Tag Archives: Candidate Care

Top Five Fails with Cafe Interviews

Before I crack into this one it is worth noting that there is a very valid argument that recruitment interviews should never be held in public places such as cafes for basic confidentiality purposes.  I am sure there are many of you out there that would never dream of conducting interviews this way.  But there is no getting away from the fact the world of work, and most importantly the way we work, is changing rapidly.  As businesses gradually shift away from the large, monolithic corporations, to the more nimble, agile, subject-matter-expert businesses, all fuelled by smarter technology and communication channels, the humble café is becoming more and more a place of work, networking, business meetings and interviewing.

This article from the website Stuff.co.nz (via the SMH) caught my eye last week.  It looks like Australians have coined the word “Coffice” to describe this new workplace revolution.  Unsurprisingly this is catching on big time in New Zealand too, where a more casual, relaxed and well, just Kiwi, approach to business has been evolving, making cafés the ideal spot to conduct business in a relaxed, sociable and non-threatening kind of way.

Over my years in recruitment I have found myself increasingly meeting up with clients and candidates for coffee.  If I am meeting someone for the very first time then I typically try and avoid this, and stick with more formal locations like my own office, but this isn’t always possible, particularly when visiting other cities where I don’t have a permanent base.  During that time I have learned from a few mistakes, and honed the art of making these meetings as professional and confidential as possible, without losing the feeling of relaxed sociability that makes this form of meeting more appealing in the first place.  I have also heard many horror stories from other recruiters, and experienced some myself first hand, where this practice has not been done effectively at all, leaving both parties with a bitter taste in their mouth (and not from the coffee).

So as the “Coffice” plays an increasingly large part in a recruiter’s toolkit, here are my Top Five Coffee Interview Fails, to help you avoid the many pitfalls in this kind of meeting and make the most of the opportunity:

  1. Eating Alone      It is best to avoid eating during an interview altogether no matter whether you missed breakfast and the hollandaise sauce on those eggs benedict on the next table looks oh so creamy.  If you have agreed to catch up for a breakfast meeting, or a lunch meeting, and your candidate is expecting to eat, then go ahead.  But if your candidate declines your offer of food, then you must avoid eating too.  There is nothing worse than trying to interview a candidate when they are staring at the runny egg slowly solidifying on your tie and you are staring at the croissant flake you just spat out and landed on their forehead, and you are the only one eating.  A senior recruiter recently told me how he had been interviewing with a large, global recruitment firm, and all had gone very well and just had the final stage of meeting the GM who would rubber stamp the deal.  The GM asked him to meet for a coffee around breakfast time.  Upon meeting the senior recruiter declined the GM’s offer of food, but the GM went ahead and ordered himself a huge plate of bacon and eggs.  So the interview consisted of the candidate doing all the talking while the GM scoffed at his trough and noisily chewed his way through a fry up the whole time.  The ensuing offer of employment was swiftly turned down by the candidate, whose impression of the entire brand is now tarnished by the mental image of watching a scoffing, slurping GM conducting a cursory interview.
  2. The Obvious Interview                 You can often tell when someone is being interviewed, or has met someone in public for the first time, by the body language of both parties.  But it is poor form to make it so blatantly obvious with CVs strewn across the table, the candidate’s name blazoned boldly across the top, and you shouting out behavioural based questions over the din of the café.  Most candidates will be slightly nervous or apprehensive in an interview situation and this kind of behaviour will add a significant does of embarrassment.  Nobody likes to show off that they are looking for a new job, especially to other random members of the public, not to mention the chance that someone they know might spot them.  As the interviewer I have always found it important to memorise as much of the CV as possible and keep it tucked away in a folder for quick reference at only the most crucial moments.  It is ok to ask questions and make notes on a blank piece of paper but ask the candidate first if they are comfortable with that.  If not, then you will have to find a more private place to talk, or make it a less formal coffee chat and arrange a more formal follow up back at your offices for some other time.
  3. The Noisy Café                 The coolest café in town with the funkiest dub beats being laid down from a booming sound system and a massive lunch time surge is not the best choice of café to conduct interviews.  It might make you feel hip and contemporary to be interviewing someone there, but your candidate will be distracted by the noise, and made uneasy by the close proximity of chattering work colleagues, and you will not get the best out of them.  Look for larger cafés, particularly ones with booths.  Hotel lobbies also make excellent meeting places for interviewing and are well worth the small premium you pay on the coffee prices.
  4. The Chance Encounter                  There is a chance you might spy someone else you know while interviewing your candidate.  This is especially true in smaller cities like Wellington.  When this happens then a cursory nod of greeting or recognition is more than enough, but even this will distract your candidate.  Definitely avoid doing what I have witnessed a few times, where the recruiter loudly greets someone by name, even stands up to shake hands, have a chat, and then introduce them to their candidate.  It is all well and good networking and sharing contacts around, but during a job interview is definitely not the time or place.  Just wait for your contact to declare to your candidate that they know their boss and bumped into them just last night, and watch the blood drain from your candidate’s face, along with any chance you had of representing them to your clients.
  5. Forget-me-not                  It is a very dangerous ploy to try and remember everything you have discussed with the candidate over coffee without making any notes.  When I have decided that it would be a bit too awkward to sit there openly asking questions and taking notes, then I have hung around after the candidate has left and quickly scribbled down all of the salient points from the meeting, and areas of agreed follow up.  It is then very helpful to send a recap e-mail to the candidate, thanking them for meeting for coffee, and covering off the main points of what you agreed to do.  It is also ok to re-confirm some of the more important points, such as availability or salary expectations, via e-mail.  If you just leave it a few days and then start selling the candidate in to clients, with no notes to refer back to, you may as well not have bothered meeting up with them in the first place.


