Three ghosts at Halloween, representing the masks that candidates wear in interviews.

Trick or treat? What the recruiting manager can learn from Halloween.

I don’t know about you, but I can take or leave Halloween.  And mostly I can leave it.

It’s a big juggernauting marketing carnival these days – much more so than when I was a child – presented as good old wholesome harmless fun.  I’ve always been puzzled by this, given the very sinister messages that bubble just beneath the surface.  My 5-year-old happily dresses as a witch, zombie, or skeleton, without having any real awareness of what these gruesome costumes denote.

And it’s really dark!  In the UK the clocks go back on the last Sunday in October, which means that Halloween is one of the first days when it’s properly night time at the end of the average working day.

But I recognise that people enjoy dressing up.  The clothes are fun, the props are exciting, the make-up is gaudy, and the masks add mystery.

And once the mask is on you have literally no idea who is behind it, or what they are thinking.  You can get some clues by engaging them in conversation, or observing their body language (assuming they are not dressed in a sheet), but it’s really very difficult.

It’s the same in life – particularly in recruitment.  And when you’re recruiting candidates, you are looking at them through not just one mask, but FOUR!

Here’s how to identify the masks, and how to see through them.

  1. Mask 1 is the cv, or online profile. Candidates are only going to portray themselves in a positive light, if they have any sense.  The idea of the cv (from the candidate’s point of view) is to secure an interview, so you’re only going to see good things at this stage.
  2. Mask 2 is the interview persona. What you see here is probably not what you will actually get.  Savvy candidates are often confident in an interview situation, and can keep up an act for an hour or two.  They also know that first impressions count, they can anticipate the questions that usually get asked, and they will have prepared their answers in advance.  (Side note – people who change jobs often can also be good in an interview situation, because they’ve had a lot of practice!)
  3. Mask 3 – the references. These are becoming less and less useful, especially in written form.  They can be easily forged, and companies are usually very reluctant to write a negative reference, for fear of litigation.  Indeed, it can be in their interests to overlook any negative points, because the candidate in question might end up working for a competitor (you?), and why should they make your life any easier?
  4. Mask 4 is the natural mask that they wear all the time, especially at work, and especially in the period before they settle in.

How to pierce these masks?

  1. The cv mask.  It’s not always possible but it’s often better if you can get candidates by referral in the first place. The speculative or advert application is the equivalent of an agency cold call; as the recruiting manager you know nothing about the candidate (or agency) at this stage, and you know that you are only going to be presented with salesy self-promoting information.  Why should you trust this?  From an agency (or candidate) point of view it’s much better to get business (or a new role) by consistently doing a good job and having others speak on your behalf.
  2. The interview mask.  Be aware of the potent and potentially misleading influence of the first impression. Ask relevant but non-standard interview questions that require candidates to think on their feet.  Observe body language (assuming they are not wearing a sheet).  And consider using personality assessments for an objective second opinion.*
  3. The references mask. Take references by telephone. We do this whenever we can, and people are often happier to talk openly on the phone than they are in writing.  And these days it’s quite possible to find a mutual contact – on LinkedIn, for example.  A quick call to them may save you time and pain later on.
  4. The natural mask. The first few months of a new job are critical, so you need a robust onboarding process that involves scheduled reviews and the opportunity for the placed candidate to give their feedback. It’s only after they start work with you that you really get to know someone, and it can be that the first you hear of an employee’s dissatisfaction is when they hand in their notice.

It takes time and effort to see through the masks that candidates wear.  You are never going to get to know someone’s true character immediately, but you owe it to yourself and your company to do what you can.

So will you be tricked into accepting the mask as reality?  Or will you end up treating yourself to a good employee by improving your recruiting process?

Trick or treat?  The choice is yours.

*We use Thomas PPA.  In our experience these tests can only help.  A 10-minute multiple choice exercise reveals key personality traits, both positive and negative.  Get in touch if you’re interested in doing a free sample assessment on yourself or one of your staff.