In the second of three instalments of The Kernel’s tech recruitment report, Mic Wright names and shames some of the dirtiest dealers in the industry. Who’s been busted?
There’s an old joke contractors tell each other: “When two rhinos have a massive falling out and start insulting each other on the plains of Africa, one always ends up telling the other they have ‘a hide as thick as a recruitment agent’.”
When God was handing out shame, these fellers quip, recruitment agents were loitering near the free sandwiches, “networking”. At least, that’s what both candidates and start-ups seem to think about recruiters, based on the shocking results of The Kernel’s research, conducted over the course of the last three weeks.
Of course, recruiters use rather different ways to describe themselves. Here are a few, pulled from the major tech recruitment agency websites: “dynamic”, “knowledgeable”, “elite”, “highly-regarded”, “market-leading”, “ninjas”. Well, yes, there are some ninjas working in recruiting – or, more accurately, individuals who should be wearing pyjamas all day and not jeopardising other people’s livelihoods.
In this report, we have identified three firms the technology industry has told us should be avoided. We provide here a few snapshots of typical behaviour, some of it unethical, some of it illegal, some of it simply unpleasant. There is a great deal of bad behaviour around in this industry, but these three firms stood out for us as habitually guilty of egregious practices of this sort. Behind each case study is a litany of similar reports and testimony we have not published in full but which we feel together provide adequate grounds for our judgment. In summary, here are the firms The Kernel thinks you should avoid:
- Gemini Search
- SThree (comprising Computer Futures, Huxley Associates, Progressive and Real Staffing Group)
- Aston Carter
Playing the market
So what does the tech market that recruiters are under-serving, and often misleading, look like? UK start-up Adzuna indexes almost every job vacancy currently advertised in the UK. Here’s what it found out for The Kernel:
There are over 577,000 vacancies currently being advertised in the UK. Of those, 95,624 are IT or tech-related postings, meaning tech recruiters have 17 per cent of the total pie to chew on.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures suggest only 4.4 per cent of employment is centred in the IT and technology sectors. In other words, there are more ads than there should be according to the figures. This suggests employers are creating more jobs but cannot fill them, and therefore are placing more ads, leaving them active for longer.
While commercial sensitivities preclude Adzuna from releasing pure click numbers to The Kernel, it was happy to tell us that IT and tech jobs get less than half the number of clicks per ad compared with those in other areas. Given that, as a start-up itself, Adzuna’s audience “skews tech”, that’s intriguing.
In terms of salaries, tech and IT jobs are experiencing strong growth: another indicator that there are more vacancies than candidates. The average tech salary is up 6 per cent quarterly to £41,200, while Accounts & Finance is up 3 per cent to £39,277 and Engineering is up to £34,887 versus £33,150 last quarter.
Adzuna’s conclusion is that while there are lots of tech jobs on offer, there are not enough quality candidates: “We need to train more programmers. If you are one, know your value and that you are in demand.”
Talk to candidates, clients and start-up founders – as I have been for the past few weeks – and you’ll uncover ugliness to rival Dorian Gray’s eponymous portrait: an under-regulated and often highly unethical industry with few points of light in the darkness. A London start-up founder, who spoke anonymously to The Kernel, summed it up like this: “Recruitment agencies are pimps.”
Tales from hell
One young man, who left university early in search of a job, sent The Kernel a truly shocking report of his experience with recruiters, both as a candidate and, crucially, as an employee. It’s shocking in part due to its contents, but equally because it so closely resembles so many other stories we have heard. We present it here in full, with his identity protected to ensure he is able to go about his new career without harassment:
I left university and was seeking a job and a company that could invest in my professional development. Money was not the key selling point for me. I wanted to learn. After months of research I found it near impossible to find a job without dealing with recruiters, until I struck gold and after two successful interviews was offered a job with a recruitment company called FMC.
