The concept of self-employment is appealing for many technologists, but the path to getting there isn’t always clear. Independent contractors may cite several attributes of their work that they find preferable to traditional employer/employee relationships. The allure of money is obvious, but independents may also be drawn to project variety, an emphasis on new development over maintaining existing projects, and additional control over work/life balance.
Independent contracting has historically been a trend primarily among the more senior and advanced in the profession, but today it’s not uncommon to hear intermediate or even junior level developers in pursuit of independent work. Often the decision to become an independent isn’t premeditated so much as it is circumstantial. A lucrative contract offer is hard to refuse, and once a new level of compensation and freedom is reached it is difficult to accept a return to lower salaries. These ‘accidental contractors’ sometimes find themselves wholly unprepared for what skills and knowledge are required to build and operate a sustainable business.
Many seem to think that technical strength is the difference. Technical skills are clearly part of the equation and in unique situations superior skills can trump everything else, but many strong developers have failed as independents. Those that are thinking about exploring the independent contractor lifestyle in the future should start considering the topics below well before signing any contracts.
Communication skills - Independents need the ability to acquire clients, either through direct interaction with the client or through a broker/recruiter. Once a client is made, maintaining their business will depend upon clear communications regarding expectations, schedules, delivery, etc. Using brokers can help those with communication or social skills issues.
Varied skill set / independent learning / research - A skills inventory with some variety (languages, tools, frameworks) is fairly common with successful contractors, although advertising an unrealistic variety will hurt credibility. Independents have more incentive to invest off-hours learning new skills and keeping an eye on trends in the industry.
Comfort with interview process - For those in the salaried employment world, one great interview can result in years of work. Depending on contract durations, independents can find themselves in some form of interview several times a year. Anyone hoping to be successful in contracting must overcome discomfort or anxiety in interview settings.
Relationships – Successful independents usually know (and are known to) a number of people spread across various employers. Senior level contractors may have developed hundreds of relationships over time without any targeted networking efforts, while younger entrants will likely need to reach out to strangers. A lack of professional contacts is a barrier to entry for junior technologists and will negatively impact sustainability for senior contractors.
Basic sales - Advanced sales skills are unnecessary, but an understanding of what a close is and learning a few different ways to close will be helpful.
Basic marketing, brand management – Contractors have a brand, though many don’t think of it that way. Independents should pay attention to making their brand more attractive. Speaking engagements, tech community leadership, and publication/blogging are a few ways to increase visibility and potentially become a recognized authority.
Focus on billing - Independents become frustrated when they realize that running their small business is more than just writing code. Taxes, insurance, contract review, time sheets, invoices, and expense reporting eat into time that would be better spent as billable hours. Successful contractors try to maximize billable time and often outsource (or automate) tasks when possible.
Negotiation - When using a broker it is customary that they handle negotiation with the hiring entity, but an independent will still need to negotiate rates with the broker. A sum as small as a few dollars per hour quickly adds up over long client engagements. Negotiations for salaried positions can be easier due to the number of components that a company may be willing to adjust (salary, bonus, stock, etc.), but for contractors the negotiation is almost always a single figure.
A recent post by Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, Exploding Offers Suck, detailed his distaste for accelerators and venture capitalists who pressure entrepreneurs into critical decisions on investment offers before they have a chance to shop. The article outlines Y Combinator’s policy of allowing offer acceptance up until the beginning of the program.
An exploding offer is as any offer that lists a date for the offer to expire, with the allotted time being minimal. Altman’s article is about venture funding, but most in the industry gain exposure to this situation via job offers. This practice is fairly standard for college internships, where acceptance is required months before start date. Exploding offers may be less common for experienced professionals, but are hardly rare.
Many companies use templates for job offers where deadlines are arbitrary or listed only to encourage quick responses, which gives a false appearance of an exploding offer. Other firms have strict policies on enforcement, although strong candidates in a seller’s market will cause exceptions.
Why exploding offers exist?
The employer’s justification for exploding job offers may focus on planning, multiple candidates, and finite needs.
