“You begin saving the world by saving one man at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.”
― Charles Bukowski
Like so many other recruiters, I started out my career in talent acquisition working a desk at an agency. While I’m probably a little biased, I’ll be frank: personally, I believe that paying your dues matters in recruiting, and there’s no better place for anyone to start than sitting in a bullpen, dialing for dollars.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m unlikely to ever go back to third party recruitment, which, while great experience, isn’t always necessary a great experience.
Agency recruiting is one of the most challenging and often least rewarding jobs out there, a constant struggle that tears at your soul, scars your psyche and, ultimately, leaves you with a thicker skin and a new appreciation for how lucky you are to have a job, and what a pain in the ass finding one actually is. I won’t deny the fact that, if you’re not careful, agency recruiting can suck the life out of you.
There’s no work-life balance in the everyday grind of agency life, from the compulsive inbox checking every few minutes to see if that candidate ever got back to you, or needing to keep your cell phone tethered to you at all times in the off chance a potential candidate or client happens to return your calls. You constantly have to keep everyone happy enough to make that next deal, close that next candidate, get shit done. In staffing, Make It Happen is more than a mantra – it’s a maxim that determines whether or not you’re going to have any modicum of success whatsoever.
The mentality of agency recruiting, of course, is something of a logical contradiction: you sacrifice your personal life so that you can make enough money to actually enjoy life, even though no matter how many placements you make, almost every agency recruiter remains mostly miserable, at least from my own observations. YOLO, you know – you only live once. Bullshit.
When you’re a recruiter, every failure is like dying some small death, and every new requisition is like getting a new life – and the chance to save someone else’s in the process. If that sounds a bit naive, or idealistic, let me explain where I’m coming from. I want to tell you a story. It’s not a great one – but it’s my story, and, I think, one that many of you can likely relate to, too.
Once Upon A Time…
Like most first time recruiters, I had no real clue what I was signing up for – I just happened to be down on my luck and down to the last few bucks in my pocket, which meant that no matter what work I could find, I had to make it work – that is, if I wanted to continue to eat and be able to have a roof over my head.
Or, more importantly, somewhere with central AC, which, if you’re in Phoenix, pretty much lies at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy.
I had never recruited before and didn’t really know what it entailed when I reported to work for my first day on the job, but I knew that with my work ethic and drive (it’s easy to stay motivated when you’re one missed paycheck away from insolvency), I could make it work. Hell, I had to.
Which is why, when my buddy brought me on board and gave me my first opportunity – he sold me to his bosses as a great “people person,” (whatever the hell that means) – I knew that somehow, I had to make that fairly blatant myth into my new reality. I am many things, but people person hadn’t, to that point, been high on my list of personal attributes.
Not only that, but I was supposed to recruit IT people, and my only experience with computers had been occasionally using a word processor; at the time, I was only slightly aware of how e-mail even worked, much less how to use it as a core career competency. But, I’d bullshitted myself into getting the gig by using a bunch of fancy words and, channeling Glengarry Glenn Ross, went on in the interview about how I wasn’t only great at sales, but I was an f-ing closer (and then took a sip of coffee for effect). In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I got the role because I cost next to nothing – in the economics of agency recruiting, cheap is always an asset.
They showed me to my desk, which had nothing more than an old desktop and a battered phone, and handed me a piece of paper that would be the job description to my first ever requisition. Sink or swim, you know? I didn’t get any real training or anything, and if I was going to learn, I was going to learn the hard way.
I have to admit to being the slightest bit discouraged when I read the JD and thought that someone had either misspelled or completely made up the word telephony, which wasn’t great, considering this was part of the title for the position I was searching for. I knew off the bat that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I had thought when my friend talked me into taking the interview.
After about two weeks on the job, I had received a little bit of “training,” which was really more or less a crash course in what the agency did and what the expectations for recruiters was if they wanted to keep their desk, along with a few tips and tricks that were supposed to prepare me for success.
I was told, for example, that all candidates lie; that I had to ‘control the candidate‘ if I wanted to close them, that I was the person who was responsible for the search, and the boss of the candidates – who needed me more than I needed them. This, of course, is bullshit, but I didn’t know it at the time.
