matter how confident they seem! But being a yes-man or yes-woman to a strong-willed hiring manager introduces a lot of risk, including potentially making mis-hires that end up creating even more work for everyone involved in the long-term.

When I was new in recruiting, I had no idea how much hiring managers *want* to be pushed back. It took a lot of trial and error (and one time, getting yelled at. The cringey story, and the lesson I learned is here) to figure out a groove for working effectively with hiring managers.

Why this happens: If you’re finding yourself in a more of an administrative role – coordinating interviews, dutifully transcribing notes, printing out resumes – your company is not getting the most out of your potential.

Another factor playing into this type of common, problematic recruiter-HM dynamic is the organizational hierarchy. Often, hiring managers are influential leaders in the company – they’re often execs or senior managers, who seem to have so much more authority than members of the recruiting staff. Pushing back on requests and calling out their biases and assumptions can feel job-threatening. It’s so much easier to take on a “assistant” role, right?

How to avoid it: The truth is, the most effective recruiter-HM relationships are centered around a *partnership.* You’re not an assistant, you play a key role in owning the quality and execution of your hiring process, which directly feeds into how your company is able to grow and fill critical openings. That’s a hugely important job, so why do recruiters so often get looked down upon?  

The hiring manager possesses the *functional* knowledge required to make a successful hire, but you’re the one with the expertise in recruiting processes that ensures you get the right person in the pipeline and have them accept the offer. Own your strengths and communicate to your hiring managers what you can do to help them – then execute on them, consistently. They’ll soon begin to understand your value as a partner in this process.

The key to establishing a true partnership is explicitly laying out expectations, spelling out what each of you will bring / take ownership of in the collaborative hiring process. Here’s a blog post laying out step-by-step instructions on getting alignment with hiring managers before you even screen one candidate. I promise this is one of the most impactful areas of investment you can make.

(Here’s another excellent article about Improving the Hiring Manager Experience. Follow these tips to make them love working with you!)

Recruiting Sin #3: Not training your interviewers and letting them run amok.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked by a colleague, 5 minutes before an interview, “um, what questions should I be asking in this interview?”

Untrained interviewers be a massive waste of time for everyone involved. A friend of mine, during an all-day onsite, was asked 4 different interviewers, “What’s your greatest weakness?” He walked away with an impression that the team is terribly organized, and wasn’t exactly jazzed about joining that team. Untrained interviewers are a huge hindrance to efficient hiring, not to mention the risk of compliance risk, from illegal questions. It’s the stuff of your General Counsel / HR Director’s nightmares.  

Why this happens: Just because we live, breathe, and sleep recruiting doesn’t mean everyone else does. What’s become second-nature to us (building rapport with candidates, digging into motivations, reading nonverbal cues, etc.) is completely foreign for many inexperienced interviewers.

For most people, interviewing is additional workload to their full-time jobs that have nothing to do with recruiting, whether it’s in marketing, sales, engineering, or operations. Most aren’t incentivized to dedicate time and resources to learning how to become master interviewers, leading to too-many awkward, time-waster interviews. And when your panel isn’t on their best A-game, top talent is less likely to continue through your process and eventually, accept an offer to join the team.

How to avoid it: Interviewer training. Interviewer training. Interviewer training.

It doesn’t have to be a huge scary program, start small, with the basics! Before the first interview ever happens, call a meeting with the hiring panel. Walk through the job description to make sure everyone is on the same page about what a successful candidate looks like. Remind them of the importance of basic candidate experience, like making sure each candidate feels welcomed and set up for success. Remind them what it’s like to be job searching (hint: very stressful) and channel their empathy towards their possible future colleagues. And lastly, spend just a few minutes reminding folks about compliance, and how certain questions can be interpreted as discriminatory against protected classes, so certain lines of questioning are a no-no. Check with your legal counsel / HR.

Just a little bit of investment, a 30 minute meeting, can have a huge impact in preventing headaches, waste of time, or worse, finding the perfect candidate only to have them turned off by the interview experience and withdraw/reject the offer. Hiring is a team sport, so make sure you get your interviewers onboard.

For more tips in this area, download the free ebook “How to Build a World-Class Candidate Experience” here.  

Recruiting Sin #2: Selling a job that you know is not the right fit.

As monthly/quarterly goals loom over our heads, the pressure to make fast hires builds. That’s when despite our best intentions, we can find ourselves urging candidates to move to the next interview stage, ignoring the doubt in our gut. Or sometimes, we steamroll a hesitant hiring manager to make an offer – even if she’s identified legitimate red flags.

No one is surprised when a hire who was rushed through the process doesn’t work out weeks/months later. Not only that, they’ve done far more damage than expected. Mis-hires cost the business far more than salary, when you take into account the delayed projects, the hiring manager who had to pour in extra time and effort to save the situation, and the decreased team morale for team member involved. Back to the drawing board you go, re-starting this search for a req that was supposed to be closed out 3 months ago.   

