How to Deal with Recruitment Agencies

For most of us, dealing with recruitment agencies will be an inevitable part of getting a job.

It’s by no means the best way to land your dream job, but if you’re starting out and have few connections, it might be your best bet.

Using agents can be advantageous. Agencies are often notified of vacancies, sometimes before many in the organisation are even aware of them. It can sometimes be easier to negotiate your salary via an agent, and sometimes companies will only consider candidates that come from agents.

Like estate agents, recruitment agents don’t have the best reputations, sometimes deservedly so. (A human resources manager I used to work with described them as “trading in souls”). Not all recruitment agents are bad. Good ones do exist but a lot are hard work.

Thankfully, I have an agent which I highly recommend and have worked with for years, Siobhan Kinsella, at Kinsella Legal, (Michelle Rose and Yolanda Appel and Victoria Wright have also been good). If you’re looking for any legal work, especially in the media industry, it’s definitely worth being on their books.

In the meantime, here are some things I wish I’d have known ten years ago when I started dealing with agents:

1. Be skeptical of whatever your agent says

Until you get to know an agent well, take what agents say with a pinch of salt, and be weary of opening up too much.

When an agent calls you, it’s often to get information that can help them, rather than to help you.

Be prepared to be called about vacancies that never materialise, or job descriptions which are wildly different to what you’ve been told about.

Fictitious job advertisements aimed at getting more candidates on agent books are common. If an agent has a job for you, make sure they disclose the full company name, salary range, and job description, and that the JD is e-mailed to you for consideration. This will allow you to do some research and amend your CV in light of the JD too.

2. Be wary of unprofessional agents

Agents vary widely. Some have no idea what they are talking about and will insist on putting you forward for roles that you are completely unqualified for. Some are just out of uni, aggressive, inexperienced, and desperate for commission. If you’re presented to an employer by someone like that, you won’t have much chance. It doesn’t do your name any favours either.

Make it clear that you don’t want to be put forward for any roles unless you’ve had time to consider the role and have emailed confirmation to your agent first.

3. Don’t tell agents how much you are currently earning

It’s often one of the first questions agents ask, and it can be difficult to deflect.

It’s not recommended to reveal this kind of information. The agent will often pass it on to potential employer who will use it to benchmark any job offers. (You will usually be offered the same or a bit more than you are on already.)

Your best bet is to focus on what you want to be earning. Say that you are looking for roles that pay over a certain amount, or within a certain range based on the role’s responsibilities and your research into market rates.

If the agent is insistent, change the subject. Alternatively, tell the agent you’re not comfortable answering that question, as you want the salary in your next role to be based on the market rate, rather than what you’re earning now.

An agent will often act as though you’ve seriously offended them or that you’re being unreasonable by not answering this question – don’t worry about it.

4. Do not tell agents where else you are interviewing

Agents will often use candidates as a source for future work.

If you do have an interview elsewhere, tell the agent that you’ve been asked to keep it confidential.

Some agents can be quite pushy, desperate to find out about what roles they could be recruiting for elsewhere.

Stand your ground. It’s unprofessional to reveal where else you are interviewing, and telling them, will create more competition for you.  You’ll also be labelled as inexperienced, and the agent could be less likely to tell you about potential roles in the future.

Some people prefer to say that they are interviewing elsewhere, even if they have nothing lined up.  Ideally, you want to strike a balance of making it sound like you are being put forward for roles but beware of making it sound like you’re going for a lot of interviews and not getting anywhere.

5. Don’t let agents push you in to going for roles you don’t want

A lot of agents have little knowledge or concern as to whether you are a good fit for the position or not. Going for a job you’re not sure you want, is rarely in your best interest or the company’s, unless you are in dire need of work.

Agents will often encourage you to go for an interview “to find out more”. This can be good interview practice, but if you get the job, you can end up seriously annoying the agent and the company if you turn it down.  You’re wasting people’s time and damaging your reputation in the process so be careful.

Turning down a role you don’t want is hard, especially if you are looking for something new and don’t have anything else lined up, even if you don’t want the role. Sometimes it’s best not to start down this road in the first place.

Ignore, any agents that zone in on any weaknesses in your CV, or try to bully you into being “realistic” and going for roles you don’t want. Life is too short to deal with these kinds of people. Also, anyone who has that kind of opinion of you will not be do a good job of representing you.

6. Don’t let agents rush you

An agent may be under pressure to source candidates, but recruiting rarely moves fast, especially in large companies.

