Talent Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Agencies

Written by
Giovanni Everduin

30 Nov 2015

30 Nov 2015 • by Giovanni Everduin

Are you using recruitment agencies correctly?

In my previous column, I addressed some of the issues around in-house recruitment functions and the importance of setting your recruitment teams up for long-term success. I concluded that recruitment is by far the most important function in HR and must be considered a strategic driver to ensure the right talent is placed in the right role at the right cost.

Within the recruitment empire, there are several other parties who play a critical role, such as the headhunters and staffing agencies that review and source prime candidates for their clients. These candidates can be from entry level to C-suite, however; the more traditional agencies are the executive search firms who typically place specialist or senior level roles. These agencies will be the focus of this article.

Agencies can be an amazing asset for an organisation, especially in sourcing specialised niche skill-sets or specific geographical experience requirements. They often come at a premium cost. However, as long as they deliver a premium candidate it is a small price to pay.

Despite this, what I’ve found is that most agencies, much like consultancies, are only as effective as the client that is managing them. What I mean by that is, while agencies certainly can work miracles on a poor brief or horrifically unreasonable job description (“So we want C-suite experience, across all continents, at an entry level salary and with a maximum age of 25 years - Should be easy right?”), they tend to be far more effective if the client has a clear, realistic and articulated set of requirements.

So what are agencies doing right and doing wrong? The following are my insights into where we are going wrong and how agencies can help bring upon a new hope for recruitment.

Are you bringing a lightsaber to a gunfight?

LinkedIn has become the preferred top talent channel to source quality hires and many are quick to praise the social media platform as the lightsaber to the industry, serving its wielder with a tool to hunt down talent that matches his/hers specific needs, preferences, and style. However, in terms of agencies, I would be hard pressed to label LinkedIn as our beacon of light.

LinkedIn has become a saturated hunting ground for many recruitment professionals; finding candidates has never been so easy and yet finding the ‘right candidate’ has never been so hard. While social clout is important to set your agency apart from the general candidate pipeline, I would argue that agencies should do this purposefully and with some refinement.

Ambitious agency recruiters are commonly behind the painfully familiar scenario we all see daily on LinkedIn, which reads: “Currently recruiting for all positions across UAE, UK, USA and European multinationals. Please like and comment for me to review your profile.” There are so many things wrong with this message that I don’t even know where to start. Even though a post like this typically generates thousands of likes and comments, how many of these actually get converted into candidates and how many of these profiles are even being reviewed?

(this is a real example from my feed)

This is a chicken and egg dynamic between recruiter and (desperate) candidates in terms of who’s to blame. I ask all those guilty of this practice to please just stop what you’re doing – just stop it. You’re complicit in building a Ponzi scheme pipeline. Your clients are looking for Jedis, not droids. Where is the depth of your recruiting process?

The Force is to be screened, not scanned

Agencies have to focus their time and energy on doing some good old fashioned meticulous screening and tap into the human element, which brings me to the next point: We need screening, not just scanning. Scanning candidates can give you some level of actionable intelligence, but it doesn’t give you the full picture.

In my last post I’ve already spoken at length about rethinking the over-importance of education in screening for quality hires. Agencies need to outpace the conventional HR checklists and CV scans and adhere to a higher standard of screening quality, after all that is exactly what I as your client am paying you a premium for. What I am not paying a premium for is quick LinkedIn profile scans with the expectation of me and my team performing a second level of refined filtering and screening. You may have provided me with 100 candidates to choose from, but if none of them meet minimum requirements, you’ve actually wasted time and effort rather than delivering value.

I have worked with amazing agencies and terrible ones and you can typically identify which ones are from the Dark Side after the first cut of CVs comes in. LinkedIn is a great place to scan but screening requires detailed CVs, initial interviews and reference checks. If it were as simple as doing keyword searches on LinkedIn or online candidate portals, we would not have hired an agency in the first place! 


Forging a battlefield brand alliance

You represent your client’s name and brand, not just your own. This means that every interaction should reflect a great employer brand. It means that you call back when you say you will call back, you respond to emails, and you don’t over promise (and under deliver). The number of times that I hear from candidates that an agency simply stopped responding, didn’t follow through on their promises or conducted themselves in a blatantly rude manner is beyond compare. If you’re comfortable burning bridges and leaving a trail of disgruntled former candidates that’s great, but I doubt any of your clients would appreciate their bruised brand.

Candidates trust you with their hopes and dreams, while for you this may just be another CV. Rejection is a painful process, so if it must be done, at least do it with some dignity. You may not have thought the candidate was ever a serious contender but that doesn’t excuse you from maintaining a courteous relationship. For all you know the person you cross today ends up being a (potential) client tomorrow or a dream candidate for another opportunity the next year.

Clients have a role to play in this as well. I always check in the market and get feedback from the candidates I interview on their experiences with the agency. I have stopped working with certain agencies based on consistent bad feedback and data to back it up. This also means that as a client, you have to ensure you respond timely and professionally to your agency to avoid becoming a bottleneck in their information flow to candidates. It means you are realistic with timelines and expectations to avoid unnecessary pressure that inspires shortcuts and it means your brief and requirements are clearly articulated and not a moving goal post.

There is one particular practice that I want to call out, where agencies call candidates under the pretext of a job opportunity to gather market data.

“How much salary do you currently make? What is your current grade and how many grades is that from the CXO? How is your team structured?” Sounds familiar?

Usually there is no real intention to consider you and the information extracted can be valuable for benchmarking if you approach enough people in the right sectors. This practice is absolutely unethical. Someone’s current salary matters much less than being open about what the salary range of the new opportunity would be. Many organisations want to save every penny possible when hiring candidates rather than paying what the role is worth to them. As a result, benchmarking the candidate’s current pay and offering the lowest possible increase for which the candidate would be persuaded to join is considered a ‘win’. 

That ‘win only last until he or she joins the organisation and sooner or later finds out the actual range or what their peers are earning. That ‘win’ will suddenly pale in comparison to the cost impact of a demotivated and disengaged new joiner. That being said, it is relevant to at least understand a candidate’s current package to see if a further conversation would even make sense or not financially.

Finding master Yoda

There are great agencies out there that do add significant value; agencies that are typically not driven by commission but by establishing a quality long term brand, both with clients and candidates. 

These types of agencies work hard to maintain an ongoing relationship with their candidates, understand their skills, experience, ambition and aspiration and see it as their responsibility to place these candidates in the best possible setting. 

These kinds of agencies would candidly and proactively tell a candidate whether the role, culture, or context was probably not right for them and they would rather not meet the brief timelines than provide even one unqualified candidate. These kinds of agencies act as both a committed career coach to candidates and strategic recruitment partner to clients. They are the Yodas of the industry. 

These kinds of agencies respond to emails and phone calls and inspire trust by keeping their word. These kinds of agencies do exist, and in fact there are many of them. 

For all of these kinds of agencies out there, you know who you are – I salute you. For all the other kind of agencies – let’s move away from the dark side of the Force. 

Read Giovanni's previous post on recruitment here.