The Real Truth About Working with Recruiters

When I first started my career as a recruiter, I worked and trained with a few “old-school” recruiters who had learned the staffing business in the days before internet searches and online job boards … when recruiters were called “Head Hunters” and kept card files called Rolodexes next to their desk phones that were filled with prized contacts. It was all about who they knew. The implication of the term Head Hunter was that they only went after top talent – usually people who worked for their client’s competitors – and actually recruited them away from one company to come work for another! Some of the best of today’s recruiters still operate that way, only seeking out top talent through networking and personal contacts. Some of those old Head Hunters even imagined themselves to be the business world’s equivalent of a Jerry McGuire … like sports or entertainment agents who represent top talent, shop them around and negotiate the best deals for their candidates. Needless to say, in today’s ultra-challenging, candidate-flooded job market, many recruiters have learned to adapt to new ways of doing business.

At the other end of the spectrum from the Head Hunters are the younger, much less experienced recruiters who never learned how to creatively source (i.e. identify) and then actually recruit (i.e. sell an opportunity to) so-called “passive,” employed, non-job-seeking candidates. They only look at résumés from people who respond to their online job postings – active job-seekers, otherwise known as the “low hanging fruit.” Since most companies know how to do the same thing by posting their own ads and collecting those same résumés, recruiters who operate that way are finding fewer and fewer companies willing to pay them a fee for that type of recruiting.

Most modern recruiters fall somewhere in between those two models. As with any profession, there are good recruiters and bad recruiters. Yes, there are recruiters out there who lie, cheat, deceive, bait & switch, promise things they cannot deliver, and will pretty much do or say anything to get a placement and get paid. I’ve met some of those people, and their sleaze factor can be quite astounding! Unfortunately, those bad recruiters tend to give the entire profession a negative reputation. How can you tell the difference? Just like with any other business relationship, time will reveal the traits of a person worth working with: honesty, integrity, sincerely, responsiveness, timely follow-through, etc. Good recruiters treat everyone with respect, and care about the people they work with. They try to do the right thing, and look out for everyone’s best interest – their own, their client’s and their candidate’s.

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there about how recruiters work, and how job-seekers can best utilize them as a resource. There is also a lot of confusion among job-seekers about exactly what recruiters do, how they get paid, who they work for, how to approach them, what questions to ask, etc. As a veteran of the staffing industry, I’d like to set the record straight, bust some common myths, and give some advice on how to best utilize recruiters as a resource.

Recruiters come in many different flavors. There are Retained Recruiters who typically only work on very specialized high-end C-level positions, and get paid a flat fee for simply producing a certain number of highly qualified candidates – whether or not they get hired. There are “Temporary Staffing” or “Staff Augmentation” Recruiters who work primarily on short-term contract assignments for their clients. There are Corporate or Internal Recruiters who work directly for the companies who have the open jobs. And then there are 3rd Party Agency Recruiters. For the purposes of this article, I’m focusing only on 3rd-Party Agency Recruiters – the ones who work on permanent jobs, usually on a contingency basis. These recruiters work for independent agencies who contract their services to various companies who need help filling open jobs with very specific and often hard-to-find requirements. They search for candidates that match those requirements, and try to present only the top few most qualified candidates to their clients. They are paid on a commission basis if and only if their candidates are hired and after their client company pays their agency’s fee. Those fees are usually a percentage of their candidate’s first year salary (typically 20-25% – sometimes more, sometimes less.) So naturally it’s in their own best interest, as well as their candidate’s, to help negotiate the highest possible salary from their client during the offer stage.

