How to Avoid Common Recruiter Fails, According to Stacy Zapar

March 28, 2019

Before you continue reading, get ready to cringe — and maybe laugh at yourself. Because according to industry leader Stacy Zapar, every recruiter is guilty of at least some of the mistakes on this list. Yes, even her.

A “self-proclaimed recruiting nerd,” Stacy is the founder of The Talent Agency, a recruiting consultancy and R4R search firm that helps companies recruit Talent Acquisition professionals. With 21 years of recruiting experience under her belt, she has plenty of success stories and has also made plenty of slip-ups. In her top-rated talk at LinkedIn Talent Connect 2018, she tackled the latter head-on, including why recruiters get a bad rap and what we can do to change that.

In preparing for her talk, Stacy researched online and found many examples of people complaining about recruiters and our outreach methods. Many were less than kind. “We advance careers, we build companies, we change lives! And I’m proud to be a recruiter, darn it!” she says. “So what exactly are we doing to sour the world against us, and how can we turn that tide around?”

Don’t fall victim to a #recruiterfail. Before you send another message to a candidate, here are eleven of the most common and cringe-worthy outreach mistakes to watch for — and Stacy’s tips for both avoiding them and improving your response rate.

1. Making subject matter expertise mistakes

Until you’re an expert in a specific industry, it’s easy to make subject matter slip-ups — like getting Java and JavaScript mixed up. Luckily, there’s a simple fix: tapping someone who knows what they’re talking about (like the hiring manager) to check on your messaging before you send it out into the world.

“We have to fake it ‘til we make it a little bit every day,” Stacy says. “Simple fix: take that job posting, read it to your hiring managers in the intake line by line. Your hiring managers will catch this stuff, I promise.”

Also have deep-dive intake meetings and take the time to listen to hiring managers review resumes. This will give you a better idea of what an ideal candidate looks like and which skills and traits are most important.

Of course, there’s another surefire way to learn about a subject if you want to be really proactive. “Read a book,” Stacy says. “Go online, take a class, study up. There’s LinkedIn Learning, there’s Wikipedia, there’s Quora. Take that little bit of initiative. The recruiters that do this stuff stand out.”

If you’re not sure where to start, you’re in luck. Stacy has compiled all of her favorite resources in one place.

2. Blasting candidates who match a keyword without looking at their profile first

When recruiters are in a hurry, these are some common mistakes: Contacting a 16-year veteran for a junior position because yes, technically, they do meet the two years’ experience requirement. Telling a candidate they’re a great match for a company… where they already work. Copying 60 people on the same email message, telling them how special they personally are.

Stacy has seen a lot of these “spray and pray” mistakes, and says they only serve to let candidates know you’ve done a quick keyword search.

“You’re clearly not looking at these people’s profiles before you reach out,” she says. “They don’t love that!”

Rather than contacting the 500 people who matched a single keyword, Stacy uses an approach that she calls “tree ring sourcing.” This involves starting very narrow and gradually broadening your search as you go.

“Speak fluent Boolean,” she recommends. “Narrow your searches. Be targeted. I would much rather find 20 perfect-fit candidates and reach out in a targeted way than just blast a thousand ‘maybe’ candidates.”

3. Hitting send before thoroughly reading and testing your messages

Copy and paste can be the death of your credibility. While it’s fine to use a template, forgetting to give your outreach messages a thorough once-over can lead to all manner of embarrassing slip-ups — from calling a candidate by the wrong name to leaving all the blank spaces in. Oops.

“When we are doing too many things at once and we’re frazzled and disorganized, that’s when mistakes happen,” Stacy says. “We really need to make sure we’re doing one activity at a time.”

Mail merges can also cause trouble. When autofill goes wrong — like the candidate’s name going unfilled — it doesn’t make people feel special. That’s why Stacy recommends adopting a “measure twice, cut once” mindset. Set up a guinea pig account or two, do a test run, and take a close look at the message before it gets anywhere near a candidate.

“Test it out,” she says. “Better yet, as much as possible, try to send that one-to-one outreach — and personalize. You’ll see a sharp rise in your response rates if you personalize.”

