Why I Don’t “Prep” My Candidates for Interviews


I had an interesting experience recently that reminded me why I don’t “prep” my candidates prior to them having an interview with my clients. I’ve been doing senior level searches over the past several years, but as I have recently been working on some Sales Consultant searches for a dear friend, I am once again reminded of the incredible power of a Candidate Prep Call. Vice President and CEO level people generally don’t need to be coached or prepped for an interview. In most cases,  I prep my clients on what they must do to capture the imagination of the senior level candidate.  However, in lower level searches the Prep Call before an interview can seem a lot more like “insider trading” than simple prep call.

As part of the standard Recruiter training protocol, “Prepping a Candidate for a client interview” is as routine an aspect of the recruiting process as the “Candidate Debrief Call.” So, then why do I say that I don’t prep my candidates before an interview? I have long-held the view that by preparing a candidate for an interview with your client, you introduce bias into the process and make the job of vetting the candidates by your client far more difficult. In fact, by doing so, you introduce a profound conundrum which enhances the candidates’ ability to tailor their approach and directly address precisely what your clients are looking for. Why is this bad? It actually undermines the process by giving your candidates an unreasonable advantage in the interview process enabling them to misrepresent their actual abilities with their “super human intelligence” provided by an insider. With preparation from an insider, they can become a better version of themselves. You may think that if you prep “all” of your candidates the same way, then you have “evened the score” making it equal, but while that may be true as it relates to your candidates having equal access to the information, it fails to recognize that what your client needs most from you is an accurate representation of the candidates’ real and natural talent. And this directly undermines this exposure.  In another blog, entitled, “Why Contingency Recruiters’ Candidates So Stinking Good?” I point out that recruiters greatly bias the interview process toward their own candidates when they prepare their candidates prior to an interview by telling them all of the nuances and details that the hiring manager is looking for. For example: “display fire in the belly passion” “make sure you ask for the job” “demonstrate your ability to ____________,” and other such things. It is as if the Recruiter gives a script to the candidates to perform in a play. The very things that the hiring manager told the recruiter he/she was looking for in a candidate gets spelled out in vivid detail. Irrespective of their actual talent, behaviors, and communication, they will follow the lead of the Recruiter who gave them the “insider’s view” of what the manager is actually looking for in explicit detail.  It’s as if an insider in a prospective target sales account gave your Sales Rep the exact road map to the hidden motivations and desires of the decision-maker. What Sales Rep wouldn’t be effective in selling to a prospect whom they have been carefully and meticulously informed of all their hot-buttons, likes and dislikes?  Any Sales Rep worth their salt would give a compelling presentation given such “insider” information. Why then is this bad? Because this is not a “real life” scenario. A competent Sales professional needs to qualify their prospect and elegantly ascertain the wants and needs that are most important to them in assessing a product or service. The Sales Rep must then present their product or service offering to the prospect and ensure that there is adequate disclosure and that any questions or concerns are appropriately overcome with information or demonstrations to dispel doubt and bring about a positive agreement that their products/services meet their prospect’s needs effectively. Then they must close the sale. However if a Recruiter carefully crafts all the objections and concerns for the prospective candidate in advance of the interview, how is that really giving the hiring manager an accurate representation of their true sales abilities? This is what I mean by saying that Prepping Candidates always biases the hiring process and actually undermines the objective of finding the best possible talent and fit.

So let’s consider why “Prepping Candidates” is such a widely accepted behavior of Recruiters everywhere.  First, this makes YOU look good!  When all your candidates perform well in their first interview, it reflects upon you as each of your candidates is well prepared in advance and their polish is a testament to your thoroughness. At the surface, this is true. However, what is the true objective of the search in the first place?  Is it to make you look good or earn a fee quickly?  Maybe it is for you. If you are a recruiter and you know that the only way you will be compensated for all your time and effort, you must take advantage of every means necessary to ensure that your candidate gets hired. If you’re like me, you notice that there is a subtle, yet profound conflict of interests if the Recruiter ever does anything that is not in the best interests of the client. Why is this conflict of interest present you may ask? It is my belief that in part it is due to the prevalence of Contingency Search. Contingency Search has several unintended consequences that elevate the risk of a company making a bad hire. By removing the Contingency terms, recruiters are able to operate as an extension of the company and not out of fear of being “stiffed” out of their fee.  Contingency Search has many potential pitfalls that recruiters must attempt to avoid. (backdoor hire, candidates who circumvent them, resume timing, active candidates etc.) But I also believe that recruiters tend to be transient and not terribly interested in the long-term success of their clients. One of the most bizarre ironies in recruiting industry is the incredibly high turnover and short tenure. I know of no other industry with such difficulty keeping people in the industry. The failure rate of rookie recruiters is over 90% by most accounts. So one might assume that if someone makes it past their first year, they do it right. Right? Wrong!

