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How to manage awkward conversations when hiring

Wouldn’t it be great if awkward conversations were reserved for performance review time only? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Uncomfortable conversations are becoming more common in the hiring process, thanks to the pandemic, and are even popping up during the onboarding process.

awkward conversations in the recruitment process

Sometimes hiring managers find themselves thrown off guard when they least expect it. I remember interviewing a gentleman who was applying for a retail position. This candidate had a massive gap in his resume, so naturally, I asked him where he had been over the past several years.

He said he was incarcerated. I didn’t know what to say, so I said something like, “Oh, that’s nice,” and continued to ask him about his previous work history. Talk about awkward!

Here’s what I should have done. I should have taken a pause and collected my thoughts. In this situation, you had to have a clean record to work in the department he was applying for. If you were in my shoes, you could say, “I’m sorry, but the position you’re applying for requires passing a background check. We have other positions where this isn’t a requirement. Would you be interested in learning more about these opportunities?”

NOTE: Check out these tips for background check best practices. 

Conversations about compensation

There are also those uncomfortable conversations around compensation, especially if you work for an employer who pays less than market rates. As a hiring manager, you’re not quite sure when to bring this up, and as a candidate, you’re unsure if you should ask questions regarding pay.

Wasting people’s time is no good, which is why I encourage my clients to discuss pay when they’re screening candidates, especially if the person they’re speaking to appears to have significantly more responsibility than the job requires or if they’re coming from a major city and my client is based in a small town.

Hiring managers can start the conversation about pay by asking, “What are you looking for in terms of compensation?” Let’s say a candidate’s salary expectations are slightly higher than what you’ve budgeted for. Probe further to see if there is something else you can offer them, such as a signing bonus, or additional benefits.

Suppose a candidate’s expectations far exceed your salary range. In situations like this, honesty is the best policy. Tell the candidate that it appears you are too far apart in terms of compensation. Ask them if they have any flexibility regarding pay. If they say no, it’s best to thank them for their time and end the interview.

NOTE: Sometimes you do have to navigate other tough questions – check out these other tips to handle tough questions from candidates like a pro.

Conversations about pandemic policy

A new awkward conversation has recently moved into the mainstream for hiring managers, courtesy of the pandemic. The need to address company policies concerning vaccination requirements and back-to-office decisions is unsettling for many.

To avoid legal problems, hiring managers are well-advised to check with their HR departments regarding how to best handle this topic. My suggestion is to state your company policy, including details about whether the role is remote, hybrid, or in person. You can also share information on vaccination policy, masks in the office, and other considerations around COVID-19 workplace safety. Follow this up by asking, “Will this present a problem for you?”

If a candidate takes issue, and your policy is firm, then you’ve reached a standstill. Let the candidate know that your company’s position is firm, and that you’re unable to proceed.

Awkwardness during onboarding

Early in my career, I was being onboarded by a company that walked me around their large facility and failed to mention where the restrooms were. It wasn’t until I absolutely had to go that I mustered up the courage to ask my boss where the bathrooms were located! A checklist, in terms of what should be covered for new hires on an employee’s first day, will prevent you from making the same mistake.

Another avoidable uncomfortable conversation that occurs during the onboarding process is when the employee discovers the job they’ve been hired to do is vastly different from the job described to them during the interview. In my experience, most employees won’t say anything when this first occurs. They’re thinking, “Surely things will get better.” Usually, this is not the case.

How to get ‘unawkward’

In my newest book, Can We Talk? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work, I write that you have to have the courage of your talent. Make an appointment with your boss. This small step will propel you into action. Then, think about what you’d ultimately like to see happen as a result of your conversation. Knowing this will help you stay on track during the conversation.

Another challenging work conversation that occurs during onboarding happens when one of the parties quickly realizes a hiring mistake has been made. Let’s say you’re the hiring manager, and you promptly conclude you hired the wrong person. If you’ve noticed this, there’s a good chance the employee is feeling the same way.

Honestly, honesty is the best policy. If you’re the manager, pull together examples of why you think this person is a mismatch for the job. When speaking with the employee, allow them to resign, as there is no point in taking this person’s ego down a few notches while taking away their job.

Awkward conversations in the workplace aren’t disappearing any time soon. The sooner you get better at managing these awkward conversations when hiring, the better it will be for those candidates you move through the recruitment process and ultimately, into your workforce.

For more than 25 years, Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting, has helped leaders in highly regarded companies, including General Motors, New Balance, and Microsoft, and small to medium-size businesses, achieve dramatic growth and market leadership through the maximization of talent.

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