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8 Components of a Great Recruiter

A talent acquisition guru offers his take on the traits that distinguish the best from the rest.


For the past 10 years, I’ve been blogging about HR, talent acquisition and leadership, contributing smart, snarky content to the HR community.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that those of us who excel in talent acquisition think about recruiting differently than our less successful peers do. That has prompted me to ponder the characteristics of a great recruiter. 

So many different types of people can be great recruiters. It’s not always the gregarious person who can talk to anyone who is most effective. Many times, it’s the quiet, thoughtful individual. So, personality type alone is not the answer.

Here is my take on the eight components that make a great recruiter:

1. Connectivity

​At its foundation, recruiting is about being able to connect with others. It’s one of the first things I look for when interviewing candidates for a recruiter position. I don’t focus on previous experience. I feel like the position is easily trainable if you hire the right person. 

I need individuals who are natural connectors of people. They are probably active on social media. And they may be in-person connectors as well, being involved with volunteer work, religion, sports teams or clubs. They can go in and out of social situations with ease and instantly connect with someone new. 

Recruiters are constantly speaking to and messaging with candidates, most of whom they have never met. Doing their jobs well comes down to being able to almost instantly build a rapport.

​There’s also a piece of this segment of DNA that comes down to sheer likeability. Great recruiters have something in them that others like. In fact, I’ve met a bunch of recruiters who were technically awesome at their jobs, but they rubbed most people the wrong way and they failed. Don’t underestimate the power of being liked when it comes to winning great talent.

2. The Ability to Speak the Truth

​You may say, “Well, everyone can do that,” and technically you would be right—but not everyone actually will, so this becomes an important trait. What’s even more valuable is having the ability to speak the truth in a way in which people will readily accept it. 

In recruiting, we waste so much time playing this communication game with candidates. Dealing with real people who think they’re the “perfect” fit for your job is hard, especially when you know otherwise. 

Great recruiters limit how much they work for “free”—that is, the amount of time they’ll spend with a candidate they’ll never hire. They speak the truth in a way that is not offensive but that will clearly convey exactly where candidates stand so they don’t need any hand-holding.

​This trait is also ultra-valuable when dealing with hiring managers. Our time dealing with them tends to be one of the larger time blocks we are challenged with. Bad recruiters will waste time telling hiring managers what they want to hear, believing this leads to higher “customer satisfaction.” Great ones tell it straight in a manner that speeds the process to a decision. 

In an interview situation, I’ll gauge this skill by asking questions that I know have only one truthful response—one that is tough to say in an interview. For example, I’m a big Michigan State University supporter and fan. If I am interviewing a candidate who I know is a University of Michigan fan, I may ask him or her, “If you were to work here, would you be willing to wear MSU gear to work since we do a bunch of activities with MSU?” A real U of M fan with this characteristic would figure out a way to say “no” but still maintain his or her desirability for the position.

3. Accountability

​Playing the victim is about placing blame for things that happen on outside forces. “Well, I couldn’t find you candidates for your position because we don’t have a good applicant tracking system.” “It’s not my fault the candidate didn’t accept; we didn’t offer enough money.” “If we had a better website, we could attract talent.” “If you bought me a LinkedIn license, I could find the candidates you need.” 

Great recruiters find ways to “make it happen” regardless of the limited tools, resources and time they’re given. They do not let roadblocks stop them or speed bumps slow them down. They rise to the occasion and make good things happen. Recruiters face constant rejection, so having the trait of not being a victim is critical to success. 

When looking at candidates, it’s fairly easy to discover victim-ish behaviors. If you ask why a team project didn’t work, victims will quickly place blame on team members while telling you what they did to make it succeed. A better behavior would be to take responsibility for their part in the failure and then explain what they did to remedy the situation.

4. Marketing Chops

​Marketing skills have become increasingly valuable for great recruiting. Of course, a potential recruiter can pick up some of this through education and experience, but it can also be a natural ability. 

The classic interview question designed to gauge this is to give the candidate your pen and ask her to sell it to you. But another question you could ask potential recruiters is this: “What changes could you recommend to our current career site to entice more people to apply?” A natural marketer can generate many ideas quickly.

Recruiters with marketing chops also think about talent acquisition differently. You’ll see it when they look at your systems and procedures. They focus on the candidate first, not how the process helps the talent acquisition team. That’s a marketing approach. 

Do you hire people who scare you?

I strongly believe that, on average, HR and hiring managers tend to under-hire talent. We bring on people we know are less talented than we are, who won’t push us out of our comfort zone. We take the easy route when we should be hiring individuals who are so freaking smart and talented that we worry they will one day take our jobs. 

My one criterion for hiring in HR and talent acquisition is simply this: Does this person scare the bejesus out of you?

When I went to work at Applebee’s in HR, I was surrounded by talented people because Lou Kaucic, the head of HR, over-hired. People on the team came from Disney, GE and other organizations known for stellar HR. 

Kaucic knew that Applebee’s wasn’t just cold beer and good burgers. Any casual-dining chain could produce those things consistently. It was about hiring and developing a better workforce that couldn’t be easily replicated. The only way you get there is to have industry-leading HR talent and practices. 

My interview with Applebee’s took eight hours. My future boss, Jackie Giusti, was a former military police officer and trained interrogator. Ultimately, she had only one measure to live up to when making a hiring decision, and it was the last question she asked me: “Are you better than me?”

I quickly evaluated my options: You can say you are better, say you’re not better or give some middle-of-the-road answer that is really a non-answer. I knew the last option would not fly with Jackie.

So, I said what I felt: “Yes, I’m better than you.” 

