When I first became a recruiter, I approached this profession with a sense of excitement; it was a breath of fresh air after years spent slaving away in the financial services sector – which, during the downturn, was like the Icarus of industries, wings melting away in the heat of public animosity, private greed, endemic excess and humiliating hubris.
Like so many others in this space who had flown perhaps a little too close to the sun, I ended up paying the price for my complicity, spending two years trying – and failing – to set up my own financial education consulting firm, which, in retrospect, was not at all ironic given the Great Recession that had left me broke and essentially unemployed (er, self-employed) in the first place.
I had no where else to go – so, like most of us, ended up going to recruiting.
At the time, of course, while I had no experience or great desire to have a career in recruiting, it was a job, and a relief from the reality of the recessionary austerity forced unwillingly upon me, my bank account and my professional future. Sure, back when we had a bull market, I would have dismissed the idea that I’d ever be desperate enough to become a recruiter, of all things, but hell – at the time I ended up entering the recruiting industry, I was thrilled for even the opportunity to earn a draw on future commissions. Something is better than nothing, even if it’s something that’s seemingly superficially suspect.
Of course, once I started learning the tricks of the trade, I quickly realized that recruiting was one of the more rewarding professions out there, and the idea that I was helping connect good people with good jobs at good companies – particularly during such a bad market – made me feel, well, a little gushy inside.
Yeah, I know it sounds corny, but I finally felt like I was actually helping fix the unemployment crisis my past profession had more or less created – and actually helping people instead of simply increasing profits. And, feeling edified and altruistic in a job for the first time in a long time, it didn’t take much time for me to fall in love with recruiting.
Recruiting Reality: The Dirty Tricks of the Trade
It didn’t take long, of course, for the requisite honeymoon period to end and for the realities of recruiting to set in; it became clear after a few months of cold calling and candidate development that recruiting was just another sales job – granted, one peddling an incredible product and with incredible potential, but with the same sort of drawbacks inherent to any other profession where commission is the exclusive form of compensation.
From a company point of view, of course, this sort of employment arrangement makes sense; commissions represent a pure pay-for-performance model which entails almost no financial risk for the company, placing that liability exclusively on the shoulders of the commission-only staff dialing for the dollars they’d only get with a successful placement.
This model, so common in agency recruiting, creates the low barriers for entry endemic to this industry, a Darwinian revolving door where firms throw a ton of recruiters against the wall to find the few who might actually stick.
It’s pretty obvious that this sink or swim mentality, combined with the incentive structure inherent to sales, creates the sort of recruiters who operate without any sort of underlying ethics or professional values besides making as much money as possible from placements – the same kind of sketchy staffing practitioners who are often unfairly ascribed as representative of the recruiting industry writ large.
The fact is that these recruiters are often outliers, and most of us put a premium on people over placement fees, but these so-called “recruiters” are one of the primary reasons that our professional reputation ranks next to Comcast customer service and Vinnie’s Used Car Emporium in the court of public perception.
Of course, swimming with the sharks is nothing new to me; after all, I spent much of my career in finance, where I was surrounded by sleazy salespeople who would do or say anything to make a quick buck – it was this singular focus on personal profit, after all, that caused the entire industry to collapse and triggered my own existential journey into the business of talent. Finance, obviously, not only offers a cautionary example of the inevitable end result of laziness and largesse, but also taught me several lessons that I have put into use to differentiate myself as a third-party recruiter and succeed in staffing.
The key to setting yourself apart from the recruiting pack can be summed up in one word: Integrity.
5 Keys for Crushing The Recruiting Competition Without Compromising Integrity
It’s amazing how often this simple concept is overlooked, but operating with integrity is really the only thing you really need to succeed in becoming a top recruiter – and a top biller over the long term. While it’s not as expedient as cutting corners or churning and burning through candidates and clients for a one-off commission, I promise you’ll surpass most of the competition by avoiding shortcuts and questionable tactics and focusing on doing what’s right for your customers and clients.
Giving into these temptations can create more immediate gains and instant gratification, but with the rapidly diminishing rewards and professional reputation that are almost always the inevitable long term outcome of these recruiting worst practices.
