Working With Recruiters

You’re mad as hell, and you’re not gonna take it anymore, so you decided to start looking for another job.  You put your resume on HotMonster, and within a matter of minutes, the calls from recruiters started pouring in.  Here’s what they’re going to ask, and how you should answer.

“Can you send me your resume?”

Your answer: “Yes.  What’s your email address?”

Have a nicely formatted Word doc with your resume ready to go at all times.  Right now, during the call, open a new email, type their email address in, attach the doc, and put your name in the subject.  Hit send.  Do not answer another question from the recruiter until you’ve hit send.  Don’t put anything fancy in the email body, don’t thank them for their time, just get your resume in their hands immediately.  You want them to read through it right away so that they can ask you any related questions while they’ve still got you on the line.

Don’t worry about what they’re going to do with the resume.  They’re going to stick it into their database and try to match you up with potential job opportunities.  If you match, they’ll call you up and ask for your approval to submit you for the job.

“What’s your current salary?”

Your answer: “I’m looking for a position in the $XX’s.  If the job has spectacular benefits – or none – we can adjust that number.”

Recruiters will follow up with, “Yes, but what are you making now?”  I can be a jerk sometimes, and I’ve been known to answer, “I’m getting paid really crappy wages, getting really crappy benefits, and doing way too much work, and that’s why I’m looking for a job.  If you wanna hook me up with another really crappy job, let’s just end this call now.  If you’d like to find me a job that I’d love to take, I’m looking for a position in the $XX’s.”

Tailor that answer to fit your (much more upbeat) personality.  If they keep asking for your current salary, there’s your sign.  I talked about this in my post about Salary Negotiations During the Interview.

“Can you make this change to your resume to match the job?”

Your answer: “Yes, as long as it’s honest.”

As a DBA, I did a lot of things in my day-to-day work.  When going after a particular job, a recruiter asked me to include my experience with using SQL Server Management Studio and installing SQL Server on local drives.  I hadn’t bothered to include that on my resume, because I figured every DBA does that – it comes with the territory.  The recruiter didn’t see it on my resume, and she wanted me to have the best shot possible at making a good first impression.  Good recruiter.

When going after another job, a recruiter asked me to say I had replication experience.  I didn’t.  She said, “Go fire up SQL Server, get the book out, set up replication once, and that’s all you need.  Trust me, you’ll learn on the job.”  If she was willing to lie to the company like that, then she’d be just as willing to lie to me.  Bad recruiter.

There’s a whole lot of gray area in between, and I can’t coach you on that.  Your mileage may vary.

“Can you come in for an interview?”

Your answer here depends on how bad you need another job.  If you need another job pretty badly, then yes, you need to go in to meet them, and you should bring a dozen roses.  On the other hand, if you’re happily employed and they’re trying to lure you into another gig, it’s up to you.  The recruiter might indeed have an amazing job for you, but that’s the exception rather than the norm.

Recruiters do want to meet you before they send you off to their trusted clients.  They don’t want to look bad for sending in a sloppily dressed mess who can’t string a sentence together without staring off into space.  I understand where they’re coming from, but at the same time, they don’t need to meet me if they don’t have a position available right now.  There’s one headhunter company that aggressively asks for face-to-face interviews without actually having any positions – they imply that they might have something, but they want to see you first.  They’re slimeballs, and they don’t respect your time.  It’s fair for you to protect yourself from those kinds of requests.

When I’m happily employed, my response is, “I’m not really looking right now, and I wouldn’t want to alienate my employer by sneaking off during work hours to meet with recruiters.  That would send my boss a really bad sign.  If you have something that sounds like a really good fit for me, go ahead and tell me about it now.  If it sounds really attractive, I’d be happy to meet you for lunch near my office, but let’s get the details out of the way first.”

“Are you working with any other recruiters?”

Your answer: “Yes, but I understand how the recruiting process works, and I commit to you that I will let you know whenever any recruiter tries to submit me at any company, no matter who it is.”

When Recruiters Meet
When Recruiters Meet

Recruiters make money – a lot of money – when they submit a candidate for a job, the candidate takes a job, and the candidate stays on the job for X months.  They make so much money that they will fight desperately for their fees.  If two recruiters submit the same person’s resume for a job at a company, the company may throw out the candidate altogether rather than deal with these cat-fighting recruiters.

Recruiters want you to work exclusively with them.  They’ll promise to work really hard for you, but they say you have to trust them and only work with them so that everybody’s protected.  But if you’re like me, you don’t know whether a recruiter has lots of connections or none.  I didn’t want to exclusively hook up with some junior recruiter who’d never placed anybody before. That’s why I wouldn’t stick with any one recruiter no matter how many beautiful promises they made me.  I talked more about this in my post, Recruiters are Not Your Friends or Your Enemies.

