It’s OK To Hate Recruiters

First published on LinkedIn November 2015

I was chatting last weekend to a friend who works as a project manager at a digital agency renowned for not using recruitment agencies. They basically brand themselves on it. A typical call to them is usually answered “Hello, we don’t work with agencies, how can I help you?”

I asked him why they’re so intent on not using agencies, which seemed bizarre given that they are an agency, and the service provider concept is fundamentally the same whether you’re supplying marketing campaigns or software developers. I was told – matter-of-factly – that “you use a lot of really underhand tactics to get hold of people”.

Do I now? Thanks for letting me know. As a project manager you presumably exceed your budgets and fail to meet your deadlines, while alienating everyone in your team with your Machiavellian approach to leadership.

I know the guy well, and I know he’s too intelligent to apply that kind of blanket generalisation in everyday life. So I was too surprised and, to be honest, amused to come up with a response as apt as the above paragraph on the spot, or point out the obviously flawed, baby-bathwater logic that underpinned it. I can’t actually remember how I responded – being a recruiter I imagine I consoled myself by checking my bank balance and cackling sadistically.

Which leads me onto this article, which was passed around work last week. It’s a decent read – lazy stereotyping, dogmatic vitriol and a social finesse reminiscent of Linus Torvalds in his less diplomatic moments notwithstanding. The last thing I want to do is defend the kind of recruiters the writer condemns, personified by the piece’s antihero “Shithead”. Anyone familiar with the concept of Rec-to-Rec will know that being a recruiter does not make you immune from recruiters – I get all the same spam emails and LinkedIn messages you do (and because it’s important for me to make my contact details public, I probably get a lot more cold calls to my desk than you do – that’s annoying). For the record I always send polite “No thanks” responses to well-written, individually-tailored messages because I know first-hand the time and effort that goes into writing them.

What I would like to do is point out a few reasons why it’s inevitable, given the role we’re performing, that the recruitment industry as a whole will always piss people off. You’re right to hate recruiters. It’s OK to hate recruiters, and to the verbal genius who penned Don’t Feed the Beast I’d say I didn’t take any of it personally (I’d add, of course, that I know where you live). The article however follows current fashion in overlooking a few important points about what it takes to be not just a good as in “ethical” recruiter, but also a good as in “successful” recruiter – which leads to a very widespread misconception concisely summarised in the phrase “they are not incentivised to act honestly”.

Recruitment consultants are effectively sales consultants, which in the good old days (before Management Speak really got its act together) were called middlemen. It’s a matter of opinion whether or not sales consultants generally are a good or a bad thing, but there’s an important distinction in play for recruiters which a colleague of mine, on my first day in my company, explained neatly: “this is the only sales job where the thing you’re selling can say no”. Shithead and the other morons hackerfall slams can’t force anyone to take a job they don’t want, no matter how much they’d like to.

Let’s for now park the debate over whether recruitment agents have any sense of empathy, morality or professional ethics – I could write an entire article on that – and for simplicity’s sake go with the assumption that they don’t and are to a person feckless, money-driven moral degenerates. As sales consultants, their job is to mediate between prospective buyers and prospective sellers, in crowded markets where specialist knowledge and tools are needed to help the two find each other. As recruiters, they’re mediating between a company that wants to hire and a person that wants to work, and representing both simultaneously.

Think about that. The two parties can have widely divergent interests. Jobseekers want the funnest jobs, the shortest hours and the most on-the-job training, with the highest salary possible. Companies want the most diligent, talented, innately-motivated people for as cheap as possible. Our job is to mediate between these two extremes of expectation and find matches that benefit both parties. In individual cases, and for good recruiters more often than not, the match exceeds what both parties were hoping for in the first place. But no market is perfect, least of all recruitment, and our industry exists as a professional punching bag for employees and employers to vent their frustrations on – the client’s minimal, unhelpful feedback is our fault to the candidate, the perfect candidate’s ludicrous salary expectations are our fault to the client. Across the board, we bear the brunt of the opposed interests of the two groups we represent, each of which will look at the balance of our industry as a whole and say “They’re not doing a good job”. Who can blame them?

If the perception of recruiters as a whole is then unavoidably negative, the onus is on individual recruiters to rise above the rest. This brings us back to the earlier point about what we’re selling. Companies keep coming back to agencies when they need to hire quickly, or hire specific niche skill sets, and when agencies do it right they get repeat business. I’ve since learned that what we sell isn’t a person – this would be human trafficking and illegal – but a relationship. Essentially, trust. To be a successful recruiter it’s crucial to build trust, both with candidates and clients.

As above, no recruiter can force anyone to take a job. With Glassdoor and other similar sites, the amount of information available on prospective employers is almost infinite. If I lied to a candidate about what a company is like, they’d find out quickly and would neither take the job nor work with me again. So why bother? Trying to talk someone into a job they don’t want is not only unethical, it’s pointless hard work that saps not just their time but mine as well. When your time is worth as much as mine and Shithead’s, you don’t waste any of it. Good (successful) recruiters only put people forward for jobs they’re genuinely interested in in the first place. Yes, from then on your job is to make the offer as appealing to them as possible – but to be successful in the long run this can only be done by presenting relevant information accurately. Recruiters who lie to candidates to make them take offers don’t last. They also miss out on the one bit of the job that is most satisfying and completely unique: the genuine gratitude you get from someone you’ve just found the dream job for. I can’t think of any other profession that offers that.

Clients equally will only work with recruiters they trust – they pay us to find qualified people that want the job they’re offering, not to waste their time. If the first few people you place aren’t up to it, or realise it’s been mis-sold and leave after a few months, you lose trust and you lose the client. Nothing is more valuable to us than a reliable client who trusts us and offers a constant stream of roles we understand and know how to source. I see lots of agencies marketing themselves on the massive percentage of their turnover derived from new business. I always think they must do a terrible job if so few companies want to come back to them. Most service providers pride themselves on the amount of repeat business they generate, and recruitment shouldn’t be any different.

Like all companies any recruitment agency exists somewhere along the spectrum between high-volume, low-quality offerings – “Spam and Send” recruitment, Shithead’s forté– and high-quality, low-volume models that invest more time and training in their staff. In my previous post I discussed how the recruitment landscape has changed since the UK employment market recovered from the crash. In the aftermath of the crisis, with jobs in short supply, spam-and-send worked for a lot of recruitment companies that now dominate the scene, since the market was so short on jobs that developers responded to generic mass-marketing emails. They had to.

With the recovery, and the resulting saturation of channels like LinkedIn, jobseekers are now in a position where they can tell mass-marketing recruiters where to stick their generic advances. The REC’s latest report shows that larger companies (35 + branches) make on average, per branch, less permanent placements, at lower per-placement fees, than smaller companies (1-9 branches). Shithead and his kind are losing market share using an approach which prompts angry reactions in the very people they hope to build trust with, and they aren’t trained to do otherwise. There are still a lot of these recruiters out there, but that’s changing.

So hackerfall, and my PM friend and your digital agency – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Every decent recruiter I know loves the buzz of finding someone their dream job as much as, if not more than, they value the commission they get for it. Despite this, whether or not individual recruiters have a well-calibrated moral compass (the answer, as in all industries, is that some do and some don’t) the nature of our job, being positioned between employees’ and employers’ interests and representing both at once, means it’s inevitable you’ll hate us as a group. And that’s OK.

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