Vicinity Jobs
Bookmark and Share

How To Really Deal With Recruiting Firms Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

Part One: What You Need To Know About Recruiters

There Are Different Strokes For Different Folks

Pop quiz: what's the difference between recruiting, placement and executive search? If you're like most folks, you might think these terms are interchangeable. But when you're hooking up with a headhunter, it pays to know exactly what type to seek out.

Search firms are an important piece of a wide-ranging job hunt. All told, they give you access to maybe 10 -- 15% of all available positions. That figure varies based on your industry or profession. For instance, there are very few recruiters for people in the arts. Marketing specialists and senior executives, on the other hand, rely heavily on headhunters for leads.

Essentially there are three types of firms to be aware of. Roughly speaking, they're split in terms of the salary levels they deal with.

Employment and Temp Agencies

This is the lower end of the spectrum. Names like Kelly Services, Drake, Ajilon Pinstripe (owned by Addeco) and Randstad come to mind. These companies specialize in filling positions in the under $50,000 range. Administrative assistants, customer service representatives and data entry clerks are typical assignments.

Firms like the ones just mentioned often, though not exclusively, place candidates as 'temps.' You're sent to an employer for a fixed term, say three months or so. During this time you get paid an hourly fee by the placement agency, not the employer. The agency earns its money by charging the employer for your time -- up to double what you end up receiving.

Temp positions can sometimes turn into longer term or even permanent roles. You should speak to the agency about its policies, and your goals, before accepting an assignment. This way there'll be no confusion about how to manage the arrangement.

Recruiting Firms

Moving up a notch on the ladder brings us to recruiters, also known as placement consultants and search groups. If you're pulling down from the mid 50 thousand range up to $100,000, this is who you should approach. There are hundreds of search companies in the GTA. Some are specialists, such as Anne Whitten Bilingual Human Resources or Legal Personnel Consultants. Others are generalists.

The best way to find the right ones for you is to use a directory. Your local library should have a copy of The Directory of Toronto Recruiters and The Directory of Canadian Recruiters, both from Continental Records Company ( You can also try searching Yet another route is to visit one of the big job banks, like Monster or Workopolis, find the jobs you'd like to apply for, and note the agencies who've posted those positions.

Locating a recruiter is the easy part. Getting one to give you the time of day is like getting a minority government to work harmoniously.

Headhunters are notorious for ignoring your calls, e-mails and rocks with messages hurled through windows. It's because of how they work: they're accountable to the employers that pay them -- not to you (if a recruiter ever asks you for payment, run for the hills, but not before reporting them to the Better Business Bureau). They can only place people for job orders they've manage to scrounge. And they only look at resumes that closely match existing assignments.

How then to grab the attention of a busy recruiter? You can start by sending in your resume to firms that have postings in your field. Try calling first to get the name and e-mail address of the person on the gigs you're applying to. Then attach your perfected, third party reviewed resume to a brief e-mail describing your background and interest in the position. Follow up within three business days with a polite phone call -- 'Just checking to see if you've received my application. I realize you're busy but have you had a chance to review it yet?'

A more effective approach is to get someone the recruiter knows to refer you in to them. Nothing beats starting your cover letter along the lines of 'You may remember Cheryl, who you placed last year at my company. She says you really helped her out and recommended I speak to you directly.' Unless of course you've hired people yourself and have good contacts with search firms.

One note of caution: find out from the start if the recruiter is working on 'contingency' or 'retainer.' A retainer search means the recruiter is likely the exclusive agent for this particular job. Contingency means a whole bunch of firms will probably compete to fill the position.

If you're working with multiple agencies, make sure you insist each one notifies you before you allow them to send out your resume. The last thing you want is your application to end up on some H.R. manager's desk three or four times, all from different search firms. It could put you out of the running if there's potential for dispute over who got there first.

Executive Search

This is the stratosphere of recruiting. Senior executives and highly paid professionals are welcome at such headhunters as Caldwell Partners International, Heidrick & Struggle and Korn/Ferry. Usually Directors and V.P.'s are the starting point, right up to CEO. It's an exclusive group, yet even at this level the odds of getting your calls returned are daunting.

Best bet is to network your way in via other players. Otherwise, make yourself a known quantity by getting published in trade magazines, speaking at industry conferences, or getting quoted by the media (though not in the Martha Stewart way).

Regardless of the type of search firm you go after, there are certain rules of the game. For instance, always treat the recruiter like they're the employer. Be on your best game with them whether e-mailing, speaking by phone or meeting face-to-face. After all, they're your gateway to the real deal.

Also, if you agree to go on an interview, even if your heart's not in it, prepare to shine. Otherwise you make your recruiter (and yourself, of course) look like a dolt. Try getting them to send you out ever again.

A few more hints. Don't be belligerent or bossy with recruiters. They usually have plenty of other candidates to choose from. Respond to their messages promptly. Be polite and enthusiastic. And if you really want to get on their good side, give them the names of other strong candidates you know who are looking for a new job.

The bottom line is that search firms should be used strategically in your job hunt. If you treat them right and they send you on appropriate interviews, you've broadened your chances for success. You also have the right to walk if you're being treated unfairly. The end game is for both of you to come out happy: you with a great new position, they with bucks in their pocket. Just remember it's up to you, not them, to make sure things proceed apace.

