Home Uncategorized Playing the Third-Party Recruiter Game (T-SQL Tuesday #093)

    Playing the Third-Party Recruiter Game (T-SQL Tuesday #093)


    T-SQL TuesdayFinding a new job can be a long and stressful proposition. This holds true even for skilled candidates. And even for skilled candidates in an atmosphere like we have in 2017—in which everyone who is employable is, for the most part, employed, and IT positions often stay open for months due to a lack of qualified people.

    This is a great time to look for a new job, but you still need to put in the work of looking and interviewing. This month’s T-SQL Tuesday is hosted by Kendra Little, and the topic is job interviewing. This is a bit of a departure from the usual T-SQL Tuesday technical topics, but a perfect one in my opinion: Even those of us who think we are in our perfect, forever, dream jobs, will almost certainly have to sit on the interviewer side of the table during some of those dreamlike workdays. And when that bubble pops, the same people will get to sit on the interviewee side. It’s always worthwhile to keep your skills and résumé up to date.

    When I saw the topic I thought back to my own experiences interviewing and being interviewed: Early in my career I was a bit of a job hopper; I have been a hiring manager on a few occasions; and I have spent several years consulting and contracting. In all of these cases, that’s meant lots of interviewing, and so I started work on a comprehensive guide. Alas, that turned out to be too much to complete for today, so I’ve decided to present what I feel is one of the most important pieces.

    Third-party recruiters. External firms that employers work with to get the word out on positions and find candidates willing to have a chat. In exchange, the recruitment firm gets a nice reward: usually 20% of the salary for each candidate who gets hired. This setup seems simple enough, but it’s full of pitfalls for the candidate and in my opinion is one of the most important aspects of job hunting in our current era.

    When I started my career in the late ‘90s, recruiting firms were certainly common, but when I had my résumé up on a job board I would much more often hear directly from employers. Times have changed and these days, my LinkedIn profile is messaged daily by recruiters, and only very rarely by direct employers. Just like every other service, the job of finding new employees has been almost fully outsourced. And just like much outsourced labor, the work is often shoddy and of ridiculously low quality.

    Don’t get me wrong. There are some good recruiters out there. I can name at least three of them. The majority of them, however, know nothing about the job for which they’re recruiting, nothing about how to sell people to the employers they’re supposedly working for, and nothing about you. Nor do they care.

    In the ‘90s I could (and did) simply ignore third-party recruiter requests. But today, that’s no longer a great option. Many times, unless you have a direct contact at a company, recruiters are the only possible way of getting in the front door. This means that you must understand how and when to leverage these people.

    At the same time that recruiting has become more and more popular among employers, it has also become a good way for recent college graduates with no career prospects to attempt to make a quick living. These low-end recruiters are paper pushers. They receive a job description from their higher-ups, spam it around, and hope that something sticks.

    These low-end recruiters are to be avoided at all costs. They will mess up your job search.

    Third-party recruitment follows a basic pattern, and we’ll get in to the ins and outs of each step.

    • Job description dissemination, in which the recruiter sends out information in hopes of collecting résumés.
    • Résumé collection, in which the recruiter collects the results of the first phase.
    • Résumé submission, in which the recruiter sends your information to an employer.
    • Employer contact, in which the recruiter helps the employer decide whether to move forward with a given candidate, at various stages of the process.
    • Interview prep, in which the recruiter should help you get ready to talk to the employer.
    • Salary negotiation, in which the recruiter should help you get the best possible deal.

    These steps are all simple enough, but the basic question to keep in mind is: Who is the recruiter working for and what is his or her goal?

    Recruiters, for the most part, get paid only once a candidate is hired. And just like anyone else, recruiters want to maintain positive cash flow. This often means getting as many candidates as possible in the door and attempting to rush the process through to get one hired, so that the recruiter can move on to the next victimperson.