After my dad paid for me to get two new suits, a selection of ties, new shoes and new shirts, I was ready for my first day and full of enthusiasm. My first task was to go through thousands upon thousands of LinkedIn profiles to see what company a certain person was working for, not exciting but I was obviously happy to do what I was told. The next day I jumped off the train at 8.54am and walked into the office to continue my task.
Around 11am, I accidentally deleted a small file on a certain prospective candidate. It being my second day, I was very nervous and wasn’t sure what to do but I held my hand up and apologised, expecting it to be resolved. Instead, my new boss shouted and screamed at me in front of everyone: “Do you know what you have fucking done? What have you done? Get out of my fucking office!”
I was shocked and embarrassed. My first job was shot down in flames and with it went my confidence in the recruitment industry.
The next company was Gemini Search, which is backed by James Caan. My experience with them had a lasting effect on my first real employment.
After meeting a recruiter called Christina, I was instantly showered with compliments and praise. Then came the request: “Can you please only deal with us exclusively?” I agreed to keep them happy. Christina promised that by my 20th birthday she would find me a job. This was early September and my birthday is on 26 September. I was excited.
Shortly after I was called in to meet Emma Clarke, who had a title like senior recruiter, and again I was showered with praise and she declared how much she wanted to help me. I got an interview with a company called The Digital Property Group (a Daily Mail-funded company).
After what I considered to be a very successful interview, I rang Emma. She told me I had been offered the job. I was ecstatic. Emma explained that the contract would be through in a few days. A week later, she finally got back to me. She told me to keep waiting. After a month of waiting and constant reminders that I was not allowed to interview for other roles, I was told their was a recruitment freeze and they would not be hiring me. I had no money, no job and she had no concern for me.
Emma claimed she was trying to find me a new job. Her first attempt sent me to a company called Datamonitor. However, she had sent me the details of an entirely different company which led me to turn up to interview having researched an entirely different vacancy. I broke contact with Gemini Search and found a job closer to home, not through a recruiter.
Then, in November, two weeks after I had started my new job, Emma rang me: “How are you sweetie? Guess what? They want you!” I ran downstairs calling to my mum with job but I said: “Emma, I’m not sure I have a job in sales and I’m enjoying it.” “You do not want to do that!” she replied.
I should have responded by telling her she didn’t know what I wanted but I agreed to go and see The Digital Property Group again. After another successful interview I rang Emma who told me: “They still love you honey and you will get the contract ASAP.”
I was dubious and after four days, I called her again. She explained that the delay was normal. A week-and-a-half later, Emma called: ‘I’m sorry to tell you but they aren’t going to go through with the offer as they just believed that you have changed and that you don’t want the role as much as you did.’
I put the phone down and burst into tears. She had strung me along for months in the hope of some commission for herself.
Thankfully I didn’t listen to her and quit my job. But I’ll always think about the jobs I could have interviewed for if I hadn’t waited for and believed Gemini.
The student’s experiences with recruitment were not over. He recently had an even more unpleasant encounter.
“About a month ago, I decided to go for a job in The City. I came across Bluestern Recruitment in Shoreditch and spoke to a gentleman called Simon.
He arranged for me to meet him at his office. I met with him and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. He asked me what I wanted to do. I explained my key attributes and stated that I was keen to continue in sales. He then asked what industries I was interested in.
On the phone, I had explained to him that I wasn’t 100 per cent sure and had asked for his advice. But when I told him in person, he attacked me. He told me: “You know, you remind me of a lot of youngsters who don’t know what they want and are clueless about the real world. You’re a quitter and haven’t picked an industry which shows you don’t care.”
I picked up my stuff and left. I was shocked at how a human being who had a conversation with me once could speak to me as badly as he did. He knew nothing about me outside of my CV.
