What 3rd party recruiters can teach YOU

Headhunting agencies get no love these days. It seems that every other day you’ll find a post on Hacker News about how recruiters are the catfish of the tech world, the scalpers, the barnacles of incompetence nestled in the cracks of a frothy market. People wholly unworthy of the money they make, and who will soon all die a fiery death. We are assholes. We’ll cold call you until your change your number, and then we’ll post your email address to a database.

That is the narrative at least. But it would be utterly foolish to believe discount 3rd party agencies all together are “getting it wrong”. They are still thriving, and are probably poaching somebody from your company as your read this. Quick! Quarantine the engineers!

I’m always overjoyed to hear that a candidate’s other offer is directly from the company, not through another recruiter…because I know I can close better.

That said, nothing is preventing you from copying their methods, learning what they do well and replicating their model…and therefore avoiding the massive fee associated with their services.

So what sort of wisdom can you apply from external recruiting? What do agencies have that you can copy?

(REMEMBER: these are characteristics of GOOD recruiting agencies! Not just any old one. So don’t pull that one on me! Yeah, some agencies are run by the mentally debilitated offspring of sleazy salesmen. Let’s not focus on those shall we!)

They are run like a sales organization

Walk into any recruiting agency and you’ll think you walked into a trading floor. Headsets are plugged in, there is a sales bell, and usually the wall is covered in some sort of leader board. Being an external recruiter is basically a sales job – and although that makes for some occasional sleaze, it does bring a hell of a lot of advantages.

  1. Metrics: Good recruiters measure everything, because the better they get, the more they get paid. Email not converting so well? Switch it up! Only making 5 calls per day and wondering why you have no pipeline? Wonder no more!
  2. Hustle: External recruiting is very much a eat what you kill job, so complacency is at a minimum. Any angle, channel, and pitch will be tested, refined, and exploited. There is no room for paper pushing HR types.
  3. Ranking: I remember when I got into Presidents Club…oh the joy! Actually, we went on a shitty cruise but still! Having rewards for a job well done beyond money brings life to sales organizations, and celebrations for good performance should be equally practiced in the recruiting world.

They keep their eyes on the prize

A typical hiring process involves a song and dance of various length, and the recruiter goes along. Coordinating a code test here, scheduling a phone call there…that is often their day to day. But once that is done, they know they need to close. They know, that there will be a day when they will be sitting there with a candidate and a pen and an offer letter, and will hopefully be faxing back good news to the client. If they don’t do that, they don’t eat. So a good recruiter does everything in her power to set that conversation up beautifully.

You can do the same. Start by focusing on the candidate up front. Find out what they want to do in their careers. And then, make sure to get your team to highlight that. Make your company look like the obvious next step in the story of their lives. Don’t just send the offer letter and hope for the best.

You can leave the 3rd party headhunters their cheesy approaches and general douchiness. But please, steal their sales tactics!


Don’t recruit like my grandma

My grandma likes to read people’s fortunes in flipped over coffee cups after a long dinner. Its Turkish coffee so the grounds make little shapes that she can interpret as they collect on the saucer. Its all fun, and makes for an entertaining post dinner conversation. But we all know its utterly meaningless. I mean, maybe it was used seriously like 1000 years ago or something, but come on, we’ve come a good way since then and know better.

Everybody except recruiters that is, who continue to use cryptic, random, and useless techniques that sound like they were conjured up by a witchdoctor circa 1053.

For everybody’s harping about how recruiting is the most important part of their business, most recruiting processes are run like a fortune telling operation where everyone’s an expert. Everybody has an old trick, a random technique, or some super intuition that allows them to peer inside the depths of a candidate’s soul with just one simple question.

Such as “how many jelly beans are in a jacuzzi”?


This sort of ad hoc approach is folkloric at best, but usually is just ineffective and pisses people off. You think you are being clever with the hidden meaning of your question and all, but really your just wasting time. Google, a company known for a thorough recruiting process admitted as much.

Why do people who seem perfectly sane and competent in most fields, resort to asking cryptic questions like the bridge keeper in Monty Python?

  • “She sat awkwardly on the couch” PASS
  • “He gave a weird answer to my question about how many jelly beans are in a jacuzzi?” PASS
  • “I don’t know why, I just like the guy” HIRED.
  • “Meh.” PASS

Yes, ladies and gents, this sort of enlightened thinking is what determines who you spend most of your waking hours with. For some reason its affected recruiting only. Does your marketing guy ever say “I saw that people were clicking on our About page a lot this week, let’s double our ad spend” or “I’m not feeling this keyword”? If so, I would advise you to move your headquarters to Iran so you can legally flog him.