    The sticky part of this situation, for you as a job seeker, is the résumé submission phase. Most recruiter contracts state that employers must pay, upon candidate hire, the first recruiter who submitted the candidate. This has some interesting caveats, and I now present a true story to illustrate:

    A while back I was contacted by a recruiter who sent me a very interesting job description. I decided to move forward, sent the recruiter my résumé and heard nothing back. Repeated e-mails were never answered, and that was the end of it. Later, another recruiter, with whom I already had a relationship, sent me the same job. I told him that I was very interested, but thought that there was a chance I had already been submitted. The second recruiter checked with the hiring manager, who said he’d never seen my résumé. He saw it that day, liked it, and we did a phone screen the next afternoon.

    Just as I was getting prepped for an in-person round I received a phone call from the original recruiter. It seems his friend in HR at the employer had tipped him off that I was coming in for an interview. What had happened to my original submission? I found out later that around the time of my submission the employer had decided to stop working with that recruiter’s firm due to its recruiters being unprofessional and unreliable. But the employer was still contractually bound by that first submission clause. At this point there were two recruiting firms involved, both expecting payouts if I was hired, and a strange contractual gray area given that I’d interviewed only after that second submission. So the employer did the only thing it could do: It stopped talking to me. Game over, for 18 months until that initial contract expired. By which time I was doing something else and the employer had hired some other person.

    What is the moral of this story? You must be incredibly cautious when allowing someone to represent you. Looking back, all of the red flags were there. I just didn’t notice them.

    Let’s get back to those phases listed above, starting with résumé submission—the first point at which the recruiter talks to the employer on your behalf. It’s interesting to compare the typical low-end recruiter with the ideal one that you actually want to work with.

    • Résumé submission. A shoddy recruiter will simply email your résumé. A decent recruiter will call first, sell you a bit, and then send the résumé. Ideally after working with you on it a bit. These moves help keep you from getting burned.
    • Employer contact, a.k.a. selling you. A shoddy recruiter won’t bother following up after submitting your résumé. A good recruiter knows that hiring managers sometimes get busy, and everyone hates reading résumés anyway. So the good recruiter can and will push a bit. “Did you look in detail at Sara’s resume? She would really be a great fit for the role.” Work with the bad recruiter who doesn’t follow up? Once again, you’re burned, even if the employer never officially closes the loop.
    • Interview prep. A bad recruiter will simply give you a time and place. A good recruiter, on the other hand, will give you details (or help you find out): who you will talk to, what kinds of questions to expect, how long you’ll be in the interview, and so on. (All important information, but for another post.)
    • Negotiation. Most salary negotiations, when a third-party recruiter is involved, go through the recruiter. Do you want some loser negotiating for you, trying to end things as quickly as possible? Or do you want someone who will play the game a bit in hopes that both of you will profit?

    Remember at all times who the recruiter is working for. It may not be you. As a result of these rather nasty career pitfalls, it is absolutely imperative that you work only with better recruiters. Better recruiters will establish relationships. They’ll get to know both the employers for whom they regularly recruit and a set of candidates, and will be able to make more intelligent placements. Remember that recruiting can be incredibly profitable; so there are good reasons for someone who is good at recruiting to stay in the industry for a long time. Veteran recruiters are ones you want to bet your next career move on.

    If you hear from a recruiter with an interesting job description, the very first thing you should do is verify that this is someone you want to talk to. Go look them up on LinkedIn. Check their job history. Do they have a lot of contacts? You’re a professional and you want to be represented by a professional. If the recruiter has been working in the recruitment field for less than five years, or has a suspiciously low number of contacts, give them a pass to avoid being burned.