To cut out distractions and avoid making mistakes while she’s sourcing and reaching out to candidates, Stacy blocks off time on her calendar — and lets everyone know not to disturb her.

“When I’m sourcing, everybody knows — headphones on, do not disturb!” she says. “Find ways to do all of your sourcing at one time, then do all of your outreach in one chunk of time. Focus and avoid distractions. Close your email, close your Facebook, turn off your phone notifications. Doing too many different things at once leads to embarrassing mistakes.”

4. Sending generic “exciting career opportunity” messages

Stacy says there’s one generic outreach message she sees over and over again to the point of insanity — the “exciting career opportunity.”

“Raise your hand if you’ve sent this same message lately. Everyone says the same exact thing!” she laughs. “So say anything other than that, and you’re already ahead of the game.”

Personalization is so important, even if it’s just a small detail. Take a look at Stacy’s personal list of icebreakers below:

“Whatever stands out to me at first glance, that’s what I talk about in my outreach,” she says. “And the rest is a template — I’m not going to tell you to craft everything from scratch all the time. Just show them that you actually read their profile and that your message is intended only for them.”

5. Bombarding candidates with too much information from the get-go

No matter how psyched you are about a candidate, don’t overwhelm them with a first message that looks like a novel.

“Just pique their interest,” Stacy says. “The longer it is, the more it looks like a copy and paste. The shorter and more conversational it is, and with a little personalization hook, that’s how I get higher response rates.”

Remember that the goal of that initial outreach is just to get the candidate to talk to you, not to sell the role or the company. You can talk about their goals and desires later, when you get them on the phone and understand their motivators.

“Selling too hard upfront, you’re assuming that you know what they’re looking for and what matters to them,” Stacy says. “It’s often a wrong assumption so you’re dangling the wrong carrot.”

6. Making your outreach message all about you, not about them

We need to remember that sourced candidates are often actively employed and not necessarily looking to change jobs. So instead of focusing all about your “hot job” and all of the things that you need from them, you need to turn it around and give them some incentive to respond back. “What’s in it for them?” asks Stacy. “Craft your message to make it more about them and their career, less about you and your req.”

And referrals are great — but not when asking for them makes candidates feel like a number. “Sometimes we’re a little overly aggressive in looking for referrals,” says Stacy. Don’t ask for referrals in the initial outreach message. Wait until after you’ve heard back or chatted with them on the phone.”

Stacy also uses Glen Cathey’s method of digging into the person’s connections herself, rather than asking them to come up with names for her. Don’t ask them who they know… tell them!

“I like to proactively drive referrals, not wait for them. I go out and source my hiring team’s connections and send each of them 3 of their 1st level connections that I think look good for the role,” she says. “Quick thumbs up or thumbs down. And, if possible, I have that person reach out to their connection for me. Not only do I get a bunch of vetted referrals that way, we also get a 95%+ response rate!”

7. Cluttering your outreach with recruiting terminology

Every occupation has its own secret language, and talent acquisition is no different. While terms like “top talent” or “hot job” make perfect sense to other recruiters, Stacy argues that this kind of language can be really off-putting for candidates — or completely incomprehensible. Most candidates, for example, don’t know what ATS, perm, or c2h even mean.

Before hitting send, step out of your recruiter shoes. Ask yourself if the message is easy to understand and also shows some personality. Don’t fall into “recruiter speak” if you want to build rapport and get a response.

“Be human. Build rapport,” Stacy says. “Don’t just be a recruiter — just be another person that’s reaching out to them.”

8. Trying too hard to be funny or coming across as disrespectful

Showing some personality is important, but there’s a fine line between funny and cringe-worthy. For Stacy, dad jokes, calling the candidate “bae,” and constantly referencing the Matrix to techies are prime examples of crossing that line.

“No rock stars, ninjas, or Jedi knights. No dancing gifs, all caps, or multiple exclamation points.” she says. “Yes, we want to have fun. Yes, we want to stand out. Yes, we want to show some personality. But let’s be careful not to cross that line and lose the respect of the people we’re trying to contact.”