Part Two: Games Recruiters Play -- And How to Win Them.

Knowing What You're Up Against Is Half The Battle

You're sitting nervously in the reception area of a company you've spent hours researching, in preparation for today's interview. Hands shaking slightly you barely notice the magazine you're thumbing through. Now it's show time. Only the session doesn't go as planned. The job they're describing is far too junior for you. Not at all like your recruiter described. So what's going on here?

In the world of headhunting, it's known as the old 'bait and switch.' The recruiter you're working with knowingly sent you on a job interview you're overqualified for -- in the hopes you're desperate enough to take it. If you do, the employer wins (they get a better employee than they bargained for), and the recruiter scores (they get paid for placing you). But you end up with less money and a lesser title than you might have earned elsewhere, plus a position that'll bore you to tears within six months.

If this doesn't strike you as fair, that's because it isn't. Not that job seekers are always forthright in their dealings with recruiters. Headhunters I've spoken to complain about candidates (job seekers) who lie through their teeth, don't show up as promised at interviews, show up but are embarrassingly unprepared, or gratefully accept a job then fail to appear their first day because they found something else behind the recruiter's back.

The thing to keep in mind is that working with recruiters is an essential part of your job search. It can expose you to between 10% - 20% of all the positions out there. Like any industry, it has many highly ethical players and a host of barracudas. Knowing how to spot when you're being manipulated saves you time and frustration. Here are some of the main ways less trustworthy recruiters jerk people around.

The 'Oreo Cookie' Maneuver. In this little scam, you get sent to a job interview, although the recruiter knows you'll never get the offer here. Then he sends in a top notch candidate who knocks the employer's socks off. Following that, he sends another job seeker in who, like you, isn't a perfect fit for this specific assignment. You've both been served up as the outer crust surrounding a creamy, delicious centre. Guess who gets left on the shelf.

'Gone Fishing.' Ever responded to one of those 'blind ads' in the paper? That's where the job sounds great but there's zero info about who the company is. Likely as not, this ad was posted by a recruiter looking to fill her database with potential candidates. She's happy to get your resume along with the hundreds of others she'll receive. Then she can call employers and boast about all the great candidates she has for them. Mind you, if she does find a job for you this way, you end up a winner. Still, wouldn't you rather have control over who gets your resume and where it ends up?

'Under Pressure.' I once used a notoriously unprincipled recruiter back in my corporate marketing days. I'd heard stories about him but figured I could deal with whatever he threw my way. Anyway, after one of the job interviews he'd arranged for me, he called me to ask how it went. On a Friday night at 10:30. Then again early Saturday morning. That afternoon and evening too. Sunday morning again, to see if I'd made my mind up yet. Two more times that day to harangue me and threaten that if I didn't take the job he'd blacklist me with all of his employers. Then a Monday morning wake up and make up call: 'They love you, Mark. I guarantee you'll love this job. Your wife will love you for taking it.' Adoration aside, I turned the offer down because it definitely wasn't right for me. Funny thing is about two weeks ago this same guy left a voicemail for me, out of the blue, after a fifteen year hiatus. Probably still hoping I'll accept.

'Hold The Mayo.' A recruiter acts as a gatekeeper. They get paid by the employer and may have little loyalty to you. So you might get held back from certain opportunities without ever knowing it. For instance, a headhunter might believe you'd be a great fit for job A. He feels you could easily do job B as well, even though it's not quite what you're hoping for. The recruiter has another candidate who'd be great at job A too, but wouldn't match the company culture at job B. So the other candidate is sent on the interview and snags job A. All you're ever told about is job B, which you end up taking because really, it's not so bad, and after all you've been looking for months now and the kids are fed up having to eat Kraft dinner every night. Meanwhile the recruiter gets two separate commissions and is celebrating with bubbly at North 44.

Fortunately there are ways to manage recruiters and reduce the chances of getting exploited. Like insisting that your approval is necessary before your resume is sent anywhere. Refusing to go on interviews if you know that the company or position is very likely not to be a fit. No longer applying to blind ads. And approaching as many employers as you can on your own, thus reducing your reliance on middlemen.

If you're being harassed or pressured, you can hang up or leave the recruiter's office. Follow up with a warning that you'll use another agency if this persists. Tell the recruiter you'll spread the word to every single one of your friends and colleagues. And report especially offensive or illegal behaviour to the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations (

Bare in mind that not all recruiters are bad. In fact, many have built a reputation for honesty and fairness. The idea is to find ones you feel reasonably comfortable with. Inquire around and have friends or colleagues refer you to the better firms. Ask headhunters for references (they'll be requesting yours soon enough). And walk away from a bad situation, because there are many headhunters to choose from. If you do find a good one, reward them with honesty, enthusiasm and referrals. And stay in touch over the years. Because a recruiter who's your ally might be just the edge you need to land that great new job.

The opinions and positions expressed in the above article represent the views of the author and are provided with no legal obligation and liability on the part of either the author or the publisher of this article, and with no implied or stated guarantees. The publisher of this article and the author are exempt from any liability for events resulting directly or indirectly from the use of this article. Copyrights over the article published on this page are owned in full by the article's author. It is prohibited to reproduce this article in parts or in full without the expressed permission of the author.