Has A Hiring Manager Ever Picked Your Brains?


By Jas Singh

There is a dirty, dark secret to recruiting.

Something that many people are not aware of. But something that other people do know exists. Yet it is something very seldom spoken about.

It goes something like this.

Your presented an interesting opportunity with a competitor. A shiny new job description. Great compensation on offer. A reputable and well presented company.

And so you go to meet them. The hiring manager seems nice – and really interested in you. You have a pleasant conversation, answer some questions, speak about the opportunity in more detail.

As part of the interview he asks you about your current company and job. Makes sense you think. Although looking back things did get very detailed…

Which types of clients do you deal with? How is your current team structured? How is business in your company right now? What opportunities are you seeing in the market?

Things close nicely and the hiring manager says he’ll be in touch to discuss next steps.

Thing is – all of a sudden you hear the opportunity has gone dead or even worse there is no follow up at all.

Seems strange. Didn’t we just have a great interview?

Sorry friend. Your brains have just been picked.

Brain picking – or gathering competitor intelligence through interviews has been happening forever. It’s business etiquette at its lowest level but sadly happens frequently – often with junior and naive workers who are only too keen to talk about things freely and sometimes without even realising what has happened.

Many hiring managers, companies and even industries are notorious for having “fake” interviews simply to gather information.

In my early days as a hiring specialist when I was keen to impress, it even happened to me as the provider of candidates. It took me over six months of continuously sending candidates over to an investment banking “client” of mine for the penny to finally drop and realise that I (and more importantly the people I was representing) was being taken for a ride.

Here are a few things we can all do to prevent hiring managers from picking candidates brains unfairly.

1) Make it clear from the outset you can’t disclose information on your current company

The primary purpose of an interview is for the hiring manager to find out about you. Sure, context is important but most of the focus should be on you – your experience, skills, strengths and weaknesses.

If the conversation is focussing too much on your clients, your company, your colleagues or the market, things are off track.

The best way to prevent any unwanted behaviour, is to nip it in the bud. Right from the outset, thank the hiring manager for their time and express your interest in the opportunity. But make it clear that you are unable to disclose any confidential information.

This is especially true for strong competitors. In fact, in highly sensitive situations it’s even OK to say that you only want to discuss potentially confidential information AFTER you have both got to know each other in an initial meeting and you are sure that the opportunity is the “real deal”.

2) Name and shame the culprits

The reason why certain establishments have managed to get away with intelligence gathering for so long is that there have been no consequences. There has been no punishment. Interrogate candidates as much as you like – no one will ever find out and even if they do…so what?

But in this increasingly connected world, this approach will not last. Information travels quicker than ever and reputations and careers can be destroyed faster than you can say snapchat.

If you’ve been victim of brain picking, let the world know. The great thing is you can even now do this confidentially. Tell your friends on Facebook. Post it on glassdoor. Tweet it. Share it. Unlike it.

Talented people don’t want to work for someone who happily wastes other peoples time and takes advantage of others. Bad actions need highlighting.

3) Ask them detailed questions about their requirements

Hiring managers who are simply out to get intelligence are rarely prepared. Since they have no proper job on offer they have no specific candidate requirements. They’ll use words like “we’re always open”, “just wanted to get to know each other” or “we’re flexible”.

In hiring “being flexible” either means “we don’t know” or “we don’t care”. Neither are types of hiring manager you want to work for. Top hiring managers have a clear idea of what they are looking for, a well designed assessment process and focussed areas of interest.

Hiring managers who are brain picking can be caught out. Candidates should ask detailed and deep questions about the role – to see if these are easily answered or whether the hiring manager is thinking on the spot. How long has this role been open? Who else have you spoken to this week? Are you ready to move forward to the next stage?

Another good area to focus on is the hiring process that is being used. Generally speaking, if a client is using a retained search firm this means they have already paid some money up front which means they are more likely to make an actual hire. However, if they are speaking to multiple providers and speaking to any old Tom, Dick or Harry on a speculative basis then the chances of brain picking occurring are higher.

And most important of all beware the dreaded line “we’re ALWAYS looking for good people.” Ask them back “does that mean you’re always hiring good people?”

4) Speak to people who have dealt with the hiring manager previously

People don’t forget a bad experience. In fact, much research has proven negative influences may actually be more memorable than good ones!

If someone has a habit of trying to hold interviews for personal benefit, unless you are unlucky you are unlikely to be the first victim.

Nowadays it’s easy to get some background information on someone. If it’s a close knit industry maybe you can speak to an ex-colleague. Networking sites like LinkedIn can show common connections you may have. If you have a good relationship with your recruiter you can even confide in them – what is the hiring manager like? How regularly do you place with him? How many candidates does he typically meet? What has been their feedback? Does he ask particular types of questions?

In highly sensitive situations it always helps to do some initial research. At the very least you are doing due diligence on your behalf – at the very most you can prevent an uncomfortable experience.


It should be said that on the whole most companies have a professional and positive outlook to recruiting.

However in some cases there can be an alternative motive. And it’s not a very nice experience.

Hiring managers should ensure they are fair and ethical with all candidates they meet – and most importantly of all, they are genuine about the opportunity on offer.

Has your brain ever been picked in an interview?

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