Four insights on building rapport with candidates

It’s essential to build good relationships with candidates, but should we do that by asking them what their hobbies are? Or what their weaknesses are, or why they want to join our company?

I don’t think we should; some discussions that aim to build relationships in our social lives bring unexpected problems to our interview processes. What are these problems, and what should you say if you still want to build rapport with a candidate?

Unstructured interviews

The problem with the question “what are your hobbies?” is that it forms part of what the psychologist Tomas Chamorro Premuzic calls “unstructured interviews” in his book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

“Unstructured interviews”, Tomas writes, “predict job performance less accurately. First, the open-ended questions invite unexpected responses that are hard to interpret and analyse. Second, (..) the answers cannot be linked to specific competencies or job requirements. The unstructured interview is more of an improvised and free-floating exercise, where interviewers invite candidates to present themselves on different questions—some mere icebreakers, some tricky—and their performance is judged spontaneously.”


Examples of such questions include:

Why do you want to work for us? 

Where do you see yourself in five years? 

What are your biggest weaknesses?

And yes, what are your hobbies?

Does this mean we need to become robots and treat candidates in an unfriendly manner? Of course not. So what can you do to build rapport professionally

Build rapport by mirroring

There are better ways of building rapport with candidates than these overused icebreakers. The first tip is called “mirroring”. This technique is discussed by the author Chris Voss in his book Never split the difference. According to Chris, mirroring leads to people feeling more connected with you and sharing more information. The technique is simple: you need to repeat the last three words (or the critical one to three words) of what someone has just said. 

Voss cites a study where researchers used waiters to identify what was the more effective method of creating a connection with strangers: mirroring or positive reinforcement. One group of waiters used positive reinforcement by lavishing praise on patrons. The other group mirrored their customers by repeating their orders back to them. The result? The average tip of the waiters who mirrored was 70 per cent more than the other team.

For recruiters, the added benefit of using this technique is that we can then confirm what the candidate has said to make sure we understand them. So be sure to mirror during phone screens, interview-prep, debriefing and even offer-stage.

Showing genuine curiosity 

Podcasters such as Tim Ferris or Guy Raz use this technique. The technique consists of using two words that cut past the easy small-talk to have a richer conversation: “I’m curious.”

I’m curious

Ideally, you can place these words just before exciting and challenging questions or comments. Think about difficult discussions around experiences or skills. For example:

So, candidate, I find it interesting that you have experience coaching people. I’m curious to know, out of a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your ability to manage a virtual team?

These words give your question a very particular context: the question doesn’t have a right or wrong answer anymore with no judgement behind it. You’re asking the question because you’re a recruiter that is curious to know more about their candidate. When there’s no judgement, there’s less nervousness when candidates reply, which means you get better quality answers.

Additionally, this lack of judgement results in candidates feeling appreciative of your efforts in getting to know them because of how skilled they are. Candidates then start to talk more about themselves, which gives you more information to write down and take back to your hiring manager.

Rapport through writing and simplicity

Rapport-building goes beyond the phone or video calls. We live in a world of Slack, email, and social media, so writing is equally important. We can build rapport through writing with a concept called “simplicity”.

But isn’t writing easy? Not really! Writing is a challenging skill, and candidates have other apps and messages vying for their attention. Candidates don’t need to respond right away to our emails, and you lose body language. If you add lousy writing to the mix, then you lose your candidate’s attention and risk them dropping out of the interview process.

To fix this, I started reading the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser. The first thing he mentions is the importance of simplicity in writing by removing clutter. “The secret of good writing”, Zinsser says, “ is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb”.

A few examples: instead of saying “at this point in time”, just say “now”. Don’t say “a personal friend”, just say “friend”. In recruitment, clutter is everywhere: in job descriptions, in Inmails, in messages to stakeholders and emails to candidates. Keep your communication free of clutter to keep your candidate’s attention and continue building rapport.

Would a candidate prefer a recruiter that asks about their hobbies, or would they choose a clear communicator that’s curious about their work and understands their skills and motivations? I like the second recruiter more. This person understands me at a professional level, and I trust them to take care of my application. I also have no hobbies to talk about, so that helps in avoiding an awkward conversation.

Published by José Marchena

Hi, I'm Jose Marchena I’m a London-based internal recruiter, host of the Coffee with a Recruiter podcast and occasional blogger. I use this website to explore insights on recruitment, productivity and self-development.

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