Put simply, the recruiter is your guide throughout the process. Often the first person you talk to, the recruiter wants you to succeed. This is both a positive and complicated reality as they have diverse motivations to consider throughout the process including, but not limited to, those of the hiring team, those of the candidate, and their own.
This is not a game of love, but there are parallels. Recruiters play the role of matchmaker. Recruiters spend time networking and interacting with lots of different people at any given time including hiring managers, candidates, external partners or agencies, cross-functional interviewers, and executives, and are constantly trying to understand, manage, and meet their varied expectations for the role, hiring process, and the eventual new hire.
They fulfill this responsibility with a combination of intuition, judgment, and influence. Even when someone (either an internal team member or a prospective employee) is being transparent and direct, there are “unsaid truths” that a recruiter has to reflect upon and process within the bigger picture. A talented recruiter is always listening, as they work to understand a broad set of factors to see where and how they will converge toward the desired outcome—getting the right person in the right role as quickly and efficiently as possible. Typically, recruiters are natural conversationalists and make that initial conversation relatively easy for candidates by conveying information, enthusiasm, and support.
Don’t let the charm and openness distract you—recruiters are still responsible for assessing the alignment of your capabilities with an established set of criteria for the position, while also weighing your talent relative to other candidates and current employees to see who is the closest match on the most dimensions. There is nuance and subjectivity at play.
Many recruiters are expert assessors, with years of experience interviewing thousands of candidates. They know what great looks like and have a refined approach to asking the right questions and sharing relevant business or role context. Others are not experts. This may be because they are early in their recruiting career or unfamiliar with the real context of the role. They might run through a script, ask questions that have little to nothing to do with the role, and fail to listen to your answers.
While some recruiters specialize in roles of a specific nature, for example engineering and technical roles or sales positions, many internal recruiters are responsible for a wide variety of openings across functions, disciplines, and levels. In some companies, there may only be a single recruiter who has to support, source, and manage the hiring process for all openings. Because of the variability of the roles that most recruiters cover, it’s important to remember that they are generalists, not specialists, in the domain of any particular position. This means they have a broad, not deep, understanding of the skills, day-to-day activities, tools, challenges, and context that someone who would step into the role would encounter or need to know.
Whether or not there is an internal team member working on recruiting, some companies also partner with external recruiters to support their hiring needs. External recruiters may be “retained” to fill a particular role, meaning they are paid up front and throughout the recruitment process to help the company find the right person. Or, they might be working on a “contingency” basis, which means they will only be paid a fee if they successfully find the candidate who accepts the job. The fees that external recruiters are paid are most often a percentage of the new hires’ salary or projected total cash compensation (including bonuses, etc.). Because of these pay structures, these recruiters are eager to fill the position and, as a result, can be a proactive and supportive partner. It’s important to note that, as external partners, they will likely have less insight and influence than internal team members and you will need to establish strong relationships with the people you meet in interviews to vet the information they provide and get the answers you need.
In an ideal world, all recruiters, whether internal or external, are a trusted guide and thoughtful facilitator for the duration of the process, providing insights on the next steps and requirements, communicating updates, and advocating both for candidates and the company. But sometimes, things won’t play out like that. There are many reasons why not—and not all of them are within the recruiter’s ability to control. Here are some of the scenarios that might be playing out behind the scenes that could influence your recruiter’s ability to move the process forward or give you information:
The hiring team has competing priorities or poor communication. Sometimes a recruiter can be on top of the process, actively engaging with and bringing viable candidates into the process, sharing feedback and recommendations with the hiring team, and getting crickets in response. They email, stop by, Slack, and text to no avail. In this case, the hiring manager may not be making recruiting a priority, may not be able to commit to a decision, or may have the answer but not the time or ability to pass that information along.
There may be changes to the process or role in motion. Recruiting is a dynamic and evolving process. And it should be. If recruiters or hiring teams think they have the role and candidate profile precisely defined at the start, they are more likely to miss something important during the interview process. As conversations progress, the context changes too. The project or goals might shift, or team members might join or quit. Additionally, teams might learn something in early conversations with candidates that changes their perspectives on what matters most for the position.
A work and team environment is interconnected, and few decisions are really independent or discrete. When something changes, there are likely downstream impacts that will take time to identify and resolve, which can delay a hiring process. In some cases, the recruiter will be aware of these evolving situations and able to provide updates. In other cases, they will be operating without an understanding of what’s impacting the process or delays and might be just as frustrated as you are.
The hiring team may wait to move candidates forward pending the outcome of other interviews. When you really want a job, it’s natural to believe that you are the only candidate the team is considering. In reality, they might have a handful of other contenders or a long list of applicants to sort through and manage at every step of the process. It’s a helpful and even productive exercise to remind yourself of this along the way. It can help motivate you to continue to prepare and put your best self forward, and help soften the pain if you aren’t the candidate selected. It’s in candidates’ and companies’ best interest to make these big decisions with more than a single data point.
Because there are several candidates in the process, the team might want to accelerate or pause other conversations at certain points. This is not necessarily a bad thing—if they have an offer out to someone else that they are excited about hiring, holding off asking you to come in for a full day of interviews saves you time and effort. It can be hard to balance the communication in these situations and some companies cannot or will not be transparent about why there is a pause. Be patient, proactive, and positive, checking back in to see if there are updates now and then. Just because this specific role might not work out doesn’t mean there won’t be other opportunities with this company at some point in the future. Though it can be frustrating, resist the temptation to be rude or impatient. If the process isn’t well-run, consider it another valuable data point!
The business or economic context might change. Hiring is impacted by other activities within a particular company as well as factors well beyond the business. For example, projects may be started or canceled, companies may make an acquisition or be acquired, startups might raise a new round of funding, new leaders might join a team and others might transition out, or the company might have an amazing quarter or completely miss expectations. These situations, and so many others, will determine if certain roles move forward in the hiring process or not. Of course, there is also the possibility that the world can change. A product or process might become outdated or unpopular, a new service or technology might disrupt an industry, or the economy might change due to local, national, or international circumstances ranging from government transitions to natural disasters to a pandemic. Smart companies will respond to these situations by prioritizing the roles that are core to the business’ operations and long-term success. Their response requires tough decisions, sometimes eliminating new and open roles, rescinding offers and canceling programs, and sometimes laying off or furloughing existing employees. In either scenario, there isn’t much you can do. Be gracious, positive, and responsive.
The recruiter might have too many “to-dos.” Perhaps you’ve been in a situation at work where you couldn’t keep up with everything that was required and a few things fell through the cracks. Recruiters, who might be working on 7, 10, or even 40 roles at a given time, occasionally have things fall through the cracks too. For every one of those roles, there might be hundreds of applicants, dozens of conversations in progress at different stages, and endless back-and-forth with dozens of people and entities. It’s important to ask questions to the recruiter about the target interview and hiring timeline, what next steps look like, and their typical approach to communication to give you the best chance of staging your follow-ups at the right time.
During the conversation, remember the recruiter is a gatekeeper to other conversations—their read on your qualifications and ability to do the work will play a role in whether or not you move forward in the process. Over-prepare for this conversation on all dimensions—learning about the company, team, and industry, thoughtfully reflecting on your experience, and practicing responses to potential interview questions. You might also want to get a pulse on new information you might bring into your conversation— read blogs, follow thought leaders, and pick a few nuggets that connect to your experience or fitness for this role, or demonstrate your knowledge of the field, dedicated interest, and curiosity. Finally, if you have questions about the “logistics,” the recruiter is a good person to start with, though some questions are more suitable for later in the process, like about benefits or bonuses.