Why this happens: I’m generally wary of paying in-house recruiters based on commission for this reason. When salaries are so directly tied to number of hires made, quantity is prioritized over quality. Recruiters who are doing fantastic work should be paid highly and fairly, and it is possible to do it via commission and bonuses – leaders just need to make sure they’re paying careful attention to the impact of the incentivization system.

Otherwise, high pressure to fill “butts in seats” can cloud better judgment. See, recruiters are often unsung heroes behind great hires, yet the first to be blamed when a req goes long unfilled. Forgetting that hiring is a team sport and putting the recruiter as a single point of blame for lack of hiring puts incredibly unfair burden on them. It’s understandable then, they may become desperate to fill a role no matter what, leading to questionable decisions. But the thing is, pushing the wrong candidate through just to be able to close a req out always ends up creating *more* work in the long run.

How to avoid it: Communication, communication, communication.

With candidates, be as open and upfront as possible about all the factors that might factor into a good “fit.” Invest in writing honest, but informative job descriptions that allow the right people to get excited, and the wrong candidates to self-select out of the process. (Here’s a blog post that explains the step-by-step process for drafting a brand new type of job description that candidates AND hiring managers love – invented by Lever. Please steal them!)  

Beyond the job description, also aim to be as honest as possible about culture, compensation, hours, location, goals and expectations throughout the screening process. Sometimes, it’s the smallest things that end up surprising you, such as a candidate’s desire to bring their dog into work, or complaints about a new, longer commute. Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward – they’re unhappy about compensation and accepted an offer without fully understanding what it means. Each candidate’s story and motivations are unique, so make sure you’re creating the rapport and open lines of communication that will allow you to ask you exploratory questions that reveal the keys to candidate’s motivation alignment.

Never, ever, ever misrepresent what the company is really like. Remember that interviews are a two-way street, and they’re trying to learn as much about you as vice versa. (For more tips on advertising your work culture accurately and honestly, click here.)

Recruiting Sin #1: Going on auto-pilot and forgetting your candidates are human.

My first startup recruiting job was for a political advocacy nonprofit tackling public education reform. I endlessly practiced the 90-second pitch that explains the company’s mission that would hopefully get candidates excited about the great cause that I felt so passionate about. But as soon as I got comfortable with the pitch and had to say it 5 times a day in back-to-back phone screens, I heard in my own voice, the dampening of the enthusiasm I’d once felt. How could I convince anyone to consider leaving their current job to join this startup with a robotic, mechanical pitch? Yet, this going on auto-pilot happens to every recruiter at one point or another.

Why this happens: The short answer: VOLUME. But you knew that already.

Longer answer: Have you ever met a recruiter who’s said, “I’m actually totally on top of my pipeline right now, on-track to fill all my current reqs, and have a strategy for rest of the year in place?” Cool, me neither.   

It’s close to impossible to give your best to every single touch point with a candidate if you’re spread too thin – you just won’t have the energy. But as recruiters, we have so much influence over life-changing moments and decisions for our candidates. They deserve genuine thought partners, advocates, and opportunity-connectors in us. Job searching is hard enough already.

You’ll always feel behind, but it’s up to you whether you choose to let the volume consume you or to do something about it.

How to avoid it: Leveling up in hiring requires a shift in focus: from the volume-based recruiting (that inevitably leads to transactional, auto-pilot mode) to an offensive strategy. This means you need to stop treading water, figure out a strategy, and commit to execution. In time, you can shut out the noise that fills up your pipeline and keeps you busy without actually delivering quality hires. (Can you imagine what email inboxes would be like without spam filters?)

Even back when I was drowning in phone screens, every once in awhile, certain candidates would break up the routine. Conversations with high-potential candidate felt like we were personally connecting, and I felt confident about the possible fit for the role and the company. I’d arrange next steps and hang up the phone, energized by the conversation and wishing every call could be like that. And then I realized it *could* be. It just requires deliberate commitment to fighting the 7 deadly sins.

Putting it all together

Employ tips from all of the other “sins” above to break out of a transactional, volume-based hiring process to a human-centered one. Meticulously follow up with candidates, even if it sucks. Learn how to use data and metrics to see track performance and set goals. Establish rules of engagement and clear expectations with your hiring managers and be a true partner in the recruiting process. Invest in interviewer training as much as you can, and constantly examine the calibration of your hiring bar to make sure you’re talking to the right people.

Resisting the 7 deadly sins requires you to constantly push yourself and keep in mind that recruiting is fundamentally human work, facilitating connections between talent and opportunities. That’s why you’re awesome at your job. Don’t forget it!

Connect with me on Linkedin and find me on Twitter - I’m a former recruiter and write about tips, learnings, mistakes, and everything in-between.

*image by clement127

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.