I’ve been accused of being heretical in my stance on Candidate Prepping. I guess I don’t get it.  All I ever want to do is what is truly in the best interests of my clients to mitigate as much risk of a bad hire that I possibly can. And what better way than to find the best people I possibly can attract given the company’s value proposition and introduce them to the company and later to the hiring manager. The rest is up to the candidate to conduct their own due diligence, research the company, its products and opportunity. It is up to them to manage their own performance in the way that comes to them naturally. Because that is exactly how they will perform on the job. So, whether it is prepping them by telling them to make sure they scour the client’s website and study the products to reading the last three or four press releases so that can be more prepared or advising them how to follow-up after the interview with an email to the hiring manager.  These are things that the Top Performers should do without the need of a recruiter coaching them.

Some Recruiters have laughed out-loud at me and told me that if I don’t prep my candidates, all my work is in vain and that I need to protect my investment of time. They’ve told me that I won’t be able to make a living and that they will run circles around me while I go out of business. Yet after 14 years in the business and the last 10 plus working on retainer this way, I remain convinced that what I am doing and more importantly NOT doing is in the best interests of my clients. And they keep calling me when they have new searches. In the last year, over 80% of our new searches have come from repeat customers. Keep in mind, we are not the “low-cost provider” in the market. While others settle for flat fees and lower percentages, we hold firmly to our rates, because  I believe that in the end, it isn’t about “Cost” but “Value.” The greatest value we can provide is helping our clients hire the absolute best person they possibly can. We believe the best way that they can make an educated decision and discern which candidate is best is through allowing our candidates to come as they are rather than how someone wants them to be. Unless you remove the contingency factor from this scenario, I don’t believe you can properly align your recruiter’s priorities with the company. At the same time, merely removing the contingency factor does not ensure you that your recruiter will not Prep their candidates and bias the process. Every hiring manager should work with someone who they trust to have their best interests at heart and be committed to their success beyond making a hire and earning their fee.

Back to my recent experience conducting the Sales Consultant searches; a few of the candidates came in less than armed to the T with all the preparation that one would hope for. My friend and client saw the shortcomings of a few of my candidates. While it would have made me look better to prep them, in the end he had an accurate representation of each candidate which equipped him to make the best informed decision relative to who best fit the role and had the talent to represent his company in the designated territories. However tempting it might have been to make myself look better by prepping the candidates, that isn’t the highest goal when retained by a client who trusts me to help them hire the best.


A Tale of Two Recruiters

A start-up Web Design Firm needed to hire a UX Designer for their rapidly expanding portfolio. After being reasonably impressed by an array of recruiters, they authorized one of the recruiter’s named Tom to find a talented programmer. Tom is a solid citizen who does his best to perform well for his clients. With the job specifications fresh in hand, Tom quickly prepares his plan and begins scouring an array of tech job sites and crafts a few boolean searches and narrowed the search to a few dozen resumes. Within hours, Tom begins making phone calls to interview the candidates to see if they possess the right skills for the Design Firm. After several days of recruiting calls, reference checks and further interviews, Tom narrows his search down to the top three candidates that he thinks best embody all the attributes that the new company needs in a UX Designer. In fact, everything seemed to be moving along rather nicely.