I think the “Coffice” is an excellent place to have a catch up with candidates you recently placed to see how it’s all going, or to meet clients for a general catch up where you are not taking down complicated job briefs.  But for first time meetings it is a scenario fraught with danger, and if it is the only way of meeting to interview for specific roles, then it is worth keeping the above points in the back of your mind so you can get the most out of the time spent.


Fee Splits: Right or Wrong?

I received a call this week from a highly experienced and long-standing Executive recruiter whose nose had been severely put out of joint and they wanted to tackle me on a certain issue.  I know what you’re all thinking but sorry to let you down – it wasn’t me or something I had said that had upset this recruiter (not this time anyway).  This recruiter had been the subject of one of the most contentious issues in our recruitment industry.  This must surely be one of the most divisive issues we have.  What elephant in the room am I referring to?

The split fee issue.

Now I’m well aware that many recruitment firms do this internally.  You know, when Johnny Rookie stumbles upon a great candidate but hasn’t managed to win any business from clients yet, but Sally Farquar-Bigbillingham has a great role on with one of her (exclusive, darling) clients, so they agree to split the fee 50/50 (once poor Johnny has been put through the wringer and made to do all the leg work and admin).

But this was of a different flavour entirely.  A fee split discussion between two recruiters from different firms.  I’m keen to get your opinions on this matter, so to simplify things I have decided to relate the story like a film script.  Let’s stick with our characters Sally and Johnny, but bear in mind they are from different recruitment firms, in different parts of the country:

                [Sally’s mobile phone rings]

Sally:    Hello?

Johnny:    Hi is this Sally?

Sally:    Speaking.  Who is this?

Johnny:    You don’t know me.  I’m a fellow recruiter and saw the ad you placed in the paper yesterday.  I happen to have the perfect candidate for your role.

Sally:    Oh excellent, thank you for that.  I am just on my way to review the applications now so please do send the candidate through.

Johnny:    No love, you don’t get it do you?  I called your client up to tell them I had the perfect candidate, and for some reason they told me I had to talk to you about referring the candidate in.

Sally:    Why would you call my client when I’m recruiting the role?

Johnny:    Because I have this candidate who would be perfect, don’t I?  So anyway, how about we both get something out of it and split the fee 50/50 if they take my candidate.

Sally:    I don’t think so.  I won a competitive tender to recruit exclusively for this role so I’m not about to lose half the fee to you.

Johnny:    Well I have this candidate exclusively and I want them to be considered for this position, so what are we going to do about it?

Sally:    If I were you I would advise your candidate to apply directly to me for this role and I’ll take it from there.  However, I would suggest your candidate is severely lacking in judgement if they are at GM level but agreed to register exclusively with you – whoever you are.

Johnny:    I’m a recruiter at X and I’ve been doing this 10 months.

Sally:    Well I’ve been doing this over 10 years and I don’t like the cut of your gib.

Johnny:    I know, I looked you up on Linked In.  But why are you standing in the way of the best outcomes for my candidate and your client?

Sally:    I am not standing in the way young man.  I am following due process and your candidate is perfectly entitled to apply directly to my ad.  It is you who is acting without integrity or ethics.

Johnny:    [Getting irritated and aggressive] Listen lady this can be an easy transaction for us both to make money.

Sally:    You should be taking the long term view on this and doing what is right for your candidate, rather than treating them like some commodity.  They will repay you for it in the long run.

Johnny:    Look, I’m not just in recruitment to make placements and to make money, I really care about the candidates and clients too.

Sally:    Pull the other one.

Johnny:    So you won’t do a split?

Sally:    No.

                [click – click – both hang up]

Ahh, the fun and games of fee splits eh?  Now I myself am a little undecided where I stand on this issue.  I certainly think that Johnny showed a lot of front and guile that will be useful attributes as a recruiter.  But he did go a bit far with the unprofessionalism in my opinion.  Fair enough to ask the question, perhaps, but taking it too far to push it as hard as he did?  Somewhat lacking in respect and integrity?