I was also shown how to do a few basic searches on Monster, and within the agency’s own database, which makes those ATS and HCM systems everyone bitches about today look like cutting edge technology, at least by comparison. Of course, it wasn’t only the system that confused me, it was the suggested search terms I was inputting: meaningless acronyms like DBA, SA or whatever IT BS was on the JD. I admit, a few weeks into my nascent recruiting career, I was ready to call it quits; I was terrified.
But, I was also a college dropout who was more or less out of options. So, I sucked it up, swallowed my pride, collected my salary and did what I had to do to survive my 9-5 (which, I quickly learned, was anything but). Agency recruiting was what I had to do, and I did it as well as I possibly could – after all, I had no other options but to roll up my sleeves and try to get the placements that would get me paid. At least enough so I could move on and do something I actually enjoyed, once I had built up a little safety net and could afford to stop recruiting once and for all.
Which brings me to Johnny. His name and details have been changed to protect the innocent – although, since I’m the guilty one, it’s really just because I want him to be blissfully ignorant of what happened that first search I ever worked, all those years ago.
Johnny was one of those candidates you can see a little of yourself in, only as much as we had in common, Johnny was a whole hell of a lot smarter than me. He was, like me, young and struggling to get by, but when it came to computers, the dude knew his stuff better than almost anyone.
Like me, he had decided that college was probably not for him, and higher education was so far removed from reality that I might as well signed a lifetime contract to join the Sea Org and sail off into the Scientology sunset.
Johnny, after all, was a geek in a time where the only programming education a developer could get was either through books or hands on application, if you could even get access to the computers and programs you needed, being somewhat more sparse in those days. The top computer science programs at the top universities cost way too much, and while you might walk away knowing how to program some punch cards, you got back very little from that big ticket institutional investment.
So, Johnny was like most programmers at the time – an autodidactic professional whose learning was limited to the manuals and instruction materials he voraciously consumed. He learned well, because tell you this: Johnny was one kick ass programmer. Kid was good.
But, as I looked at his resume that first time, I had no idea who the hell he was, just that there were a ton of keywords on there they told me to look for, so I picked up the phone and gave him a call (told you this was a while ago). I did as I was told, and stayed on script during that first interaction, but at some point, realized that I liked improv a whole hell of a lot more than acting – particularly when the screenwriting was so shitty.
So, we chatted about stuff far beyond the confines of the script I was told to stick to – about why he was looking for a job, what he wanted in a career, what salary he was looking for, sure, but more importantly, what was actually going on in his life. He opened up to me, which few candidates do – I’m assuming it’s because, then as now, I was willing to actually listen.
And what I heard was that his lack of degree, his relative inexperience and extremely advanced programming skill set (he was far more creative than almost any coder in those days) had kept him from being considered for pretty much every job he really wanted, which is why he had been relegated to roles that were far beneath his abilities, and, as he knew, what he was really worth on the market. I listened to him over those first few calls, and when I listened to what was going on with him – his pain points, as we call them – I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of sympathy for those pain points, because I knew them well. Hell, I was living it, after all.
Of course, the good news for Johnny was that he was the perfect fit for a company that was looking for someone just like him. They would prefer the candidate had a degree, but didn’t have the cash for someone with both the education and experience to come in at the price tag they were willing to pony up. You know, champagne tastes on a Bud Lite budget – a phenomenon that any agency recruiter, I’m sure, is all too familiar with.
The owner of my agency had warned me, when he gave me the requisition, that this position had been open for months now, and they’d had no success or even progress in the intervening weeks. He didn’t expect me to do any better, or even make a placement; instead, it was the type of character building exercise designed to help the untested recruiter “cut his teeth,” which is agency-speak for new hire hazing. And, after a few days, I realized that this baptism by fire was less a character builder and more of a chance to see how I’d respond to inevitable failure.
To make the search sound a little more palatable, I was told that in this case, they’d actually give me the commission without the normal 90 day wait, since the odds were so daunting they were willing to pay me up-front as soon as the offer letter got signed. Which, likely, it never would.