If a company has three vacancies and three candidates, how likely is it that all three receive offers? What is the likelihood they all accept. Companies develop a pipeline of perhaps twenty candidates for those three jobs. If six are found qualified, the company has a dilemma. The numbers and odds become ominous for firms evaluating thousands of college students for 100 internships.
The exploding offer is one method for companies to mitigate the risk of accepted offers outnumbering vacancies. They are also used to ensure that the second or third best candidate will still be available while the hirer awaits response from the first choice. Fast acceptance of exploding offers may be viewed as a measure of a candidate’s interest in the position and company, particularly at smaller and riskier firms.
Job seekers may feel that exploding offers serve to limit their employment options, with a potential side effect being lower salaries due to reduced competition. These offers may also help level the playing field for non-elite companies, as risk-averse candidates may subscribe to the bird in the hand theory.
Since they are not uncommon, it’s important to consider a strategy for how to handle exploding offers, multiple offer scenarios, and how to prevent these problems altogether.
Avoid the situation entirely
The issue with exploding and multiple offers is time constraint, and job seekers need to be proactive about these scenarios. The best strategy is to maximize the possibility that all offers arrive at the same time. If all offers are received simultaneously there is no problem.
Those applying to several firms should anticipate the possibility that offers may arrive over days or weeks. When researching companies of interest, investigate their standard interview process, the number of steps involved, and how long it takes. Current or former employees and recruiters representing the company will have answers, and when in doubt the general rule is that larger companies tend to move slower. Initiate contact with the slower companies first, and apply to the fastest hirers once interviews start with the first group.
Strategies to control timing of multiple offers
Unfortunately, job searches are unpredictable and candidates feel they have little influence on the speed or duration of a hiring process. Stellar candidates have much more control than they might expect, but even average applicants can affect timelines.
If Company A has scheduled a third face-to-face meeting while Company B is just getting around to setting up a phone screen with HR, the candidate needs to slow the process with A while expediting B. What tactics can hasten or extend hiring processes in order to synchronize offers?
- Ask - Asking about the anticipated duration of the interview process and about any ways it can be expedited. This is a relatively benign request so long as it is made respectfully and tactfully.
- Flexibility and availability – Provide prompt interview availability details regularly even they aren’t requested, and (if possible) offer flexibility to meet off-hours or on weekends.
- Pressure – As somewhat of a last resort, some candidates may choose to disclose the existence of other offers and the need for a decision by the employer. This can backfire and should be approached delicately.
- Delay interviews – This is the easiest and most effective method to employ, with the risk being that the position may be offered to someone else in the interim. When multiple rounds are likely, adding a couple days between rounds can extend the process significantly.
- Ask questions – There are many details about a company that influence decisions to accept or reject offers, and the process of gathering that information takes time. At the offer stage, questions about benefits or policies can usually buy a day or two.
- Negotiate – Negotiating an offer will require the company to get approvals and to incorporate new terms into a letter.
- Request additional interviews or meetings – Once an offer is made, candidates feel pressure to accept or reject. Another option is to request additional dialogue and meetings to address any concerns and finalize decisions.
Specifics for exploding offers
The issue with exploding offers is typically the need to respond before other interviews are completed, so the goal is to buy time. Some candidates choose to accept the exploding offer as a backup in case a better offer isn’t made. This tactic isn’t optimal for either party, as the company may be without a replacement and the candidate has burned a bridge.
In an exploding offer situation, first discover if the offer is truly exploding. As was mentioned earlier, many companies want a timely answer but don’t need one. The offer letter may give the appearance of being an exploding offer without actual intent. One response to test the waters is “The offer letter says I have x days to decide. Is that deadline firm or could it be extended a day or two if I am not prepared to make a decision at that point?”. The company’s answer will be telling.
If it is discovered that it is truly an exploding offer, resorting to the tactics listed above could help. HR reps may be uncomfortable asking for a decision if they feel a candidate’s legitimate questions are unanswered. As the deadline approaches, negotiating terms and asking for more detail will provide time. The request for another meeting will require scheduling, and the parties involved might not be available until after the deadline. As a last resort, simply asking for an extension is always an option.
