5 Reasons Why Empathy Is an Essential Recruiting Skill, According to Talent Leaders

March 9, 2021

Photo of neon light that reads: With All Your Heart

In the Global Talent Trends 2020 report, released in January of last year, we predicted that empathy would reshape the way employers hired and retained talent in the new decade. Mere weeks later, that prediction came to fruition in ways no one could have anticipated as a global health crisis redefined the way work and hiring happen. 

Candidates were not only stressed and anxious, but were facing challenges they’d never experienced before in both their personal and professional lives, which were rapidly starting to blur. For talent professionals, this required a new way of communicating and an increased awareness of what candidates might be dealing with outside of the hiring process. 

Now, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, empathy may be an even more important skill for talent professionals than it was in 2020. The initial panic people felt may have given way to restless resignation, but uncertainty and anxiety about the future remain. What’s more, after months of living and working under difficult conditions, many candidates are stressed and burned out, with a recent study showing that 89% of professionals globally feel their work life is getting worse.

This makes it essential for talent professionals to practice empathy at every stage of the hiring process to attract great candidates and show that your company cares. Here’s how talent leaders view the role of empathy in hiring — and what you can do to make it a defining feature of your team’s approach.

Empathy makes for stronger recruiting teams

When you practice empathy within your team culture, making it a core part of your external-facing efforts should come naturally. This means approaching every interaction with your team and hiring managers from a place of compassion and understanding — recognizing that they may be dealing with pressures of their own and providing greater flexibility when required.

Philipp Parker, who leads global talent acquisition at Munich Re, says his company has shifted from a performance management–driven culture to one built around continuous conversations. Team members now play a more active role in establishing their commitments and deliverables, and ongoing feedback is prioritized. 

“We are much more open in our communications with each other, both upwards and downwards,” Philipp says. “I believe that this is only possible with empathy and really trying to understand what might be important for the person sitting across from you. Of course, this ties into the recruitment process as well, [helping us] match the candidates in front of us to the existing value set we have within the company.”

To adopt a similar approach with your team and your hiring managers, Emily Atkins, LinkedIn’s head of talent acquisition for Australia and New Zealand, recommends starting meetings by gaining a better understanding of a person’s circumstances. This can help you work collaboratively to set more realistic deadlines and expectations.

“Ask ‘How’s it going?’” Emily says. “‘What’s happening in your world?’”

Empathy reduces the likelihood of screening out great candidates for bad reasons

Before the pandemic, many recruiting teams were focused on speed. While this still plays a role, especially for urgent and high-volume hiring, talent professionals are also recognizing a need to be more patient with candidates when they’re slow to respond. 

In previous years, slowness might have indicated a lack of interest in the role, but today, it’s just as likely a sign of a busy home life or a stressful moment for the candidate. Being empathetic by waiting a few days and sending a polite follow-up can help you avoid missing out on great candidates who were simply overwhelmed and forgot to respond.

Candice De Clerck, global director of recruitment at Prosus Group, is encouraging her team to be more accommodating of candidates right now. “We ask people to be more patient and more considerate,” she says, “and to try to understand everyone’s unique situation, ensuring empathetic decision-making. Everybody's situation is very different, and you really don't know what's going on. You have to keep that in the back of your mind at all times.”

It’s also important to be forgiving of interruptions and technical difficulties during screening calls and interviews. Candidates are likely more stressed about these issues than you are, and showing kindness in these moments can do a lot to ease their minds and help the rest of the discussion proceed more smoothly.

For example, in one viral post on LinkedIn, Carlie Bush, VP of HR service delivery at Global Medical Response, recalls a video interview where the candidate became distracted by her toddler crawling around under her chair. Carlie encouraged her to take a moment to care for her child and even finish the interview with the little one on her lap if she wanted — which the candidate did, acing the interview in the process.

“I could see the relief on her face,” Carlie says. “I just felt like sharing this and reminding fellow leaders how important it is to recognize the struggles people are facing and do what we can to be understanding and accommodating. Small kindnesses make a world of difference to others!”

Empathy can result in a less stressful screening and interview process

One oft-cited upside of an all-remote hiring process is the fact that it makes scheduling phone screenings and interviews a lot simpler. Travel to and from the interview site is no longer a factor, and since many candidates are working from home, they can theoretically interview during working hours.

