How to work with recruiters

It’s inevitable that at some point during your recruitment drive you will need to use a recruitment agency. Here’s how to work with recruiters.

Argh – don’t worry – they aren’t all bad, in fact a great many are invaluable for finding you the right candidates.

Here’s some of my advice about working with recruitment agencies (note – it is just advice from my experience – experiment and work out what works for you – I’d be keen to hear more stories of success (and failure)).

Meet them face to face

Meeting a recruiter face-to-face gives you the chance to form a strong relationship. There’s nothing quite like shaking their hand and sitting down to chat with each other in the same room. Of course it is possible to chat to them over the phone or using modern comms like Google Hangouts, etc, but in-person is preferable in my view.

Asking them to come to your office is the first step. This can often show you their commitment as some agencies simply won’t come to see you. Scratch them off the list. Sure there are logistical reasons sometimes but the cost of travel is not that high nowadays and it shows willing.

You also get the opportunity to observe their body language. Are they welcoming and friendly or do they act uncomfortable and twitchy, especially if they deviate from their non-verbal “baseline” when asked tough questions.

When you meet someone face to face you will form an impression. That impression may or may not be a true reflection of that person, but as they say, your perception is your reality. If you don’t trust them or gel with them then don’t take the relationship any further.

Trust your instincts. The market is swamped with recruiters, both good and bad. Only work with those you trust.

Remember – all recruiters are in sales (aren’t we all?) and they will all have that elusive candidate you’re seeking – be critical of this and work with those who you trust.

Agree terms you’re both happy with

At some point you will have to agree terms. This is often dealt with by financial teams or HR. If you’re negotiating yourself then work out a good deal for both of you.

Try and find a rate (and overall package) you are both happy with. These details may be mandated by your HR team so you may not need to worry too much about this, but it’s important to ensure both parties are happy about the terms.

Both parties being happy about the deal is important as it’s a relationship you are forming. Of course, you may never know if they are truly happy but don’t push for a rate that they are not comfortable with as you may find they simply don’t invest the time in finding you the right candidates.

The market is competitive for both hiring manager and agencies and the balance appears to be in the hiring managers favor (for now) but that doesn’t mean you should push too hard on the recruiter – they are running a business also and ideally you’re building a long term relationship here so it needs to start on a good note.

It’s also worth taking the time to understand what goes in to finding candidates – it’s best not to assume you know what is involved (and hence how much you believe this work is worth) unless you truly do know what is involved.

However, don’t be pushed to a rate you’re not happy with either.

I’ve had recruiters in the past hold out for sky high rates with no real justification as to why I should pay so much. The reality is that a “sky high” cut of nothing is still nothing.

Learn from them

Good recruiters know their domain deeply. There’s often an assumption that recruiters don’t know anything and that they are “just” sales people – this is derogatory thinking. Sure, some of them simply throw unsuitable people are job openings and are on the whole unprofessional – but good recruiters know their work very well indeed and are genuinely trying to do a great job for you. We can learn a lot from them.

Ask them how you can stand out in a noisy market and what needs changing regarding your current recruitment process, job adverts or interview approach. And if they can’t answer any questions about their domain or industry – well – you need to make your mind up as to whether you trust them after that or not.

Ask them whether they have competing clients in the same locale/area/domain and how this will impact your search for candidates.

Recruitment agents are often recruiting for a number of clients. Some of these other clients may be in the same sector and locale looking for the same candidates. You need to work out how this will affect your recruiting, what you need to do to change these circumstances (i.e. how to stand out in the market – more on that in future posts) and how to ensure you’re the first port of call for suitable candidates.

Review their effectiveness

Every so often it pays to review the recruiters effectiveness. Don’t go on the number of submitted candidates. Instead you need to work out the success ratio of submissions to job offers.

Some recruiters may only send a small number of applicants but all of them may convert to an offer.

If you’re working with a number of agencies don’t be afraid to drop those who aren’t performing well and replace with a new agency. It’s important to keep trying new agencies if you’re not getting the results you want.

Only work with a few agencies

This is an important point. The fewer agencies you work with the easier the management of recruitment becomes. But more importantly the better your relationships may become too.

Another aspect is that good recruiters go out and find good candidates. These good candidates are often hard to find and few in numbers. The more recruiters you work with the more likely it is that these candidates get “prodded” a number of times for the same role by all of your recruitment agents. This is annoying. The first impression someone has of your company is often from the recruitment consultant. Being badgered by several recruiters for the same role is not a good impression.

Working with a small number of agencies allows both sides to really understand what is required from each other and you will hopefully talk more about what is working and what isn’t.

For example, when I hire for testers I only ever worked with just a single recruiter – and he delivers time after time. He now knows the roles I recruit for and the people I look for. We’ve spent years building this relationship and it’s working.

Outline the roles and the people you’re looking for – in depth

The person fit is always more important than the skills alone. It’s great to find candidates with the skills but if that person is a poor team player or causes chaos in the office then it’s probably not worth employing them.

