Reckoning with Recruiters: How to Outsmart the Sharks and Land Job Offers Without Being Eaten Alive
It’s exam day in my final year of university and I’m sitting in Starbucks, cursing my idle ways and hurriedly inhaling whatever a brain on Red Bull can manage in 40 minutes.
Across from me I recognize an acquaintance – Stephen – immersed in conversation with someone across from him.
I look down at my notes and hope he hasn’t seen me – not for any fault of his, but at this moment making small talk ranks alongside being rendited in my list of priorities.
Minutes later his associate pops into the restroom, at which point Stephen darts across the room and approaches me.
“Don,” he says, “I’m so glad you didn’t come over just then”. Flattering stuff, I think.
He continues: “Because as far as he knows, my name’s James”.
Welcome to the world of recruitment consultants.
Recruiters = Good or Evil?
Recruiters are a special species in the professional ecosystem.
As an avenue to procuring a position, they can smooth the process considerably, cutting out the need to scavenge for open positions, the tedious process of writing covering letters, and the other requirements of job-hunting through corporate programs, such as 800-word essays or fiddly forms that want everything on your CV to be entered manually in bite-size chunks.
Yet when they’re bad, they’re very bad, so approach them with caution: here be dragons.
The View from the Deep: What Recruiters Really Want
To get the most out of the exercise, it pays to think through what a recruiter is trying to achieve.
Most recruitment agents are rewarded by commissions on their placements.
Their agencies can charge from 30% up to (at senior levels) multiples of the annual salary of the individuals they place, and in turn, individual recruiters typically get a good chunk of that.
Therefore the impetus, from their point of view, is to get as many of these deals to close as they possibly can.
Some do that with impeccable professionalism and integrity, recognizing that fundamentally they farm relationships, and that today’s candidate is tomorrow’s client.
But many do not – and this ranges from not answering your calls, to not notifying you of rejections, to mining you for information. Most of this is discourtesy and laziness, yet some are downright devious.
The take-home point here is that they’re looking for an easy sell, so the utility they pose to you is directly related to the utility you pose to them.
How (Some) Recruiters Operate: The Bad and The Ugly
I once met with a highly successful recruiter – a man who’d earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in his second year in the industry.
We settled down to our lattés and after a half hour or so on strategy consulting, he asked me whether I’d ever considered a career in recruitment.
I enjoy the interpersonal stuff, so it had crossed my mind, but not in any serious sense, so I asked him where he was going with this line of inquiry.
He was in need of an extra pair of hands, so I thought it’d be interesting to hear him out – and “interesting” it most certainly was.
When starting out, he said, the best trick is to set up a website advertising some fake positions in the industry you’re looking to specialize in.
Candidates will apply, and in turn you will arrange to meet them. Conversations will be had, experience will be shared, and at some point the issue of the candidate’s current efforts will be raised.
Cue the brimstone and tridents: the recruiter will then angle to pinpoint where else the candidate’s interviewing. And candidates – those with less experience in particular – will often volunteer this in their eagerness to impress.
At this point, assuming the recruiter has all the information they need, he/she will then wrap up the conversation. The moment the hapless candidate is out of the door, the recruiter drops the recruiting institution a line, and equipped with the knowledge of the candidate’s ability, has a good idea of what’s required to pip them to the post.
Usually operating on a ‘no win, no fee’ arrangement, the recruiter then gets to work.
This is not always a negative process – they may then parachute the ‘victim’ ahead of another – but you can easily avoid this situation in the first place by keeping your cards close to your chest.
So never tell a recruiter where you’re interviewing – keep it ambiguous.
They might push a little, but will ultimately respect your street smarts. You have been warned.
A Strong “Cultural” Fit?
It doesn’t end there.
Recruiters have a strong incentive for you to take a job, and so they’ll often try and parlay you into roles which are simply not for you.
Some take “softer,” more flattering approaches – one pursued me for weeks until she exasperatedly blurted out, “You know what, you’d f***ing hate this job; you’d be bored out of your mind” and putting the phone down on me. I never heard from her again.
Years later a flat mate in IT – a notoriously vicious field thanks to rapid contract turnover – had one recruiter threaten to “blacken [his] name across the industry” if he did not take a role.
Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the practice of the “head shunt,” where an employee’s company engages an agent to recruit an individual out of their company, often into a competitor.
It’s rare and usually illegal, but it does happen, and it serves as an elegant means of dispatching someone whose removal might otherwise prove messy – not to mention netting the recruiter two sets of fees in the process.
