HR News August 2021 Featured Article: Lessons Learned From Infusing the Hiring Process With Empathy

Recruiting and hiring are complex and difficult. Doing both effectively requires making authentic connections with qualified candidates, assessing those connections during the selection process and sustaining the connections in order to encourage employee retention.

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The key to establishing authentic connections is showing empathy, which is done by ensuring others feel seen, heard and valued. Putting empathy at the heart of your hiring process will make you a better recruiter, a better communicator and a better professional. I learned this firsthand last year.

Start by Considering Different Perspectives

Hiring is a two-way street. Applicants persuade you why they are the right fit, and you persuade applicants why they should commit to your agency. Both the candidate and the agency must develop and extend trust in each other. Trust is the foundation for a healthy long-term relationship because it is critical for exchanging accurate information.

To gain trust with candidates, think from their perspective. Ask yourself what you would want or need to know about the job if you were applying. Two reflective questions that will help you begin assessing your processes are

  • How frequently would you want to hear from a potential employer?
  • What tone or culture are you looking for?

Once you answer such questions, make adjustments to your process. Candidates will take notice, and they will develop a positive impression of your organization.

Recognize That Communication Is an Investment

Consistent communication strengthens connections with job candidates. It is easy to limit communications to only setting up interviews and notifying the top candidate they will receive a job offer. It is much more helpful to communicate at other times and for other purposes.

For instance, alerting candidates they are still under consideration communicates respect and dignity. Such emails or texts could be as straightforward as “Our process is taking longer than anticipated. We are still considering your application. Thank you for your patience.”

Candidates crave feedback. Meeting this demand while balancing the three keys of communication identified in the accompanying figure builds and maintains positive relationships with high-quality candidates while also setting you apart from other potential employers. All of that helps establish a pipeline of talent through word of mouth and reapplications from people who did not get hired the first time around.


At the same time, communicating effectively requires practicing radical candor. Here is where empathy proves its worth, especially when it becomes necessary to inform most candidates they did not get the job.

It is true you have no legal obligations to contact candidates you do not hire. Likewise, it is understandable if you feel full transparency about a hiring decision creates more risks than rewards. Remember, however, that each applicant has the potential to become a future employee. It is worth playing the long game, especially with finalists for a position. Honest, constructive feedback may be just what a candidate needs to develop into the person you are looking for to fill an open job in the future.

Prepare to Ride an Emotional Roller Coaster

Job applicants subject themselves to a pressure-packed selection process. Doing interviews requires them to be vulnerable. Knowing the odds are against them makes the experience even more intimidating. Still, they have hope of succeeding.

Applicants believe their future can be brighter than their present. This hope motivates them to stand in an intense spotlight and answer tough questions.

Acknowledging, rather than ignoring, candidates’ emotions allows them to be authentic with you. It also enables you to assess applicants more accurately, which leads to better results. So, be real with people and provide psychological safety throughout the hiring process. Meeting vulnerability with empathy cultivates connections and trust.

Preface difficult interview questions with examples from your own career. Encourage candidates to share how they have grown from past challenges. Thank interviewees who openly share ideas, and share your own with them. Not only does this create better connections, it also leads to better decision making and sustainable innovation.

Above all, make it comfortable to admit and move on from mistakes. Tell candidates it is OK to be nervous and anxious. On your end, acknowledge when you forgot to send an email. Nobody is infallible. Model honesty and accountability.

Lessons Learned From Putting Empathy to the Test

A highly valued member of my human resources staff announced in January 2020 she was leaving to take a job with another city. The move amounted to a promotion.

As hard as it was to say goodbye, I looked for a silver lining. I decided this was an opportunity to experiment with how to communicate with job applicants. I would not completely overhaul the hiring process, but I would change a key component.

Up until then, I had tasked HR team members with handling communications with applicants and hiring managers. Now, I wanted to take full control.

