With Candidates, Are You Nice or Helpful?

Jessica Lee Communication, Culture, HR (& Life!) Advice, Jessica Lee, Working With Recruiters

I received an email this week that pleasantly surprised me. I had met with the email sender, a 2010 graduate, about a year or so ago as a favor to a friend and she was writing to say thanks.

To rewind a bit. This gal – she had a good resume. She was clearly smart given she was graduating from an Ivy League school with honors and had financed her education with scholarships and grants. She was driven and had completed some solid internships pre-graduation. And you could tell she made an effort to come across as polished by the way she styled her hair and through her attire selection. But despite all of that, I couldn’t get over the fact that when she spoke, it came across as too… too… well, she came across as a little too “hood” or “ghetto” or “street.” Call it what you want. And I didn’t think she had any clue how it impacted how people might perceive her, even despite the fact that she had so many other great things going for her.

Nice-guy Instead of “with”, she would say, “wit'”. She dropped the letter “g” from many of her words ending in “-ing”. Instead of “playing”, it was “playin'”. Instead of “working”, it was “workin'”. There were drawn out “yeah, yeahhhhh” responses versus a simple “yes”.

Truth be told, I could have easily just had the meeting with her, given her some general advice about how to navigate the job market in DC and then moved on with my day. But she was a 22 year old Asian American young professional whose hustle and determination I respected. And I thought she really deserved a shot because, in all honesty, I saw a little bit of myself in her. Minus the way she spoke. So I broke down and just told her. I told her that the way she spoke came across as a little too hood and therefore made her appear less educated and polished than she really was. It just did not match her accomplishments and what I saw on paper. And I told her that it was going to be a problem in the long run for her, especially if she wanted to make it in DC in her chosen field. It would be hard for people to look past the way she spoke and really dig into her skills and smarts.

She was taken aback. Almost speechless, except for being able to squeak out a thank-you for my perspective. She had no idea how she was coming across. Or that she was even speaking the way she was. So an awkward silence followed which I had to scramble to overcome.

After she left my office, I wondered whether I was too harsh or simply out of line. Was I imposing myself when I shouldn’t have? Was I being insensitive? Especially because I didn’t hear from her afterward.

Fast forward to about a year later, and then I receive an email from her saying thanks. It was truly a pleasant surprise. It was an email to say thanks because she started realizing after our meeting how her speech did indeed impact perceptions of her. And even better – she shared that she had begun mentoring a college student and even shared that same issue and perspective with her new mentee. I was so, so, SO pleased by this email.

It got me thinking though – how often do we give candidates feedback that’s simply nice, or to CYA… rather than feedback that’s truly helpful?

I’ve been stuck on an article I read the other week on HBR on being helpful, versus being nice. As recruiters, as advisors and consultants to other people managers, as managers ourselves, or as mentors, how often do we fall into the trap of trying to be nice when it would truly be better for us to be honest, and as a result, helpful? And when I think about this situation with this young professional and the feedback I gave her… I can’t help but to think I might need to do this more often. From the article –

Because as long as what you say comes from your care and support for the other person — not your sympathy (which feels patronizing) or your power (which feels humiliating) or your anger (which feels abusive) — choosing to offer a critical insight to another is a deeply considerate act.

Food for thought. Dont’ be nice; be helpful. It’s a deeply considerate act. Wow.