For The Ten Billionth Time, Stop Exaggerating!

An age-old issue between Recruiters and Corporate HR (or Corporate HR and Hiring Managers, for that matter) is the act, or art, of “prepping” a candidate for an interview. Should candidates be “prepped” by anyone before an interview? If so, who should do it and where is the line between “Prepping” and “Deception”? Can you “prepare” a qualified candidate without risking being accused of “creating” a qualified candidate? Is there a lost measuring tool in the interview if a candidate is “prepped” instead of self-prepared? Is there a limit to the number of consecutive questions you can put in the same paragraph? Does this tie go with my shirt? As in many issues, the answer lies less in the act itself, and more in the express purpose or intent of the act. For example, when I go to a new car lot, I expect the cars to be clean. A few days after the purchase, the car I buy will become dirty, pick up a few dents or scratches (let’s not even mention seagulls) and cease to be that creature of perfection I saw on the lot. However, a clean car is still an honest representation of the product I am looking to acquire. It is shined up to appear at its absolute best. But it is still at its best. But if the dealer used glue to put the bumper back on after it rusted off that morning, now that’s deception! When you think about it, the interview team did some “prepping” of it’s own before the interview. If the interview was done properly (that is, if you run a good team), the resume was distributed at least 48 hours before the interview for prior review, key areas of candidate experience were set to be “quizzed”, appropriate interrogators were assigned to discuss critical issues, the order of the interview was pre-determined, and goals and strategies were discussed (If she really knows how to sell phone services, she must have…). The team has the previous interviews with other candidates and the knowledge developed therein to open and explore new areas or avenues in each successive candidate. An interview, refined by trial and error or knowledge acquired by repetition of the acquisition process, is not all that spontaneous! There is nothing “off-the-cuff” about a well-conducted and professionally prepared company interview. Is it not a little unrealistic to expect the candidate, or the allies of the candidate, not to put a little effort into the preparation process of an interview as well? In addition, the corporate HR person traditionally is the one encouraging and prepping the hiring managers for the candidate. It is a little uneven (I hesitate to say “hypocritical.”) to be concerned about agency recruiters prepping their candidates. Who should prep the candidate for the interview? Well first, I hope the candidate is a little motivated to do some of their own prepping. We all seek the mythical perfect candidate who shows up on time, makes reasonable salary demands, and did all their own preparation and research about the company. But you will not fill all your open positions expecting that candidate to show up. However, as the candidate is not an interview professional (at least I hope not), there is always some justification for a level of support and assistance in their preparation. Candidates do not have, as a rule, as much experience at being interviewed as their interviewers have at interviewing candidates. This is not their fifth time meeting with the team. As mentioned above, the team may have had four, five, six or more previous meetings with other candidates for this same position. They are all warmed up. They have it “down.” They are “prepped.” In my humble opinion, should the candidate not be afforded the same opportunity? Is that wrong? As an HR professional, I often prepare candidates for their meetings with my own hiring managers. Interviewing is not a natural state for most people. Unprepared, the interview teams merely see a nervous kid trying to be all things to all people, because the candidate thinks that is what an interview is all about. Or, they end up interviewing a person who honestly believes the focus of the position in question is other than it truly is and blow the opportunity by speaking to all the wrong points. If the interview team is either weak or judgmental, a good candidate is lost for no good reason. Without preparation, the applicants often feel as if they are being pushed through a dark hallway in a strange house and expected to find their way without error. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*> Agency Recruiters feel that their efforts to prepare the candidate are required to insure that their chance to close a deal is not ruined by issues that are not germane to the process or the position. They have knowledge and experience with their clients based on past interviews. They have acquired knowledge of the interviewers’ questions, process, and quirks. This information can assist in making a candidate feel more comfortable and more like themselves. That is the point on which the difference between preparation and deception exists. Are you prepping the candidate to be themselves, or a fictional representation of what you know the interview team wants them to be? As professional interviewers, we have the knowledge and experiences to make the candidate relax and be themselves. (Actually, I think I could “chill” a tornado if I had a big enough office.) But often the hiring managers and interview teams do not have the desire, experience, or inclination to do more than rattle off questions like some sort of crazed automatic electric Pez dispenser. An unprepared candidate with limited interviewing experience may fold, panic, or become negative based on this experience. Since the atmosphere of the interview has nothing to do with the atmosphere of the daily office routine in which this applicant would work, what do we prove by allowing this sort of “hire by torture”? (The correct answer was “nothing.” If your answer was “everything,” the Spanish Inquisition has a position for you in their HR Department.) So how do you make a candidate be “himself or herself” and yet not coach them in deception?

  • Remind them of the truth they told you in your first interview.
  • Do not try to teach it, or a new version of it, to them.

