The Grifters: Con Artists and Agency Recruiting
Nov 11, 2015
Recently, it seems my rants against the rotten state of the recruiting industry have earned me the reputation of being “the angry recruiter,” an honorific that, while not entirely accurate, has been more or less true since well before I started writing these posts.
The truth is, I am angry; while I remain generally optimistic about the direction we’re headed in, I’m constantly reminded that we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go, too.
At this point in my career, I’ve pretty much seen it all, or so I had thought, until a couple of weeks ago.
Now, before I go too far, I’d like to reiterate my belief that recruiters, mostly, are good people, and that despite all of our transgressions, most of us have some sort of heart hidden in there. If you’re one of those recruiters who has any sort of passion for this business of ours – hell, if you have a soul – than the story I’m about to tell you is going to make your blood boil.
Frankly, I’m still a little bit pissed off (and amazed) at what went down.
The Agency Recruiting Con is On.
What follows is a true story, and a tragic one, about what happens when crappy candidate experience, craptastic employers, con artistry and capitalism collide in a perfect shit storm.
This cautionary tale is exactly why I’m “the angry recruiter” – and if it doesn’t anger you, too, then you’ve g2ot no business being in this business.
Meet Jimmy. He’s the kind of “top tech talent” that every employer out there is looking for – a good coder and an even better person, a top performer with high potential just a couple of years into his career.
He’s been busting his butt and exceeding every expectation at his current employer, but now that he’s a proven entity, Jimmy’s frustrated. He realizes that for all that work, he’s still underpaid (which isn’t uncommon in the tech sector, where competition has fueled wage inflation that’s made it nearly impossible for most employers to keep pace with the market) and underappreciated, being offered few opportunities for personal development and professional advancement.
So, Jimmy decided that even though his current gig wasn’t terrible, he’d put in enough time where it might make some sense to see what else was out there.
Like all candidates in the tech sector, Jimmy knew that his experience and expertise were in demand, and that anyone who’s a halfway decent coder can command a considerable raise just for switching companies, even if it’s doing the exact same job with the exact same responsibilities.
Jimmy, who was coming up on his two year mark at the company he joined straight out of his college computer science program, was at a critical point in his career. Within the technology sector, companies consistently see cadres of former college hires turnover approximately two years into their tenure, statistically speaking.
Employers combat this persistent phenomenon programmatically, which is why so many stock option or long term incentives, internal promotions and salary increases are scheduled to coincide with an employee’s two year anniversary.
No matter how these salary and bonus programs are structured, they share a common end goal, which is to effectively trap an employee into sticking around while the vultures perpetually hover, waiting to poach their prey.
Given the significant retention challenges rampant in the technology industry, the fact that most of these measures fail demonstrates that no amount of money in the world can overcome a toxic company culture. The fact is, as much as tech companies are paying to recruit and retain talent, they could pay a little more attention to what’s really causing their talent challenges.
Unfortunately, you can’t put a pricetag on treating your workers the right way, which is why so many tech employers continue to fight a losing battle in the proverbial “war for talent.” While tech talent might be insanely in demand (and know it), those seemingly infinite options can actually be overwhelming for candidates like Jimmy.
With limited experience in the workforce other than an internship that turned into a full time offer at his existing role (a fairly standard path into the industry), Jimmy had absolutely no clue how the hell to find the right job the right way. The good news is, most of the time, jobs find them – which is how Jimmy ended up on the phone with a “recruiter” from Robert Half. That, as it turns out, was the bad news.
The Agency Recruiting Get Rich Quick Scheme.
I’d like to take a minute to tell you a little bit about the agency at the center of this cautionary (and morality) tale; perhaps you’ve even heard of it, since, for better or for worse, they’ve got something of a reputation in this business. Robert Half International, as the name would imply, is a multinational staffing firm with their hands in a number of verticals, from accounting to admins, and, to the detriment of everyone in the sector, technology.
This venerable firm has been around since 1948, which pretty much predates the codification of the “recruitment” function, and, I suppose, proves again the early bird indeed gets the worm, eventually expanding into the 4.7 billion dollar a year behemoth that it is today.
In fact, Robert Half (RHI) is considered such a bellwether, blue chip brand that it’s not only a component of the S&P 500, but has been consistently recognized as “The Most Admired Company” in the Recruiting & Staffing Industries in Fortune’s annual corporate reputation survey. In short, as staffing firms go, RHI is pretty much as reputable as they come – at least, it would look that way.
I had always thought of Robert Half as having a pretty solid reputation, one of those kinds of firms where good recruiters begin good careers, the kind of place where most of us in this business first accidentally fall into a recruiting role. Of course, their talent management model (not uncommon among third party agencies) is decidedly sink or swim; and those that sink can truly sink not only a global company’s brand reputation, but that of the entire recruiting profession.
