Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Domain Knowledge in Recruitment

Olympic judges know exactly what to look for when assessing the world’s best sportspeople.

Often former Olympians themselves or coming from an elite coaching background, they can spot imperfections in a performance that a casual fan like myself would regard as perfect. Then, the judges draw upon their highly specialized knowledge to score, rank and award the winners at a level where only a hair’s breadth of difference separates the medal-winners from the rest of the field. 

Today I’m exploring the importance of domain knowledge in recruitment:

  • Why it matters.
  • How it helps both candidates and clients.
  • How it ultimately helps recruiters assess and submit the right talent. 

Clients need specialist recruiters

Generalist recruiters are a rare breed. Most small to medium recruiters will carve out a space in a particular domain or industry, while the big players who recruit across the board do so by splitting their operations into industry verticals run by specialized teams.

Why? Because organizations want recruiters who can understand the nuances of their requirements, the industry trends they are grappling with, and their customers’ pain points. A recruiter without domain knowledge might simply accept a client brief as it stands. Still, real value is created when a specialist pushes back on the clients’ requirements, pointing out factors that might be relevant such as changing workforce trends or emerging technologies.

Forming a clearer picture of a client’s needs helps recruiters read between the lines and hire in context rather than simply matching candidate profiles to the requirements listed in a job description – an exercise that can be done just as well by most applicant tracking systems.

Domain knowledge helps recruiters filter out unsuitable candidates

Having strong domain knowledge helps recruiters assess candidates by:

  • Knowing exactly what to look for when evaluating resumés. 
  • Asking the right questions in conversations with candidates. 
  • Spotting candidates who are exaggerating or lying about their experience. 
  • Identifying which soft skills will be important for a candidate to succeed in a role. 
  • Building rapport and trust with candidates. 
  • Building a pool of quality, relevant candidates. 
  • Submitting best-fit candidates. 

That being said, a generalist recruiter can outsource a candidate domain knowledge test to a third-party skills assessment provider, but nothing beats a recruiter with in-depth knowledge of the trends and challenges facing an industry. This becomes more important when recruiting at the higher levels of an organization: does the candidate understand and engage with how their industry is evolving? Are they demonstrating a comprehensive knowledge of their profession when answering your questions, or are they attempting to bluff their way through the interview with vague answers and buzzwords?

Domain knowledge should be distinct from technical know-how. In procurement, for example, I wouldn’t expect a recruiter to know precisely how to run an RFQ process (although they should have a fair idea). Rather, I would want the recruiter to have a clear knowledge of the trends currently impacting procurement (economic, social, and technological) and the skills candidates need to meet these challenges. 

Where to gain domain knowledge

There are several pathways to gaining domain knowledge. Recruiters shouldn’t rely on picking up second-hand knowledge from clients and candidates but should take practical steps to evolve from generalists to specialists. 

Some of the best recruiters in the business are those that started out working in the industry, gaining first-hand exposure to a particular profession before stepping across to recruitment. As a result, they are more likely to “get it” than someone from a pure recruitment background, although it is important that their knowledge of industry trends remains current. 

Talent acquisition professionals in large organizations can gain domain knowledge through job rotations, working for a few weeks or months in the area where they intend to specialize. 

Other ways to gain domain knowledge are to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry by subscribing to relevant news sources, taking courses, following the right people on social media, or attending industry events.  

Personally, I had the good fortune of spending 15 years in supply management, working in numerous roles across a variety of industries, and gaining multiple experiences – including implementation of global supply strategies, product and process cost reductions, and supply chain improvements. However, little did I know that I was gaining valuable domain knowledge, know-how, and insights on attracting and retaining top-notch talent and finding best-fit candidates that meet my client’s needs.