Games recruiters play

July 9, 2014

So I was having a couple of beers the other night with a few other IT folk, swapping war stories, gossiping, the usual. A couple of them were unhappy at their current, permanent jobs, and thinking of trying contracting for a while. Maybe make a bit more money, or just to make a change. For someone who hasn’t done it before, leaving a stable, full-time job can be a little scary, especially if it’s in a foreign country (which for some of them this is). And they were asking all the usual questions: What’s the next step? How do I resign? Do I know of any available jobs? Can I get them a job? How long will it take to find a new job? What skills do I need? Do I need a recruiter? Which recruiters do you use? Or not? Why not?

That last one really opened a can of worms! Everyone had a pet horror story. We compared notes. There were some particularly disturbing tales about some recruitment agencies, some of their agents, and the steps they were taking to ensure that you got a job (at someone else’s expense), didn’t get a job, lost a job, or were sent on a wild-goose chase.

Then one of the guys piped up: “Hey wislon,” he said, (and he really does call me ‘wislon’), “you should write a blog post about it.”

So I did. And here it is. It has an IT aspect to it, but I think the behaviour is endemic, and can be found across all industries.

Job loss is inevitable. Being a contractor means that by definition you’re going to be out of work occasionally. When I started contracting, the idea of not having a “permanent” job used to bother me. But I’ve been doing it for a while now, and as long as you’re careful with your budget, and keep your skills sharp, you’ll be fine. And these days I don’t think there’s such a thing as a permanent job anyway. There’s a hundred reasons it could go away: your contract is up, the project is done, there’s no more money, there’s a change of government, or a particularly inept new manager decides they absolutely, positively want to buy-cheap-and-pay-dearly to outsource your job to a body-shop in Bangalore.

Or maybe you just got so sick of what you were doing that you threw in the towel and left, with nowhere to go.

You can become too expensive, obsolete, or just plain irrelevant in a heartbeat. And that’s actually OK, provided you’ve got a Plan B. You do have a Plan B, don’t you? Because the days of a job-for-life, with a gold watch and a handshake at the end, are over. You should always have an exit strategy or a backup plan. No matter how good you think you are, there’s always someone younger, smarter, faster and cheaper than you, and your experience only counts for so much.

And once you’re out of work, with a mortgage, bills and mouths to feed, there’s pressure to find something else. Hopefully you’ll be able to something you like doing, that pays really well. You ask your mates, previous clients, ping a few folks in your social network, and have a bit of a poke around on the job boards. If you’re lucky, you can segue into something else immediately. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Your network fails and you have to dust off that resume, and start whoring yourself out via recruitment agencies. There’s a reason we contractors call them “our pimps”.

Before you do that though, here’s a couple of things you’ll want to keep an eye out for. They may save you some aggravation. I’ve had variations of all of these happen to me, and I’ve heard similar tales from other people. Some seem pretty common, and not limited to one agency in particular. But I’ve not seen any of these described anywhere else. I didn’t want this to read too much like a BuzzFeed listicle, but here’s a few of my most anti-favourites in the “Games Recruiters Play”. If you’ve ever dealt with a particular breed of recruiter or the agency they represent, what comes next will probably neither shock nor amaze you.

The Cock-Block

You get a phone call from a recruiter saying that Initech is going to be hiring soon. They’ll be advertising privately, but they know someone on the inside, and if you can get your resume to them right away, they’ll make sure you’re the leading candidate. It’s a sure thing. Just please don’t send your resume directly to the company, as it’ll just confuse things, since the recruiter will be the one representing you. In Australia, they usually have to ask for your permission, in writing, to represent you exclusively. The more ethical ones will, anyway. Once you’ve done that, it’s then best to stay with them for that application. But if they don’t ask you, then they may not be on the level.