Put someone with no experience in charge of a real req for a real company, sometimes, shit is going to hit the fan. At least that’s what happened when, let’s call her “Suzie,” for the sake of the story, found herself on the phone with Jimmy that day.
After it all went down, I checked out Suzie’s LinkedIn profile; somehow, after a whopping 1.4 years of experience, is considered to be a “Senior Recruiter,” which seems kind of a stretch in any circumstances. But the kind of shady shit this “senior” staffing pro pulls evidences that seniority and stupidity aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Because, man, Suzie is, like so many shitty recruiters, not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed (although most definitely a tool, nevertheless).
Suzie has worked at RHI since she graduated with a communications degree from some third tier regional college a couple years back, and according to her LinkedIn profile has worked on some pretty prestigious sounding searches (of course, that source is always somewhat prone to hyperbole).
This means that her experience comes exclusively from the processes and procedures at RHI, who, ostensibly, also provided her sole source of professional training over the last year and a half she’s been in the business.
I’m not saying that what went down is explicitly Robert Half’s fault, but the fact is, they’re also complicit in Suzie’s complete breach of decor, professionalism and obvious lack of values of morals – bad behavior is learned somewhere. And when you’ve only worked for one agency, you don’t have to look too far to find at least one of the chief culprits.
Jimmy had applied for a role that RHI had posted on behalf of a client; he didn’t know, at first, he was talking to a third party agency, since there was no mention that the listing was not posted directly by the big name tech brand he thought he was applying for.
He was excited by that first call; the role was not only the exact kind of work he wanted to do and with more responsibilities and advancement opportunities than at his current company, but at an employer who had a great reputation in the industry as a great place to work. Suzy had Jimmy on the hook, and after that conversation, it was off to the races.
To Suzie’s credit, she was able to move Jimmy pretty quickly through the process (although his impressive background and niche skillset did most of the work on its own); it wasn’t long before he was extended a verbal offer, which he excitedly accepted. It was, the recruiter told him, a done deal; all that was left, pretty much, was the paperwork.
The Agency Recruiting Bait & Switch.
Now, I’m not going to completely exonerate Jimmy from any blame; he made some serious mistakes, the kind of mistakes that while obviously premature and naive to anyone in recruiting, are exactly the kinds of “learning opportunities” (read: screwing ourselves) we all make early in our career. And, remember, this was Jimmy’s first real job offer, since he had earlier been converted directly after his internship.
But the fact is, most of what followed falls squarely on the shoulders of Robert Half in general, Suzy in specific, because they were the ones who not only led Jimmy to believe he had the job, but also, because they failed at one of the primary functions of any recruiter, agency or otherwise: counseling, consulting and coaching their candidates, who put absolute trust (for some reason) that the recruiter working with them is on their side.
So when recruiters stab those candidates in the back for the sake of expediency or just plain stupidity, then it’s tantamount to betrayal (at least in the eyes of the job seeker).
Jimmy, prematurely, thinking that he was moving onto bigger and better things, hung up after his conversation with Suzie and did what he’d dreamed of for a few months now: put in his two weeks with his manager, who graciously accepted his resignation, realizing that while Jimmy was one of his best programmers, he couldn’t blame him from wanting out of the Silicon Valley sweatshop that he himself felt trapped in, since quitting would mean forfeiting potential millions in options. So, he wished Jimmy well and accepted his resignation.
Now, any recruiter with any modicum of sense or sensibility would, sensibly, tell any candidate while extending a verbal offer that it’s a really, really bad idea to quit your job without a formal offer letter in hand. Of course, Suzi neglected to tell him this important bit of information; she also told him nothing about the particulars of the process between verbal offer and written letter, nor any advice on next steps.
So Jimmy didn’t know that he still had to pass a litany of background checks, reference checks, drug screens and all that other back office BS that almost always accompanies an official offer of employment.
Nope. All Suzie said was that it was a done deal, pretty much.
Catch Us If You Can.
Jimmy waited, and waited, but after a week of not hearing or knowing anything other than he wouldn’t have his current job in a matter of days, finally heard from Suzy.
The offer had come in; but as so many candidates who have worked with recruiters who see people as nothing more than potential placements and paychecks, the offer Jimmy received looked nothing like the one they had talked about for weeks, or he had expected. It was like being punched in the gut.
Suzie went on to inform him that the offer wasn’t for a full time role, per se – something she’d failed to mention throughout the entire process.
She told him that it was going to be a six month contract, after which, of course, he’d become a full time employee. “It’s just one of those policies, you know?,” she said, but of course, Jimmy didn’t. He just knew he’d surrendered a real job to become a contractor – with no guarantees that it would last past six months.