MYTH: Recruiters Find Jobs for People
Wrong! Recruiters find People for Jobs! If you think about it, that’s a very different concept. Recruiters do not get paid by candidates, nor are they job counselors. Sure, they “counsel” the candidates that they choose to work with, help them refine their résumés, and prep & coach them on interview techniques. However, they are paid by client companies to find candidates to fill very specific positions with very specific (usually hard to find) requirements. Randomly contacting a recruiter with your unsolicited résumé, and saying “can you help me find a job” is NOT a good tactic … and most recruiters will not respond. I get at least two or three of those a week from people I cannot possibly help. On the other hand, answering a recruiter’s job posting with your résumé and a message that says “I match every requirement you’ve listed …” is a GOOD idea. Calling to follow-up is even better. The name of the game is matching your skills and experience to a specific job they are already working on. That’s what they get paid for! That’s why most recruiters don’t return calls or emails from candidates that don’t match all the requirements of their current job searches. For them, time is money, and they only make money on matches!

Is it Better to Apply Directly to a Company, or Go Through a Recruiter?
The answer depends on who you know at the company. If you’ve already networked your way to a decision-maker, and have a personal relationship there … go direct! If, on the other hand, you don’t know anyone there and you talk with a recruiter who has a personal relationship with a hiring manager … then the advantage goes to the recruiter! The company’s desire to avoid paying the recruiter’s fee might sometimes be a factor … but a personal relationship trumps that every time. Most good recruiters develop and nurture relationships with their clients over a long period of time. Those relationships are invaluable … they have the trust and attention of the decision-makers who are the hardest to reach. They can get you in front of the right people. That is one of the main advantages of using a good recruiter!

Industry-Specific Recruiters
Most Recruiters specialize in a specific industry, and only look for specific types of candidates. Some are more focused than others. For example, a recruiter may be a general IT Recruiter, looking for any and all technical positions. Others may be focused on a smaller subset of IT – for example, only .NET programmers, or only JAVA developers, or only Web Designers, or only users of a particular type of software, etc. Others may focus on totally different industries. I’ve heard of Recruiting Firms that concentrate exclusively on very narrow industry specialties: HVAC Engineers, Paper and Pulp Industry Professionals, Hospitality Industry Executives, Copyright Lawyers, Corporate Controllers, Radiology Technicians … the list is literally endless. Needless to say, an industry-specific recruiter does not want to waste their time talking to candidates who do not fit their niche. Job-Seekers who want to find a recruiter to work with should figure out which agencies and/or recruiters specialize in their specific industry niche, and focus on getting on their radar.

How Do Recruiters Find Candidates that Match Their Job Requirements?
There are several ways that recruiters might find matching candidates: using sophisticated Boolean key-word searches, they first mine their electronic resources: they look in their own data base of collected résumés; they post their jobs (usually without identifying the client company) on the popular job boards, on Social Media sites, and on their own agency’s website and then screen applicants for matches; they search résumé banks that they pay to subscribe to, like CareerBuilder, Monster, etc.; they make extensive use of searches on all the free Social Networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Finally, they do a LOT of old fashioned cold calling to people within their industry niche, asking everyone if they know of anyone else that fits their job requirements, and asking everyone they talk with for referrals. It’s a laborious time-consuming process where one person leads to another, to another, to another and so on. All along the way they collect résumés from potential candidates who may or may not fit the immediate job they are working on, but seem worth keeping on file for future searches in their specialty area.

What is the Best Way for a Job-Seeker to Use Recruiters as a Resource?
Try to identify an agency, or a specific recruiter who specializes in your industry niche, and put yourself “on file” there. Send them your résumé to get into their searchable electronic data base so that when a new job comes up, they’ll “find” you later during a future search. You should also regularly check that niche agency’s job posting on their own website, and look for jobs that match your background. If you do spot a matching job, contact the agency and ask which recruiter in their office is working on that search … and try to reach that specific person to alert them of your own matching qualifications. Needless to say, you should also keep your online profiles (Monster, CareerBuilder, LinkedIn, etc.) up to date and filled with as many “keywords” in your niche as possible. You want to make yourself “findable” when a recruiter does a search.

