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External recruitement agencies: the good, the bad and the ugly (part 1)

Since the beginning of my career in ICT I was approached by a lot of recruiters and headhunters. That means hundreds of cold calls, emails and attempted tries to connect on LinkedIn.

For the most part I have dealt with contingency agencies and in Part 1 of this article I will focus on them.
Overall I must say they are quite bad: most of them have unprofessional behavior and work ethics, see you merely as a dollar sign, don’t care to know if you will fit in a certain job and never give you feedback about the recruiting process.
Worse, in order to make a living, they make you lose your time: that can go from 15 minutes on the phone to being sent to another country to pass an interview, at your own cost if you are not prudent.
To save others some time, I will share here my own experience and give some tips on how to:
  • quickly assess how professional is the person on the other side of the line
  • make sure your professional profile is not being stolen or modified
  • lose less of your precious time

Different types of recruiting agencies

There are mainly two types of recruiters : retained agencies and contingency agencies.
The difference between the two is significant.

Retained agencies look exclusively for job seekers for only one client and, most of the time, to fill only one position. This type of recruitment is rare and meant for Senior to Executive positions.
They are paid a high-end fee before they start the search (on avg. €100k), so they are motivated to hunt and select the most qualified profile to fill the job description.
That also motivates them to take more time to find you and understand what their client wants, what you want and how you would like to evolve with their clients.
In order to keep their reputation, they employ only seasoned veterans in recruiting, who are specialists in a certain market (that actually know the difference between Agile and SCRUM) and can discern a mediocre profile from a top class one.

On the other hand, contingency agencies try most of the time to make a quick profit. Their business model is quite different: they gather a pool of job seeker resumes in their database and resell this information to any end-client company for a fee (on avg. €5000) once the person has been employed.
As there are a lot of contingency agencies, competition is fierce, which means that a client can get resumes coming from 5 of those agencies at the same time.
So, to get lucky and have one of their profiles selected, these agencies will present a lot of profiles to the same company in order to be sure that one of them is picked.
Which means that quite low standards are being set:
  • profiles are selected via a key word search
  • they don’t care about you and what you want to do. Or even worse they don’t bother to read your resume at all !
  • they change your profile in order to fit their needs
  • they will forward your cv to multiple companies at the same time
On top of that, to maintain operational costs as low as possible, they hire very young (mostly in their early twenties) and inexperienced recruiters (cold calling and nagging people is ok) most of them not specialized in the fields of IT (JavaScript is the same as Java for them).
They are given a crash course in cold calling and they are onboard.

You can imagine that quality is low, turnover rates are high and being professional is not a top skill for these recruiters (i.e.: never giving you a feedback about the job process or not even returning a phone call or answering an e-mail).
Out of a bunch of bad recruiters, sometimes a polished gem will shine.
The rest of this article will focalize on how to find those people.

Anatomy of a Cold Call

Cold calling is their friend

Imagine you are at your desk, concentrating at solving a hard bug. All of a sudden your phone rings: you don’t know the number.
Most of use will take the call and be greated by a hyperactive voice that might greet you like this:
”Hi, my name is Brian from EuroStaff group, I have a great offer …”
and then ask you if you have 10 minutes to share with them so they can present you a brilliant job proposal.

This technique of calling you out of the blue, distracting you from your actual job and trying to sell you a product you were not aware of is called Cold calling.
After an initial greating, they will start to assess your profile (and it never is a 10 minutes phone call but rather a ½ hour one).

“Your resume is so exciting!”

When you are starting out, you are eager to respond to any recruiters by phone, email or even agreeing to meet them for a coffee. And that is normal: you just started in the professional world and every opportunity seems like a golden one.
And they know it. Most of the time they give you an impression that your resume is really important for them, acting very friendlty.
You might think that the fact that they are passing so much time on the phone means that you are important at the end of the day, right?
The reality is much bleaker.

Making money on your professional experience

Most of them are just using your time to make quick cash in multiple ways:
  • on a recruiter level, their performance is assessed according to the number of people they are able to call in a day
  • on a recruiter level, the more profiles they are able to bring to their databases, the better their weekly job assessement will be
  • on the agency level, if they are lucky to make a recruitement process successful, their recruitement agency is getting a commission (around $5000 per profile)
  • on the agency level, the more the profiles they keep in their database, the better they can sell their services (i.e.: “Come work with us, we have more than 100k IT professionals in our database!“)

Such recruiters contact you because you are just a cash cow for them, nothing more. Forget the human touch (and if a company boasts to be a human recruitement company, run as far as you can from them).

Assessing your knowledge based on keywords

After making you understand how lucky you are to have been selected by them for this awesome-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they will assess your technical knowledge.
But don’t worry, it’s not a real technical interview, they are just validating keywords ”Do you know about Cloud computing? What about Java? Yeah the market is hot about Java right now.”
They are just ticking boxes next to Java on a sheet of paper so that they can sell you as a Java specialist.
In order to see if they know well the offer they are trying to sell, start asking about the technology ”As Java is hot, do you think that JavaScript, being part of Java, is hot too? ”.
If you have a seasoned recruiter, they will likely tell you you are wrong. That is a technic to see if the recruiter is good at his work.
If he or she didn’t pass the test, just hang up on them.