There are subtle nuances to job searches outside of the local area. Unless a candidate is considered superlative, non-local applicants are not always given the same level of attention as locals when employers have healthy candidate pools with local applicants. Why might remoteness impact interview decisions (even in a tight market), and how can the potential for negative bias be minimized?
We’ll get to that in a minute. Before we can apply for a job, we need to find it.
Job sites – The usual suspects are where some people start, and those jobs will have multiple applicants. Googling to find regional job sites may help find companies that fly under the radar.
LinkedIn - The Jobs tab can create a search for new posts, but everybody may use that strategy. Try an Advanced People Search using one or more of the technologies or skills (in keywords box) that might be used by an attractive employer, and enter a zip code and mileage range using the desired location. Note both the current and past employers for the profiles, then research those firms.
Remote networking – Reaching out directly to some of the profiles found during the LinkedIn search will produce leads. Many fellow technologists will respond to messages stating a desire to move to their area. Finding a local recruiter on LinkedIn or via web search may bring several opportunities.
User groups and meetups – Some user group sites have job ads, and sponsoring firms usually have a local presence. Speakers from past meetings often live locally. User group leaders are often contacted by recruiters and hiring companies that are looking for talent, so contacting group leaders directly and asking “Who is hiring?” should be helpful.
or let the jobs find you… – Change the location field on a LinkedIn profile to the desired location and add language indicating an interest in new opportunities, and companies and agencies from that location may start knocking.
Applying for jobs
Now that the jobs are identified, initial contact must be made. This is where things can get complicated.
Recruiters and HR professionals are tasked with looking at résumés and any accompanying material in order to make a reasonably quick yes/no decision on an initial interview. Screeners know an interview process is time consuming, and the decision to start that process will usually take valuable time from several employees of the organization.
There are several factors that go into this decision, with candidate’s qualifications being the most important and obvious. Another factor is the recruiter’s assessment regarding the likelihood that a candidate would accept the job if offered, which is based on any obvious or assumed barriers. Details such as candidate compensation requirements in relation to company pay ranges or current job title in relation to vacant job title may play a role in the decision.
Is someone making 150K likely to accept our job paying 110K?
Is a Chief Architect likely to accept our Intermediate Developer position?
And generally speaking, is this person likely to accept a job in another location?
For exceptional candidates these questions are irrelevant, as they will be screened. But if a candidate barely meets the minimum requirements, has a couple additional flags, and happens to be non-local, will the employer even bother screening the candidate? Should they?
Without additional context, it may be assumed that a recent graduate in the midwest that applies to a job in New York City is probably shipping résumés to Silicon Valley, Chicago, or Seattle. The HR rep could believe that they are competing with many companies across several markets, each with its own reputation, characteristics, and cost of living. How likely is it that this candidate will not only choose our market, but also choose our company?
How can we lessen the impact of these assumptions and potential biases?
Mention location -When location isn’t mentioned by non-local applicants and no other information is given, the screener is likely to get the impression that this candidate is indiscriminately applying to positions. An applicant’s non-local address is the elephant in the room, so it is vital to reference that immediately in a cover letter.
If a future address is known, it should be listed on the résumé along with the current address. Keep in mind that the screener may open a résumé before reading any accompanying material. When there is a specific reason for relocating to this location, such as a family situation or a spouse’s job relocation, that information will be additional evidence of intent.
Availability for interviews - Listing available dates for on-site interviews demonstrates at least some level of commitment to the new location. Screeners interpret this as a buying sign.
Availability for start – Candidates that relocate for positions may have to sell their home, sublet an apartment, or have children in the middle of a school year. A mention of start date helps to set expectations early.
Cost of living and salary – Some ads request salary history and compensation expectations. Be sure to research salaries and market values in the new city, and state that committing to a future salary figure is difficult until all of the data is collected.
