How to Unmask Your Candidate

With news that’s hard to beat from C.D.C.: If you’re vaccinated and with others who are vaccinated, it’s safe to de-mask (even indoors).

That’s not the “all clear” but a big step in the right direction.

ExecuNetSelect-demask-candidateDeep breaths. Innnnnnn. Ouuuuuuut.

Maybe finally, my mask acne will heal.

Unfortunately, there’s another mask that you need to worry about.

Not as deadly as a global pandemic, but it could be fatal to your business.

And that’s hiring candidates who still wear a mask.

I’m sure you’ve been there. You hire someone. And then -when they show up for their first week on the job- you’re like “Whoa! What happened the person I met during the interviews?”

They’re like a totally different person.

That’s because they were wearing a mask during the interview process.

And you didn’t know how to get them to remove it – so that you could see the real person underneath.

It’s not easy.

(Especially with Sales candidates. Those folks are really good at their tradecraft.)

But you must.

Here then are a few strategies I’ve learned after 25 years of headhunting, to unmask your candidate (which will de-risk your hire):


No, not you. The candidate. The majority of candidates (you’ve been there yourself!) get all revved up for the interviews. They’re nervous. Heart racing. Sweaty palms.

No wonder they wear a mask.

I’ve found a foolproof solution:

Let them ask their questions first. The recruiting process has got to be a 2-way process, anyway. But nobody said that you have to go first.

I always have the candidates ask their questions first. Or some of them (I track the time & stop if it becomes a laundry list of trivial questions.)

For some reason, this technique relaxes the candidate. They feel empowered. In charge.

It has another benefit: You can learn A TON about a candidate by the questions they ask. Are they prepared? Did they write anything down? Did they research your company? What are their likely objections going to be?


Meeting a candidate is like meeting a first date. Everyone’s on their best behavior.

Until you say something funny (yet P.C.) and laughter breaks the tension.


Topgrading author Brad Smart taught me this. “Threat Of Reference Check” is highly effective because it acts as a “truth serum.” Done correctly, it forces the candidate to remove their mask.

But you have to do it subtly to avoid looking like the one who forgot to use Purell.

During your meeting with the candidate (not the first meeting) when you discuss each previous role, ask “And when I speak with your manager Phil, what will he say you could have done better?” The key word is “when” – once the candidate realizes that you trust but verify, s/he will peel away the mask and tell you the real story about that project gone wrong.

Don’t lead the witness.

Words matter. When I sit in an interview led my one of my clients, I often cringe. Because the way they worded the question, they essentially signaled to the candidate the answer they were looking for (or hoping for, just to put an end to an endless hiring process.)

Don’t show your Scorecard.

Don’t assume anything.

Don’t answer the question for the candidate.

Don’t say “I assume that you…” or “You probably…”

Just don’t.

Ask the question. Then be quiet. And take copious notes.


I know you’re busy. But every minute you invest in pre-research about the candidate ahead of time pays 10x during the conversation.

Here’s an oldie-but-goodie Podcast episode with a few more ideas.

Bottom line: We’re taking off our Covid masks slowly. But it’s time to rip off the Candidate masks, if you intend to put a Rockstar in every seat of your company.

Jeff Hyman

Jeff Hyman

Jeff Hyman launched his recruiting career at Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, the preeminent global executive search firms. Today, he’s Chief Talent Officer at Chicago-based Strong Suit Executive Search. Along the way, Jeff created four companies, backed by $50 million in venture capital. He currently teaches the MBA course about recruiting at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and hosts the five-star Strong Suit Podcast. Jeff has been featured by Inc., Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg, and other media outlets. He holds a master’s degree from Kellogg School of Management and a bachelor’s degree from The Wharton School.

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