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Warning Signs: Recruiters Reveal Their Biggest Turnoffs

But there are ways to win them over, too

A man and woman sitting at a desk in an office.

The interaction between candidates and recruiters during a job interview plays a key role in whether or not an applicant is hired. Everything from a candidate's appearance to how well he or she communicates creates either favorable or unfavorable impressions for recruiters tasked with determining the candidate's fit for the organization and the role before moving him or her along in the process.

SHRM Online asked a few talent acquisition professionals what most alarms or impresses them—with either red or green flags—during candidate interviews. Here's what they said.

Warning Signs

Being unprepared or inauthentic trigger the most common alarm bells for recruiters.

"One of the biggest red flags when candidates are interviewing is when they show up without a resume," said Catherine Pylant, senior corporate recruiter at Wal-Mart. "It is near impossible to have a progressive conversation without being able to review their experience. I always recommend to my candidates to not only bring one copy, but bring three as you never know how many interviewers may be in the room."

Simply stated, candidates will be judged by the amount of effort they put into the process. "If you show up prepared, ready, open to new ideas, conversations and opportunity, and can go with the flow, you will go far," said Erin Stevens, SHRM-CP, corporate recruiter with MasterBrand Cabinets in Jasper, Ind. "Not being prepared, being negative, complaining or not [being] open to the process will definitely hinder a candidate."

Stevens compared the interaction between candidates and recruiters to dating—with each party responsible for setting the mood. "You have two people, both mutually looking for something they like in each other. If one of them shows no interest, or is rude or unprepared for the journey, the relationship will not form properly and is doomed from the beginning. This is why it's so important for not only the candidate to be prepared but for the company to provide that candidate with a great experience."

When candidates are challenging to work with throughout the interview process, it is usually an early sign of what it will be like to have them as part of the organization, Pylant said. "If they have a [slow] response [time], making it difficult to schedule the interview steps, or [are] constantly changing what they are looking for in regards to compensation and responsibility, a recruiter needs to really take a step back and uncover what is really motivating them to make a move."

Candidates who arrive for an interview without showing any interest in the company or its mission, or conversely, expressing a desperate willingness to take any job, are further turnoffs.

"The single greatest thing a candidate can bring to a conversation is enthusiasm," said Lindsay Mustain, a recruiter for Amazon. "People with a chip on their shoulder, or people who feel they are entitled to the job—that does not come off well and recruiters will pick up on that."

Alison Mackay, a technical recruiter and co-founder of the Silicon Valley Recruiters Association, said she will pull the plug on an interview with an excessively unprepared or rude candidate. "I think what some candidates don't recognize is that the recruiter is the first step in most interview processes," she said. "If they've been burned in the past by a recruiter and they can't get past the fact that not all recruiters are the same, I won't push them forward in the process."    

Mass applying to jobs is another huge red flag, according to Pylant. "Candidates cast a net so wide that they lose focus and come off less than knowledgeable as well as unprepared for the position," she said. "When you have too many applications out there, it gets difficult for anyone to keep them all straight and truly give the interview the attention needed to land the role. At least a few times a month I have candidates that ask me to refresh their memory as to what the company is or what the position is because they've applied to so many roles."

Not being truthful is another sure way to make a negative impression on recruiters. "If I feel like candidates are giving me something inauthentic, like talking in generics, or talking about accomplishments they didn't own themselves, they lose credibility and my trust," Mustain said.

Stevens prepares for interviews by studying a candidate's resume, particularly job stability and career progression. "The red flags come when the reasons for moving between roles doesn't make sense or the employment story doesn't seem plausible," she said. "If I feel you aren't answering or clarifying questions, my gut and common sense may not be sold."

Being too honest can also hurt a candidate's chances. "Sometimes I have candidates who can be extremely honest to a fault, letting me know they left a role because they couldn't stand a former boss, or they were fired for attendance," Stevens said. "If you left because you couldn't get along with your supervisor, how will you handle your next boss?"

Mustain added that griping about a current or former employer is a dead end: "Recruiters are not career counselors."

One of the most grievous things a candidate can do in the recruitment context is to use the interview process and offer as a way to get a raise via counter offer from their current employer, Pylant said. "Companies spend a lot of time and even money on their hiring process, so when people enter it with no intentions of taking the role, but use it to better their current situation, it is truly disheartening."

Finally, there are those candidates who mistake a recruiter's friendliness for something more and cross a professional boundary. That includes flirting, getting overly chummy and other inappropriate interactions. "I've never had to end an in-person interview, but have had phone interviews with really questionable behavior," Mustain said. One incident that still makes her laugh is when a candidate began serenading her on the telephone. "It was just wrong place, wrong time."

Promising Signs

Candidates that invest time in researching the company and role, exhibit strong interpersonal and communication skills, appear honest and enthusiastic, and ask probing questions make a recruiter's job worth it. Recruiters also appreciate someone who knows how to dress for an interview, how to greet staff onsite and how to build rapport.

"Any interview that feels like a conversation is very promising," Mackay said. "Something else that is very promising from a recruiter perspective is when the candidates clearly know what they are looking for and are OK if the role that I am talking to them about ends up not making sense for their career path. It shows me that they are serious about their next step, not just looking to get their foot in the door for a certain company."

Mustain said that when she asks "Why Amazon?" she wants to know what propels the candidate to want to work there, besides "it's such a cool company." "I'm impressed when candidates go beyond the first page on the careers site and go into the industrial relations section, go onto the YouTube channel and find something that speaks to them. [They are] looking at it like they are the investment and they want to talk about what they can contribute versus what they can take," she said.

Mackay recently had a candidate who was able to speak to specific examples of what the company had done in the area of interest that he was interviewing for. "He used examples of what we'd done in the industry to tie it back to a certain project in his experience. I was extremely impressed, and we were able to cut about half the time that I'd usually take to explain the background of the role and focus more on his work."

Stevens is impressed when a candidate can clearly and easily go step by step through his or her career progression, including reasons for moving from role to role, and explain their motivation for interest in the position at her company. "It sounds simple, but there are many individuals who jump around and have difficulty expressing their moves and motives."

After research, following up with recruiters is one of the most important things a candidate can do to better his or her chances throughout the interview process, Pylant said. "When candidates keep high communication with the recruiter throughout the process, that's usually a good sign. It is a great way to build a strong relationship, and if they are taking those extra steps to work with the recruiter, it truly shows they want the position."

Pylant is especially impressed when candidates connect ahead of the interview on LinkedIn and send a quick thank-you note after it has concluded. "My ultimate favorite act a candidate can do in the interview process is to give a handwritten thank-you note," she said. "It is rare we receive handwritten notes anymore, so this is a great way to make the recruiter and hiring team feel great as well as for the candidate to stand out among the masses."

Finally, asking genuine and thought-provoking questions about the role, the company or its culture will make recruiters beam. But they have to be the right questions.

"Questions built around how they can impact the business," Mustain said. "What they can deliver if brought on board. Not the typical, 'How much vacation do I get?' "


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