I know, integrity is one of those things that’s easy to talk about, but way harder to operationalize. So I want to show, specifically, how I personally built and maintained my integrity as a recruiter, and what those of you who are just starting out in recruiting (or are trying to establish a long term career in this industry) can do to make integrity an integral part of your standard operating procedures and processes.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to climb up on my high horse and spend a few minutes showing you the high road to recruiting success. It might be the road less taken, but it’s ultimately the only path to sustainable staffing success.
1. Give Clients What They Want.
Hiring managers want one thing from recruiters: the best candidate in the fastest time. Simple enough, right? Yeah, if only it were that easy do deliver the goods (sigh). Sadly, when courting new clients or prospective customers, we’ve got to overcome not only the standard sales objections, but also, the pervasive skepticism and distrust so commonly ascribed to our entire industry seeded by so many bad apples.
The only way to change that reputation is by focusing on your own – and developing a track record of being honest, doing good work and always looking out for the best interests of your clients is imperative. If a company is willing to give you a shot, and you deliver as promised while doing so with integrity, chances are you’ll have a client for life.
Those employers who have likely had less than ideal experiences with other recruiters will quickly realize that you’re worth your weight in gold – or at least your associated placement fees.
2. Ruse At Your Own Risk.
In my first day on the job, I overheard a group of recruiters talking about that dirty little not-so-secret trick of submitting fake candidates or falsified credentials to open the door to securing a client relationship and landing a req. As a neophyte, I was strongly advised by my more experienced counterparts to turn to this tactic, who confidently assured me that this was only a way to get them to sign so that “you can work your tail off to find real candidates.”
In other words, fake candidates were the easiest way to convince a company you could find real ones, and that you’d have to be a sucker not to do this bait and switch as a part of business as usual.
I was excited to get this advice, not because I thought it was in any way a good idea, but because I instantly realized that this scheme was hand-delivering me a strategy to differentiate myself from other recruiting competition – if they were mostly liars, than it only made sense that telling the truth would be a boon for business over the long term (and the right thing to do, too). Even ignoring the inherent ethical failings to this scheme, this pathetic attempt to get a foot in the door isn’t scalable or sustainable; recruiting is a numbers game, and that means the odds are inevitable you’ll eventually get found out and burn a big old bridge!
As previously mentioned, this can be a easy short-term fix to get a placement or two, but when it comes to your career and your reputation, the only way to guarantee long term success is by focusing on long term outcomes. As recruiters, we’re supposed to know the secrets to managing a career, which is why when you sacrifice strategic vision for quick wins, you’re destined to lose every time.
3. If You Screw Up, Say So.
On a more practical level, I did run into a few scattered scenarios where a candidate did ultimately decline to advance in the process after their initial submission to a client but before the signing of an official agreement, which always made me cringe, but I was always able to quickly recover from this rough start by letting the client know right away and giving them an out – and by acting in good faith, none did.
Yeah, it sucks because more judgmental hiring managers (or clients who have been burned by recruiters before), might be more inclined to file you into the same shady folder of shady staffing pros as your unscrupulous, unethical counterparts, at least at first. The only way to get the benefit of the doubt is to remove all doubt – and the only way to do that is by being as upfront, honest and transparent as possible.
It nags at them a little, and when they give you a second chance to make a first impression, the only way to prove you’re competent is by delivering candidates as good or better as your initial submission, and to do so with the same integrity that saved the business to begin with. It’s not always easy, but it’s essential.
Over time, you’ll quickly see that the performance gap between you and the lying, get-rich-quick recruiters will widen into a chasm – and when your business is mostly direct referrals of new clients and filling reqs of repeat customers, it makes recruiting a whole hell of a lot easier.
4. Be True To Your Candidates
Much like hiring managers, candidates want one thing from recruiters, too: to get them a choice job at an employer of choice. That sounds simple, at least from afar, and our responsibilities to candidates seem superficially easy: share appropriate jobs, set up interviews where there’s interest, offer advice as needed, help them through offer negotiation and make sure onboarding goes as smoothly and as successfully as possible.