You remember, the truth the candidate told you in the interview? You know, the interview! That structured event where you took those detailed, accurate, and insightful notes of the answers to your carefully crafted questions, designed to develop a thorough and complete profile of the candidate’s objective and subjective skills and personal likes and dislikes; augmented with detailed information on the candidate’s long-term career goals, past experiences of significant or meaningful successes, and failures resulting from positive and negative work environments, mentoring situations, management styles, and/or peer relationships; and interwoven with your knowledge of the client or hiring manager’s specific concerns, goals, and areas of deepest concern and interest in regards to the candidate of choice for this position. (Whew, pausing to catch my breath!) The Clinton election team is famous for their emphasis in the 1996 elections on the economy as the single greatest issue upon which victory or defeat would hinge. Their internal focus motto: “It’s the economy stupid!” In our chosen profession, the appropriate motto would be, “It’s the interview stupid!” If you have not yet mastered the interview, keep your day job. To properly “prepare” a candidate, you first had to properly interview them. To ask candidates to provide information based on your leading questions crosses the line between “prepping” and “deceiving.” What is so bad about “deceiving” a client? You can only get to get caught once! Legitimate prepping has three components:

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  • RECOMMENDATIONS are those items you feel a candidate may want to accomplish before the interview. Advising the candidate on environment to help them determine how to dress is one example. Telling the candidate to go the company website to do pre-interview research, how to get directions to the site, or other basic data, is another. Reminding candidates with extensive backgrounds to read their resume the night before to keep their own career information fresh is a good recommendation. Going to the website for the candidate and reading the information to them is where you are “creating” a candidate rather than prepping. A prepared candidate impresses the interview team. To create the impression the candidate was motivated, when in fact they were not, is deception. To show them the way is being helpful. To take them there “kicking and screaming” is not.
  • KNOWLEDGE is advice and guidance you give based on your past experience with the client. During the interview with you, the candidate commented that they want, long term, to go to graduate school and focus on operating systems. You mention that one of the interviewers just completed his/her masters’ degree requirements in computer science, with focus on operating systems and that they should discus this shared goal/dream. You are sharing knowledge. To tell the candidate to say it, even though they never mentioned it to you, that is deception. If the company has always had a soft spot for candidate’s who worked their way through school and the candidate did just that, you are sharing knowledge to insure a relevant piece of truthful information comes to the forefront, when you tell the candidate to bring that fact up in the interview. Finally, explaining the interview process, the interviewers, and the offer process to the candidate (turning the light on in the dark hall) is a legitimate form of sharing knowledge. If they are not second-guessing the intentions of their tormentors (er, I mean interviewers) then they are focusing on answering the questions. If they know how many people they are seeing and for how long, they learn to pace themselves. If they know the offer process only takes a day, they know to be in decision-making mode during the interview. Knowledge is power. It is never wrong to empower a candidate.
  • ENCOURAGEMENT is the subjective part of candidate preparation. “You told me you want a forward-thinking company that will use your skills to the fullest. Well, I think you will see that this is that company!” If the preceding was an honest statement, then embellishment is a forgivable sin. If it is “Salutation #17” that you use on all candidates, then you are misrepresenting and creating a false impression. As an employer, I want candidates to know the truth about my company and our potential future in their career development. If a recruiter puts a little “Turtle Wax” on our good reputation, fine. If they over-sell or misrepresent, I have an issue. “The average new hire becomes a manager in 18 months!” This had better be true if said. Often, this expression of “false hope” is the area where the more overzealous recruiter transitions from a well-intentioned “preparer” to a “deceptive” teller of untruths.

As internal or external recruiters, we all want our candidates to do well in the interview process. That motivation may be a function of greed, ego, or true concern to support our “clients.” However, we can never let our ambitions, concerns, or motives allow ourselves to make “a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” We cannot allow ourselves to make this fatal flaw in judgment. Why? Money, of course. You see, creditability is a one shot deal. Intact, it is worth a fortune. Soiled, it has no value and neither do you for that matter. Most of us, the “good ones,” are in this for the long haul (some others, not so much). The difference is a function of “end game wealth,” not daily “deals.” (Wealth can be measured as dollars, career enhancement, or a sense of professional excellence–or all three!) Prepare quality candidates, but do not delude yourself into believing that you can make an unqualified candidate into a “winner” with a few coached words and phrases. To achieve success over the long haul in recruiting demands not an occasional “pop” based on “fooling” a client with a “faux” candidate, but a consistent record of accomplishment based on providing your clients with the “real deal,” the actual candidates they seek. Prepare a “nervous” person to overcome their own fear, but do not create a “false” candidate. As Doctor Frankenstein discovered, if you seek to “create a new form of life,” you may be the one ending up with a “monster”! Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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