A few days later, Initech does indeed post the job, and there’s a “No Recruiters” statement in there somewhere. But that’s OK, right? That recruiter you spoke to knows someone, and they’re doing you a favour, right? Wrong. Suddenly you can’t get hold of the recruiter to find out if they submitted the resume. It turns out one of your mates knows someone who works there (and why didn’t you know this already?), and can get your resume in front of the right people… only now you can’t give them your resume because apparently you’re already represented and it’ll mess up your chances… right?

Bullshit. If you can’t verify that your resume was ever sent, then send it again, directly this time. Any recruiter worth your attention will be in touch with you again as soon as that job posting appears, to let you know that the ball is rolling. If you can’t get hold of them, especially over the next few days, then there’s a good chance they’ve pulled a fast one. I honestly don’t even know why they do this. Maybe there’s a preferred candidate they’d rather not have you competing against? Or they’re trying to get back at someone for something? One international agency with a big, shiny office in Brisbane appears to do this fairly consistently, so I tell everyone to avoid them.

Lesson learned: I’m often asked to be a referee for people I’ve worked with, and this means speaking to representatives for companies looking at hiring them. A lot of them simply refuse to use recruiters for precisely this kind of reason. And their advice to me has always been to resubmit if you’re not sure, because if there was a “no recruiters” clause, then there’s a good chance your resume went straight into File #13 without even getting a look-in.

And if you know someone at the company willing to bump your resume on for you, even better! In some cases it’s like having a partial reference check already attached. And once you’ve got your interview, then keep your mouth shut about it, or you may be lining yourself up for…

…A Sucker Punch (Aussies call this a ‘king-hit’)

It’s the one you didn’t see coming. My preferred recruitment agency constantly reminds me to keep any details of any job I’m a candidate for, completely confidential. I learned why, the hard way, a couple of years ago. Acme Recruiting lined me up for what appeared to be a really sweet gig with a large distribution company. The interviews were a decent grilling (as they should be), and everything was lined up. It was a done deal. I was due to start in a couple of weeks, but in the interim they were going to be sorting out a new PC for me, getting a login and email account sorted out, and so on. Everyone was happy.

A few days later, I got a call from another recruiter, about another job somewhere else, and in my naiive idiocy, I told him thanks, but no, I had another gig lined up. He asked where, and through whom I’d got it. I made the mistake of telling him. Stupid. Less than three hours later, I got a phone call from Acme Recruiting, saying they didn’t know what had happened, but the company had suddenly decided to go with someone else.

Job gone. Just like that.

Lesson Learned: Until you have a signed contract, you’ve got nothing. If you have something, anything, going, even if it’s just an interview, no one else needs to know about it. Keep it between you and your agency. And ask your friends not to mention it either, especially if they’re talking to other recruiters. Because some of those recruiters are always on…

A Fishing Trip

Who’s hiring at your place? This is a classic, and it’s one you’re already familiar with if you’re in a senior role. You got that new job at Initech, writing software for their new Green Widgets. And then you made the mistake of updating your profile on LinkedIn, because hey, you’re proud to be part of it, and Green Widgets are the new Black Widgets and everyone wants to be doing that.

And now you’re the most popular guy in town; recruiters you’ve never heard of are calling or emailing you to ask if they can come and meet you, or introduce you to the perfect developer for your new team, or to find out how many people you need. You have to keep fobbing them off, or you’ll never get anything done, and anyway, you’re the new guy, you don’t even have the proper authority yet. So pretty soon they’re calling your project manager, HR person, development manager, and the guy who cleans the toilets, and dropping your name, saying you recommended that they call. It pisses everyone off, just when you’re trying to build a decent reputation in a new company.

Lesson Learned: No one needs to know you’ve got a new job, other than your mates. It’s not something you really need to share with the world. Don’t share the details of any of your hiring managers with anyone either. And update your LinkedIn profile sparingly and vaguely. Or, even better, update it months later, or only after you leave that particular gig.

