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Prompted by my lead article last week, Sydney-based executive recruiter John Colebatch contacted me to share a few amusing reminisces from his 24 years as a recruiter (John started his recruitment career in 1989, four months after I started mine). Included in his stories was a link to an article he wrote three years ago about an earlier experience he had with an older, unemployed candidate.

I was greatly moved by what John shared and given the Federal Government, only six weeks ago, released an Australian Law Reform Commission report into age discrimination, I wanted John’s wonderful story (reproduced below with John’s permission) to be read by as many recruiters as possible.

A Lesson in Humility by John Colebatch  

In the early days of a recruiting career, the “rookie” recruiter can consider themselves all too important and also not realise just how much influence they do have over a person’s career; or more. If the recruiter remains in the industry for a good length of time, this attitude and ignorance can perhaps develop into a “veneer” of indifference and insensitivity to the needs of those they interact with.

Daily; no, hourly; the typical recruiter is dealing at arms’ length with people aspiring to find meaningful work or to change their career. It is all too easy to ignore the complex mix of emotions that are bouncing around in the typical applicant’s head.

The recruiter is usually ignorant of the candidate’s sometimes desperate need to find income; to regain the social standing usually associated with employment (“Hello, what do you do?”); to keep a roof over their heads; to regain what they see as a loss of standing in the eyes of others.

I am guilty as charged.

It is impossible to recruit for over twenty years and not be found wanting in the area of responsiveness and understanding. But when I fear I have tended too far towards hiding behind a veneer of insensitivity, I recall this story from my early days in this industry.

Graeme applied for a role with me. He phoned and asked if there was any point in him applying as he was 62 years of age. I was able to tell him in all honesty that there would be no discrimination on the basis of age and spoke with him for several minutes. His background was not really suitable for the position and I told him so. I still asked him to forward his details to me and he did.  There was something in his tone when he called to follow up. Nothing caused me alarm, but something that encouraged me to call Graeme in for a “general interview.” Graeme was a genuine, sincere, and likeable man.

He had been unemployed for a while and was obviously not handling this too well. But he remained up-beat in the interview and had some good technical skills.

I referred Graeme to a client who decided that Graeme had a set of skills he needed for a three-month contract. Was Graeme happy? Graeme was over the moon! His delight and confidence received an extra boost when after 6 weeks, he was offered permanent employment.

Was I happy? Yep. I had received some useful contract revenue and then a permanent fee – all paid on time. Graeme was happy. My client was happy.

I was happy. My boss was happy. Everyone was happy.

About three months later I was asked to attend reception to meet a lady who was asking for me. She said it was a personal matter. Julie was Graeme’s wife. Julie presented me with a bottle of Port as a thank you for helping her husband.

When I tried to impress upon her that this was not necessary; that I had only been “doing my job”, she responded with: “You don’t know what you have done, do you?” I got the feeling I didn’t.

At Julie’s insistence, we moved to a quiet area and she told me Graeme’s story. Graeme had been progressively selling their cherished assets to try to remain in their humble family home. As he did this, he was slipping further and further into depression. His married daughter had moved back home, leaving her husband to care for their own two children.

She did this so she could assist her mother keep Graeme, her Dad, under suicide watch. Their precious resources were being directed to professional counselling and Departmental assistance to try to prevent Graeme from ending his life.

Two months after Graeme had been appointed as a permanent employee with my client; he returned home one evening with a bunch of flowers for Julie and broke down when he presented them to her. His tears were tears of love and joy.

Graeme was back.

Julie and her daughter were advised the next week that Graeme no longer needed to be considered a suicide risk.

Julie had asked of me; “You don’t know what you have done, do you?”

No, I did not.

But I have never underestimated the potential impact of each and every interaction I have had with candidates ever since. Every single word we recruiters utter in a conversation with a candidate takes on a life and meaning of its own with the candidate. The impact can positively or negatively impact on the emotions of the candidate with profound results.


Take the time to call.

Take the time to call back.

Take the time to offer some counsel.

Take the time to encourage.

Perhaps this story might illustrate the importance for recruiters to take some time out to reflect on the personal needs of these hundreds, thousands of candidates. In doing so, hopefully recruiters will sharpen their perceptive skills, deepen their empathy of the needs of others and remember what it was like when they were a candidate. 

My comment:  

As individuals and as an industry, we have an opportunity to make a massive difference in the lives of many people we come into contact with, even if we don’t quite realise it at the time. I would hope every recruiter has their own version of John’s story that makes them very proud of the positive role they play when they might be thinking ‘I’m just doing my job’.

Related blogs  
Confronting ageism: The next recruiter challenge

What I miss and don’t miss about recruiting

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Graham Jenkins

John, that's a wonderful story. Many thanks for sharing. Recruiters might see two or three candidates each week whereas candidates might see two or three recruiters each year – if that. What we say and do can have a huge impact on people without our realising it. Graham Jenkins

Nicole Underwood

Love this story thank you John and Ross. Sometimes, as Recruiters, we really don't know what is going on behind the scenes and to make that difference in someone's life is a big opportunity and privilege. I'm off to make some calls…..!

Barbara Sheehy

I love this story, it reminds me why I'm still passionate about being apart of this industry. As a recruitment manager, in my experience the rewards you get back from treating candidates as a person, not just a voice on the phone or CV on your database, are what makes you want to be a recruiter. I engage with candidates all over the global community and when you receive an email or a linkedin recommendation from a candidate in another part of the world and they thank you for taking time to speak to them, providing that positive recruitment journey or opening that career door well that's why I get up in the morning! Thank you John and Ross for reminding me why I love this industry.

Sue Ritchie

Ross & John, thank you for sharing this story, it is wonderful that our professional has such a profound impact on many peoples lives. As professionals it is always important to remember this and what you give usually comes back three fold in many ways………….

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