But interviews still require a time commitment, both in terms of the call itself and the preparation involved. They can also be nerve-wracking, exacerbating other stresses candidates may be experiencing. Being empathetic to their situation means recognizing the burden interviewing places on them, even if it seems easier on the surface. 

“Everybody's overworked,” says Rajesh Ahuja, global head of talent acquisition for Infosys. “You don't have time for interviews: You are either switching off some office work or you're switching off time with your family.”

Rajesh recommends letting candidates know that you want to interview them when they’re ready, rather than saying, “I want to speak to you on X day.” He also recommends using asynchronous interviews during the screening process, allowing candidates to record one-way interviews at a time that’s most convenient for them. 

Another exercise that might be helpful is to step into candidates’ shoes and consider what might be stressful for you if you were going through this process — then provide additional resources and support around these areas. If you didn’t know the industry well, for example, you might be encouraged to find some useful links from the recruiter included in the invite email to help you prepare. 

Empathy opens the door to more meaningful conversations with candidates

In professional situations like interviews, people tend to feel the need to present themselves a certain way, no matter what they’re dealing with in their personal lives. This makes it harder to get to know candidates on a deep and meaningful level, while also making interviews feel more transactional. 

Shavonne Gordon, VP of enterprise diversity recruiting at Capital One, says she’s encouraging her recruiters to foster a safe space where candidates can talk about challenges they’re facing or things they’ve nervous about, like interviewing virtually for the first time. One of the best ways to do this, she finds, is to be open and honest about your own challenges. She experienced this firsthand when a leader at the company talked openly about the very human moment when her kids were crying during a meeting and she realized she just had to take a break and take care of her family. 

“What we’ve found,” Shavonne says, “is that our associates truly appreciate understanding that they're not alone, and the same goes for leaders and candidates — they’re not the only person experiencing whatever it is that they’re experiencing. We had to help our recruiters understand that the same thing happens with candidates.”

To show candidates you care, it’s also helpful to practice active listening in every conversation you have with them. Sharon Steed, a corporate empathy and communications consultant, recommends focusing intently on what the person is saying and preventing your mind from wandering — so avoid multitasking as much as possible. When they’re done speaking, take a moment to summarize what they said and ask follow-up questions to ensure understanding. Candidates will be more inclined to open up if they feel you’re really listening — and even if they don’t, you’ll be more likely to pick up on the deeper meaning behind their words. 

“Many of us get so wrapped up in what we want to say that we forget to listen to what the other person is saying to us,” Sharon says. “Practicing listening forces you to invest in what your partner in conversation is interested in.”

Empathy can have a long-term impact on a company’s employer brand

The most recent edition of The Future of Recruiting report predicted that empathy (or a lack of it) could play a pivotal role in shaping employer brands — both now, and moving forward. After all, the messaging you put out is only one ingredient in your brand. The way you treat candidates during this difficult period — and, crucially, what they say about that treatment — could ultimately flavor your brand for years to come.

"In the long run, COVID will change how people see employers,” says David Hindle, strategic recruitment lead at Lloyds Banking Group. “They’ll remember if their organization didn't look after them. They'll also remember those organizations that really stood up and stood apart.” 

This doesn’t only apply to candidates who eventually become employees. For those who aren’t hired, hearing radio silence or a no-explanation rejection at a time when they and countless others are struggling can signal to candidates that a company doesn’t care. 

“As a candidate, it’s painful under normal circumstances,” Sophie Symonds, a recruiter who lost her job due to the pandemic, wrote in a viral post about her job hunt, “but [it’s] especially traumatizing during COVID where we are all feeling insecure, panicked, and anxious about our futures.” 

Sophie implores recruiters to take the time to pick up the phone, thank candidates for their time, and, where possible, offer some actionable feedback or insights into why you went another way. This, she says, allows you to “simultaneously deliver bad news, while lifting someone up and helping them get better for the next time around.” As an example of what this can look like in practice, check out this thoughtful, detailed, and compassionate note that one candidate received from Johnson & Johnson — impressing them so much that they publicly praised the company, even though they didn’t get the job.

Final thoughts: Invest in a skill that will never go out of style 

Empathy is a critical skill for talent professionals right now. It’s also one that will never lose its value, so helping your team master it is an investment that will continue to pay off, no matter what the future holds. 

For more insights about the long-term impacts that COVID-19 may have on hiring, read The Future of Recruiting report.

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