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Aug 3, 2022
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

One of the realities of being a recruiter is that at some point in your career, you are going to work somewhere that hiring conditions are less than ideal. Maybe the company has an insanely toxic culture. Maybe the hiring manager is a sociopath. Maybe the role is not as defined as it should be. I know I have faced all of these at some point in my career. This type of challenge keeps the job interesting, right? 

Well, sort of.

While the Great Resignation is no longer as “great” as people feared, there is still a tremendous amount of pressure on recruiters to find workers, particularly in high-demand roles, and particularly for organizations that still insist on keeping starting pay as low as possible. 

Candidates may not have all the leverage, but they are certainly more savvy about looking for a position that allows them to pay their bills and maintain some sense of work-life balance. Oh, and don’t forget about career development opportunities and internal mobility! 

As candidates have become more discerning, recruiters face more pointed questions about the role, the manager, the company, and everything in between. And this puts recruiters in an awkward position when trying to sell a role to potential candidates: How much truth should recruiters share? Share too much, and you might scare away a prospect. Fail to share enough, and you risk eroding trust. 

Crossing the Line

While organizations sometimes provide guidance on how to talk about certain situations, the never-ending news cycle means candidates are privy to the worst news about the company almost instantly — leaving any remaining recruiters in the lurch (*cough* Twitter *cough*). This means recruiters are typically left to their own devices on how to discuss difficult topics.

It’s been my experience that each recruiter tends to operate by a personal code of conduct. Such a code is shaped by individual values, opinions, and overall experience. So rather than suggesting each recruiting leader set strict guidelines on what can and cannot be said (outside of legal requirements), I want to focus on the pros and cons of potential approaches.

The Tell-All

Once upon a time, I worked at a Fortune 200 organization that had a reputation for being a terrible place to work. And yes, it really was a toxic environment. But I loved the work I got to do, and my team was incredible, and I had the opportunity to grow that team. Growing the team meant recruiting someone with a niche set of skills who probably heard how tough the culture could be. 

We found a fabulous candidate who, believe it or not, was interested in joining, but had some questions because he had heard things about the company. I decided to put everything on the table — to the point where I was basically trying to talk him out of the job. 

I wanted this candidate to have all the information he needed to make the best decision. Otherwise, he would be miserable and would be looking for a new role within six months. 

The approach worked. He accepted the offer with eyes wide open and was a terrific employee for the length of time he was at the organization. And more importantly, we are still good friends who are able to lean on each other when thinking through tough work situations. 

Why did this approach work? First, there was no hiding the truth about the culture. Articles had been written about it, so it’s not like I could sugarcoat it. Second, I had been at the organization long enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, which means I was in a good position to provide a well-rounded view of what it was like to work there. 

If you lean towards being a Tell-All, make sure you have your facts straight and that you’re able to provide a balanced picture of what is happening.

The Between-The-Lines-er

Sometimes recruiters are working at a highly regulated organization and are greatly restrained in what they can and can’t say about what’s going on. I see this often in the tech industry — lots of intellectual property and hush-hush situations that can’t be talked about because of NDAs. 

In these situations, recruiters will often speak in a way that invites interpretation of the truth without having to actually tell the truth. 

This happened to me once as a candidate. I had applied for a position with top-secret clearance, and all they could tell me is that it involved radar. I even had to complete a mini-security background check just to get an interview. So as you can imagine, I wasn’t getting too far with my standard questions around what a day-in-the-life looked like. 

The recruiter in this situation relied on analogies, tone of voice, and pointed looks to get his message across without divulging anything he wasn’t supposed to divulge. I ultimately didn’t accept the position because there was no way I could work somewhere that wouldn’t allow me to vent to anyone other than someone with top-secret clearance, but I will always remember how well that recruiter handled it.

If you’re a Between-The-Liners-er, I recommend you practice with someone who knows what you can and cannot imply. That way you don’t come across like a B-movie mob boss pressuring the local shopkeeper.  

The Optimist

Some recruiters see every challenge as an opportunity and every scandal as a potential career-maker. I truly envy that level of positivity when it comes to facing adversity, but let’s face it — sometimes that optimism can come across as disingenuous or downright fraudulent. I have had to put a spin on some pretty ridiculous situations in my career, and I am pretty sure that each time I tried to take the positivity route, I sounded like I was hopped up on caffeine. It’s just not me. 

The most successful Optimists find the right balance between acknowledging the reality while reframing each weakness as something the candidate will have an opportunity to impact positively. This approach won’t work for every candidate, but there are quite a few people who are actively looking for a challenge. It motivates and energizes them. 

If you’re a recruiter who leans towards Optimist, pick the right moment to begin your sales pitch to the candidate. Learn what motivates the individual and use that to guide how you reframe some of the “challenges” your organization might face.

The Joe Friday (Just the Facts, Ma’am)

I once had a recruiter on my team who was professional to the point of icy formality. The job overview was always by the book. The phone screen followed the guide perfectly, and her notes were precise and unsullied by personal bias. It was an excellent approach in a risk-averse organization that constantly worried about candidate complaints of unfairness in the hiring process. 

In this situation, for that group at that time, her approach was exactly what the organization needed. It did, however, sometimes confuse candidates because so much of the job-seeking advice out there is tied to being yourself and standing out with a personality. 

There is nothing wrong with sticking to the facts and just focusing on the basics of job opportunity. In fact, it may be a legal requirement, as long as you acknowledge the message it may be sending to the candidates. 

The irony of this situation is that this person has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’ve ever known, and she was unafraid to welcome the new employee with all sorts of generosity. With this particular recruiter, it took a while to find an approach that allowed her to leverage the best of her approach while still building a relationship with the candidate. 

Regardless of which approach you may want to take as a recruiter, it’s important that you do so thoughtfully. Jumping into a conversation without thinking about how you’re going to answer tough questions will put you at a disadvantage. You never want to “wing it” when dealing with a difficult recruitment. As much fun as it might be for your colleagues eavesdropping on your awkward conversation, it is much better to be ready to go with an approach that works for you.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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