And please don’t bother calling me to fish for leads, under the pretext of telling me about a job you’ll never submit me for. There’s one recruiter who does this to me every couple of months, especially when the hiring market tanks. The international agency he works for is pretty much the only one I’ve dealt with who’s _never managed to get me an interview anywhere, for anything, ever. Something other recruiters never seem to have a problem with._

The Empty Piñata

You get a call about a job that is an ideal match for your skill-set, and is paying over and above market rates. You have to go through a recruiter, but they really want to meet you first, and tell you more about the role. You fiddle your calendar, or take some time off work (if you’re employed), and have a really good nuts and bolts chat with the recruiter. They’re having to play cagey with the company name, so they can’t really tell you who it’s for yet, but they’re really positive, and you’re totally the best fit for it.

You spend some more time fixing up your resume to better match what the company is apparently looking for, send it over to the recruiter. And then… nothing. Nothing at all. No feedback, no progress report, nothing. You’ve just wasted several hours helping that recruiter pad their database with your details, and achieve some nebulous KPI. There never was a job. This happens more often than you think. So much so, that other people write about it all the time. Well, at least you met the recruiter. But you could have done that any time, and not had to make a special trip to do so.

Lesson Learned: The recruiter should be able to give you at least the name of the company, and send you a position description (‘PD’). Or just tell you that there’s no actual job available right now, but they’d like to meet you anyway. Just for future reference. Or at least get an updated copy of your resume. Other recruiters are able to do this. So why the subterfuge?

Being a successful salesperson (because that’s what you are) is all about relationships. Honesty and trust are everything. So why risk it by trying to put one over on your candidates?

The Road To Nowhere

This one involves sending you for a Real! Dinkum! job interview with an organisation that has no intention of actually hiring anyone. If you’re wondering why they would even be interviewing, well, there’s a couple of reasons: maybe they’re just having a look to see what’s out there. Or maybe there are incumbents who are having to re-interview to keep their positions. The latter is more likely the case, and is more common in government-based roles, especially around the end of the financial year.

Usually there’s a stipulation in their labour-hire processes that says the organisation has to “go to the market”, to give them a chance to swap out anyone who’s not pulling their weight. Makes sense in principle, but in practice maybe not so much. Would you rather keep the people with the domain knowledge where they are? Or hire newbies who have to learn everything from scratch? Newbies are sinister. They usually aren’t institutionalised yet. Sometimes they have Ideas, and want to Improve Things. And for those who have spent years empire-building in an attempt to make themselves indispensable, Ideas and Improvements are definitely a no-go area. Even if the incumbent is a useless nuffa and an oxygen thief, they’ll often get to keep their position, because some organisations believe it’s simply safer to keep the devil you know.

As an interviewee, what they often won’t tell you is that there’s people in the positions already, no one’s going anywhere, and that the interview is basically lip service to the farce that helps managers (and recruiters) meet their KPIs, and keep their jobs. This really is a massive waste of everyone’s time.

Lesson Learned: A warning flag is when several positions suddenly become available literally overnight. And every recruiter is calling you about them. Who suddenly, desperately needs eight senior software developers, just like that? Everywhere else I’ve worked brings people on board in a slow trickle over a period of weeks or months, to avoid overwhelming the existing teams and processes.

Ask how many incumbents there are. Then ask how many are actually leaving. No one hoofs out a bunch of employees overnight, just so they can swap them out for fresh (and hopefully cheaper and smarter) new ones*. And a decent recruiter will know if there’s actually any real positions available. Finally, if the lead interviewer spends a lot of time sighing, yawning, and looking at their watch, that’s also a dead giveaway. I know I interview quite well, because I am passionate about what I do. I definitely won’t bore you. So if I encounter that, I’d rather terminate the interview at that point, because as I said, the whole thing is a massive waste of everyone’s time.

*Well, OK, someone recently crash-dumped around 14,000-odd IT workers on the job market in Queensland, but that’s in league of its own.

