interviewing-candidate-hobbies.jpgThe competition to attract and retain exceptional workers remains fierce. Very fierce. Job openings pile up and go unfilled. Employers are desperately seeking skilled candidates who will integrate well with the mission and the team. And the needs of today’s talent, particularly those in millennial generations, have taken more nuanced turns. Cultural fit, skills development and exposure to opportunities for professional growth are key considerations. For recruiters, the process of sourcing and interviewing prospects has reached new levels of complexity. What questions should you ask? How can you really judge attitude and aptitude? While labor regulations make it clear that we can’t get too personal in our inquiries, there is one bygone line of questioning we should consider reviving — asking talent about their interests outside the office.

Use Candidates’ Interests to Sculpt Their Personal Brands

In an era of social recruiting, the importance of showcasing a candidate’s personal brand, skills, unique perspectives and cultural fit to employers is critical. Yet asking the right questions has become trickier than in days past. Old standards no longer work or apply. Top recruiters understand the futility of asking about a person’s weaknesses or the reason why an individual should be hired instead of others. Rarely do the answers provide meaningful insight. However, recruitment professionals also know that delving into personal matters can lead to certain risks, so many avoid that conversation entirely.

Certainly, it’s illegal to ask about details that could open the doors to discrimination: marital status, sexual orientation, religious preferences, age, whether an applicant is pregnant and so forth. We’ve also been taught to believe that hobbies and extramural interests are unimportant, and may serve to clutter the essential information a hiring manager is seeking. Even hiring authorities who encourage discussions about hobbies tend to limit their usefulness, considering them icebreakers. While these interactions help engage candidates, they often reveal greater value. The reality is that exploring a candidate’s personal motivations, passions and aspirations presents a golden opportunity to gauge attributes that can determine a strong cultural match.

By learning more about a person’s outside interests, we come to discover the genuine person. We glean a clearer picture of what drives that individual. We peel back the facade of the interview — of applicant-as-salesperson — to find a personality, a goal, character strengths, abilities and other behaviors that help us draw conclusions about the business environments in which talent will shine. Positioned correctly, and appropriately, questions about interests allow savvy recruiters to shape their candidates’ key traits into compelling personal brands.

A Brief Guide to Discussing a Candidate’s Interests

Jacquelyn Smith, Business Insider’s careers editor, points out several advantages that employers gain when shifting the conversation toward a prospect’s interests. For recruiters, this approach is just as powerful.

Inherent leadership capabilities. Outside the office, many working adults belong to community associations or leisure-based groups. For example, you may discover that your candidate heads the local Parent Teachers Association (PTA), homeowner’s association (HOA), neighborhood watch or girl scout troop. Or perhaps the applicant hosts a writing club or fund-raising effort for medical research. In any of these or similar situations, recruiters gain a sharp perspective into a candidate’s leadership skills. For positions that require strong management abilities, a person’s interests can serve as fantastic indicators of potential success.

Autonomy and team orientation. The activities that people engage in tell us a great deal about how they work in relation to colleagues or the absence of teams. An avid soccer fan who plays on an after-hours league demonstrates his or her commitment to a group. As companies transition to a more project-based approach toward work, a person’s success in contributing to cross-functional corporate teams is imperative. The same would apply to a professional who volunteers in her spare time. Her ability to organize a charity and achieve its goals would help recruiters predict her level of interaction with customers and participation with peers.

For a job that requires more individualized work, under minimal supervision, extramural activities tell the same story. An individual who enjoys carpentry as a hobby would likely possess these critical traits — he understands how to plan a project, work autonomously, budget time and materials, execute and deliver a finished good.

Passion and ongoing development. The activities that appeal to people are as diverse as people themselves. Some of us follow artistic pursuits: painting, music, creative writing and others. Some of us play sports or build cars or skydive. Each interest a recruiter uncovers should convey key information about the candidate. An individual who writes as a hobby exemplifies a worker who would likely excel at communication and research. A candidate who paints in his or her spare time may be a perfect fit for a marketing position, so long as the core vocational skills match.

Regardless of the pastime, activities reveal other important characteristics about our talent. They let us know that the candidates we’re speaking with are passionate and can dedicate themselves to completing milestones and deliverables. They practice to refine their skills. They know how to set goals and find ways to enjoy work. Somebody with several different hobbies would also provide an excellent example of a person who can manage multiple tasks on the job.

Living and working in three dimensions. The best employers realize that workaholics and robots-in-the-flesh seldom change or grow. Any business involves countless moving parts, innovations, shifts in direction and new roles to occupy. A worker without balance may not be able to transition into leadership, develop a fresh set of skills or tackle new projects.

A person invested in activities beyond the business is well rounded. That often means he or she is a repository of information, insight and perspective. These people are the thought leaders of the future. They are the workers who take calculated risks, experiment, suggest improvements and have a better understanding of their world — along with the needs of customers who share that world.

Outside Interests Become Inside Strengths

Recruiters have become adept at making a company’s message stand out above the unrelenting traffic. They present job openings in creative ways to showcase the personality of the organizations they support, which in turn helps job seekers get a feel for whether a business culture will be a good fit. And they can do the same for talent. Not only can staffing professionals help talent develop personal brands, they know the types of employers who would find those brands most attractive. Recruiters should no longer consider themselves intermediaries who merely fit resumes to job descriptions. They have the power to become so much more — champions of talent, advisers and personal brand consultants.

Recruiting professionals know all the ins and outs of acing interviews. They have a prime opportunity to coach and prepare talent for presenting their personal brands in the most compelling ways. Learning more about your candidates’ interests won’t just help you engage them or solidify the relationship — it will empower you to match the very best people to the perfect business culture. And that produces results for your clients, your talent and you.