The problem is that a few days ago, the same start-up openly discussed the search with a different recruiter who happened to call in one day unsolicited. Once recruiter #2 hung up the phone, he quickly did a similar search online and downloaded a handful of resumes and proceeded to email them directly to the Design Firm’s executive. By the time Recruiter Tom got the chance to present his top three candidates to the executive, the executive had to inform Tom that he had already received the same resumes from another recruiter. Guess which recruiter got paid?

You would rightly think that it would be a mistake for the Design Firm to pay the second recruiter. Sadly, that is exactly what would happen 99% of the time. The first one who sends a resume in wins! So what is the logical outcome from such an incident, and I promise you that this very common. The outcome is that if Tom wants to feed his family, he’d better quit vetting candidates and instead be the fastest trigger.

Stuck in Concrete

People are stuck in Concrete! For all the opinions in cyberspace and beyond, I find it to be extraordinarily rare that anyone EVER changes their minds. For some reason, we seem to have figured everything out by the time we’re 30 years old. I wonder if it is a physiologic reason or if people are simply too lazy to allow their ideas to be challenged without defending them with every fiber of their being. Unless we are so smart or lucky to have arrived at all the right opinions by the time we are 30, chances are we have room for growth. I know that this must be tempered with logic and reason. It has been said that if your mind is too open, your brain will fall out. What do you think it is that motivates people to not allow their ideas to change? Whether it is political views, religious views, or opinions about how to conduct certain aspects of our businesses, it appears that most people are closed off from allowing themselves to deviate from their small comfort zone.

I don’t know how one can improve and keep up with the changing times and remain relevant without adapting even the most basic views. I observed this in the late 80’s when Arthroscopic Knee Surgery was growing by leaps and bounds. It was growing because it offered better outcomes and less morbidity and faster recovery times for patients. Yet there were some surgeons who thought that it was either a passing fad or couldn’t imagine a scenario where their current methods and results could be improved upon. So, they didn’t change the way that they performed knee surgery and were left behind. Their practices suffered. The same was true in the shoulder and the “State of the Art” is continuing to advance. The reality is that no matter what your chosen field, you fall into one of three categories, Early Adopter, Mainstream or a Dinosaur. If you are an early adopter, you are continually seeking better ways of doing what you do if they offer an improvement over the status quo. Mainstream people wait to see that enough people around them are doing something that it will not be a risk to them if they try and fail. As far as the Dinosaur is concerned… As you know, Dinosaurs are extinct.

This concept also applies to anyone in HR or who hires talent. If you are still working on Contingency, then you are not availing yourself of the best tool to find the best people.

Never Hire a Contingency Recruiter!

Conflict of Interests

An enormous conflict of interests exists between the Contingency Recruiters and their client. What may have seemed like a good idea, in actuality has turned out to silently pit recruiters against their clients. Let’s face it, to many people in business, recruiters have become nothing more than a “necessary evil.” In fact, many HR professionals will tell you that one of their top priorities is to use fewer and fewer recruiters and in an ideal world, they would eliminate using them entirely. After being on both sides of the table in industry for over a decade and now more than a decade as a recruiter, I can assert that the Tragic Flaw in this process isn’t the recruiter per se’, but instead the means by which recruiters are engaged.

First and foremost we must acknowledge that contingency search makes sense on the surface. It is hard to argue against the idea that if you aren’t happy and don’t hire, you pay nothing. However the law of unintended consequences takes over and the fall out is what may look like a good short term outcome rarely lasts and HR very rarely knows the truth of what happens behind the scenes. Evaluate the process, and I think you’ll see that it is rife with embedded conflicts of interests which create all the right conditions for a terrible long term result. Pay for performance seems pragmatic enough right? After all, this is a “Market Driven Practice” brought on by competition and demand. But why don’t we engage all functions on contingency? Why only recruiting? Is it because the barrier to entry to become a recruiter is a phone and a PC? Is it that anyone can make any claims on the other end of the phone about being an expert in any field? But what about the results? Isn’t that what it is all about? I believe that I can make a case that what lies beneath the surface is a conflict of interests of Epic proportions which ultimately rewards the worst possible performance and most unethical and self-serving actors in the recruiting industry. If you’re familiar with the book, Freakonomics, then you know that with each economic incentive comes an element of unintended consequences. This could easily fit into a chapter of their next book because it is a clear example of the negative outcome being more destructive than the specific intended benefit, which was “Paying Recruiters based on their Performance.” Why would it make sense to have a consultant who conducts so important a role have any other priorities apart from yours?