    Recruiter meet the mark? Job sound at least marginally interesting? Ask them for a phone chat to discuss in more detail. The third-party recruiter is not the employer, so you should be extra-candid in your questioning. Take this opportunity to not only find out about the job, but also to interview the recruiter a bit more. Ask the recruiter if he or she has personally spoken with the hiring manager. Ask the recruiter if he or she has personally previously placed candidates at this company, and how the interview process works. Again, you want that personal and professional touch. You also can and should ask the recruiter for feedback on your résumé. A recruiter who has been in the industry for a long time has seen a lot of candidates, both good and bad, and should be able to help you smooth out rough spots. Remember that you’re the recruiter’s product—and a valuable one at that. Take every advantage you can get.

    If everything works out, have the recruiter send your résumé to the employer. Then sit back and wait. If you don’t hear back within a couple of days, send an email. The recruiter should be on top of things, and this is the final test. If you still don’t hear back from them—even if it’s just “I’m still waiting on the employer,” then write back and tell the recruiter you’re no longer interested. Ask if they can withdraw your résumé submission. They’ll never say yes, but there is a small chance this request will wake them up. I’ve learned that hard way that if a recruiter shows lack of interest early in the process, the same attitude will persist later. And unfortunately this may land you in one of those nasty states I already alluded to.

    Third-party recruiting has become much more prevalent in recent years, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Take control and by all means don’t be afraid to say “no” in order to keep yourself out of a bad situation. And never, ever, let a recruiter do or say anything on your behalf without your explicit permission.

    Best of luck, and happy interviewing!

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    Adam Machanic helps companies get the most out of their SQL Server databases. He creates solid architectural foundations for high performance databases and is author of the award-winning SQL Server monitoring stored procedure, sp_WhoIsActive. Adam has contributed to numerous books on SQL Server development. A long-time Microsoft MVP for SQL Server, he speaks and trains at IT conferences across North America and Europe.


    1. One of the things you might want to mention is something I’ve seen a fair share of as an independent consultant. That’s being subcontracted out through multiple recruiters as a consultant. One of the questions I always ask is how long is the turnaround for timesheets and expenses when travel is involved. You’ll get a quick idea if you’re subcontracted by the turnaround.
      On one occasion I was told it would take over three months. This consisted of turning in a timesheet at the end of the month(!), having that forwarded to them to process and forwarded onto someone else and then billing the employer and out the same way. Don’t be their bank.
      The other problem with being subcontracted is that the middlemen take it out on your end more than normal. This is also assuming you’ll ever see the last paychecks, which happened to a few people I know.

    2. This is a great post, very informative.  I wasn’t aware of the stuff around the first person to submit the candidate. Some definite pitfalls to be avoided there!

    3. Yeah, I can’t tell you how many recruiters I’ve had to "splain" to them that finding out the rate for a given role is not something where they get to play "squirrely" with it.  I get a daily stream of calls from recruiters whose primary language is NOT English, most of whom think they should be asking me what rate I’m expecting.   I simply tell them "that’s not how this works…  If you don’t have the time to discuss rate openly and honestly up front, how could I possibly come to the conclusion that you are worthy of my trust in a matter this important?".
      If they continue to hem or haw, I just say "Either you can be right up front about rate, or I just don’t have time to talk to you…"   It’s always amazing how quickly that changes their perspective.   Of the hundreds of calls I’ve received over the years, only one walked away from that kind of conversation, and I was already apprehensive about them because I could barely understand them to begin with.
      When "we" stop putting up with the BS that these "less capable" recruiters throw our way, we’ll spend a lot less of our precious time having to deal with them, as the better recruiters will become rather obviously so.

    4. @Kevin: I’m not sure what you mean regarding "multiple recruiters." Do you actually mean multiple LAYERS of recruiters? That sounds scary! I’ve personally only subcontracted before through a single layer. And even then I agree, turnaround time is important. It’s something you should get on paper upfront. Some shadier companies will pay you only once they’ve been paid, which is of course not fair when you’re an independent contractor and they’re a multimillion dollar firm.
      @Paul: Thanks for reading!
      @Steve: Why wait for them to tell you the rate? Tell them what you want to make. When in doubt, simply give a rate that’s slightly higher than you think is on the outside end of reality. If they say no, nothing lost. If they say yes, you win 🙂

    5. Great post Adam! One additional thing I’ve noticed over the years is that some of the better recruiters want to meet with you before they will send your resume on.  I had one recruiter tell me he couldn’t submit me until he know I was a viable candidate because he had a reputation to maintain with his client.  I was good with that and certainly don’t mind meeting up with the recruiters.  I have a couple that have kept in contact with me over the years too.