I then looked for some facial cue that would allow me to explain. Yes, I was better in certain aspects of HR and talent acquisition. My experience to that point gave me a few tools in the shed she may not have yet. Of course, there were things I could learn from her, but there were also things I could teach her.

Luckily, my first answer was a winner. She explained that the only way she would have hired me was if I was better than she was, and, in her mind, she needed to hear it and believe it. She could only hire noticeably better talent into HR and talent acquisition. I don’t think I let her down, and, truthfully, the team probably taught me more than I was ever able to teach them.

5. The Ability to Close

​“A.B.C.—Always Be Closing” is a classic sales line. Salespeople are trained from day one on how to close a customer. Recruiters are no different. Your ability to land candidates who accept your job offers will make or break your career. 

Great recruiting closers share one trait that I call the “jealous girlfriend” (to be fair, it works whether you’re a girlfriend or a boyfriend, but I’ve only experienced it from a girlfriend). A jealous girlfriend will question her boyfriend about any little thing that doesn’t seem right about a situation. “So, you left the bar at 11 p.m., but it’s now 11:45 p.m. and the bar is only 20 minutes away? … Oh, you stopped for gas. What station? … Didn’t you just get gas two days ago?”

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Screening and Evaluating Candidates]

The best recruiters I’ve worked with, male or female, were great jealous girlfriends. They don’t have a filter when it comes to asking every single question about information that doesn’t line up perfectly because they know a hiring manager will see any discrepancy and ask about it. The last thing great recruiters want is to face a question they don’t know the answer to.

Addressing these queries is how you properly close a candidate. Offers fall apart at the end because questions were left unasked at the beginning. “So, you’re interested in our company and job, but this seems like it would add 20 minutes to your drive. Have you made the commute yet at rush hour? What will adding 40 minutes a day do to your schedule at home?” Always be closing! 

“So, you’re making $65,000 a year in your current role. Our position pays $70,000 max. If we offer the job at $70,000, what will keep you from accepting? Benefits costs? Paid time off? 401(k) match?” Always be closing.

6. Consultative Skills

​The best recruiters become talent consultants to hiring managers. It’s not about doing the job for them; it’s about delivering an expertise. “I’m the expert on talent, and I’m here to advise you on the course of action that will put you and your department in the best situation, even if that means more work for me.” 

Consultative skills allow recruiters to become valued members of the hiring manager’s inner circle, someone they rely on when making hiring decisions. But many times, it leads to making any kind of personnel decision within their department. Consultants deliver advice based on their knowledge and expertise, and great recruiters exhibit the same behavior.

When I interview recruiters, I’ll have candidates “advise” me on things we could do to better help them. It’s something they know well. They understand how they want to be treated and can provide feedback on our candidate experience. “Help me grasp what I don’t know about how this experience affected you.” Someone with consultative skills can easily do this. 

​It’s about building trusting relationships. Consultants work for the client. That’s who is (theoretically) paying them. No hiring manager ever took advice from someone whom he didn’t trust had his best interests in mind.

7. Being a Futurist

​I want recruiters working for me who are constantly looking at industry trends—and not just within talent acquisition—to see what may be coming next. As a leader, I’ll be doing that in the functions they are supporting to help stay ahead of our competition. 

If I’m recruiting nurses, I better know the direction of this industry if I want to stay in front of it from a talent acquisition perspective. When I was working in the health system in Michigan, there was a strategy shift from hiring both LPNs and RNs to hiring only RNs. As a recruiting team, we went and worked with RN programs around the state to ensure we had a pipeline of candidates two years before this change went into effect.

When I worked in the retail market, I would meet with our real estate and construction leadership teams to know where they were considering new builds so I could keep on top of recruiting pools in those areas, sometimes as far out as two years. When you open a new location, you have a short time to hire and train a full team. If I could cultivate a pool of talent a year or two prior, that was much easier to accomplish.

​I want to be surrounded by recruiters who are constantly asking me for tools I’ve never heard of. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to go out and buy all this stuff, but I’ll know they’re always looking for the latest and greatest. If a recruiter never comes to me and asks about some new tool in the marketplace, I seriously question whether he cares about his skill development. 

8. Fearlessness

​I wanted to title this DNA trait “the ability to pick up the f------ phone,” but I thought that might offend someone. 

I’ve gotten to the point now that, when interviewing recruiter candidates, I’ll have them call and interview me as the first step of the process. As you can imagine, some folks really struggle with this. More often than not, those people would make crappy recruiters. 

Recruiters must talk to candidates. It’s amazing how many people get hired into recruiting roles who are scared to call and talk to someone. We go through an entire interview process, and we don’t even know if they have the one skill they will have to use every day.

​As an entry-level recruiter, I spent my first three weeks on the job on the phone. From a stack of resumes, I was required to make 100 calls per day. After three weeks, I had connected with hundreds of people. Then I went into my boss’s office. He looked at me, turned around and threw the resumes into his trash can. He handed me a job requisition and said, “OK, now you’re ready. Go fill this job.” 

The entire exercise was intended to break my fear of picking up the phone and calling people. Every talent acquisition leader I know underestimates the importance of this. 

There is a direct correlation between the number of phone calls a recruiter makes and his or her success, in both corporate talent acquisition and agency settings. More calls equal more jobs filled. Every industry. Every market. Don’t allow your recruiters to tell you differently. If they do, they’re lying. The truth is they’re afraid to pick up the freaking phone.  

Tim Sackett is president of HRU Technical Resources, a leading IT and engineering staffing firm headquartered in Lansing, Mich. He regularly writes for Fistful of Talent and his popular blog The Tim Sackett Project. His new book, The Talent Fix: A Leader’s Guide to Recruiting Great Talent (SHRM, 2018), is available through the SHRMStore