Relocation assistance – Companies may be willing to provide some relocation assistance even for candidates who are planning a move. Requesting a relo package in an application adds a potential reason for rejection, but negotiating relo money during the offer process is common. Since it is a one-time cost, companies may be more willing to provide relo if negotiations on salary or benefits become sticky.
Consider the overall market – Before committing to an opportunity in another city, research employment prospects beyond the target company. How healthy is the job market, and how many other local companies have specific demand for the same skills? A strong local tech market does not always indicate a strong market for certain specialties.
I review many emailed job applications each week that include a salary expectation, usually in the form of “seeking $X,000 per year“. Some continue with a phrase that has become trite, not to mention quite costly to job seekers everywhere.
“but I’m negotiable”
What these candidates are telling us is “I have a target number, but I want you to know in advance that I’m willing to accept less.“
This phrase is also a common response during live conversation with candidates, whether in speaking to me or in interviews with my clients.
INTERVIEWER: What are your salary expectations?
CANDIDATE: I’m seeking 80K, but I’m negotiable.
But usually it goes more like this
INTERVIEWER: What are your salary expectations?
CANDIDATE: I’m seeking 80K…
INTERVIEWER: [Silently takes a note for five seconds]
CANDIDATE: …but I’m negotiable.
Don’t do that.
The mistake here is that the candidate willingly dropped their request before hearing any objection to the number provided. In the first instance, they have altered their negotiating position before even giving the interviewer so much as an opportunity to say no.
IN APPLICATIONS – When providing a salary requirement in writing, there is the option of using a single number or a range. Supplying a range could be potentially useful, as a range may account for variation between what companies offer in time off, benefits, bonus, or perks. When providing a range, expect employers to start negotiations at the bottom.
Providing some brief context along with the number (“assuming competitive benefits and working conditions”) will provide an opening to negotiate above the provided number/range when necessary. Usually there will be some part of the package that can be cited as below market to justify raising an offer.
If the recipient of the application feels the candidate is qualified and at least in the ballpark for the budget, contact will be made and the flexibility topic may come up early.
IN INTERVIEWS – Prepare a number to ask for along with any context before the interview. It’s quite a common question, and having an answer available should provide the best results. Improvisation on this question is usually where things go wrong.
When the question about compensation expectations comes up, reply with the number along with any brief and necessary clarifying context. Then, stop talking. Don’t say a word until the interviewer responds. Even if the stare down lasts a minute, say nothing.
Interviewers realize you are probably a bit on edge and slightly uncomfortable during an interview. Any silence, even for just a few seconds, is commonly interpreted by candidates as a negative sign (“Uh oh, why did she stop asking questions???”). Some hiring managers or HR professionals actually have a pause built into the script in order to determine possible flexibility without having to even ask.
Never start negotiating downward until some objection is provided, and don’t mistake the silence of an interviewer as an objection.
At some point in a career, many will be in a position to decide between multiple job offers from different companies – or at worst having to decide between accepting a new job or staying put. When starting to compare offers, it is common for the recipient to focus on the known quantities (i.e. salary, bonus, etc.) and perhaps a couple additional details that are generally considered more subjective (work environment, technologies).
In order to make a truly wise choice it is also useful to include less obvious factors as well as future considerations, as those generally will have a much stronger influence on career earnings and success. These are harder to predict, but must enter into your decision unless your sole objective is to meet some immediate short-term need.
The easy part
The most common components factoring into gross compensation are:
Cash compensation (salary, bonus, sign-on) - If the bonus is listed as guaranteed, the figure can be lumped into salary. Most bonuses are not guaranteed, but rather are tied to personal and/or company goals being met. Some firms or individual employees are willing to provide data on bonus history. Sign-ons are used to sweeten an offer or to rectify a potential cost the new hire would incur by leaving their job, such as an unpaid bonus.
Healthcare premiums and contributions – Offer letters typically do not list employee out-of-pocket insurance cost, and personal circumstances may weigh heavily on how one values health insurance. Employer contribution can vary from 50-100% while other companies offer employee-only contribution (no contribution towards spouse/partner/child), which can result in a total compensation difference of a few percent.