You’ll often be pushed into rushing your CV and emailing it to an agent because “they have to send the client CVs by this evening”.  Yet you’ll not hear anything and then find out that the employer is still recruiting two months later. Take your time to sort out your CV.

The same goes for interviews.  If an agent says that candidates must all be interviewed by the end of this week, ask to be interviewed the next week. Recruitment never moves as quickly as people want it to.

Companies will always wait an extra few days to interview the right candidate. There is usually at least one candidate on vacation when the others are interviewed for example.  Make sure you have a day or two at least to prepare, practice  and learn what you can about the company and the role, it will improve your performance. Statistically, it’s the candidates that are interviewed later in the process that are offered the job too.

7. Don’t worry about meeting agents in person

Agents often make a song and dance about meeting you in person.  This is time consuming, stressful if you have a busy job, and in my experience, pointless.

You don’t need to meet an agent for half an hour in order to tell them what you are looking for, or for them to put forward your CV. Your CV and references should be more than enough.

If they take this personally, tell them that you’re extremely busy and that you’ll be happy to meet them as soon as you get an interview.

8. Do not let agents make speculative applications on your behalf

I do not know anyone who has got a job this way.  If you want to make speculative applications, do them yourself, and start by looking for introductions, and meeting people for coffee, lunch or at events. N

Agents like making speculative applications, especially during quiet periods. It gives them an excuse to call every employer they can think of, touting your name, and trying to find out about potential vacancies for which they can send another load of CVs through. It will rarely work out for you, and can just make you look desperate, especially if your CV is sent through again when a vacancy comes up.

Some companies have tight, or in some cases, exclusive, relationships with certain agents and will only consider CVs that come from them. If your CV has already been sent to a company by another source, you’re automatically out of the race straight away. That goes for that role and any that arise in the next six months.

9. Make sure you get written confirmation of any appointments set up by or with agents

I’ve had interviews arranged for a certain day only to have the agent call me asking where I was on the day before the interview was scheduled. I’ve also turned up for meetings at agent’s offices with no agent there, despite arranging to meet them on the phone the day before.

First impressions count and events like these do not help. Get an email confirming every appointment and make sure you have enough time to prepare for any meetings they set up.

10. Do not let an agent recommend you to a company if another agent has already put you forward 

It might be tempting to ask another agent to put you forward for a role you really want, and which you’ve been turned down for, but it can only harm your reputation.  Even if a few months has passed since your application was first submitted.

You’re messing people around, potentially causing a lot of problems for the company, and your agents, and will only make you look bad. Don’t do it.

11. If you’ve interviewed for a job you want, always e-mail the interviewer directly to confirm you’re interested

At the end of an interview, ask your interviewers for their email address. Tell them you might think of a few questions, and it might be helpful if you could e-mail them later. If the interview went well, this won’t be a problem. (If you forget to ask, you can usually call the company’s switchboard, talk to an assistant, or just guess the email addresses.)

Later that day e-mail your interviewers confirming your interest and thanking them for your time. Few people do this because they feel uncomfortable doing it, yet it’s the simplest action you can take to show off your initiative, and your serious interest in the role. It will also help differentiate you from many of the other candidates. If you are not offered the job, it gives you a direct line of communication to stay in touch with the interviewers. It will also help you stick in their memories, useful if they’ve interviewed a lot of people.

The interviewer will usually mention your email to the agent. This reduces the chances of the agent lying to the interviewer about your interest in the role.  Trust me, this does happen. I’ve heard of roles where candidates were told by the agent that they were turned down, when in reality the interviewer had wanted to offer them the job.  There are various reasons that agents might do this. For example, an agent may be able to get a higher commission from a more senior candidate.  Or the agent may have another candidate which in the running for that role, while the agent things they can shoehorn you into another job on their books.

12. Always be prepared to negotiate the best package for yourself.

Don’t expect to rely on an agent to negotiate the best salary for you. The agent is paid by your potential employer, their client. The agent relies on the client for work, and that’s where their loyalty lies. The agent is not going to be arguing for what is in your best interest.

A few extra grand may be a lot for you, but if it won’t make a material difference to the agent’s commission, the agent won’t be motivated to fight for you. The same goes for other benefits. The agent’s priority is maintaining a good relationship with their client not fighting your corner.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more if you think you’re worth it, or the job warrants it.  What you negotiate when you enter a company will effect what you’ll be earning for the next few years, and can also affect what you’ll be earning in your next role too.

I’ve dealt with agents for years and have made a lot of the mistakes referred to above! Feel free to let me know if you have any questions.

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