Of the firms named above in the tale of unfortunate student woe, only Gemini Search responded to our requests for comment. Alia Majed, CEO and founder of Gemini Search said:
“Both Christina and Emma no longer work for the business. I agree that sometimes sadly it’s synonymous with the current tough economic times that clients, which is completely out of our control, pull budgets at last minute or put jobs on hold.”
Up the tree
The big beast of tech recruitment is SThree. It describes itself as a “specialist permanent and contract staffing business”. It’s made up of four main brands: Computer Futures, Huxley Associates, Progressive and Real Staffing Group. Of those four, Computer Futures and Huxley Associates are the most frequently mentioned problem firms for clients, contractors and candidates.
SThree also runs the following brands: All The Jobs, Banking People, Conexus Recrutiment, IR Solutions, New Wave Resourcing, PCR Europe, S Three Management Services, Solutions in Staffing & Software, Staff Search Group, Tactical Resourcing Limited, Progressive, Real IT, Staff Search, Orgtel, Madisson Black, Tactical, Strategic Resource Group, JP Gray and The IT Job Board.
Because of the sheer scale of SThree and its power in the tech recruiting sector, the following statements on its practices are presented anonymously to protect the contractors who shared them with The Kernel:
“SThree Group is the parent company of several recruitment agencies. They’re derided among contractors for offering poor service, dodgy contract terms and, essentially, being bottom-feeders. It is impressive that they are so specifically disliked given how low the reputation of most agencies is with contractors.”
“SThree’s modus operandi is finding naive companies with dire resource problems and telling them that, despite being based in the middle of nowhere, they’ll have to pay the ‘going rate’ for contractors. They’ll link the client up with a wet-behind-the-ears contractor who’ll work for half the going rate.
They’ll tell the contractor that the client won’t pay very much because of where they’re located. Result for the SThree firm? £200 per day in commission. The agent gets a selection of contractors on the go and makes hundreds of pounds a day for their boss. The rest they spend on hair gel, fat ties and rounds of terrible spirits in their favourite crappy bar.”
“From my experience, SThree generally offer gigs for companies that want bargain basement work. Computer Futures contractors are expected to lie their teeth off on their CVs. You get a few good eggs but they’re normally guys who’ve been on the bench for a while and use a Computer Futures contract as a stop gap while they look for something better.”
Agents from SThree group companies have also been known to threaten contractors:
“An agent contacted me about a role and asked for all the place I have sent my CV in the past. I told him it was unfair to ask that as agencies talk to multiple candidates and it is a contractor’s right to apply to other place.
“I also told him that if he told me the company name, I could assure him if I had been represented to that firm or not. He was adamant that he needed me to name names and ended the call by saying that he would make a note of my refusal on my CV and pass it to his colleagues, telling them not to pursue opportunities for me.”
Huxley Associates has a particular reputation for something contractors now refer to as the “Huxley reference scam”. It’s a sneaky little move to get information on firms Huxley might want to target while pretending the information it is asking for is actually required by a client. Here’s a redacted Huxley email obtained by The Kernel to show you how that works:
Hi [Candidate name],
Thanks for sending your CV in for the role.
This email means you have been shortlisted for the role and have made it passed [sic] the first stage. I am currently in the process of reviewing the list I have compiled to send to my client.
In the mean time, my client has requested I receive an overview of efforts you have made to secure work elsewhere. They are looking to see how keen you are to get involved in an IT position and want to see how you have been doing it.
Please reply to this e-mail with a list of interviews you have had and interviews you have coming up so I can forward this to my client. Please do include the company name, the manager who interviewed you, the location of the office and position applied for.
This will allow us to update our record of you and will allow our client to get a better understanding of what type of candidate you are. Look forward to hearing from you…”
Huxley is also suspected of making up fake recruiters to contact candidates. One contractor writes: “I am positive there was a fictional Huxley consultant in their Manchester office: E. Johns. Phone and she is always in meetings or on another call and she never replies to calls or emails. I am sure ‘she’ is a hook and when people phone for her they know to automatically say she is busy.”