401k or retirement plans – Employee match and contribution to these plans can be significant. Consider both the dollar amounts and the vesting schedules.
Education reimbursement - If considering a return to school this policy could make a difference.
Paid time off – Although the real value any employee places on time off will vary, the dollar value of each day of PTO can be estimated using a formula.
(Annual salary / estimated annual work hours) x work hours in a day
Many candidates make the mistake of basing their decisions with too much weight placed on base salary. This may be attributed to our emotional attachment to numbers and compensation “milestones” (usually round numbers), the perception of status that results from salary, and the inability of candidates to accurately gather and calculate the details of a comprehensive package.
A friend might tell you about her 100K salary, but how often do you hear someone independently offer up that they pay 10K per year for health insurance and only get one week of vacation?
The details above are all easily obtained, quantified, and require no interpretation. Everything from this point on will require a bit of investigation as well as some educated guessing.
Expected hours – To put a value on time for offer comparison, a quick calculation to convert salary into dollars per hour can be a telling figure. All else being equal, that 80K offer with a 40 hour work week is more per hour than the 100K offer at 55 hours. Estimates of work hours may not be accurate, so multiple data sources can help.
Commute time/cost and possibility for remote work – Distance may not be a reliable predictor of commute time or cost, and mundane details such as gas efficiency will quickly add up when you consider the trip is repeated 400+ times a year. Mass transit inefficiencies and delays have a cost to commuters as well. The ability to work remotely, even for one or two days a week, makes some difference.
Travel – This can be viewed as a positive or a negative depending on the worker. Consider any hidden expenses that may not be reimbursed, such as child or pet care costs.
Perks – Company provided phone or internet, gym membership, and office meals/snacks are not things job seekers expect, yet could provide thousands of dollars in value.
Self-improvement budget – Some companies may be willing to foot the bill for training or conferences that the employee would have paid for anyway.
Forecasting and speculation
The most vital characteristics contributing to a job’s long-term value are often hidden and unsupported by reliable data. Establishing the present day value of any one job is somewhat complex, and trying to forecast future values requires speculation.
Future marketability – This is a key factor in career compensation, yet is often overlooked when the temptation of short-term gains are presented. The consideration of future marketability is most critical for new grads or junior level employees, who are (unfortunately) often in debt and easily influenced by short-term gains and cash compensation. What skills will be obtained in a job, and to what extent will these new skills increase market value? Will having a company’s name on a résumé (whether by associated prestige or number of direct competitors) create some additional demand for services? If a goal is to maximize lifetime earnings, one could theorize that a year of unpaid work at a place like Google or Facebook is preferable to two years of paid work at many other companies.
Promotions and raises - Job offers only include starting salary/title. How, and how often, does a company evaluate employees for salary increases, and what amounts might be expected for performers? Do they tend to promote from within or hire from outside? Is there a career path and is there a point where compensation plateaus?
Stress and satisfaction – It’s impossible to place a hard value on work stress or job satisfaction, and the amount of either is difficult to predict. Satisfaction, work/life balance, and stress can impact both health and productivity, which could also contribute to marketability.
Stock/stock options - The number of factors that influence the potential value is too long to list. Vesting schedules may have substantial impact on perceived value if a long tenure isn’t expected.
Environment, team, management - Companies try to make a strong positive impression during interviews, but that image doesn’t always accurately reflect day-to-day operations. Younger workers should place considerable weight on whether there are team members to learn from and mentors who are both available and willing to guide. Employees with long tenures will have insight, though the opinion of more recent hires may be more relevant to anyone considering an offer.
Job change decisions are complex, and tough choices usually end up coming from the gut. The immediate results of a choice are easily identified and quantified, but the more important long-term ramifications require research, interpretation, and a bit of conjecture. When combining all of the smaller elements of a compensation package, the highest salary will not always be the most lucrative offer.