“Have you seen any positions out there that interest you?  I can get you in the door.”

Your answer: “I’ve just started looking, so I don’t know yet.  Have you seen any positions that are a fit for me?”

Recruiters have their own list of companies that they work with regularly.  When these companies need a person, they call their favorite headhunter first.  The bigger companies even have contracts directly with one specific recruiting company. Whenever a recruiter calls you, they know exactly what positions are available at their own clients, but they also want to submit you anywhere else that you might be interested.  They want to represent you everywhere, because they’ll make money off you no matter where they submit you.

If you get your foot in the door at a company, you can sometimes negotiate a signing bonus or a better salary if there’s not a recruiter involved.  This doesn’t always work – heck, it doesn’t even USUALLY work – but if you’ve got in-demand skills and a good business head, you can pull it off.  That’s one reason why you might want to submit yourself directly to companies that post jobs rather than asking your recruiter to submit your resume.

The recruiter will say they’ve got contacts inside the company – and they might.  They’ll say they’ll be able to push your resume to the top of the pile.  Even better, though, would be if you had your own contacts inside the company who can vouch for you personally.  This is why it’s so important for you to network, and I talked about that in my post on How to Get a Better Job.

“Can you send this job ad to your friends?”

Your answer: “Yes, as long as it includes a job description and a salary.”

If a recruiter’s desperate enough to ask for help from strangers, that means they’ve already exhausted their network.  Nobody in their network is interested in this particular job.  Maybe the demands are too high, maybe the salary is too low, or maybe the recruiter just flat out doesn’t have any friends.  All of those are danger signs.

Don’t simply forward bad jobs along to your friends.  Rather than having 10 people deal with a bad job, filter it out right away by asking for the job requirements and salary.  Most recruiters will balk, and that’s fine.  I talk more about this in my post about How to Reply to a Recruiter Email.

“If you pay me, I’ll work harder for you. Whaddya say?”

Your answer: “That sounds interesting. Can you give me some references from other people in my profession?”

There are good executive talent agencies out there at the C*O level.  You, my friend, are not at that level.  The techniques and contacts that executive agencies use to place their C*O friends won’t work to place their SQL friends.

If you’re still tempted, take the cost for this recruiter, think about how much time it would take you to make that money, and ask yourself what else you could do in that same time.  If it would take you 40 hours to make that money, why not take those same 40 hours and:

  • Give a presentation at your local user group
  • Write an article for a SQL Server web site like MSSQLTips or SQLServerCentral
  • Write a guest post for someone’s blog or do a podcast with them

All of those things will get you more exposure to the SQL Server community than hiring a talent agency, which brings me to my final point.

If you’re looking for a job, tell your trusted friends.

The SQL Server community members know what it’s like to look for a job, and they know other people who might be hiring.  They are your fastest route to a good job.  They’ll put your resume on the top of the pile, or better yet, you’ll be the only resume in the pile.  When you’re good, and when your peers know you’re good, they’ll create positions for you or they’ll sneak you right in without going through a whole public process.

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18 Comments. Leave new

  • Good post, although to be brutally honest most of it is common sense. But you have to work hard. And you have to be discerning! Both about potential employers *and* agents – some of them are truly objectionable.

  • Good post. It certainly might seem like common sense, but if you have never worked with a recruiter before you don’t have the experience to know all these things.

    One thing I’d add is that you need to stick to your guns about what kind of position you are looking for. The recruiter gets paid by placing you and, in my experience, they will contact you about jobs that you might have the skills for. I worked with one recruiter who called me about a dozen C#/.NET jobs when I clearly said I was a SQL Server person who had done some .NET. I just continued to say no with the explanation that I didn’t want to make him or me look bad by taking a job I couldn’t do at a high level. Eventually I was placed in a SQL Server job that I did very well.

    • Great point. Recruiters will put you into the first position that you can get, and not necessarily the one you really want. It’s even more reason why you should be open for opportunities at all times, not just look when you’re desperate.

  • Brent,

    Thank you for posting this. Extrememly good information for someone just coming out into this market, like myself.

    I agree with Jack wholeheartedly about sticking to your guns regarding your experience and job fit. I’ve had several folks ask me about Senior DBA positions, when, frankly, I think I might just barely qualify for a Junior position. I am biding my time, training myself, getting certified, and when I feel I can take on something, I will go after it.