I myself have partaken in fee split scenarios with competitors of mine in the past.  The difference in these occasions though was that the competitor approached me directly saying they were struggling to fill a role and did I have any candidates that might suit, for a 50/50 split?  It so happened that I did and the transaction was a successful one.  It did leave me feeling like I’d had a fling with an old flame who I had vowed never to go near again though.  But the allure of the split fee was too much to resist.

I know I’ve referred to the real estate industry in the past, but again there are similarities here.  Estate agents from one firm often show prospective buyers around the house listings of competing agencies, if none of their own stock match the requirements, for a split fee agreement.  I myself was introduced to my house by a Barfoots agent, when it was listed through Harcourts, and they agreed a fee split between themselves.

So anyway, Sally and I are keen to hear your opinions on this.  Where do you stand?  Was Johnny rude and obnoxious to make the approach?  Or is Sally being too precious and indeed standing in the way of the best outcomes for his candidate and her client?

What made Johnny think it was ok to call a client based off a co-branded ad with another recruitment agency?

Or does this highlight a difference in recruitment style and approach between Wellington and Auckland?  It would certainly be interesting to hear the thoughts of any of my Australian readers on this too, who I imagine do these kind of fee splits on a regular basis…

Giving Candidates the Uncomfortable Truth

Recruitment, as we all know, can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.  Periodic highs from making placements and securing a new client can be swiftly expelled by savage lows and doubting introspection when things don’t work out so well.  The longer you spend in the recruitment industry the better equipped you are to deal with these highs and lows.  As Rudyard Kipling said, it is the making of you when you can treat the imposters of Triumph and Disaster as one and the same.  So seasoned, hardened veterans of recruitment will greet a big-fee placement with no more than a mildly raised eyebrow, and equally confront the loss of a contractor to the competition, or a permanent placement falling over inside the guarantee period, with barely a flickered downturn at the side of the mouth.

For me this week has been one of those weeks.  You know, one of the flickered-downturn-at-the-mouth ones.  Things just haven’t quite gone to plan.  The Midas touch has taken a well-earned rest and my candidates are not getting the breaks this week, and I have had more interview rejections in one week than in a long time, probably since the recession (when I was hardly even arranging interviews, let alone getting clients to say “Yes, I actually quite liked them and would love to have them on board thank you.”)  Now I’m ok with this.  These days I know how to get the positives out of these situations and make sure the weeks ahead follow a different path.  But it was how I have had to relay the feedback and rejections to my candidates that I have found quite interesting.

When I started out in recruitment I probably didn’t quite have the guts to be brutally honest with candidates.  Of course I would let them know they had been unsuccessful, but out of my natural inclination towards people skills, candidate care and customer service, I would try and soften the blow by pulling the punches.  If someone was rejected for having a poor personal appearance and crumpled suit, I might say to them that the culture fit was just not quite right and the client couldn’t see them suiting their particular team dynamic.

Of course, this kind of feedback isn’t at all helpful to the candidate, which is why I no longer sugar-coat my feedback and give it to them straight, whether they like it or not.  These days I am always mindful of the quote from Timothy Ferriss:

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations they are willing to have”


This has always resonated strongly with me since I first heard it and is probably the main reason I no longer try and dress up my feedback to candidates to “make them feel better”.  What has really struck me this week though, is how well all of my candidates have taken the brutal, honest, constructive feedback given.  Sure, they’ve been disappointed, surprised, mildly offended, and in one case strangely relieved (!) but all have responded well to the constructive feedback and I could tell it will actually help them as they plan their forthcoming career moves, whether that be trying out again for a new opportunity or making more of their current role and position.

In recruitment we are often accused of being poor communicators with our candidates, of not listening, of lying, of providing inadequate feedback.  In his latest blog post Greg Savage relates the story of a fellow sideline Dad watching their sons playing sport, who turned to Greg and declared his hatred of recruiters.  As a senior IT professional he had recently left his old job and had a less-than-satisfactory candidate experience from the Sydney IT recruitment industry.  The post is well worth a read for all of the comments alone  but some of this candidate’s beef included:

  • They tell you lies. They lie about the jobs they have, and they lie about what stage your application is at with the client.
  • They provide no feedback, or scant feedback on the process, on interviews and on client opinions.


I personally have long ago made the decision to be bold and give it like it is to my candidates.  Of course I will then enter a dialogue about how things could be better, or different, next time, but it is amazingly liberating and powerful to feel you have given your candidate everything there is and held nothing back in reserve so as not to hurt their feelings.

And thank you to my staunch candidates this week all of whom took the bad news on the chin.  Let’s work hard to get it right next time.