In Part II, I alluded to systemic conditions inherent to contingency recruiting that can incentivize bad behavior. Before proceeding with warnings about recruiters, let’s provide some context as to why some recruiters behave the way they do.
Agency recruiters (AKA “headhunters”) that conduct contingency searches account for most of the recruiting market and are subsequently the favorite target of recruiter criticism. These are recruiters that represent multiple hiring firms that pay the recruiter a fee ranging anywhere from 15-30% of the new employee’s salary. This seems a great deal for the recruiter, but the downside of contingency recruiting is that the recruiter may spend substantial time on a search yet earn no money if they do not make the placement.
Contingency recruiters absorb 100% of the “risk” for their searches by default, unlike retained recruiters who take no risk. Hiring companies can establish relationships with ten or twenty contingency firms to perform a search, with each agency helping expand the company’s name and employer brand, yet only one (and sometimes none) is compensated. When we combine large fees with a highly competitive, time-sensitive demand-driven market, the actors in that market are incentivized to take shortcuts.
Please don’t confuse these revelations as excuses for bad behavior. Recruiters who either do not understand or choose to ignore industry ethics make it much more difficult for those who do follow the rules. I provide these warnings to expose problems in a secretive industry, with hopes that sunlight will serve as disinfectant.
All recruiters won’t act this way. Many will. Keep these things in mind when interacting with your recruiter.
Your recruiter may send your résumé places without your knowledge - To maximize the chances of getting a fee or to utilize your desirable background as bait to sign a prospective client, recruiters may shop you around without your consent. This only tends to cause issues when the recruiter sends your résumé somewhere that you are already interviewing.
REMEDY: Insist that your recruiter only submits you with prior consent (in writing if that makes you feel more comfortable).
Your recruiter may attempt to get you as many interviews as possible, with little consideration for fit - This sounds like a positive until you have burned all your vacation days and realize that over 50% of your interviews were a complete waste of time. This is the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” mentality loathed by both candidates and employers.
REMEDY: Perform due diligence and vet jobs before agreeing to interviews.
If you reject a job offer, the recruiter may take questionable actions to get you to reconsider – No one can fault a recruiter for wanting to promote their client when a candidate is on the fence. That is part of the recruiter’s job. Recruiters cross the line when they knowingly provide false details about a job to allay a candidate’s fears. A recruiter may call a candidate’s home when the recruiter knows the candidate isn’t there in an attempt to speak to and get support from a spouse or significant other. The higher the potential fee, the more likely you are to see these tactics.
REMEDY: If you have questions about an offer that don’t have simple answers, such as inquiries about career path or bonus expectation, get answers directly from the company representatives. When your decision is final, make that fact clear to your recruiter.
If you accept a counteroffer, the recruiter will attempt to scare you - Counteroffers are the bane of the recruiter’s existence. Just as the recruiter starts counting their money, it’s swiped at the last possible moment – and just because the candidate changed their mind. Recruiting is a unique sales job, in that the hire can refuse the deal after all involved parties (employer, new employee, broker) have agreed to terms. Sales jobs in other industries don’t have that issue.
When a counteroffer is accepted, expect some form of “recruiter terrorism“. In my opinion, this is perhaps the most shameful recruiter behavior. Recruiters have been known to tell candidates that their career is over, they will be out of a job in a few months, and that the decision will haunt them for many years to come. All of those things may be true in some isolated instances, but plenty of people have accepted counteroffers without ill effects. I’ve written about this before, as it’s important to understand the difference between the actual dangers of counteroffer acceptance and the recruiter’s biased perspective.
REMEDY: Consider any counteroffer situation carefully and do your own research on the realities of counteroffer, while keeping in mind the source of any content you read.
You will be asked for referrals, perhaps in creative ways – Recruiters are trained to ask everyone for referrals. This was much more important before the advent of LinkedIn and social media, when names were much more difficult to come by. Candidates may expect that recruiters will ask “Who is the best Python developer you know?”, but they may feel less threatened by a recruiter asking “Who is the worst Python developer you know?”. Again, we shouldn’t blame recruiters for trying to expand their network, but if the recruiter continues to ask for names without providing any value it’s clearly not a balanced relationship.