    If someone tells me (and someone has) “Well, just apply for it anyway, they just put out those requirements to weed out the losers” well, then, I disagree. I, also, don’t want to make anyone or me look bad by going after a position I know I am not experienced in. That would be lying, and that’s just wrong.

    Again, thanks.

  • Nice, straight forward, good advice. Especially the part about writing an article for SQL Server Standard.

  • I’ve never had a recruiter ask for money. Does that really happen? I thought the whole idea of a recruiter is someone who works on commission?

    Something I’ve picked up along the way is that recruiters come in a variety of flavors. I recommend ignoring the recent-college-grad version (although the female ones tend to be on the cute side, which is a bonus should you actually meet them). Stick with recruiters who’ve been in the business for some time–they’re the ones who might actually land you a job. And if you get the same job from multiple recruiters at the same time, ignore ALL of the recruiters involved; they’re all bottom-feeders and you have very little chance of success.

    • About the money – yeah, there’s people who call themselves executive talent agents. They claim to have really good local networks with all the Boards of Directors, C*O’s, etc, and make it easier to get your foot in the door at those kinds of organizations. Executive positions don’t usually show up in Craiglist, ha ha ho ho.

      You’re totally right about ignoring the same job from multiple headhunters. I’d also add that if the headhunter and the job are in two different cities, that’s a bad sign.

      • I don’t know about the different city thing. Sometimes companies have offices in multiple cities. I’ve gotten legit contracting gigs in Boston from recruiters in New York and elsewhere.

        C-level jobs may not show up on CL, but I’ve had ‘better’ recruiters (i.e. not the cute-21-year-old-who-just-graduated-from-college-with-a-history-degree flavor) contact me about CTO and related positions so you certainly don’t need to pay anyone. And anyway, isn’t that why we network? Theoretically, after enough networking you shouldn’t need a recruiter at all (pure theory there–I’ve not yet gotten there and I consider myself to be quite well networked at this point).

  • Flawless Victory! – Reference to the Kitty/Mortal Kombat pic.

    Since I haven’t dealt with recruiters, this article was an eye opener for me as well.

  • Great post and info, I know that many people don’t know how to deal with recruiters or even the first thing about approaching them. I presented on hiring/resumes/recruiters about 2 years ago at my user group and at least 5-10 people believed you had to pay recruiters for there services. They had no idea that it wasn’t out of your pocket. I think it all just boils down to your point at the end. Network with others ask questions/read blogs and you’ll find the information you need.


  • Christine Valdes
    February 4, 2010 10:51 am

    Great post, Brent! As a hiring manager that uses a recruitment agency, let me also say that networking is priceless. I’d much rather hire a qualified candidate who has been nominated by a team member as this gives me the benefit of a character reference from someone I trust. Oftentimes I fill a position this way before I even post the position externally.

  • My experience with recruiters is bad. Both in the quality of candidates they deliver and in the service they provide when you’re looking.

    This article is terrific and I thank you. I do have one suggestion:

    Submit a .pdf of your resume instead of a Word .doc. Office 2007 and up has this built-in (file > save as).

    I suggest this because:
    1. Control your own destiny. Recruiters sometimes append their logo to your resume. Often it looks like crap. You are the best judge of how you want to present yourself to a future employer.
    2. Avoid formatting issues.
    a. Office versions – While arguably the more exciting companies will be on the cutting edge sadly their HR team may not be running the latest version of Office. Perhaps you’re not. I’ve seen bulletpoints come across as 9’s.
    b. .PDF’s usually display as intended even over the most questionable web e-mail
    c. Macro settings and other Office settings can be set differently the more security-minded a shop is.
    3. Undo information – I’ve heard unsubstantiated rumors that undo information can be gleaned from Office files. Make sure they’re not getting a draft.

    In short don’t put you’re name on something that a questionable recruiter can *easily* modify. Personally I think it looks more professional as well.

    This is another great article from a great blog. I’ll keep coming back.

  • Reply
  • Recruiters only want to take up your cell. ph. minutes.

    Even though they are looking for a person who is able to communicate in business terms (in writing), they are ill-equipped to communicate via e-mail. They do not understand that many candidates cannot make personal calls – about another position – while on the job.

    • Keep in mind that most recruiters work from 9am to 5pm. If you can’t talk during the day, just don’t answer your cell phone while you’re at work. The recruiters leave messages, and you can call them back when you’re out on a break.

  • I know it’s an old post, but I wanted to comment that I’ve come back to re-read this post about 8 times already. Thanks for writing it.

  • Still post is like Brent, old, but still oh so very applicable!


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