The Bait-and-Switch

So a recruiter is offering you a chance to work at a shop which will let you flex your rockstar ninja code muscles building Awesome Disruptive Tech using New Shiny. It’s a permanent role, but the team is Agile and Dynamic, you can work flex-time, and there’s X-Box and ping-pong and free beer and pizza on Fridays. Sounds good. You get the interview, knock them cold with your mad koding skillz, and then start chatting to the interviewer about the job and what it actually entails. Turns out that you’re actually being hired to normalise the three-table 250GB customer payments database because the guy you’re replacing left suddenly. You know you’ll spend the rest of your waking life making stored procedures, views and indexing all the things. There won’t actually be any rockstar or ninja muscles involved. But if you’re bored, and you want to help figure out why the build server keeps locking up, you can go ahead and come in on your own time and fix that too.

You’re not a database guy, but you need the work. The rate looks ok, and we all have to be a bit mercenary now and again, so you think you can do it for a while, yeah? At least until something better comes along. You’re ready to sign up, and then it starts: “Well actually, the client has decided that the rate is a bit high, and they’ve changed their minds, would you take a 20% hit?”. “No, there’s no overtime compensation, but you’ll be expected to put in some extra hours to get the job done. They’re a loyal, hard-working, dedicated team, some even come in on weekends to work on stuff”. “No, you can’t remote in, because productivity is measured by bums in seats”. “No, you won’t get to work with (the advertised) New Shiny, that’s the other team’s job, and they have enough people on it already, but if you stick around for a few months, a spot may open up”.

No. No. No…

I’ve done the death-march sweat-shop thing. I’ve got no problem with extra hours and extra responsibilities. Up to a point. But I won’t burn up the remaining hours of my life for free, for you. Everyone gets the idea of “No work, no pay”, but the converse should also be true: “No pay, no work”. I’ll not be exploited like an intern or someone whose work visa you’re threatening to cancel.

Lesson Learned: If you’re going to pay me 40 bucks an hour, but only for the first eight hours, and then I’ll be expected to work at least another 20 hours a week (for “free”), just to get this thing over the line for you, because your massive ego goaded you into making your boss an impossible promise… No wonder you can’t find anyone to come and work for you. That being said, this kind of thing is not necessarily the recruiter’s fault. If they’ve been given a brief that’s inaccurate or just plain wrong, there’s only so much they can do. Some companies want to use the buzzwords, even when they don’t know what they mean (a friend of mine told me of a guy who tried to sell the idea that his systems were “above the cloud”, because that had to be better than “in the cloud”, right?)

In conclusion…

If you, as a recruiter, have done any of these things, you’re doing it wrong (see some of the comments on that one). And word does get around. It may explain why you’re having difficulty filling a role at Company X. No one seems interested, even though it sounds awesome. Or maybe your “candidates” aren’t returning your calls (perhaps it’s because you never return theirs, if you think you even owe them any feedback?). Why poison the well for yourself?

People don’t always remember the good things, and they don’t always remember the bad, but they always remember how you made them feel. And if you treat them like “resources” (a term they hate), they’ll just go elsewhere. And they’ll be spreading the word about you too. That’s you, personally. Not just your agency. If you’re a recruiter, you’re probably reading this and grinning, and thinking “heh, we’ll see!”. But you’ll be earning less this year because of it, and you won’t know. And you’ll have no way to fix it.

Recruitment, at least in Brisbane, seems to be pretty cut-throat. I see a lot of churn in recruitment staff too, as recruiters move between agencies every few months. Whether that’s to get a salary bump, or for other reasons, I don’t know.

You probably think I hate recruiters. I actually don’t. Well, except for the jerks. I’ve worked with a couple of agencies that have provided excellent service, don’t make me feel like I’m being ripped off when they take their cut, and have been professional all the way down the line. They provide constant feedback (even if it’s to tell you there is no feedback). A single-line email or even a text message is all it takes. They know who they are, because I have told them. They’ll be the first ones I call when I do start looking around for something new. And they’re the ones I recommend when people ask me which agencies they should get in contact with.

comments powered by Disqus