But still – to a hungry new recruiter, that was all the incentive I really needed to accept this daunting challenge.
Off To the Recruiting Races.
My first call on this search wasn’t to a candidate – it was to the hiring manager at the client company. I asked if he could spare 20 minutes of his time to look through the requirements, and whether or not he’d be willing to put aside the degree requirements and how he might be able to verify the candidate knew the role’s technical requirements simply by asking the right questions during the screening process.
He agreed – after all, it wasn’t going to hurt. I think he agreed mostly because I let him know, in no uncertain terms, that this was my first shot as a recruiter, and it would really help me out if he let me widen the funnel a little so I could not come out of the gates looking like a failure.
Sure, kid, he said, and I think I remember hearing him chuckle when he set down the phone. But I was off to the recruiting races.
At this point, I had only had a few conversations with Johnny, but I remembered him and that he might be a fit for the position since I had gotten the education requirement waived, I needed the placement and payday so I could eat, and more or less begged the hiring manager to give Johnny a shot at an interview – to which, after reviewing his resume, he begrudgingly agreed. And, what do you know? Johnny went in and absolutely killed it.
The whole team fell in love with him, and the feedback I got was that they were overwhelmingly impressed not only with his demeanor, but also his technical acumen and programming chops. Which, to this day, is a pretty killer (and rare) combo when recruiting tech talent. Johnny, in interviewing, even solved an issue that had befuddled the company’s own team for days – pretty good proof of concept that he was the right fit for the role. So much so, in fact, he had hardly finished interviewing when the hiring manager called me to tell me that he wanted to extend an offer and onboard Johnny as soon as possible.
I was, of course, elated. I could taste that steak dinner and stuffed baked potato I was going to have for the first time in months as part of my celebratory feast once I got my first big paycheck – and in thinking of myself and my needs first, committed a rookie recruiting mistake. This dude was my golden ticket, and I wanted to cash it in, badly.
Johnny Come Lately.
I called the candidate up immediately after hanging up with the hiring manager to convey the great news – he was in, he was going to get an offer that would bump up his comp by a full 10k, and they wanted him there as soon as he possibly could.
I finished what I thought was great news, and waited for a similarly excited response from him, only to be greeted by some sort of sonorous silence on the other end of the line.
I mean, nothing. I thought, for a few minutes, I had dropped the call or lost the signal, or something.
Then, it happened. I heard it. Johnny was actually crying. I could hear sobbing, choking, him trying to speak but unable to say anything other than some muffled tears on the other end. I didn’t know what the hell to make of this, since I expected a response that would be something like the scream of a first round NFL draft pick who gets his ticket out of the green room punched, but silence, then tears? That I wasn’t expecting.
I mean, at this point, Johnny and I had formed something of a relationship, and as someone with some experience in bad breakups, assumed this was the prelude to him, like all my failed relationships, starting to navigate our unbreakable bond right into the rocks. I could sense that steak being sent to another table, and trading in that potato for some instant Ore-Ida, if I could afford it once I’d gotten over another bad break up that would leave me close to punery.
Then, after what felt like an eternity, I heard a shout ring out, one that was practically shaking with emotion, and then, like some victorious warrior, he finally spoke (screamed, more accurately): DUDE, I FREAKING LOVE YOU!
This, normally, would have concerned me in any other situation, but given the circumstances, I found myself equally overwhelmed. I realized, in that moment, I had changed a life. It sunk in fast, that not only did I win, but he did, too. I had never thought of Johnny, really, as anything more than the paycheck that I could finally cash out so I could walk out of recruiting and into a career I actually cared about. But once I had found that gold buried under the X on the treasure map I had been chasing, I realized where the true gold really was in recruiting.
This single moment defined me, and, largely, my life ever since – both as a recruiter, and as a person. This was the only time I ever asked a candidate, once he accepted his offer, if he wanted to join me for that steak dinner to celebrate. After all we both deserved it. He said yes, and guess what? Two guys who a few days before were worried about making ends meet ended up arguing over who was picking up the check. Seeing as how he had just scored a pretty high paying gig, I let him pay. Good times.