Put Yourself in the Candidate’s Shoes

A discussion with a colleague about my plan prompted me to ask, “If I was an applicant, what communications would I want to receive?” Well, I concluded, candidate me would want to see status updates. I would also want to know the reasons I was eliminated from consideration, even if the truth was hard to read. I would want feedback on how to improve. And I would appreciate honesty over politeness.

I realized giving candidate me what he yearned to see would take considerable investments of time and effort. But I was optimistic that positive results would follow from my attempt to communicate with applicants frequently, transparently and individually.

Make It Personal

I identified 10 top candidates and worked with HR staff to set up interviews. I made quick judgements based on applicants’ resumes and answers to prescreening questions.

As for the rest of the applicants, I created a template email that included general information, nonspecific advice and space for a paragraph addressed specifically to the person who would not be interviewed.

In all, I wrote 66 personalized paragraphs. Again, I knew this was not going to be easy, but I wanted each email to deliver valuable feedback.

In fact, writing more than just “We’ve selected other applicants,” was even more difficult than I anticipated. Worrying about how my communication was going to be perceived slowed me down to a greater degree than did concerns that I could be accused of filtering out candidates for unfair reasons. Even if rejected applicants could live with my decision, would they accept my radical candor?

I decided to be honest regardless. The reasons I shared for deciding not to interview an applicant included

  • Other applicants had more HR experience.
  • Other applicants had more local government experience.
  • You have great education, but very little experience.
  • You had grammatical and spelling errors in your resume and cover letter.
  • You used an online resume template and forgot to personalize what you sent. (More than one resume included the line “Award Section—Go ahead, brag about yourself here!”)
  • A member of your family currently works for the city. (I’m sensitive to nepotism.)
  • Your resume and answers indicate very little understanding about what HR really does.

Pausing to ponder whether the hiring process was truly fair to applicants also slowed me down. I contented myself with the knowledge that no decision is ever based on complete knowledge. The only way to choose between applicants was to personally review resumes and make decisions according to the limited information I had. Selections would always seem less than comprehensive, but I did the best I could to act fairly and without bias.

Back to the emails. It took me hours to write each personalized message. As a result, some applicants waited six weeks after the job closed to learn they would not be interviewed. I am not proud of this. Indeed, that kind of delay is unacceptable.

But I did keep my commitment to provide specific feedback to everyone. And I made sure to send interim emails saying I was still reviewing resumes. Those updates included the total number of applicants for the position and the number of people who would be interviewed.

Some Job Applicants Noticed

As I wrote email after email, I wondered if it was all worth it. How many applicants would notice or reply to my emails? Would it matter to them? The response rate to my emails was only about 25 percent, but the quality of responses was very high.

Candidates expressed appreciation for the personalized feedback. Some verbatim replies were short, “Thank you so much for the return email and for taking the time to review my resume,” wrote one applicant. “Good morning David,” wrote another, “thanks for the note. It’s better to know where you stand, even if the answer is no.”

Some replies were longer:

I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to provide feedback in regard to my application and resume. I rarely receive acknowledgment of application for a job and didn’t expect to receive so much feedback and advice. It’s refreshing and appreciate it very much.

And:

Thank you so much for the opportunity to apply and for the thorough feedback. I am awed at your willingness to go through each applicant and give each individual specific feedback. I will look into getting a certification and try to expand my HR network as you have suggested.

And my personal favorite:

I really appreciate the time and consideration you took with me (resume) and the genuine feedback. Lehi City is lucky to have such a thoughtful and considerate HR Director. I hope you find the applicant that feeds your needs. Thanks again for your feedback.

To my friends in the public sector, I learned so much from my experiment. Ending old habits and adopting new ones takes intentional effort. Growth is uncomfortable at times, yet it unlocks unforeseen potential.

What I learned on a professional level is how important it is to view recruiting and hiring from the candidates’ perspectives and to treat job applicants as you would want to be treated. I also learned why it pays to communicate consistently and leave a good impression. Candidates will invest in your organization.

Most of all, I learned authenticity and empathy lead to better connections and better results. Stand up to stand out.

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