Product Development

Lets take for example a company in need of a product re-design in order to fix a complex problem with one of their existing products. When the company hired a design firm on contingency, they determined the effort the firm could put into the process which is inseparable from the outcome. Would the design firm enlist their best and brightest designers to thoroughly study the problem to find innovative ways of solving the problem without creating new ones? I can promise you that they would NOT if there was even a remote chance that they would never be paid for the work. If they did, they would compromise their very existence. Then what would happen if the same company openly discussed its product needs with other design firms in hopes that they may have an innovative solution. This sort of thing happens all the time. What if the company suddenly changes direction and scraps the whole project after weeks of design work? The design firm will have lost all their time, materials and opportunity to make another part for a paying customer. Any design firm willing to work this way either is in a desperate situation and needs the work, which begs the question, “Why?” Is it because their work is sub-par? A good design firm would never work on contingency because it doesn’t afford them the time and security to make the product that best suits the needs of their client. It would force them to rush the job and commit very little time and energy to the project.

Essentially, a recruiter is no different than a design firm. Although they don’t create people, they must essentially commit the same time to identify and recruit talent with all the right features, skill sets, character and chemistry, to solve a problem that a company has. All of this takes great time and attention if done correctly. On contingency, a recruiter simply cannot do the necessary work and truly put the needs of the client ahead of their own need to secure the fee.

I contend that this conflict of interest is easy to eliminate provided that you find the right firm to partner with; one that understands your unique value proposition and culture. Without a real commitment, not merely words on paper, but a real, “skin in the game” commitment, the immediate pressure is off and the fear of loss is eliminated thus allowing them to do the work right in stead of cutting corners. In a contingency search, it is a race to the most readily available candidates which means that they must already be actively pursuing a new job.

Without this level of commitment from a company, a recruiter will not be committed to the long-term success of the company, which is finding the absolute best people in the industry for your job. Instead, they will be committed to securing a fee above all else. Why don’t contingency recruiters share your priority? Because they are human and their basic needs come before anyone elses needs. This translates directly to the caliber of people they will put in front of you. They cannot take the time to truly understand what your company needs and the challenges this person will need to overcome. They cannot afford to take the time to truly find those people who’s head is down and they are successfully plowing away at their jobs.Those types of candidates are harder to recruit and they do not interview like an “applicant” does. They don’t need your job. Yet, the active candidates who I like to call “Mis-Employed,” will interview in a compelling and aggressive way out of their own need. The “Mis-Employed” fit in to either one of two general categories, “Currently Unemployed” and “Nearly Unemployed.” In either scenario, these candidates are the ones that you will see when working with a Contingency Recruiter simply because they are ready to move. They are motivated to make a change and already have made a commitment to get a new job. These people tend to interview very well because their motivation to find a job compels them to sell themselves. Contrast that with the “Gainfully employed” person who frankly doesn’t need your job. These candidates are completely different. But who would you rather have at your company, someone who is out of a job or discontent with their job? I contend that these people make short term decisions about their future because of the pain that they have. When your boat is sinking, any land mass that is dry seems like a good place to land. To someone who isn’t looking for work, they are more discerning about their future and they focus on what pulls them into a new opportunity instead of what pushes them. This is a concept that once you grasp, I believe that you start to see the breakdown of the contingency search. It doesn’t force the recruiter to rush the search and thus find the best people, but the most available.

If they operated while in a contingency search while trying to find the best prospects for the job, they would certainly lose out to the opportunistic job shoppers because I we just learned, they do a better job of selling themselves. In fact it takes a discerning person to tell the difference between the two. These nuances are critical to understand what motivates your candidate. If however, you’ve hired your recruiter on contingency, you most likely won’t know this because they will conceal these little facts such as the candidate is on a 30 day plan, or she hates her boss, or he has done something against the rules and is under discipline. You will never know this or any other fact that might hurt the contingency recruiter’s chance of making a fee.