But apparently, we’re failing at even that basic formula, since so many professionals with placeable skills and experience look at recruiters with a mix of disdain and dread – and largely, see a necessary evil as much as a potentially powerful professional ally. I don’t need to talk too much about candidate experience for you to know that it’s not one that most top talent wants to have to go through voluntarily, particularly if they’re not actively looking at new opportunities.
Personally, I get a kick out of hearing feedback from candidates directly – just Google “recruiter” and you’ll get get infinite anecdotes that are almost universally laced with animosity and antipathy towards our profession. We’re seen as ambulance chasers and charlatans, which sucks if you’re actually one of the few who has a passion and pride for this profession.
Once again, combating this perception is more easily said than done, but again, ignoring shortcuts and embracing honesty as your only policy will pay amazing dividends down the road. Sometimes, this includes doing something that’s anathema to recruiters: knowing when to let a candidate when they shouldn’t take an offer or explore an opportunity, even if an employer is interested. The most obvious and prominent example of ignoring this advice is, of course, the famous fear tactic that almost every recruiter has at least tried in those situations where a counteroffer arises.
One of the first things almost everyone learns in their first few weeks on the job is that should this situation arise, to have a go to set of nice sounding statistics that, while perhaps true, are fundamentally flawed examples of the shortsightedness of correlation over causation: you know the one, that x% of candidates (depending on the source) who accept a counteroffer won’t be on the job 9 months later. That almost always scares a candidate enough to at least give them second thoughts about staying, and most have a bunch of similarly specious statistics up their sleeve to fully change those minds when needed.
I’ll admit, at first, I looked at this tactic as simply presenting the facts and doing my job of educating the candidate, but this seeming holy grail of offer negotiation doesn’t always take into account the underlying reasons for that person looking at another offer, and whether or not switching jobs is the right solution for career edification, advancement and job satisfaction. If the underlying causes aren’t addressed, chances are they won’t stick around long enough at their new role for you to collect your commission anyway – particularly since companies generally welcome back those candidates they care enough about losing to extend a counteroffer to in the first place.
Let’s face it – if you’re sourcing correctly, you’re likely surfacing candidates who are already being bombarded by recruiters – and are likely shell shocked from the experience. What can you offer that’s different? Not to beat a dead horse, but here’s where integrity again can quickly set you apart. Every recruiter has an opportunity, but you’ve got to know that it’s the right opportunity for the candidate – and make sure to honestly advise them when it’s not a good fit or a smart move, even if they’re exactly what your client is looking for in terms of background and skills.
Knowing what’s in it for them is a great way to break down the barrier of distrust and make sure that they’re considering an opportunity for the right reasons – reasons that should successfully preempt any counter offer more easily than even citing some spurious statistics.
Getting in the habit of being honest and being truthful with candidates might cost you a submission or two in the short term, but pay off richly in long term rewards. Today’s placement is tomorrow’s potential hiring manager, and a great candidate experience should directly result in them seeking out your services for future openings, internal referrals or introduction requests. Remember, what goes around comes around – especially when it comes to recruiting.
5. Be True To Yourself
This is the most important part, but if you choose to compromise your personal integrity or ethics to make a quick buck, the biggest disservice you’re doing is to yourself, and the harm you create by coming up with strategies to game the system are completely self-inflicted, since they’re a deliberate choice.
I understand that the nature of sales compensation and commission structures create a powerful incentive that can be hard to fight, but that easy money comes at a steep price that’s just not worth paying. After all, the best way to launch yourself past the competition relying on shortcuts and lazy recruiting tricks is to do good by your clients and candidates – and doing so with integrity.
I promise. And don’t worry, unlike most recruiters, you can trust me – just ask my clients and candidates.
About the Author: Brad Lazarus began his second career as a technical recruiter, eventually launching his own agency, Tomesei, which he led until effectively retiring in early 2015; he still occasionally accepts a project or two for a few of his favorite clients, as retirement hasn’t diminished his passion or love for the recruiting profession.
By Brad Lazarus
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