In the first instalment of our three-part series on tech recruiters, Mic Wright reveals a little of what’s to come this week, as we shine a light on the questionable business practices of the recruitment industry.
Want a story to make you spit out your coffee? A project manager writes: “In 2005, I interviewed a developer for a permanent role. He turned out to be nowhere near as experienced as the agency made out. I told the recruiter as much – that he couldn’t actually code – and his response was: ‘That’s a shame. Would a trip to Stringfellows change your mind?’
“I told him where to stick his champagne and strippers. But after telling him not to bother me again, he called me up a month or so later and asked me whether I could take a freelancer for a few weeks to help him hit his bonus as he was a bit short for his quarter target. I just thought to myself: what the fuck. I actually complained about the individual to the agency, who gave a half-arsed apology and said they wouldn’t take any action as the sales director had personally hired this guy and he was ‘really good’.
“Fast forward to last year, and I had a fun experience with another agency, with one of their recruiters billing himself as a Drupal specialist. I first met them at the launch of Drupal 7, hosted by Microsoft. The organisers had assumed Microsoft were providing food and beer but found out last minute they were not. In an act of desperation, they took sponsorship money from the recruiter.
“In return for beer and pizza, the agency got to leave a business card on every chair and do a little speech. If he’d just stood up and said, ‘Give me a call if you want a job or need a developer,’ that would have been fine. But he prattled on for 10 minutes, reading stuff from the Drupal.org homepage like ‘Drupal is a flexible content management system’ and saying how ‘the web is really important these days, even though Facebook doesn’t make any money’, to which somebody shouted: ‘err, two billion dollars?’). Really embarrassed himself, basically.
“After the event, he then spammed every attendee (not sure how, the organisers insisted they didn’t sell contacts). Over the course of a few weeks he sent me dozens of CVs. He hadn’t actually anonymised them as many people sending CVs on spec do. Tip: check an anonymous CV’s Word document Properties for an author, then find them on LinkedIn! I recognised one he’d sent instantly – he’d worked at another company I’m familiar with.
“However, the CV was missing his last two roles: it was two years out of date. The thing was, his email said he was exclusively representing this developer. I spoke to the dev who confirmed he’d not given permission for his CV to be sent. I called the recruiter out on it, and quoted him the Employment Agencies Act about getting permission from employer and candidate before exchanging CVs.
“His response? ‘Now that I’ve got your attention, how about meeting up for a coffee to discuss your recruitment needs?’”
Tech recruiters are, in theory, engaged by candidates to place them at firms and by clients to source suitable candidates for job roles. Yet many recruiters have never done any job besides recruitment, with many lower-level recruitment agents so wet behind the ears they could drown small children when by shaking their heads. Shiny-suited, professionally arrogant types are de rigeur. In many cases, it seems as though recruitment isn’t a career choice, but rather an affliction.
The world is changing around recruiters. They are in the position travel agents were as the internet started to make little shops on the high street with cards in the window promising the joys of Lanzarote look quaint and anachronistic. As one start-up founder puts it: “Recruiters know the world is changing. They’re not stupid people – being parasitic doesn’t imply stupidity. So their new message is that they don’t just have CVs and candidates, they offer ‘value-added services’. But, basically, that’s bullshit.”
Bullshit is actually a mild word for the kind of practices many tech recruitment firms are engaged in. Better terms might be: unethical, immoral and, in some cases, illegal. Over the course of the next three days, The Kernel will reveal why recruitment is an industry that is, by and large, bad for clients, bad for candidates and very bad for start-ups. Why so bad for start-ups? Well, one founder, speaking to The Kernel on condition of anonymity and who has ditched using agencies after one too many bad experiences, explains:
“Start-up costs are inflated by recruiters. Recruiters don’t give a shit about start-ups. They pull people out of fledgling organisations because they know most people in start-ups are under-paid and can be lured away easily. They even target co-founders. Recruiters are vultures. They watch LinkedIn, see people are leaving and make a bad situation worse.”
The problem with recruitment is structural. It cannot, ultimately, be fixed by good intentions to change. As an ex-recruiter explained to us: “The economics encourage harassment. There are more jobs than candidates at the moment. There’s a global shortage of tech talent and recruiters survive on commission.”
“At tech conferences,” observes one founder, “the ‘talent’ is predominantly nerdy guys in their twenties. Then you see these leggy blondes wandering around. Sure as shit they’re not C# developers. And above them, there are these clever puppet masters who know how to exploit credulous techies.”