What Questions Should You Ask of a Recruiter Who Calls You About a Job?
► What company are they recruiting for? (If you’ve already applied directly to that same company, they would usually not be able to represent you there.) Find out everything the recruiter knows about that company. If they cannot tell you the name of the company, ask why. (If it’s truly a “confidential” search, OK … but more often than not it’s a trust issue, and failure to identify the client could be a red flag for a job-seeker.)
► What are the job requirements? Ask them to send you a job description. Help the recruiter see how you fit those requirements, if you do. Be honest about any requirements that you really don’t have.
► What is the salary range defined for the position? You should be honest and up front about your own salary history and the salary range you would accept going forward. If your salary history and expectations do not match the job’s defined range (or seem unrealistic) most recruiters will not consider it a match worth pursuing. Like it or not, it’s a primary factor recruiters use to decide who they’ll represent to their clients. [Read “Answering the Dreaded Salary Question” for more info on how to deal with this issue when working with recruiters.]
► What is the history of this position? (New or replacement … and if the latter, what happened to the person who left?)
► Who is the hiring manager, and how well does the recruiter know that person? What is their management style? What is the company culture like? Can you get any inside intelligence?
► How many other candidates is this recruiter representing to this job? Are there other agencies that are also sending candidates, or is this an "exclusive?"
► What is the client's hiring timetable? What steps are there – how many phone interviews and in-person interviews will there be, and with whom? When do they want someone to start? How long has this position been open? How high is their degree of “urgency” to full it?
► What is the next step? Will the recruiter definitely be sending your information to the client – and if so, when? How soon should you expect to hear back from the recruiter?

Good recruiters should be able to answer almost all of these questions and more. If they can’t answer those basic questions … then they probably don’t know their clients very well, and I would question whether or not you want them to represent you. Good recruiters will also be able to help you tweak your résumé to better fit the job specs, prep and coach you on how to successfully interview using their insider knowledge of the company and the decision-makers, and they will help you negotiate the best salary if and when an offer comes. Good recruiters will also follow through with things they say they will do, and will be good about keeping you informed with updates and progress reports. Expect good communication … and beware of anyone who suddenly stops returning your calls or emails — that’s a telltale sign of unprofessionalism that is certainly not limited to recruiters!

Also, always verify that the recruiter will never submit your résumé to any companies or jobs without your knowledge and approval. Believe it or not, that happens quite frequently. I’ve recruited many candidates over the years who swore they never even heard of my client company, only to find out later that the company had already received that person’s résumé from another recruiter! Not only did that make me look stupid, but more importantly it ruined that candidate’s chances of getting the job – most companies will automatically eliminate any candidate who is submitted from multiple sources. They don’t want to get into the middle of a turf war.

What NOT To Do When Working With Recruiters …
► Never ever agree to pay any money to a recruiting agency for their services, or agree to any future financial obligations – e.g. re-paying their fees if you leave a job before their guarantee period is up. Recruiters who ask for money from candidates are not to be trusted. Run away quickly, and don’t look back!
► Never do an “end-run” around a recruiter and apply directly to a job they told you about. That is extremely unethical, and almost never ends well. If, on the other hand, the recruiter does not submit you to their client company for whatever reason – then you have every right to go ahead and apply directly to that company on your own.
► Do not sign any documents that promise “exclusive representation” by a recruiter. You have every right to work with multiple recruiters (as long as they are not working on the same job with the same company) and to continue applying directly to other companies. You should, however, inform your recruiter of other opportunities you are working on – especially if you are actually interviewing elsewhere, and may be getting close to an offer at another company.
► Never lie to a recruiter about your qualifications, your experiences, your education, your salary history, or anything else! Be honest about everything, and expect the same in return.
► Finally, do not put all of your job hopes into working with any recruiter, no matter how good they are. The real truth about working with recruiters is that while they can be a great resource … the vast majority of job-seekers today will NOT find their next job through a recruiter. Job-Seekers should concentrate on their own networking activities designed to get them in front of decision-makers in their target companies. [Read “How to Network: A Step-by-Step Guide for Job-Searching” for more detailed information on how to do exactly that!]

See this and other posts by Michael Spiro on his blog, "Recruiter Musings."