According to LinkedIn, Huxley Associates does employ one Rowena Johns, who works in one of the firm’s London offices recruiting “corporate governance professionals, audit, IT audit, operational risk and compliance”. Perhaps she is related.
As of this piece going live, SThree had not responded to the claims presented in this piece. Should they wish to respond The Kernel will be happy to run their side of the story in an update.
Another firm that frequently popped up on The Kernel’s radar as we scanned the sky for the worst in tech recruitment was Aston Carter. It describes itself as “a global recruitment business specialising in consultancy, finance and information technology”. Firms and candidates who have dealt with it are not so highfalutin’.
Here is one start-up’s experience working with Aston Carter, typical of the feedback we garnered. As previously, The Kernel is respecting the source’s anonymity:
We engaged Aston to help us fill a couple of positions and were assigned an account manager. They sent through people of varying quality including some with quite impressive CVs. We have a set of questions that we ask candidates to complete – including some programming tasks – and we then took a number through to an interview in our offices.
During the phase where candidates were submitting answers, one of our current employees was browsing Aston Carter consultants on LinkedIn and found something strange: one of them was pretending to have done History with French at Imperial College. Our employee, a former president of the Imperial College Union pointed out on Twitter that there is no such degree at Imperial and asked if it is a deliberate misrepresentation.
The Aston Carter consultant responded: “Well, I got your attention didn’t I?! I make a living out of Imperial grads, thanks.” After contacting Aston Carter they responded that they didn’t condone such behaviour and apologised. However, upon further investigation we found several more false claims so it is not an isolated problem. The accounts have since been amended.
Unfortunately that’s not the end of the story. When we eventually found a candidate, we wanted to make an offer but were told by Aston Carter that another firm had made the candidate an offer substantially above what we were offering. We decided we would offer our standard offer regardless and hope the position was interesting enough for the candidate to accept.
The candidate did accept our offer. When he joined, the other offer came up in discussion and it surfaced that the other company, which Aston Carter had named, had told the candidate specifically that they would not be making an offer. When we asked Aston Carter to explain this they first tried to brush it aside as a misunderstanding. Only when we threatened to speak directly with company in question did they come clean and offer a full apology.
Furthermore, it transpired that Aston Carter had made false claims about the size of the firm, the availability of equity to candidates and posted multiple listings with varying salary details on their site. Aston Carter did waive their fee for the candidate when we did hire him. However, I would advise people to very strongly consider if they want to work with a firm that exhibits this type of behaviour.
The Kernel contacted Aston Carter to provide right to reply but it has as yet failed to respond to the specific grievances outlined in this article. As with all other firms named in this article, we would encourage Aston Carter to provide us with a response, which will be added as an update.
A confederacy of dunces
While we waited for recruiters to respond, The Kernel spoke to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), the largest trade association representing the £25 billion UK private recruitment industry. It represents over 3,750 corporate members and has branches nationwide as well as representing 6,000 individual members through the professional qualifications body, the Institute of Recruitment Professionals.
The REC requires firms to sign up to a Code of Professional Practice and The Kernel spoke to the organisation’s chief executive, Kevin Green, to get his view on the number of troubling practices it has uncovered during the preparation of this report.
Presented with the most depressing and unethical practices The Kernel found during its investigation, Green flags up two things in the REC code: “Firms have a duty to act with honesty and transparency and, under principle 3a of the code, must respect work relationships. Members cannot unfairly or unlawfully jeopardise a workseeker’s current or future employment.”
Extensive evidence of such behaviour by all of the above named firms has been seen by The Kernel.
Green advises candidates or firms who have difficultly to report bad firms to the REC if they are members and to ensure firms are members before engaging them. He says: “Complainants cannot be anonymous but we investigate every case extremely thoroughly. Firms suspected of a breach go to our professional standards committee which includes reps from the CBI and the TUC as well as senior people in our organisation.
