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Five Lessons From My First Candidate Placement (That Wasn’t)

Pete Newsome in a suit sitting at a white desk next to a phone

Eighteen years ago today, I woke up excited to meet my first direct placement with 4 Corner Resources on-site at his new job. Less than two months in business, and I was rocking! I put on a suit (this was 2006, after all), kissed my pregnant wife and three kids goodbye, and stopped to check my email before heading out the door.

…only to see a message in my inbox from the candidate informing me he was backing out of the job.

Surely this was a mistake. I called. I texted. I emailed. No answer. No response (and there never would be).

In a daze, I drove to my client’s office to inform them that their new employee wouldn’t start today, and probably never would I apologized profusely and vowed to make it up to them. They graciously accepted and allowed me to make good on that commitment.

Eighteen years ago today, a great morning turned into an awful one before it started. I was angry. Frustrated. Panicked. But didn’t have time to dwell – I needed to get back to work.

But I also needed to figure out where things went wrong – what I did wrong. If I couldn’t identify my mistakes, I would undoubtedly repeat them.

Before reaching out to another candidate, I dissected all communication with the one who backed out – looking for clues or hints of what I missed.

Either I wasn’t looking for it initially or didn’t want to see it, but the evidence was there. Lots of it. It quickly became clear that I should never have presented the candidate to my client for consideration. Simply put, his behavior wasn’t indicative of someone interested in the job. Not even close.

I was persuasive enough to sell him on the opportunity. Show up to the interview. Even accept the offer.

But that’s not what a recruiter is supposed to do. Certainly not a great one.

Eighteen years ago today, I learned several painful lessons. The experience made me a better recruiter, and 4 Corner a better staffing firm, for clients and candidates every day since.

Here are the five things I learned:

1. Listen before speaking

Job seekers will tell a recruiter what’s important to them in a career move. They will say what they like and don’t like. They will talk about goals and objectives. Must haves and nice-to-haves. All of it.

But only if given the chance. When a recruiter is too eager to describe the job opening, the client, or the compensation and benefits, they will never get to hear what the candidate truly values. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung. 

As the saying goes: When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I was a hammer in early 2006. Eager to sell the candidate on an amazing opportunity without first fully understanding what was most important to him. What I didn’t understand back then was that I simply had to ask.  

Great recruiters know this and consistently seek to understand a candidate’s priorities before promoting their own.

2. Differentiate what’s said from what’s implied

When listening to someone…and I mean really listening…you can often hear an entirely different message than what the words alone would indicate. 

Tone. Inflection. Even the slightest hesitation when answering a simple question can speak volumes. Successful recruiting requires nuanced interpretation. How a candidate says something is often significantly more relevant than what they actually say.

My candidate was vague. Noncommittal at times. I drove the process and was more motivated than he was for a successful outcome. I felt something was off, but at the time, I didn’t, or perhaps wasn’t wise enough, to interpret it for what it was. 

Great recruiters don’t accept ambiguous answers. They dig. They clarify. They learn to derive as much meaning from what’s unspoken as what’s said aloud. 

It’s a skill that requires practice to build. But it’s well worth the effort. Once honed, it lasts forever.

3. Never settle for text

A successful recruiting relationship is based on personal and open communication. It’s impossible to build without live interaction.

Exchanges via email or text lack context and emotion. In writing, the statement, “Yes, I’m interested,” must be taken at face value. In a voice conversation, however, the same words can indicate enthusiasm and excitement – or a complete lack thereof (which I realized in hindsight was certainly the case with my candidate many years ago).

Responding to a text or email takes less effort than a live interaction. It’s also a great way to avoid both asking and answering hard questions.

New recruiters often struggle in this area due to the convenience of text and many candidates’ inaccessibility for a phone call, Zoom, or in-person meeting. If anything, it reinforces the point: A candidate’s unwillingness to speak live signifies their lack of interest in the role. Period. 

Which leads to the next point.

Related: The Best Recruiting Messages

4. Priorities are defined by actions. Not words.

Like every business owner, I’m inundated with sales solicitations. The reps who send those unsolicited messages must think I’m impossible to reach. My family, friends, coworkers, and clients, however, know the opposite to be true. To them, I’m accessible 24/7.

Why? It is a priority for me.

We all get up in the morning and go to bed at night. Everything we choose to spend time doing in between is based on our individual priorities.

I chased my first candidate. I waited for him to call. I waited for him to email. This was not the behavior of someone excited to pursue a new career opportunity. But I looked past that glaringly obvious reality and allowed it. 

A candidate is never “too busy” to respond to a message or schedule a call. It’s just not their priority to do so.

They are telling you they aren’t interested without telling you. Believe them. 

5. One red flag may as well be one hundred

As recruiters, we want every candidate to be the right one—especially those who look great on paper. Or communicate extremely well. And have the ideal professional background. The better a candidate presents on paper or in person, the stronger our desire for them to want it too.

Which must be completely ignored.

For new recruiters, an important early step is learning to identify red flags when they arise. The points above may not be intuitive or obvious coming in, but they are relatively easy to understand.

The challenge, however, is acting on it.

Asking questions. Listening. Interpreting. Assessing. None of these things matter unless we’re willing to act once we realize the candidate’s goals and objectives don’t align with our current job opening.

Eighteen years ago today, I didn’t know what I know now.

Great recruiters never try to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Great recruiters let candidates’ words and actions do the talking. They listen. They react.

In doing so, they will achieve consistent positive outcomes. For their clients. For their candidates. And for themselves. 

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn