Conversations: The Tyranny Of Words
Conversations: Probability Texts

Candidate Personas: Why We Ask Candidates Questions

Part I of the Series on Candidate Personas for Recruiting

The goal of this series is to give recruiters a framework that allows them to imagine responses. You have to see the candidates as people so that you can speak to them, but you can't do that until you understand that every candidate has a different motivation. 

We can't know what's in the secret heart of a person, but we can develop categories that over time allow us to fill in the blanks with responses that are similar. 

An example from my recruiting comes from one of my favorite questions: 
Let's think about your current job. Picture where you work, think of the people you work with. And now, just tell me what you did last Tuesday. Start from the beginning. When did you get into work and what did you do?

I like this question. A lot of recruiters tell me they hate it. But you should try it. The question itself is straightforward. "Tell me what you did." An organized person will be able to walk you through the day. They may be a little perplexed, but if you push against their responses to get granular, you'll hear real responses about their day-to-day activities. 

What kind of responses do you get? 

1) Some people pull out their calendar and walk you through minute by minute. I like this. It gives me the opportunity to ask about who they work with, observe their facial responses to their co-workers, and and most important, ask questions about the impact of the work. Do they know why they are doing the work? Can they tell me why it's important? The "Tell me what you did" question pushes them to describe real world events, including, oftentimes, what motivated them to leave. While reciting a factual rehash of their day, they're also painting a picture of what they like and don't like about the job. That is what is known as 3d and 4d recruiting.  

Can you think of a question that does a better job of allowing you to learn about the candidate's real work and real motivation? Leave it in the comments if you can. 

2) Some people dodge the question. This is a huge tell for me in what kind of candidate they are. It's comical how many times someone who doesn't do much work will say, "Well, Tuesssdaaay? That was kind of a weird day for me." 

It's important not to let them off the hook. I'm not interested in them cherry-picking some perfect day that makes them look good, especially if it's the one good day of work they did in Q3. When using this question, you have to understand that they want to use your reluctance to confront someone to avoid the question. They want you to move to the next question, and because their main skill is avoiding work, they are very, very good at working your emotional triggers to get you to not keep badgering them. 

They just told you Tuesday was a bad day. What kind of recruiter wants to know about a weird day? 

A great one.

Over time, if you ask this question enough, you'll find that most people either give you great information, or they duck the question. And because they aren't used to it, they'll default to a standard response. For me, time and time again - it is the exact language, "that was kind of a weird day for me." That might not be the case for you, but you will get a response, and it will be the same one, and when you hear it for the 300th time, you'll know that you have identified a candidate motivation.

Extras and How to Keep Pushing

The primary purpose of this post was to get you to think about categories. To avoid having you make up things, you'll want to limit your initial categories to real life repetition. Patterns are helpful in recruiting, and the same response almost always leads to the same outcome. 

But I can't leave you hanging on that question, so here are some more of the basics. 

a) Don't use humor to deflate the weird day response. The candidate is trying to suck you in, to get you to listen to a story, to feel sympathy, and to give them what they want (I got this from landlords, who know that prior to telling you they can't pay rent, every tenant will want to tell you a story). Instead, reply with a dry, "Fascinating. Let's start from the beginning and talk about what you did."

That was a direct request for an answer. It was polite and directed, and there is no reason why they would want to avoid it. They worked and were paid for 8 hours that day, and they have nothing that was useful to report? Smile, but be firm. Remember, the goal is to understand what they do at work. What better way to describe what they do than a day that wasn't 100% perfect?

b) Depending on the kind of job overly technical answers or even pushback if the work they do is confidential. This isn't a bad sign. It is an opportunity. Remember that our goal is a pattern of responses that will identify categories and motivations. A candidate that is guarded could be hiding their lack of work, but I have never seen them react that way. Liars and slackers want you to believe they are good workers. They want you on their side, because it's the only way they can function. Private workers want to protect their company's secrets. Your job is to find what is not objectionable, not what they want hidden. The patterns will show themselves, but many a great candidate has been lost because they care more about their integrity than your need for information. 

c) Finally, we get to the vague and the ambiguous. This is an interview style that is prevalent in digital marketing, and somewhat in technology, and in general with creative types. The vague answer pretty  much only has two causes.

  1. They are vastly under-qualified to do the work, and really only know the definition of a word rather than it's use.
  2. You're vastly under-qualified to understand what they're talking about, and they fall into vague, broad concepts because their experience with recruiters is that talking about their work is a waste of breath. 

You didn't expect that one, did you? Well, I've been in technical staffing and marketing staffing, and I've been on both sides of this. Candidates have patterns, just like we do. The more talented they are, the less experience they have with a great recruiter. While it's possible that the problem is them, it's also likely, in a talented field, that they have been trained not to spook the horses. And you're the horse.

So. Categories. Patterns. The importance of gathering data. And the tendency of candidates to answer what they think you need to hear to advance them instead of what they asked. It's all part of understanding candidate motivation.