How to Train your Recruiters to Be Better Listeners

By: John Rossheim 

There’s broad consensus among recruitment executives that 2016 is the year of listening — attentive and active listening. 

Why now? With growing competition for in-demand talent and an escalating emphasis on selling hard-to-fill positions, recruiters must listen more carefully to candidate as never before.  

“Listening is the core skill of recruiting,” says James Wright, partner at Bridge Technical Talent. “You can’t understand what the candidate wants or has to offer if you don’t listen clearly.”

Problem is, many recruiters, maybe especially those with sales experience in other industries, believe it's better to give words than to receive them. 

“In our training we joke that recruiters have two settings: talking, or waiting to talk,” says Karen Schmidt, managing director at Sanford Rose Associates.

Here's how to train your recruiters to listen better  – which will make them better closers than their less attuned competition.
Teach recruiters that listening is the key to selling. Recruiters crave efficiency, so they should appreciate that carefully listening will save them many long trips to dead ends. 

“You need to communicate that, without effectively qualifying the candidate — much of which involves critically listening — efforts to sell are a waste of time,” says Wright.

Cultivate a nonjudgmental approach. Perhaps the toughest challenge for recruiters is to refrain from instantly assessing a candidate’s fitness for a given opening. 

“The human instinct is to process every bit of information and make a judgment,” says Schmidt. “So instead, we focus on listening without deciding, on resisting the urge to jump to a conclusion or categorize the candidate based on other candidates. You break down what to listen for on a granular level.”

Train recruiters to listen and look for the unspoken. The most successful recruiters have learned to watch for the candidate’s body language  and note the topics that candidates choose to leave untouched. 

“I listen to my candidates’ fears and insecurities and make them feel confident,” says Marissa Klein, executive vice president at search firm Choice Fashion & Media.

Ask new recruiters to observe experienced recruiters. A recruiter with potential will learn a lot by observing how more experienced colleagues listen to, and draw out, candidates. 

“When someone starts here, we have them sit in on each senior recruiter’s interviews, to see their different ways of working,” says Klein. “It helps to watch how more senior people handle bumps along the way. Afterward, I debrief them, talk to them about the way things were done.”

Role-play conversations with candidates. First-hand observation is good, but it’s not enough to help recruiters develop the habits of active listening. That’s where role-playing comes in. 

“For training, we give recruiters a job description and have them pick up the phone and call one of our trainers to do a mock interview and engage them in the opportunity,” says Dennis Theodorou, vice president of global operations at JMJ Phillip Group.

Interview the recruiter about the candidate interview. To test the recruiter’s listening, and to engage him or her with other stakeholders in the hiring process, question the candidate about how the interview went. 

“Have a system where the next person after the recruiter to interview the candidate asks the recruiter specific open-ended questions that can’t be found on the resume,” says Wright.

Require recruiters to synthesize their knowledge of candidates. It’s one thing to interview a candidate and check off boxes corresponding to their answers and quite another to pull together those responses to arrive at a meaningful portrait of the candidate. 

Wright advises: “Ask your recruiter: ‘If you had to throw all the different motivators in the air — job satisfaction, skills development, compensation, commute, quality of life, title/position, company prospects – tell me how you’d order those motivators for this candidate and why.’

If the recruiter can’t answer adequately, have them do a follow-up call to get more information and really listen to the responses.”

Demonstrate that candidate engagement spells long-term success. Candidates who feel they have been heard will be much better prepared to make a positive impression on your clients. “When we listen and build rapport, candidates step in with both feet,” says Theodorou.

Hire recruiters for learning and listening aptitude. Some aspects of listening are teachable, others may be a matter of unalterable temperament: you have it or you don’t. 

It pays to test for ability to listen when you’re hiring recruiters. “If we hire candidates who want to continuously learn, they can be trained more easily,” says Theodorou.