My experience tells me that someone who is a strong team player outweighs someone with perfect technical skills but a poor attitude. Of course, it would be great to find someone with top skills and an awesome team fit in one package but these people are hard to find. Skills, tools and experience can be taught and learned – it’s much harder to change someone’s personality and outlook about their work.

You’ll have to talk about financials at some point so make it clear what your maximum salary is for the role and what the overall package entails – ensure both sides truly understand this. Is the package realistic? Recruiters can’t find the impossible so if you’re salary is WAY too low for the role then don’t expect to see too many candidates. Your recruiter will know the market conditions and you know testing – together it should be a good match.

Outline the process

Ensure both sides clearly know what the process is for submitting candidates, giving feedback and making rejections/offers. It’s important to align expectations so you don’t muddle the process or step on each others toes.

A professional process flow from CV submission to on-boarding your new team member gives a great impression – although expect there to be unplanned problems in all processes and for the process to change over time.

Give them honest feedback so that they can improve their searching

A recruiter cannot change their provision of candidates with any certainty if they don’t have honest feedback about the candidates they have been putting forward. Be clear in explaining why someone wasn’t suitable and make suggestions on what the recruiter can look for to qualify future candidates better.

Only by doing so will you ensure you get the candidate you want. Of course, you may not know what sort of candidate you want – this will make it harder for the recruiter but it’s not something an honest brain-storming session won’t help resolve.

Don’t work with recruiters who rely on certifications

My advice would be to never work with a recruiter who is finding you candidates using certification searches and filters. They most likely don’t know about testing and are simply following a norm that may need breaking.

Of course, you may be happy using this approach (am I also therefore suggesting you don’t know about testing? 🙂 ) but it’s going to generate a lot of unsuitable candidates for you to review.

Recruiting using just certification filters will find you many candidates but they are unlikely to find the right candidates. You require more than certifications don’t you?

Don’t work with recruiters who solely rely on job boards

Posting just to jobs boards is a simple strategy (hint: you could do the same thing) and one that will result in many candidates coming forward – but mostly an abundance of people who aren’t suitable. Jobs boards are mostly ineffective in my experience.

A recruiter who relies solely on jobs boards will be having mostly the same influx of applications as you would get if you advertised there. They will be fending unsuitable candidates off with a stick or putting them forward for you to fend off. Good candidates could get lost in the mass of applications also.

Always ask your recruiter how they find their candidates and be sure you are happy with their approach. I prefer recruiters to head-hunt rather than post job adverts. Some people don’t like this approach. I would advocate avoiding a recruiter who solely relies on jobs boards, LinkedIn job adverts or certification keyword searches; there are many other creative ways of sourcing good candidates.

Work with them to define the candidates you want and a search approach you are happy with.

When I mention this I often get criticized for not trusting recruiters do their job, but in the early days I, as a hiring manager, need to understand where my candidates are coming from and what their first impressions of our business are likely to be. Working with recruiters is about forming a relationship and that can only start to form if both sides talk to each other and align expectations.

Once you find a good recruiter stick with them and keep giving them your business.

In my experience building a long term relationship with your recruiters leads to great success.

This is part of a series exploring how to hire good testers – the reverse “how to get a freaking awesome job” is covered in my book Remaining Relevant – a book for testers who want to take control of their careers. It’s full of advice on how to find good jobs, perform well in an interview and take control of your own self learning.

You can follow more posts in the series using this category link – or by subscribing to my RSS feed

3 thoughts on “How to work with recruiters

  1. Hi Rob,

    From a recruiter’s (or managed service provider’s) perspective, just wanted to say that I wish all clients were like you and shared the same outlook.

    I would love to hear about how you chose which introductory calls to take and which not? Reason being, it’s hard to demonstrate in the 10-15 seconds of initial attention we’d get, that we are actually good at what we do. How do you screen the hundreds if not thousands of calls you must get?

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the comments. It’s a good question and one that is really easy to answer 🙂

      I don’t chose who to work with people from a phone call. I get so many phone calls, LinkedIn messages, tweets and direct emails that I rarely invest time in “choosing” someone to work with from these sources. It’s almost impossible to work out who is good and who isn’t from a brief phone call. As there are so many moments of contact it just wouldn’t be viable.

      Instead I work with those people who have a good reputation in the industry, and more importantly, those who I have met in person – typically at an event. I’m at a number of events across the world and a savvy recruiter will know which ones prior to them happening. I like to “choose” recruiters based on how personable they are and whether or not I trust them and for me – that’s only possible face to face. In person communications are super important for me and really the only way to get connected.

      I also work on the assumption that a recruiters who is recruiting testers will be at a test event, one recruiting agile roles will be agile events etc. If they aren’t – how do they know about their industry?

      I think most hiring managers are the same in the following regard also – if a recruiter is unethical in their approach then they have typically ruined all chances of me working with that company/brand again. Managers have good memories when it comes to being spammed, sent unsolicited CVs and generally being treated with little respect – it happens often (and no doubt for both sides involved). The relationship is what matters – certainly to me.

      Thanks Michael.


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