Changing your resume without your knowledge

“Could you send me your resume in a doc format?”
To this question you should answer ”No, I will send you one in a PDF format.”
A good bunch of recruiting agency will ask you this question for several reasons, but mainly to:
  • Add or update your profile in their database
    The more profiles they add to their Database, the more profiles they can provide to potential customers.
    The more up-to-date their database, the better chance they have to stuff rather then staff an open position.
  • Be able to change your CV before sending it to their end customer
    That is one of the most unethical things most of them do: they change your resume in order to better fit the demand of a company (i.e.: your name is going to be concealed, experience is going to be erased if it is not related to a position).
Nonetheless, they will press you to provide a .doc one, stating any excuses so that they don’t have to copy paste a pdf one (thus losing time and not being able to call more candidates, getting at the end of the week a bad review from their managers).
Just forget their request, and send the pdf version of your resume.

Losing your time unless you are the lucky one

Once the call has been done, you are going to get a follow up by email asking that you provide the most updated resume to them.Then you wait for a feedback. Unless you are the lucky one who got the job, you will get no response.Recruiters from contingency agencies consider your profile only as a number and don´t see the person behind it. They will NOT lose their time to explain to you why your profile has not been selected.
This attitude is counterproductive for creating a long lasting bond: we naturally value more an entity that comes back to you with a simple «Sorry, your profile has not been selected for this and that reason» than being ignored.
It is at that moment that you ponder on ”why did I lose so much energy on that recruiter if he treats me badly? ”

Worse case scenario: unwillingly working for them

“Can you recreate your resume using our agency template?”
So that their database search gets faster and that they don’t have to lose too much of their time optimising your resume for their own needs, some recruiters are cocky enough to ask you to rewrite your resume using their own template.
And we are not talking about a standardized document that might be recycled for other agencies; each template is unique.
If you agree to that, not only are you doing their job for free (well no, you are doing it on your own/employee-paid time) but bear in mind it will take you hours to complete such a task (especially if you have a lot of experience).
Your best answer to this question is “No. Isn’t that supposed to be your job to facilitate my profile view?“ If their response is agressive or unprofessional, ignore them.


“Is your current employer looking for IT specialists?”
Other recruiters try to create or update a mental map of your organization. When they ask about your daily activities, do not give away too much information that they could use.
If they have less tact, they will bluntly ask you if your boss is hiring and would be interested by their recruitement agency.
That is a dead giveaway that you are losing your time and energy.


“Can you reference a friend?”
During the call, if you are not interested by the job proposed or you´ve already been engaged, some recruiters will ask you if you can reference a friend of yours. And of course you are getting paid for that!
“For a successful reference, we will pay you €300 / give you a free iPad!” They just forget to tell you that they are getting paid almost 20 times this number; once again they want you to use your own time and work for them.

An example on how not to lose your time

So now that we know who we are dealing with, let me showcase you a real conversation I had a couple of days ago with a recruiter:
Recruiter : Hi, I am John Doe from Darwin recruitements I would ...
Alex : Sorry, we know each other ?
Recruiter : No, but I have this golden opport...
Alex : Did you leave me an e-mail ?
Recruiter : No, but i am...
Alex : Listen, send me an e-mail and we can arrange an appointment; that is how you do businness.
Recruiter : Give me 5 to 10 minutes so I can talk about an iOS opportunity ...
Alex : Have a nice day! (I hanged up on him)

Let us analyse what went wrong and how a good recruiter would have handled the situation.

#1 A good recruiter should have contacted you first via an e-mail

You don't necessarily have time to answer phone calls during the day. You might be working or spending some time with your family. The first sign that you have a good recruiter is the fact that they are approaching you to arrange a meeting when you and the recruiter have time to talk.

Tip 1
If someone cold calls you, quickly decline his offer and ask him to send you a mail.

#2 A good recruiter will listen to what you have to say

In the above exemple, the recruiter is being pushy. He tries to recite a prewritten text without taking into account your wish to be contacted later. This is an aggresive marketing technique that could have worked 20 years ago; today it is a sign of inexperience.
Ask yourself why you would spend time explaining who you are to someone that doesn't show respect for what you have to say? How do you expect them to sell your profile?

Tip 2
If there is no conversation, just hang up the phone. If the recruiter is still interested in your profile, he will contact you by mail.

#3 How old is your recruiter ?

After this very awkward phone call, wait for the recruiter mail. If nothing is sent, just ignore the whole situation.
If you do recieve an email, start checking the recruiter´s profile; you will find out how many years of experience he or she has and what they studied.
Most of the time, bad contingency agencies are hiring very young and inexperienced profiles with no prior education in ICT.
If they are too young, you wouldn´t want to work with them if you are seeking a mid to senior position. You don't know how your profile will be (mis)handled.

Tip 3
If the recruiter is under 25, he probably lacks experience and will mishandle your profile. Ask him by mail if a more experienced recruiter is available to represent you.

#4 Recruiters background: Lingo or real know-how ?

Most of the time they will not know the difference between Agile and Scrum, Javascript and Java (most think that the two languages are related).
If you have some free time, test them and see what answers you get from them.

Tip 4
Test if the recruiter understands the market he wants to place your profile into.

#5 Did they read your resume ?

I get a lot of propositions to work for Java related Applications or to be a web master. But if you read closely my resume, you will see that I am specialized in Mobile Applications (native, hybrid and web). That means that yes I am able to work on Web pages but I will ask you to pay me as much as Mobile Architect for that (it is a bit like asking a doctor to take blood samples from a patient - he is able to do it, but will ask to be paid much more than a nurse).
It is crystal clear from the beginning that the person hasn’t read my resume and have just checked what keywords he could find in it.

Tip 5
Find out if the recruiter has read your resume. If that is not the case, cut the communication short: if he is not interested in your profile, he will not be able to sell you.


If you can apply the 5 advices above, then you might end up with an interesting recruiter that might be worth your time.
I will cover the subject of keeping a good relationship with a good recruiter and tips about the next recruitement process in the next article.