I like to tell people that it is the job of an honest recruiter to reveal the blemishes of each candidate, not to hide them. It is the responsibility of the recruiter to tell the prospect what the role entails and what they need to be able to do to be successful, not tell them the “hot buttons” of the hiring manager so that they can check all the boxes of what he or she is looking for. If you don’t believe me, then you’ve never been through the any Contingency Recruiter Training. There are dozens of ways recruiters know how to overcome your objections through preparing candidates to make the grade.

Alignment of Interests

If a recruiter has its clients best interests at heart, then it is constrained to do what is right for the company and not for himself. It is their fiduciary responsibility and sacred trust to do everything in their power to recruit and vet each candidate until they find those who to the best of their ability to discern, the candidates will be successful in their new role and be a valuable and loyal employee for years to come. To make matters worse, most companies have a policy of only paying the first recruiter to email a resume when hired. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that this is an incentive to email a resume prior to speaking to and vetting a candidate. Where do recruiters find such resumes? The Internet of course. Knowing this, how confident can you be as a Hiring Authority that this recruiter will do what is in your best interests. When their top priority is ensuring that they put someone into the position as soon as humanly possible? The truth is that you can not. You have instead undermined your own chances of hiring the best possible candidate. You have forfeited the best for the most expedient. I am fairly confident that no one would think that was a good way to do business when it comes to designing a new product? Why should it be any different when it comes to hiring a full-time employee?

If what you want is a race to the “low hanging fruit,” contingency search is a great way to do it. The incentive exists to do the work as quickly as possible by taking enormous short cuts essentially putting the needs of the recruiter above the client’s. I cannot understand why this would be acceptable to any company. Rates aside, the terms are what determine the outcome of any search. Either it is rushed to make a buck or it is executed responsibly with the highest priority being finding the best possible people to fill the role and excel in it for years to come. Furthermore, I don’t believe that any smart business person would ever knowingly entrust so important a task to such an irresponsible process, let alone arrange the terms in such a way as to guarantee it. However, companies do this all the time when it comes to hiring a full time employee.

The right process involves establishing a relationship with a firm that invests the time to gain a thorough understanding of the problem or the position that must be filled by the acquisition of a very specialized skill-set. Then the comprehensive design/search process would be conducted to be sure that all the specifications of each prospective candidate meet the demands of the role. Thorough vetting of the candidate would then be conducted prior to presentation of the product to the client to minimize risks and ensure the best possible outcome.

I contend that contingency search has incredible pitfalls as it creates a gross misalignment of priorities between the recruiter and the company. No recruiter can do their best work on contingency. When a company and a search consultant have conflicting priorities, the process is undermined and the product and result is severely compromised.

10 likely consequences of Contingency Search:

  1. Active Candidates are simultaneously interviewing with other companies
  2. “Mis-Employed” candidates are less focused on your job. Push vs. Pull
  3. Candidates accept your offer only to later renege after accepting a competitive offer
  4. Candidates stay a short time at your company and never quitting their job search
  5. Candidates turn out to be different people than who you hired. “Over prepared” or “Force Fit”
  6. Search takes much longer than it should have due to turned down offers and other problems
  7. The Replacement guarantee you now need was only 30 days
  8. You lose large amounts of Time & Money not to mention the “opportunity costs”
  9. Multiple recruiters submit the same candidate creating conflict and risk
  10. You grow increasingly skeptical of all recruiters and unwilling to trust them with your best interests
  11. The more I consult with business people, the more convinced I am that HR has settled for scraps when a feast is only a few contract “terms” away.. Companies should never engage any consultant with an incentive any other than delivering the products and services which are in the company’s best interests. The odd thing is that the fees for each respective process are the very comparable, while the process and product are significantly different. Partnering with a search firm in such a way that promotes a healthy alignment of priorities, a company can and should have nothing but the best possible slate of vetted candidates/prospects from which to hire without losing them to a competitive offer or worse, losing them a few short months after their start to an aggressive competitor/suitor.

    The choice is yours to make. Either continue to gnaw on scraps or set the table for a feast of epic proportions.