The supposedly most important function in your company is being run by a bunch of goddamn alchemists, old wives, and people like my grandma!

The solution lies in SYSTEMS

We need a recruiting Renaissance. Out of darkness, light. Out of superstition, SYSTEMS. Recruiting needs to be a machine like any other in your business. Here are the 4 main pistons in your machine.

A constantly replenishing funnel: you’ll soon find out that to hire X number of people, you’ll need Y number of candidates. Take a cue from your sales team and ensure that you are reaching that Y number regularly. If you don’t, you will be scrambling and most likely will have to pay a fat fee to an external recruiter. And even if you are not looking, you need to nurture a warm talent pool for future hires and attrition.

A consistent evaluation process: find out what you are looking for in a candidate, what questions will help you find that out, and who will ask those questions. That way everybody is measured with the same yardstick, and the company can recruit along an even playing field.

Logistics like clockwork:  many people’s workdays get messed up by recruiting. Engineers need to conduct code tests, CEO’s need to sell the vision, and candidates themselves have to schedule interview after interview. I would say that one hire involves several hundred emails from first contact to close. This process needs to be AS SEAMLESS AS POSSIBLE. It will never be fun, it just needs to be managed.

Improvement and optimization: the best part about doing all the above is you suddenly have something you can measure. And when you have that, well,  you can begin making improvements. Perhaps candidates are dropping off after one particular assignment. Maybe this one event is responsible for 20% of your engineering hires for last quarter. Knowing this allows you to improve.

Recruiting is inherently nebulous – both parties are making a very big decision without all the information or experience. Humans have a natural tendency to resort to ritual and superstition in those situations. But you are more enlightened than that.


Who pays when a candidate quits early?

We had toasted his new job only 7 weeks before when I got the call. Things were not going well, and he was going to leave. The honeymoon had lasted a record short 48 hours, and things had gone downhill from there.

He described a horrible on-boarding process. Nobody was interested in helping him get installed. Everyone was stuck in their old ways, bickering, putting in their hours and then going home. There was zero camaraderie, and nobody gave a shit. He was spending more time in meetings about product features than actually in the code. There had been such a high turnover of developers, that the code was a mess and making even small changes required an oversized effort. He had inherited more technical debt than Greece, and he wanted out.

I begged for him to stay. Maybe he was being over-dramatic. There is often some “buyers remorse” in a new job once the honeymoon period is over. But he wasn’t having it. He quit the next day.

Things don’t always work out the way one hopes, and that is certainly true in recruiting. Sometimes, despite thorough interviewing, vetting, and the best of intentions, candidates don’t make it past the 90 days. The question is, who is to blame when something like this happens?

As expected, I got an email the next day. “XXXX quit today. Please send a check for XXXXX”. In this case, I had assumed all the risk and was bearing the brunt.

Many people will always say “the recruiter should take the risk” and to that I answer “SCREW YOU!”. Did I advise you to have an on-boarding process as exciting as that of the DMV? Was it my idea to have an offsite at Applebees?

Bottom line is that the risk of a poor fit needs to be shared between the recruiter and the employer.

Ok, now that the ranting is over, here are a few ways to make for a happy recruiter/client relationship even when shit hits the fan:

  • Have an extremely thorough interview process: a strong process is your main defense against a bad hire. Don’t hesitate to go all out. Do a back channel reference check without the candidate or recruiter knowing. The onus is on you to make the right decision, so go ahead and be picky.
  • The risk gets shifted over the 90 days: if the candidate leaves before 30 days, then you get all the money back. Between 30 and 60, less so, and so on and so forth.
  • If you insist on having a full 90 day guarantee, then offer something better than a refund: allow the recruiter to replace the candidate or re-credit for another search. This provides the recruiter with cash flow peace of mind.
  • Build trust over time: once the recruiter sees that your company is not a revolving door, then you will be able to negotiate for a full 90 day refund. There is risk on both sides, don’t forget.

There will always be recruiters who will work for a full 90 day refund. Just like there will always be 4 dollar sushi, 3 dollar umbrellas, and 300 dollar cruises (looking at you, Carnival).

Do you want to entrust one of your company’s most important functions to them?