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How to differentiate good and not-so-good recruiters


Candidates complaining about recruiters, calling them unhelpful, unethical and even immoral is as old as the hills, and nothing provokes comments on eFinancialCareers like a debate over their merits and pitfalls.

Truth be told, there are plenty of good, helpful, ethical recruiters in the business. I spent nearly four years working as a recruiter and saw them first hand. However, there are also some that skirt the line of professionalism who you wouldn’t want to represent you. Below is a guide to how one should go about choosing what recruiters to work with and who should be avoided.

But first, one point that always seems to get lost by candidates about the role that outside recruiters play in the hiring process. The reason that they are paid fairly handsomely – oftentimes between 20% and 25% of a candidate’s starting salary – is because the client is having difficulty filling a very specific role.

Companies in any industry do hire people who aren’t perfect fits for positions that they can grow into, but those hires tend to be through referrals, networking and internship programs. They wouldn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars to hire an OK fit. Recruiters are paid to find the perfect match, which is what makes the job so difficult. The bar is set higher. Knowing that can eliminate some sense of frustration when dealing with an agency. Now on to the advice.

Identify strong client relationships

As noted above, clients want the crème de la crème from recruiters. That said, headhunters with strong, long-lasting relationships with clients can do a bit of pushing if they feel you have great soft skills that accompany a B-rated technical match.

Ask how long they have been working with a particular client and how many placements they’ve made within the firm. If they’re just sending your resume into generic HR inboxes, find yourself another recruiter. Being represented by someone with no real relationship with a client can actually be worse than sending your resume in yourself. You’re not being backed by anyone with leverage and you’ve got a price tag – the recruiter’s fee – attached to your candidacy.

Conversely, recruiters with strong client relationships can have access to un-posted jobs. If a recruiter can tell a client, “you have to meet this person,” and an interview ensues, that’s the man or women you want to work with.

Avoid lead chasers

One tactic some less professional recruiters will utilize is tapping candidates that they don’t find useful at the current moment for sales leads. Pushing you for references before you even get started in the process and asking where else you are interviewing should send up red flags.

I even heard a story of one recruiter making up a name of a hiring manager to elicit a real contact. “Was that Bob Johnson who you were talking to?” Avoid these people.

Look for hints of brutal honesty

The most common frustration candidates have with a recruiter is that they feel they are blowing smoke. That they said they sent in your resume when they didn’t, that they promised results knowing the chances were slim and that they’ll get back to you with feedback when they likely don’t plan to.

The easiest way to avoid these pitfalls is by identifying signs of honesty early in the process. The best recruiters are the ones that tell you what you don’t want to hear. That you aren’t a fit for the job, that the interview went poorly, that your resume needs work etc.

The most successful recruiter I’ve ever seen started every new conversation telling a candidate what’s wrong with their background and the hurdles that will need to he jumped. You obviously want to work with someone who’s nice and professional, but be leery of those who will promise the world then disappear when it doesn’t fall on their desk.

Find someone who will sit down with you

Bad recruiters throw a thousand resumes at the wall and hope one sticks. Great recruiters invest in a smaller number of people who have promise, even if they don’t have the perfect role available on day one.

Look for recruiters who want to sit down and meet you in person to understand what you’re looking for and what you’re hoping to avoid. Good recruiters don’t just represent good resumes but also good people. That starts with a desire to actually get to know you.

Comments (8)

  1. Well put. As an executive search consultant that values conducting business ethically I agree with everything here.

  2. Thanks! I will keep in mind asking for recommendations. That never occurred to me before and is such a good idea to ward off the not to trustworthy recruiters!

  3. “Pushing you for references before you even get started in the process” – that’s so true.

    Often got calls from S*lby J*nings recruiters for position that does not exist, asking for who my boss is, where I have been interviewing. In the call, they will tell you that they will send an email to you with the job description, but it never happened.

    Also, i suspect the positions they advertised do not exist. Those jobs are often quoted high salary. The positions that they actually work on are often never advertised on the site, instead, they will email their own database for job that actually exists.

    FeltUsedJobSeeker Reply
  4. I think ‘great’ recruiters is almost a contradiction in terms – 99.9% of the ones I have been in contact with are lying, untrustworthy, manipulative people attempting to build their database without (mostly) having real positions. I agree with FeltUsedJobSeeker about that particular recruiting agency – they have called me multiple times about supposedly specific job openings, then don’t return emails or phone calls when follow ups are attempted. I am amazed any of them stay in business.
    At this point, I ask them for references, and only send them information when I see information, including company name, that is very specific (and have checked out their references).
    I fail to see how their business model is remotely successful – yes, the payday is big if they place a client, but the majority of non-placements just result in tainting their ‘inventory’ of candidates against them. I think a used-car salesman circa 1970 is a more trustworthy character than most recruiters. Useless, useless, useless.

    yeklnickmcwawa Reply
  5. the worst:

    -recruiters for contract jobs who refuse to consider unemployed candidates: when I was unemployed I was refused by several recruiters because their clients preferred candidates that were currently employed (and were “smart” enough to name these clients!); my unemployment ended with a contract job at one of those clients

    -recruiters for permanent jobs who refuse to consider candidates currently working con contract: wash, rinse, and repeat of above

    -recruiters that fail to understand commute times/geography: when I was living in an outer borough of NYC (south of Manhattan), a recruiter tried to push me into a contract job in Stamford CT (northwest of Manhattan) saying “that commute isn’t too bad, it shouldn’t be more than an hour for you” forgetting that it took me an hour and a half to reach her office in Midtown. Manhattan

    -recruiters that insist that candidates should be generating leads for the firm during a contract gig, only to then exclude the lead generating candidates from the new projects to save money (this did not happen to me, but to a colleague)

  6. Do recruiter understand that they can face penalties for discriminating against the unemployed in several states and the District of Columbia ? Perhaps it is time for them to learn this and stop complaining that qualified candidates are not available…really.

  7. The Recruiters are mostly useless. The ones I have dealt with at temporary agencies or temp to perm have very few positions/assignments available (and they will note how it is the worst job market now that they’ve ever seen, etc.)– and then when they finally secure an assignment from a company, they over hire from their lush pool of candidates (as there are more than five people after every open position these days), necessitating phone calls to the ones who didn’t make the cut (for purely random reasons as having a name with a letter toward the end of the alphabet) and telling them they are being put on a waiting list.
    Besides most companies are not even using recruiters these days. Why should they bother with the extra hassle and expense when they can place an ad on their own and get a 100 or more resumes of qualified candidates to shuffle through for interviews.

  8. My favorite thing recruiters do- refusing to answer emails and phone calls after they supposedly sent your resume, or after to interviewed with a client. They give you the ‘I haven’t been able to contact the hiring manager’ or stop answering altogether. I’ve learned that cutting off contact is recruiter-speak for ‘you didn’t get the job, I didn’t get my commission, therefore you are dead to me’ Rude, lazy, and unprofessional. Might I add that quite a few of these people who don’t have time to return calls or emails add a new contact on LinkedIn every 15 minutes? They have time for that!

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