Playing the Recruiters’ Game
Recruiters manage pools of candidates and filter them to provide the most eligible ones to their clients.
“Eligible” really means conforming to a very specific set of criteria laid down to them by those clients.
If you’re near the top of their talent pool, comprehensively ticking those boxes, then you can expect them to invest a decent amount of effort into recommending and then preparing you for interviews.
If you’re especially good, then on occasion a recruiter will approach companies of your choosing on your behalf.
Conversely, if you are weak relative to the rest of their pool, then you’ll be lucky to get a look in.
Either way, if they submit you for a few roles to little avail, then their patience will wane rapidly, and you may be shelved as “damaged goods.”
So the long and short of this is, if you fit the classic “profile” for your target roles, you’ll get good mileage out of them, but if you’re in any way unconventional or “weak,” then you should allocate more of your job-hunting efforts elsewhere.
These dynamics are affected by supply and demand and if your chosen industry is particularly short on candidates, then these general rules are less relevant.
From your point of view, the ideal recruiter is one with great roles and poor talent. If you find one, great: but take rapid advantage of them – they won’t stay that way for long!
Working with Recruiters: Improving Your Stock
Once you’re in their pipe, then a good recruiter can be very helpful indeed, coaching you through the application process and grooming you with the information they’ve gleaned from their experience.
Not all recruiters are great at this, but a few well-aimed questions can certainly help guide them.
When you land an interview, make sure to ask them what it will cover, how many people will be there, what they are like, and what they are looking for.
Ask them where other candidates have fallen down, and how successful ones have impressed. And afterwards, get a proper postmortem.
Your recruiter’s insight can give you a serious advantage over candidates who have arrived via other channels, so pay special attention.
Asking these sorts of questions will also give the recruiter the impression that you are switched on and aware of the process, which will increase your stock in their eyes, which is huge.
The better your stock, the better the client they will put you in front of, and the harder they will try to sell you to them, so put as much effort into impressing them as you would any other type of interviewer.
If the client trusts the recruiter, then they should be well-disposed toward you in interview, and look to see your better side.
Treat the recruiter with respect, reply promptly, but do not hound him or her – needless interruption and appearing desperate are not endearing.
Touching base by phone once or twice a week should be sufficient in most cases – but do make sure you use the phone, as you can then develop a relationship with them and they will place a personality to your name, helping you to stand out from the sea of people they interact with daily – which further ensures that you’ll be high in their mind for new opportunities.
And help them. If you know of opportunities or candidates that match their needs, send them their way, provided it’s not to your disadvantage. Everyone appreciates a favor.
Working Against Them: Gathering Intelligence
Sometimes you just won’t tick the boxes. This doesn’t mean you can’t do the job, but clients don’t respond well to consultants that ignore their instructions, and so it’s simply not worth the agent’s time of day to try and sell something from left field, particularly if there’s already an abundant candidate supply.
It’s nothing personal, but it is an obstacle, and for those with initiative it can work to your advantage. Although some companies use recruiters to save the hassle of managing the process and doing the filtering themselves, plenty of others use them for their origination abilities.
If you can find and impress the client yourself, you come with a hefty savings attached over your competition – a cute advantage.
Fortunately for you, the speed of their business leads to slapdash laziness, and careful reading of job listings can furnish you with incredible information.
Pay special attention to company descriptions: any wording that contains a stack of facts or looks like corporate gloss usually is, and a quick Google search (with quotation marks) can lead you straight to the website that the recruiter copied and pasted from.
Note that the term you search for doesn’t even need to contain facts – it can simply be a slightly incongruous yet specific turn of phrase unique to the client website!
The road is then clear for your own approach, and a judicious letter or networked introduction can land you an interview without having to go through recruiters.
So Should You Use Recruiters At All?
Absolutely, provided you keep your wits about you.
Plenty of industries rely almost exclusively on recruiters, and there’s a great breath of sophistication in terms of how they approach the task.
Some will drop the dragnets into LinkedIn, while others will carefully piece together the real players in a market, perhaps with the aid of a pseudonym and an expense account, a la Stephen.
A good recruiter can serve as an excellent source of information and save you unimaginable amounts of time, but a bad one might spam your CV around, tell your employer that you’re on the prowl, or waste your time with jobs that don’t even exist.
Yet overall, the best recruiters get great word-of-mouth and percolate through to the top of their industry’s trade journal listings, resulting in a virtuous feedback loop of happy clients and happy applicants.
Just make sure you never tell them where else you’re interviewing, and you might just escape your encounter without being eaten alive.
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