As a golden rule, Stacy says your messages should take the careers of the people you want to talk to as seriously as you take your own.

“When in doubt, run it by someone on your hiring team to see how they would feel receiving that message,” she says. “Would it be ick or would it be funny? Ask them, because they’ll tell you! They’ll pull the escape hatch for you.”

9. Crossing the line from persistent to pest

Giving candidates a little nudge can often drive a response from someone who didn’t respond initially. But be careful that you don’t come across as pushy or passive-aggressive.

“Following up after your initial outreach is super important,” Stacy says. “I’m a giant advocate for this, but do it carefully please.”

Stacy uses a three-step process to stay on candidates’ radars without becoming a pest.

“I send a short and sweet initial outreach message that’s targeted and personalized,” she says. “A few days later, I send a little follow up — say we’ve started to move forward with interviews and the hiring team is still very interested in speaking with you. Number three, after a few days, I send a little ‘thanks anyway, let’s stay in touch.’”

This method is noticeably effective. Stacy says her initial response rate of 45% leaps to 65% by the second message, and 85% by the final nudge. She recommends creating a system for following up, whether it’s email folders, paper resumes in stacking trays, or setting up your ATS or CRM to remind you after a certain number of days. You can also use an email tracking tool like Mixmax or Hubspot to track your open rates.

“This tool helps me with my follow-ups,” she says. “Like ooh, they’ve read it five times, they’re already interested. I know to approach them in a different way than someone who just opened it once or deleted it.”

Of course, some candidates just won’t respond to you no matter how carefully crafted your follow-ups are. In these instances, Stacy advises leveraging your team again.

“Sometimes, it’s the messenger,” she says. “If you’re not hearing back, sometimes I have my hiring team member reach out on my behalf. That works really great. A hiring manager, or even a peer — I get a much higher response rate when they send the same exact email that I would have sent, but it comes from them.”

10. Making candidates jump through hoops

Everyone has applied for at least one job that asked them to type out their entire work history… after already uploading their resume.

“If you haven’t applied for one of your own jobs recently, please do so,” Stacy says. “And then do it on your phone. It’ll be very eye-opening.”

While this kind of hoop-jumping exercise is annoying for applicants, it’s especially aggravating for candidates you’ve sourced. Stacy says that asking sourced candidates for things upfront can immediately sour the relationship.

“People would rather get a root canal than update their resume when they’re not looking for a job,” she points out. “Do not ask them for a resume yet. Just get them on the phone. Talk, establish mutual interest, then ask for that other stuff.”

To make the process as easy as possible for candidates, Stacy recommends using tools like Calendly, YouCanBookMe, or LinkedIn Recruiter that allows candidates to self-schedule a time to talk. But whatever you do, always show up and try to be on time.

“I’m usually 2 or 3 minutes late to my calls, I’ll confess,” she admits. “I am very guilty of this!”

11. Ghosting candidates (even by mistake)

In Stacy’s eyes, the biggest recruiting fail of them all is ghosting candidates.

“This is the #1 recruiter complaint and the thing that makes people the most livid,” she says. “Please don’t let your applicants and candidates fall into the recruiting black hole.”

To ensure no candidate feels ignored, Stacy blocks off a two-hour slot on her calendar every Friday afternoon to send every interviewee an update. She calls it her Friday Feedback Blitz, and says it gives both her and her candidates peace of mind.

“Close the loop or update everyone in the pipeline, even if there’s no news,” she says. “Come up with a system, set those expectations, and then meet them. I tell everyone they’ll never go into the weekend without an update from me, and I stick by this rule. It works great.”

Final thoughts

If these recruiting fails make you cringe, you’re not alone. Everyone slips up occasionally, but it never hurts to confront your past mistakes head on and try to learn from them.

“Treat your candidates the way you’d like to be treated and you can’t go wrong,” Stacy says.

You can watch Stacy's full talk below and register here to join us at Talent Connect 2019 in Dallas to see talks like this live, network with your peers, and more.

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