REMEDY: Give referrals (if any) that you are comfortable providing, and tell the recruiter that you’ll keep them in mind if any of your associates are looking for work in the future. Whether you act on that is up to you.
If you list references they will be called (and perhaps recruited) – When a candidate lists references on a résumé, it’s an open invitation to recruit those people as well. If your references discover that you leaked their contact information indiscriminately to a slew of recruiters and that act resulted in their full inbox, don’t expect them to volunteer to serve as references in the future.
REMEDY: Never list references on your résumé. Only provide references when necessary, and ask the references what contact information they would like presented to the recruiter.
You will receive continuous recruiter contact for years to come, usually more often than you’d like - Once your information is out there, you can’t erase it. Don’t provide permanent contact details unless you are willing to field inquiries for the rest of your career.
REMEDY: Use throwaway email addresses and set guidelines on future contact.
Recruiters get paid when you take a job through them, regardless of whether it’s the best job choice for you – This is a simple fact that most candidates probably aren’t conscious of during the job search. There are three potential outcomes – you accept a job through the recruiter, you accept a job without using the recruiter, or you stay put. Only the first outcome results in a fee, so the recruiter has financial incentive first to convince you to leave and then to only consider their jobs.
What type of behavior does this lead to? Recruiters may ask you where you are interviewing, where you have applied, and what other recruiters you are using. Some may refuse to work with you if you fail to provide this information. They may provide some explanation as to why this information is vital for them to know, but the reason is only the desire to know who they are competing against and to have some amount of control. The more detail you provide, the more ammunition the recruiter has to make a case for their client.
REMEDY: Always consider a recruiter’s advice, but also consider their incentives. Provide information to recruiters on a need to know basis and only provide what will help them get you a job. Specifics about any other job search activity are private unless you choose to make it known.
Recruiters have almost no incentive to provide feedback - Many job seekers wonder why agency recruiters often don’t provide feedback after a failed interview. Of my 60+ articles on Job Tips For Geeks the most popular (based on traffic coming from search engines) is “Why The Recruiter Didn’t Call You Back“, so it’s clear to me that this is a bothersome trend. Once it becomes clear that you will not result in a fee, your value to the recruiter is primarily limited to the possibility of a future placement or a source for referrals.
Interview feedback is valuable to candidates, and job seekers that commit to interviews deserve some explanation as to why they were not selected for hire.
REMEDY: Set the expectation with the recruiter that you will be interested in client feedback, and ask for specific feedback after interviews are complete.
This is the second in a three-part series to inform job seekers about working with a recruiter. Part I was “Recruit Your Recruiter” and Part III is “Warnings”
Once you have identified the recruiter(s) you are going to use in your job search, it is ideal to immediately gather information from the recruiter (and provide some instructions to the recruiter) so expectations and boundaries are properly set. All recruiters are not alike, with significant variation in protocol, style, and even the recruiter’s incentives.
The stakes are high for job seekers who entrust someone to assist with their career, but it’s important to keep in mind that a recruiter stands to earn a sizable amount when making a placement. For contingency agency recruiters who make up the majority of the market, the combination of large fees and competition can incentivize bad behavior. More on this in Part III.
As a recruiter, I find that transparency helps gain trust and is necessary to establish an effective professional relationship. Candidates should realize that I have a business and profit motive, but I also want my candidates to understand my specific incentives so they can consider those incentives during our interactions. The negative reputation of agency recruiters makes this transparency necessary, and honest recruiters should have nothing to hide.
Some recruiters will be more open than others, and the recruiter’s willingness to share information can and should be used as potential indicators of the recruiter’s interests. A recruiter must be able to articulate their own incentives, and be willing to justify situations where full transparency is not provided.
To establish boundaries and set expectations, there are several topics that need to be addressed.