Jimmy was, understandably, a little pissed off. When he told Suzie he’d already quit her job, her reaction was to laugh and tell him how dumb a move that was. When he said he hadn’t been told it wasn’t a full time role, she accused him of not asking during the hiring process, or not digging into the role more deeply.
The basic information every recruiter should tell every candidate as a matter of course, of course, somehow was Jimmy’s responsibility to research. It wasn’t her circus, or her monkeys – it was Jimmy’s situation, and if he didn’t want the job, she had plenty of other candidates in the hopper who did. So, he accepted this temp-to-perm position, pretty much shit out of other options. He sent in a signed offer letter, knowing that he’d pretty much sold his soul through a staffing firm.
Under most circumstances, the bright side would be that this was a lesson learned, one of those mistakes anyone could make at that point in their career, even if it was turning out to be one really expensive, really painful lesson. Jimmy had resigned himself to coming on as a contractor and had just about swallowed his pride when, two days after Jimmy sent in his signed offer, was told that the company had changed its mind.
They now wanted Jimmy to be a permanent employee, not a contract to hire, a last minute reprieve that, understandably, left Jimmy overjoyed – things really had all worked out, even if he had to suffer a little bit in the process. But wait…there’s more.
Persuasion Tricks: The Confidence Games Agencies Play.
Suzie informed him that, since he was going to onboard as a full time hire instead, would need to submit a new set of paperwork, and that he’d receive two documents; one, a standard offer letter, similar to the one he’d already executed for the contract-to-hire gig.
But it was the other required agreement that proved far more precarious. This attachment, which Suzie hadn’t really explained before shooting it over, was something of an unusual (and upsetting) addendum to the employment contract, an agreement that was tantamount to talent treason.
This little letter stipulated that by joining the company, Jimmy would be required to pay, at a prorated rate, the full $18,000 fee Robert Half would be receiving as their fee; Suzie, I found out later, would not, under this agreement, be required to give up one red cent of that commission. Nope. If he didn’t like the gig in which she placed him, it would cost him, not her, to head for the exits.
So, effectively, he was on the hook for at least a year, or else, he’d be liable for repaying the objectively ridiculously high fee RHI commanded for what was, to him, more or less submitting his resume, giving him a panic attack, and finally pulling through with what he hoped was finally the offer they’d been promising since that first phone call. Yup. The candidate, not the recruiter, would be penalized for making a shitty placement. Of course, Suzie hadn’t told him any of that before the fact, either – yeah, she sucks.
I’ll let you process that all for a moment; this is exactly the kind of bullshit game agencies play that gives recruiting the black eye that defines our piss poor professional reputation and business credibility – so many people, just like Jimmy, have been burned so many times by the Robert Halfs of the world, it’s no wonder that they hate us.
Suzie, after Jimmy had calmed down about this unexpected clause, convinced him that if he went and asked for his job back, he’d more or less be managed out anyway, and had already killed any chance he had of career advancement there – sure, they’d probably have him back, but he’d already shown that he didn’t want to be there, wasn’t to be trusted, and that it was only a matter of time before he headed for the hills again.
Saying no to the offer and staying, she told him, was tantamount to career suicide – and his only other option was starting from square one and hitting the streets without a job in hand, hoping someone would hire him. But as an “active” candidate, his odds were piss poor at best.
This was her advice to a candidate, her career consulting: “Take the offer, or else.”
Obviously, after a whole year and a half of doing this, she could safely say she’d seen what happens long term when her candidates accept counteroffers – even though she continued to reiterate that it was because of her experience and expertise that Jimmy should just do what she told him and sign the offer for his own good.
Which, with that “guidance,” is of course exactly what Jimmy did, knowing he was screwing himself, but thinking that this wasn’t just the best option, but the only one.
The Spanish Prisoner Scam, Agency Recruiting Style.
Now, not many people outside of hourly food service or hospitality workers, manual laborers and Google employees sign up for a job knowing to themselves that there was no way they’d be sticking any longer than absolutely necessary; certainly, very few skilled, exempt professionals start a new role knowing the relationship is doomed before they even begin their onboarding process.
But Jimmy started already disengaged, disenfranchised, and started counting down the days before he could finally quit and start picking up the pieces of his career. The only other time he heard from Suzie after he started this job he absolutely hated was to ask for any referrals for a role requiring a similar background. Did he know anyone?
Needless to say, he didn’t return her calls, messages or InMails. He tried to put his head down, forget she existed and remember that he’d learned what not to do when looking for his next job.