“If we find a member has broken the code we have a range of sanctions including public reprimanding and the institution of regular standards inspections. Our objective is to make firms compliant and that works in 90 per cent of cases. Use an REC member and you will have some recourse if things go wrong.”
On the issue of harassment, Green says: “A professional recruiter should cease contact when they are told to stop. If you have an issue, we advise escalating it. Drop an email to the managing director or chief executive asking them to get the behaviour to stop. If they persist the REC will investigate.”
He advises firms to think carefully before engaging multiple agencies: “Clients and recruiters have a commercial relationship. It is up to the client to decide whether they want the job done exclusively. If you give it to multiple recruiters, you need to be clear about your decision-making process.”
He condemns firms altering CVs without the candidate’s permission: “They own their CV. Recruiters can advise and offer some expertise but they must not make changes without permission. The candidate must be aware that they should be asked if their CV can be put forward to a range of different employers.”
When the REC investigates an agency, it claims to do a very deep dive into the culture of that firm: “If we investigated an agency, we would look at their policies and their training programs to find out why those issues were coming up.”
Green says firms are hurting themselves if they indulge in bad practices: “We would tell members that if your business model is simply ‘bums on seats’, you will get a bad reputation. Relying on forcing your consultants to work like crazy for commission is not positive. You need a balanced reward mechanism. People should get a reasonable basic salary and other metrics need to be measured like customer retention.”
The Kernel raised the issue of rogue recruiters asking contractors to become spies for them: “Spying is unethical and unprofessional. You should not be putting contractors under pressure. They are not there to represent the recruitment companies. It’s a short-term and damaging practice for your business. Good candidates have a choice of which agency to go with. If you ask bad things of them, they will leave.”
He claims REC membership is on the up because firms want to differentiate themselves from the negative players in the market: “Our membership has been growing and it is growing in the tech sector because of these bad practices. It is not as bad as it was 10 years ago.”
Challenged with the seemingly wide-spread practice of fake interviews and false jobs, Green is very direct: “We have come across this before and we have taken action against it. It is self-defeating. It is not in the interest of clients or candidates and the word does get around.”
Unsurprisingly, as the head of the recruitment industry trade body, Green is positive about the future of the market: “It is maturing and it is becoming a better industry. It’s an entrepreneurial business marketplace. It’s fast moving and fast growing but with that comes people over stretching themselves. We think it’s important to work with a professional standards body.”
The REC received 26,000 calls to its legal helpline from members last year. Green says there is a great difference between the high and low end of the market: “Where you get into the temp market place, it should be about consistency of process. At the top end, where you are dealing with head hunters, they have much lower volume to deal with so can more easily provide quality.
Green reflects on his own career: “When I worked at Royal Mail, we placed 5,000 drivers a night through different agencies. I think the key thing is that it is improving. The REC is getting more members. Bad behaviour is not acceptable. We represent thousands of corporate members ranging from small start up recruiters to the massive agencies.
“We are a broad church. We have an IT technology sector group and work with executive search firms. Our membership is becoming more specialised. They all sign up to the code of conduct. We represent 80 per cent of the market in the UK. There are other smaller trade organisations.”
His final advice is: “Make sure you ask for references and make sure they’re an REC member. If you’re a start up, it’s a technology and talent business and you need good partners to grow that.”
It’s worth noting that firms flagged up in this article are generally not current members of the REC.
One firm, which The Kernel will not name out of pity, is guilty of a crime not yet covered by the REC code of conduct: using drum and bass for their hold music. After all the industry’s failings, surely this musical terror is the cherry on the top of an exceedingly vile cupcake.
It’s not all bad news. Tomorrow, The Kernel reveals the firms rated most highly by the tech industry. We’ve spoken to entrepreneurs, investors and contractors to provide a list of firms we think you can trust. You can read part one of our report, published yesterday, here. Additional reporting by Margot Huysman.