    6. @Adam – The reason I stopped doing that is because the people I get calls from are almost exclusively dumber than a box of rocks, and as the rate I would need in any given market is highly variable due to wide variations in lodging costs, giving these people a number is a good way to get stiffed.   I know for certain that one of the "apparently better" such recruiters ended up holding back on me, which caused me to choose a different offer I had at the time (had 3 offers on the table), and because the rate they offered was marginal, and they KNEW it was because I’d told them.   I found out when I called them to say no and they suddenly offered me $10/hr more ….  I promptly told them that I would never ever work with them again.  I just don’t have time to play these games with these nincompoops.  Of all the things I’ve seen over the years, that was the most unprofessional.   I’ll say this:  "Never again…"

    7. @Kenneth: Definitely! Meeting the person who will represent you is a fantastic idea.
      @Steve: LOL @ "dumber than a box of rocks."

    8. @Kevin,  on a few rare occasions, I have taken on a project, with more than one agency layer. Usually, it is a big consulting firm that sold the job, then hired a recruiter to find the staff that could do what they sold.  While not ideal, I usually set myself up as an employee of the recruiting firm.

    9. Thanks for sharing! I can totally relate to that now!  A few weeks ago I received over 10 calls from different recruiters for the same position!  Struggling to find which recruiters I can trust.  

    10. @Diana: I would recommend not touching those kinds of jobs at all. When I get lots of calls for one gig in a short period, that tells me that the hiring company doesn’t care at all about who represents it — kind of the opposite problem of what I discussed here. If the company doesn’t care about who is representing it to potential candidates, how can you trust that it will ever care about you?

    11. @Andrew Petersen
      I know about those too. That’s something like an IBM who relies on two or three recruiting companies. In those cases, that’s little risk and you’re not going to get a significant extra bite.
      The ones I’m talking about are the much smaller ones that are linked to a few different recruiters and they tend to not be in business for very long. That’s why I ask about the pay process and turnaround. There’s not much of a guarantee if they decide to fold their tents.
      The occasions I was subcontracted to a "Big Six (or "Big Four" consulting company were prompt pay and zero hassles.  

    12. Thanks for the very informative article. For my current job, I made several mistakes that you mentioned, including not meeting with the recruiter beforehand, not asking him questions about salary or the employer, and not communicating often enough. No wonder I got a job below my pay range, and an employer who is below average. I’ll do much better in finding a great job next time.

    13. I used to do tech recruiting (until I basically recruited myself to a job). Your article pretty accurately portrays "how the sausage gets made". Thanks for the post!

    14. There are also novice recruiters at the bigger well known firms that want to ask you all kinds of interview questions. "What motivates you?", "What are your strengths?"… This was a brand new recruiter that felt like they had to "Get to know me". They also want you to come in for a long interview if you are near. The last two jobs I’ve had were with fantastic recruiters that have never met me nor have needed to ask me those types of questions. They know how to get to that information with conversations. I think certain firms have quotas for their recruiters to phone interview and in-person interview. If you the candidate needs practice then have at it 😉
      Great post!

    15. This post reminded me about a recruiter with a big firm that had presented me to one of their clients. It looked good for both sides ( company/ candidate). After several weeks of significant time and effort to have multiple phone interviews and all day in person interviews I never heard back from the recruiter. The recruiter was never available to take a call –various reasons. At the very least I would have liked some feedback from the interview. It would have been a little bit of a return on my time investment 😉

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