The Power of Rapport

The market for top talent is always impossibly tight—top performers are in high demand in both strong economies and in the midst of recessions. Like it or not, your company is competing with the best brands in the world—companies that have the means and the desire to out-spend, out-perk and out-sell you to bring that next star performer in house.

Fortunately, there is a force so powerful that it can thwart even the most savvy competitive tactics: great candidate rapport. By building a strong interpersonal connection with your candidates in each and every interaction, you can get around their defenses and unveil their deeper, emotional selves. Think about the interview process that brought you into your most recent employer. Did you feel a strong bond with one or more of the people you met during your recruiting process? Chances are you did—and if you declined another company’s offer, chances are you did not form as strong of a bond with them.

We pretend we are fully rational agents who make decisions based on a sophisticated calculus of pros and cons. We like to believe we can put our emotional selves on the sidelines when it comes to our most important professional decisions. The reality is actually the opposite—the more important the decision, the more likely we are to be swayed by our deeper feelings. It is an absolute business necessity to ensure you and your colleagues build a solid interpersonal connection with each candidate you interview—if you are able to do this consistently, you will have created a fundamental edge in the war for talent.

There are two other reasons to focus on building strong candidate rapport. Without question, it is the best way to make people feel open in sharing information with you. When another human being shows authentic interest in you and your personal story, you are more comfortable being yourself and sharing your greatest strengths and limitations with them. Rapport is intoxicating to human beings—we crave it, and will go to great lengths to maintain it. Treat every story from your candidate with legitimate enthusiasm and curiosity, and they will reward you with even richer information.

In addition, rapport is essential in building a “referral machine” at your company. Your employees are far more likely to refer people from their networks if they trust that those individuals will have a great experience, regardless of the outcome. If you believe that “stress tactics” or an interrogative demeanor is a good way to test the mettle of your candidates, consider the cost—what you gain in data points you more than lose in terms of your team members’ willingness to refer the next hot prospect.

So how do you build rapport? The answer is simple. Great rapport comes from having a legitimate passion to get to know each and every candidate as human beings. It comes from deep curiosity about what motivates them, where they have been and what they want out of their careers and their lives. When someone treats you like you are the most interesting person they’ve ever met, you cannot help but feel a connection to them. The only way to do this is to actually believe it. Come into every interview excited and eager to learn about this amazing human being.

Bad rapport is exactly the opposite—it is absolutely toxic to your hiring process. Not only does it turn your candidates off, it also limits your ability to get to know them deeply during your interviews, and dissuades your employees from referring people from their networks. Bad rapport comes in many forms:

  • Scowling or furrowing your brow (this was my biggest obstacle to overcome as a professional assessor). Keep your face open and smiling!
  • Yawning or exhibiting signs of boredom
  • Checking your phone (a frequent complaint in Glassdoor interview reviews)
  • Exhibiting low energy around an exuberant candidate
  • Conversely, bowling an introvert over with too much energy
  • Reacting negatively to anything they share with you, or making them feel judged
  • Failing to make eye contact (e.g. staring at your notes or laptop)
  • Talking too much (or talking about yourself)
  • Interrogating or using “stress” techniques

We strongly recommend that all companies seeking top talent engage in a rigorous program of interview observations—essentially “pair ups” where one individual manages the dialogue with the candidate and the other takes notes while observing the quality of rapport. The observers should feel comfortable giving a full and honest debrief to the interviewer to help them learn.

Another great way to get a “temperature check” on candidate rapport is to talk to the people you have recently hired. Ask them about their entire hiring experience, and encourage them to be honest about every interaction they had with your organization. It can be helpful to have a single point of contact from your recruiting team for these discussions who can reinforce confidentiality. It is also very useful to have a debrief conversation with candidates who declined your offer or otherwise stepped out of your process—set up a 15 minute call with them in a spirit of learning and improvement. They may be reluctant to bash your process (they likely feel bad for abandoning you, after all), but if you approach them in a spirit of true learning and growth, you are likely to be surprised by the insights you gather.