Whether you just started your career in recruiting or you’re a veteran of many years’ standing, you’ve no doubt had to flex your empathy muscle in your job many times.

My job is to recruit people from all over the world, so every day my team interacts with people who speak a different language or have customs and traditions completely different from ours. Exercising empathy can mean the difference between success and failure; but in today’s increasingly diverse society, I think the same is true for anyone working in talent attraction.

What does “empathy” mean in this context? It’s the ability to understand and heighten your awareness of how the other people involved in the recruiting process (i.e. job seekers, fellow recruiting partners, hiring managers) feel, perceive or experience the world. But what does that mean in practice? And how can we get better at it?

And what if you wake up and you're just not feeling all that empathetic?

Well, the good news is that according to experts in design thinking, empathy is a muscle that can be developed with exercise. Below are three steps to build empathy and embed it across your candidate engagement strategies.

Step 1: Observe the role you want to hire for in action

With this step, your goal is to study the people performing the tasks you are hiring for as they go about their daily routines.  

This way you can see how they interact with their environment, understand the experiences that influence their behaviors, and identify additional information about their decision making or thought processes.

Here’s how Lorraine, a member of my team tasked with recruiting for Inside Sales, carried out this step.

Lorraine spent a day shadowing an account executive to observe how he interacted with his environment, from his workstation to his colleagues. Her goal was to understand the specific work experiences that led to a heightened sense of job satisfaction, and to understand the decision making process when calling prospective customers.

From this, she gained some key insights, inspiring her to try new ways to attract future candidates.

  • She recognized that the environment is KPI-driven and highly structured due to the level of activity. This helped her to look again at the type of the questions she was asking in her initial phone calls with candidates, and to zoom in on the ones that really focused on evaluating the right skills for the job.
  • In regard to candidate messaging, she realized that an informal and casual message with a clear call to action worked best with this audience, due to the demands of the job: "short and sweet" was best.
  • Lastly, she gained new perspective on the day-to-day responsibilities of a sales executive, enabling her to speak authentically and with authority about the job.  

Just as interest compounds overtime, these small tweaks have led to recruiting success. This example was for an account executive, but practicing observation will provide powerful insight into any role.

Step 2: Engage with actual job seekers

With this step, your goal is to interview a job seeker in your target recruitment demographic. Put simply, you want to understand a person’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations. By understanding the choices that person makes and the behaviors he or she engages in within your recruiting process, the better you can identify their needs and surface new ideas that you can test to meet them.

On my team, we even go beyond active job seekers and interview these additional groups: recent new hires; employees who have been at the company over a year; a recruiter; a hiring manager.

Here are examples of questions you can ask each group:

  • Active job seekers: Tell me about the best recruiting experience you've had. Why did you like it?
  • Recent new hire: Tell me about your recent onboarding experience. What did you think about it?
  • Recruiter: Tell me about the best experience you had with a candidate delivered by the sourcing team. Why did you like it?
  • Hiring Manager: Tell me about your recent hiring experience. What did you think about it?

Maybe you are saying to yourself, “I already ask these questions!” But it’s not enough to just ask them.  These questions are an opportunity to really dig deep and engage in a meaningful conversation to understand what that person really needs. Your goal is not to surface basic answers, but to understand the “why” at a deep level.

So don’t just ask—explore! Think of the above questions as a jumping off point that should lead to more opportunities to uncover much richer insights.

Even so, this is only a piece of the puzzle. There is a third step that you should leverage to widen your investigation.

Step 3: Immerse yourself in the candidate's environment

When it comes to immersion, you want to jump right into the candidate’s environment. No dipping your toe in to test the water or swimming in the shallow end. You want to think, feel, and understand every interaction in their experience.  

For instance, my team is responsible for our employee referral program.  Part of our mission is to create a “wow” experience for everyone who comes through this program. But how? We experiment.

Over the last 6 months, we’ve revised our approach based on feedback from both employees and their referrals. More recently we’ve been experimenting with career coaching  as a way to create a “wow” experience. These are 1:1 sessions with a referral after they exit our recruiting process.

Yes, you heard me correctly! These sessions are for people we don’t actually hire. But we’re hopeful we’ll put them on the path to find their next job elsewhere, or help them prepare to reapply for another job with us later.

Is this crazy? Not at all. The reality is that you don’t hire most of the people who come through your door looking for a job. But you should still want to give them a great experience so that they will talk to their peers about you, or feel confident returning later when you have a role that’s a better match.

How did we arrive at this idea?

Through many conversations and interactions with referrals and job seekers, we gained insight into what a person would need in a career coaching session with us. Immerse yourself in your candidate’s environment and you’ll surprise yourself with the new ideas that will surface!

Now it may be that you don’t have the time or resources to provide one to one career coaching, but you can definitely find ways to empower referrals with tips and advice to help them going forward and create a "wow" experience of your own.


Employing a one size fits all candidate engagement strategy in an increasingly diverse, globalized labor market will always limit your ability to build truly human connections with candidates.

The result could be a hindrance on your ability to recruit. So remember: observe, engage and immerse! Through these steps you will be able to better develop empathy and embed it across your candidate engagement strategies.

The result?

You'll find new ways to attract talent in a diverse, globalized labor market.