Recruiting Reality Check.
On the whole, as recruiters, we make good money. In fact, it’s a motivation for most of us, but the thing is, recruiting is so much more than dollars and cents. We have the ability to change lives, and are one of the few professions with the ability to influence others so profoundly.
I often speak to this when I present about recruiting; after all, I think it’s important to focus on the truths that define what we do instead of simply spewing off metrics from a PowerPoint, like so many presenters out there on the conference circuit.
So here it is: remember that time in your life when you looked for a job (we all had to do it at least once). Was that fun for you? How was working with the recruiter? Did the process fulfill your expectations? Was the position you accepted the one that was actually advertised? See what I’m doing here?
Studies show that the three biggest life stressors for anyone are getting married, buying a house, and looking for a job. And we’re all arbiters of the third, which is a responsibility none of us should ever take lightly. Sure, some people are out there with cushy roles looking for even more money or an even fancier title, but most candidates we talk to? They’re just looking for work. They need help, and we need to give it to them.
Do yourself a favor, and stop worrying about money. That will come, if you’re a halfway decent recruiter, but it will come because you weren’t afraid to be a champion to those good candidates who need some good to come in their life. If you don’t have anything for them, fine – but just keep a folder of the ones in your industry worth keeping in touch with, and do it.
Few recruiters do this, and trust me, these good faith efforts will soon be noticed – and rewarded – simply because no reward is expected other than your intrinsic understanding that helping out candidates in need is the right thing to do.
The Moral of the Story.
I know not a lot of you out there will listen to what I’m saying since it’s not a ‘how to’ on making a placement, but if you do make any sort of change, then I’m paying it forward, which is my whole M.O. as a recruiter, and has been since that first offer I made to Johnny all those years ago.
You know the old Groucho Marx joke about the guy who goes to see a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy – he thinks he’s a chicken!” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but hell, I need the eggs.”
I guess that pretty much sums up how I feel about recruiting. Candidates and hiring managers are, as a rule, irrational, crazy and absurd, but we keep going through it, because, well, most of us need the eggs.
This is a symbiotic relationship, of course – candidates, hiring managers and recruiters all need each other, period. My whole career has been all about balancing and reconciling two often disparate sets of needs, and when it works, bringing together the right candidate with the right company.
And when it works, there’s no better feeling in the world. I’ve experienced this enough times to confidently say, after a career in recruiting, that I’ve had a pretty great professional life doing this – it’s what I love, and it’s what drives me to keep coming back even after all these years.
I admit I’m no Top Recruiter or any of that bullshit we’re starting to layer on in our industry. I’m just a guy who’s still trying to make it in this world – and earn myself an occasional steak dinner in the process.
We all have stories. This one was mine. But I’d like to hear yours, too. Because as much abuse as we take as recruiters, all of us have reasons for sticking around and sticking it out. And it’s when we remember why we do this that filling reqs, and fulfilling our passion for recruiting, becomes less about calling for hires and more about a higher calling. Which is all any of us can hope for, really.
About the Author: Derek Zeller draws from over 16 years in the recruiting industry. The last 11 years he has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared Intel space under OFCCP compliance. Currently, he is a Senior Sourcing Recruiter at Microsoft via Search Wizards.
He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines and technologies. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, military and college recruiting strategies.
You can read his thoughts on RecruitingDaily.com or Recruitingblogs.com or his own site Derdiver.com. Derek currently lives in the DC area.
By Derek Zeller
Derek Zeller draws from over 20 years in the recruiting industry, and he currently is the Director of Recruiting Solutions and Channels with Engage Talent. The last 16 years he has been involved with federal government recruiting specializing within the cleared IT space under OFCCP compliancy. He has experience with both third party agency and in-house recruiting for multiple disciplines. Using out-of-the-box tactics and strategies to identify and engage talent, he has had significant experience in building referral and social media programs, the implementation of Applicant Tracking Systems, technology evaluation, and the development of sourcing, employment branding, and military and college recruiting strategies. Derek currently lives in the Portland, Oregon area. Follow Derek on Twitter @Derdiver or connect with him on LinkedIn.
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