Why are recruiters so ruthless? Our ex-recruiter explains: “Job changes are the single biggest transaction people go through. Estate agents make about 1% on their deals. Recruitment agents make many times that. Human chattel, quite simply, is a lucrative business…”
Another group of people complicit in the tech recruitment scam are those working in “human resources”. One Chief Financial Officer notes: “Every chief executive says, ‘Our people are our best assets.’ But HR don’t see it that way. They’re usually bitter and twisted and their entire reason for being is managing risk. Recruitment agencies survive and flourish because of lazy HR managers.”
Trust no one
Trust no one: that’s what The X Files taught us. It’s especially true when it comes to recruiters. As one experienced contractor – let’s call him Deep Code – explains, recruiters are only too happy to stitch a candidate up if they think it will help them with a client in the future. “Candidates are ultimately just meat to recruiters. It is not a human business to them.”
Let’s look at an email Deep Code received from a recruiter just last week. He explains the background:
“I get plenty of emails from agents but emails from this one agency, Proteus, always look odd. Note that they say ‘iPhone, Objective C’ – well to have one is to have the other so for a start they obviously don’t know what they are talking about, technologically speaking.
“Note also that they want three platforms – iPhone, Android and the somewhat-obsolete-but-still-used-by-RIM J2ME. It’s rare to find a role that needs all three. Most developers are recruited for one, maybe two platforms at best. I’m one of the few who can do all three. This email reeks of just looking for people to put on a database.”
That’s putting it mildly: the email reeks so much Pepé Le Pew could have drafted it. It’s also worth noting that ‘Florence Cheek’ gives her job title as Java Resourcer, what’s she doing looking for iPhone developers? Android and J2ME makes sense but iPhone? There’s two possibilities: either Florence, like many recruiters we have come across, is incompetent and just doesn’t know what she’s after or she is engaged in a fishing exercise as Deep Code suspects. Here’s the email:
FROM: Florence Cheek
SUBJECT: Proteus Europe – Strong iPhone, Objective C, Android, J2ME skills required for a role in [REDACTED]
This is just a quick email to check if you are currently looking for a contract role. At present I have a vacancy for a person with strong iPhone, Objective C, Android, J2ME experience in [REDACTED], England. You can see more details of this opportunity on our website, simply click on the following web link.
If this sounds of interest, then please forward me a copy of your recent resume. Please feel free to forward this to any of your colleagues who may be interested in this role. If you would be interested to view similar open positions that we are recruiting for simply click on the following link: http://www.proteuseurope.com/job-search.html to be taken to the Search screen on our website.
We look forward to speaking with you soon.
And just to give you a sense of the kind of daily bombardment Deep Code comes under (“Dozens of calls and emails a day”), here’s the transcript of the voicemail left by the fragrant Florence on his answer machine:
“Hello. This is Florence calling from Proteus Europe IT Recruitment. I’m calling today to check your current availability for a 4-week contract role. We’re looking for an iPhone and Android developer to work in [redacted]. I’ll end you an email with more details to your Hotmail account. Take a look and if you’re interested, either email or ring back on [redacted]. Thank you. Bye.”
Deep Code suspects as do we that there is no such role and Florence is simply ensuring the agency keeps its database updated.
And so on
One start-up founder, speaking anonymously for fear of being blacklisted, recounts a recent run-in with an agency:
“For a start they refused to budge from their ridiculous £7,500 finder’s fee. That is just ridiculous. Next they copied the job ad from our website and appended a salary figure we had not agreed on and did not want published. Immediately, we had candidates inquiring with unreasonably increased expectations.”
It gets worse: “We did negotiate their fee down to £5,000, but they said they would only do that if we offered a job to a candidate of theirs that very day without any chance to interview them. We decided to not pursue the contract with them and were subjected to constant telephone harassment. When we stopped returning their calls they suspected we’d hired the guy anyway and phoned our office anonymously, asking to speak to him. The one word I would use to describe them? Imbeciles.”
A former recruiter, Our Man In Scumville, says start-ups are easy targets: “They usually have zero process or human resources people, so the people policy and company culture are not formulated, hence the impression that they will hire anyone. Vulture-like tech recruiters will smile as they slice up the body.
“They will usually pitch stupidly high rates based around ‘the quality they offer’ and again, if a start up has just received VC money or angel investment the cash is there to spend.”
Recruiters are using desperation tactics – and they’re what The Kernel will be looking at in part two of this report, when we will be naming and shaming after our encounters with the most odious participants in the tech recruitment industry.