Why I Don’t Believe In Recruiters

Recruiters are tools…on every level.


In case you haven’t noticed, I have a modest disdain for consultants and professionals who come from the “say anything” philosophy of life; I wrote on that here. Spin is a bad thing, confronting the elephants in the room is a good thing, and it’s really that simple.  In this case, I’m going to take it to a whole new level of hate, but that’s just in the spirit of keeping it real.

The title of this article is an homage of sorts to an aggressively atheist song by Art Alexakis of the band Everclear titled “Why I Don’t Believe in God.” In that lyric, Alexakis recounts scenes from a troubled childhood that sapped his ability to believe in anything related to God.  It’s one of those challenging thoughts that we all need at times:  Is our hatred of something related to bad people and experiences or related to a really bad game?

In this case, I’m going to hate on the game, and the players get their dose as well–all based on my subjective experience.

Sometime around 1995, I was deeply entrenched in an upper division football program at my university (yes, mine!). For anyone who doesn’t know, college football is all about the ability to recruit top talent.  “It ain’t the x’s and the o’s, it’s the Jimmys and the Joes” is how it’s been put in one form or another for a long time–meaning a great team comprises great players, no matter the scheme.

In that world, recruiting matters deeply.  Finding the right talent and convincing “it” to come to your football program are the two foundational moves of a healthy program.  It’s not the only thing, but it’s close.

So, one evening at dinner with the team, one of the assistant football coaches gets up from the table and says bluntly, “I need to go lie to some kids.”

He meant, of course, that he needed to go make the telephone calls to budding high school stars that assistant coaches were obliged to make. He needed to go “lie to some kids” about their ability to be better than the incumbent players, right away and on their way to stardom right now. Oh, and by the way, we really care about you and would never try to over-recruit your talent while you’re playing for us.  Just sign on the line, and forget about those other programs.

It was a thoroughly funny statement at the time.  After all, we were all elite players in a good program who had made our choices. In that world, it is the rare player who leaves a team.  And we liked this coach.  But, wow, the truth.

Fast forward 15 years, and that same group of budding football stars is now met with a plethora of headhunters.  The interesting part is that the recruiting pitch is hardly any different. “We have opportunities here.” “The career advancement potential is outstanding.” “The prior guys just didn’t have the horsepower.” “The company is on the upswing.” “We have no internal talent to fill this role.” “The prior fella just left to pursue other opportunities.” You know the drill–lie to some kids.  Only, in this case, it’s “stroke seasoned professionals with a shaded version of reality that could be construed as misleading.”

So, what happens?  Well, two things.  First, the headhunter gets paid, and second, you take the role and, as they say in the auto business, your mileage varies.  Recruiters, like stock touts and sports agents, have almost no stake in your success; their stake is in your decision.  Always be careful when dealing with anyone who only cares about your decision and not your health or success.

So, now we are down to it: Why I don’t believe in recruiters and what to do about it.

I don’t believe in recruiters because I believe the agency issues are real.  They have an incentive to lie, distort, and cheat to convince both sides of a transaction that the placement is good.  And they are doing it at the individual level; they are dealing with lives. The worst among them are no better than a Boiler Room broker dialing for dollars, except in this case, it’s dealing with entire livelihoods, not just components of someone’s savings.  The best among them know that score and go to work feeling icky every day.

Oooh, lie, distort, cheat?  Those are big, bad words, aren’t they? Well, yes, but just like Art Alexakis’s lyric on disbelieving, it’s my experience that leads me to the thought.  I have been on the client side, the candidate side, and  the observer side of headhunter transactions.  I have also witnessed the most corrupt personal ethics from individuals steeped in this profession.

That’s why I don’t believe in recruiters.

So, what is a corporate executive to do about it?

Well, the most important thing to know is that your best talent prospects already know everything I just wrote above.  They won’t be fooled by the players or the game.  You need to get ahead of that if you, in fact, have a great opportunity for them. Every recruiter from LA to New York will have already tried to pry them from their current roles with promises of candy canes and jelly beans.  You need to cut the crap and tell them why yours is the place to be.  Stop relying on recruiters; everybody knows they’re salespeople.  Sell the virtues of your company from the inside–don’t outsource it.

The second thing is to use recruiters for what they are: Market makers. They are exceptionally valuable in that role.  They are tools in your toolkit.

The third thing is to be aware of the perverse tendency of really great headhunters to embed and distort talent needs.  I’ve never met a headhunter who was good at assessing whether a company actually needed a certain type of talent.  I’ve also never met a headhunter who really wanted to know the company’s talent landscape; that’s the company’s job. But I have met really great relationship recruiters who convince executives that they are strategic partners. Here’s the test for you: How many times have your recruiters asked you to assess your internal people’s resumes (no ethical recruiter would try to share a client’s talent with their other clients, right?) to compare to the external candidates you are hiring? Very rarely, I’ll bet.

This post is all about the tendency of a certain professional niche to produce people and actions of questionable moral caliber. If you know this, and ensure that you are sufficiently isolated from it, you can make use of professional recruiters in the right way.  If not, you’ll just be another heavily stroked senior executive who was fooled by the game. Use recruiters, but don’t let them represent you.

Recruiters are tools…on every level.

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