What you need to know
The recruiter’s experience – Hopefully you vetted your recruiter before contact, but now is the time to verify anything that you may have read. Confirm any claimed specialties.
How the recruiter is paid for any given client – Whether or not recruiters should reveal their fee percentages is debatable, but job seekers certainly have the right to know how fees are calculated. Why is this important? Some fees may be based on base salary only while other agreements may stipulate that a fee includes bonuses or stock grants. If the recruiter is providing advice in negotiation, it’s helpful to know what parts of the compensation package impact the recruiter’s potential fee.
Keep in mind that recruiters often have customized agreements with their clients. When a recruiter is representing you to multiple opportunities, it’s absolutely necessary for you to be made aware of each client’s fee structure. If you sense that your recruiter is pushing you towards accepting an offer from Company A and discouraging you from a higher offer with Company B, knowing who pays the recruiter more helps temper the advice.
The recruiter’s relationship with any given client – Did the recruiter just sign this client last week or do they have a ten year history of working together? Has the recruiter worked with certain employees of the client in the past? This information is primarily useful when considering a recruiter’s advice on hiring process and negotiation, as the recruiter’s familiarity (or lack thereof) could be a contributing factor to getting an offer and closing the deal.
The recruiter should also be willing to share if the client is a contingency search or retained (some fee paid in advance). This information has little impact on incentives, but clients do have a vested interest in hiring from a recruiter on retainer as they already have some skin in the game.
As much detail as possible on any given job being pitched – Some candidates are satisfied with only knowing a job title while others want to know whether a company has a tendency to hire executives from outside or within. Recruiters will have some specific details, but candidates should expect to perform a bit of due diligence as well. If there are certain deal breakers regarding your job search (maybe tuition reimbursement is a requirement for you), it’s the candidate’s responsibility to convey those conditions and the recruiter’s responsibility to clear those up before starting the process.
What you need to express
How and when to contact – If you share all your contact information with a recruiter without instruction, many recruiters will assume they have full access. Recruiters want to establish a solid relationship and may feel the best way to do that is through extensive live contact. An inordinate number of calls to your mobile phone during office hours could tip off managers to your search, which may even benefit the recruiter’s efforts to place you. Set guidelines on both method and time acceptable for contact.
No changes to the résumé without consent – I hear this complaint often, and the solution for many is a PDF. The most common change made is the addition of the recruiter’s contact info and maybe a logo. This is harmless, and designed to ensure that the recruiter gets their fee if the résumé is found three months later and the candidate is hired.
There are many anecdotes about recruiters adding or subtracting details from a résumé, which is a different story. It’s entirely unethical for a recruiter to insert skills or buzzwords without consent.
No résumés submitted without permission - To prevent a host of potential issues, be explicit about this. A recruiter who is not given this directive may feel they have carte blanche and might submit your résumé to a company you are already interviewing with, a former boss you didn’t like, or any number of places you don’t want your résumé going.
Need to provide client names before submittal – See above. There are somewhat unique scenarios where companies request anonymity before they establish interest in a candidate, but these are extremely rare cases. It is not only important to know that your résumé is being sent out, but also where it is going.
Only want to be pitched jobs that meet your criteria – This is more about saving time than anything else, but contingency recruiters playing the numbers game may try to maximize their chances of making a fee on you by submitting you to every client in their portfolio. The result is wasteful interviews for jobs that you are unqualified for or that you would never have accepted in the first place.
Recruiters aren’t mind readers, so you’ll need to be specific. If you are limiting your search to specific locations and types of jobs, establish those parameters early and ask to be informed only about jobs that fit.
Expectation of feedback, preferably actionable – One of the biggest complaints about recruiters is that they suddenly disappear after telling you about a job or sending you on an interview. There are multiple reasons for this, some understandable and others less so. Asking the recruiter when you should expect to hear feedback and sending prompt emails after interviews should help you gather valuable information about what you are doing well and where you could use some work.
Recruiters don’t want to hurt a candidate’s feelings and may filter their feedback, but the raw information is more useful and often actionable. Ask for a low level of filtering.
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