So he suffered. I mean, even with working so many hours for such little pay in his old job, the dream culture the recruiter had described turned out to be a waking nightmare. It was a classic bait and switch – it was as if every single thing he was told about working there by everyone in the hiring process (most, of course, coming from Suzie) was a complete and blatant lie. Hell, he would have been happier if he had ended up at Amazon – at least then, he’d have a few stock options.
But he was stuck, not able to afford the 18k it would take to quit, and wistfully ignoring the inundation of recruiting related e-mails he continued to receive, for positions that seemed like nirvana compared to the pitiable existence he faced every day he went into the office. That is, until one day, the phone rang. It was another recruiter. And even though he almost hung up after finding that out, he was so miserable he decided to stay on and hear him out. Good thing, too.
Now, the recruiter he was talking to is one of my close friends and closer colleagues, who I’ve known, worked with and respected for years now, one of those internal recruiters who genuinely cares about the candidate experience and is proud to represent his employer, and his passion for his company is pretty obvious to anyone he comes into contact with. In short, he recruits not with the goal of closing reqs, but improving lives by improving careers.
It’s a good feeling knowing that your company actually delivers on the promises you have to make to get candidates to accept an offer, where employer branding happens organically and people genuinely love their jobs. If you haven’t had that experience, I feel sorry for you – it’s pretty awesome.
And my friend knew, in that first conversation with Jimmy, that not only was he a great candidate, but a great fit, too. Jimmy was at the end of his rope, and agreed to at least consider the job, regardless of the fact he was effectively handcuffed. What was the worst that could happen?
The Pyramid Scheme.
After a few interviews, the usual dog and pony show and a whole lot of unnecessary pre-closing – they just wanted Jimmy, Jimmy just wanted out, easy enough – the kid made yet another fatal mistake. Fool me once, as they say. And this time, I’ve got to say, shame on Jimmy.
Because he did to my friend exactly what Suzie had done to him. He waited until the actual offer was on the table to bring up that minor detail that he couldn’t take the gig unless, you know, he could somehow come up with a way to cover the thousands he was contractually obligated to pay for leaving early. This, of course, put my friend in the precarious position of having to come back and tell Jimmy that, since he hadn’t disclosed that, there was nothing they could do but leave the offer as is. The choice was his.
After some soul searching, coupled with the hope that 7 months in, there was no way RHI would care or even notice (they’d been paid out months ago), he figured he’d take his chances and get the hell out of Dodge.
Well, he submitted his two week notice, and in return, a few days after onboarding at his new job, he was given a bill for $8k. That was the prorated amount he still owed Robert Half since he bailed. Sorry, not sorry.
Indignant, Jimmy thought about suing – or something – but he didn’t have the time, resources or experience to even think about litigation. Well, not only that, but at least he had the sense to know that it’s a bad idea at 25 years old to sue your former employer while also trying to find a long term home at the new company, where he felt he needed to focus. So, looking ahead instead of back, he got down to the matter at hand.
Jimmy was staring at a bill, printed on Robert Half letterhead, telling him that he had 30 days to pay the 8,000 in full, or face potential litigation or wage garnishment. These are scary words to anyone, much less some kid who has more coding skills than common sense (obviously). Knowing he didn’t have the means to cover this in a single month (this is a lot of cash early in your career), he reached out to the HR department at his former employer to plead his case.
He explained that he had first signed a contract to hire offer, then told after the fact that it was a perm position, and since he had already given notice, had no other option but to take the job. It wasn’t his fault – it was the agency they had paid to represent him that was the real culprit of this unfortunate series of events. The HR Lady, of course, professed ignorance at Jimmy’s accusations – and then, in an instant, it all became clear.
“We never agreed to a temp-to-perm position with them,” she informed him, “we only use Robert Half for full time jobs; they’re not set up for contingency or contract workers. That’s another vendor.”
She told him that the agreement he’d made to repay the money was made with Robert Half, not with them, so she could do nothing but tell him she thought they had probably put in this clause – which she’d never heard of happening before – as a hedge to make sure they got paid their full placement fee. She mentioned that Robert Half had several hires before him not work out, and, in fact, they were no longer working with them at all. They hadn’t been happy with their unprofessionalism and shady practices, she said, although this was all news to Jimmy.
Robert Halfway House: Why Recruitment Needs Rehab.
Let’s stop for a minute. What the serious hell is going on here?1 I’ve worked with agencies in the past, both as a contingency recruiter and as a direct employer, and despite my continued daily exposure to third party recruiters and agencies, despite my having reviewed and vetted literally hundreds of RFPs for clients and contracts for external search firms, I’ve never, ever heard of this nonsense.
This, in my opinion, is exactly the kind of behavior that’s not only just bad for the candidates and clients companies like Robert Half purportedly p