Why Recruiters Suck, And What You Can Do About It

Question:  When is the last time you read a tweet like this?


Answer:  Never, because it’s never happened.

I’m a tech recruiter.  Please, hold your applause.  In the past few weeks I’ve read quite a bit of chatter (tweets, blogs, etc.) from technologists being hounded by recruiters, and the mention of these incidents is never framed in a positive way.  It would seem that most in the tech community view almost all recruiters as a collective nuisance more than anything else.  Knowing what I know about some others in my profession, and after hearing hundreds of anecdotes (read: horror stories)  from my candidates over my 14 year career in recruiting software engineers, I can’t help but agree.

The good news is that when recruiters are calling, it is the one definitive sign that the job market is hot.  So you can all be thankful for that silver lining.  The bad news is that when the job market heats up, recruiting companies start hiring more recruiters, and let’s just say that the standards for hiring new recruiters are not terribly high for most companies.  I was lucky to be hired for my first recruiting job by a firm that screened new hires thoroughly and invested heavily on training new employees, but it seems that these days the ability to dial a phone and send an email are enough to get you hired (ethics are a nice to have, and a pulse is considered a big plus).  Training may consist of a couple three word phrases.

“Smile and dial!”

“ABC – Always Be Closing”

I’ll admit, it sucks for those of us recruiters who are truly good at what we do.  To be in a profession that is viewed with such disdain from our customers (candidates and companies alike) can be quite depressing.  Politicians, injury lawyers, and used car salesmen have nothing on us, except they are known to a wider audience.  I rarely hear “I don’t work with recruiters”, but when it happens it always seems a bit odd, especially if you think about what a recruiter’s goals should be.  If I do my job properly and successfully, it is a ‘win-win-win situation’.

Win 1 – You get a new job that you want (or you wouldn’t accept the offer).
Win 2 – A company gets a new employee that fills their need.
Win 3 – I get a few bucks, as well as the satisfaction of helping further your career and assisting a company to achieve growth goals. (Please don’t overlook or dismiss this satisfaction element)

The problem with many recruiters, it seems, is that they simply don’t pay any attention to the desires of candidates.  This results in lost time for all involved – candidates waste time reading about jobs that don’t apply, hiring managers read résumés and interview candidates that are not qualified or interested, and the recruiter is wasting time with activity on both sides.  Many of the complaints I hear about techies getting bombarded with emails from recruiters would be easily avoided if the recruiter would simply do a little reading, or (God forbid) thinking.

If a resume says that a candidate is only looking for work in Philadelphia, recruiters should not email you about positions elsewhere.  This is probably the biggest complaint I’ve seen, and it is seemingly the easiest to avoid.  I’m stunned how often I hear this one.  NOTE: If you are one of those that possess a very rare technical skill, you should probably expect that you will hear from some recruiters trying to draw you to a new geography.

If a resume says that a candidate is only looking for work as a Ruby programmer, recruiters should not email you about their Sys Admin job.  Recruiters, is it really that difficult a concept?

The last issue seems to be ethics.  Recruiters are infamous for lying to candidates about their clients, salary ranges, job responsibilities, etc.  They just want to get you (first your CV, then your body) in front of the manager.  The ethics issue is not as easy to solve, but as someone who has survived two economic downturns, I can attest that being ethical and honest as a recruiter is your only chance of having any long term success.

One major influence in a recruiter’s behavior can be traced to how some recruiters are judged.  Many recruiting firms apply simple metrics to evaluate a recruiter’s performance.  The more candidates a recruiter submits and the more interviews a recruiter generates, the more favorably that recruiter will be viewed by managers, often regardless of the outcome of said interviews.  This is the ‘numbers game’ you hear about, and the attitude that if you ‘throw enough spaghetti against the wall, some of it will stick’.  Recruiting firms that still use these types of metrics are doing it the wrong way.  Clients (hiring companies) are using recruiters to save time, so a much better metric for those that manage recruiters AND hiring managers at client firms is submissions per hire.

As much as I dislike economic slowdowns that result in lower hiring rates, I have learned to appreciate the fact that I know many of the worst recruiters do not survive these periods.  Only the best in the business can stay afloat when companies are laying off workers.  Ironically, times of economic downturn are also when technologists truly learn to appreciate a good recruiter.

So what can the tech community do about bad recruiters?

  1. If you don’t want recruiters to waste your time contacting you about every job order that comes across their desk, politely let recruiters know what type of job would interest you.  No matter how happy you are at your job, I would guess that there would be some rare opportunity that you would at least want to hear about.  Keep a little blurb handy (call it ‘dream job’) to cut/paste into a response that lays out the type of job that would interest you, locations, perhaps even a bit on compensation.  “I’m only interested in permanent Senior Python positions in NYC paying over 120K”.   If that recruiter continues to ask you about jobs that don’t match the criteria you sent, simply block them from contacting you.
  2. Tell recruiters that when you decide to look for work, you will call them (and actually follow through and call the one(s) that you like).  As a recruiter, I would much rather have you tell me when you are ready to hear about opportunities than to try and guess what events (birthdays and bad company news/acquisitions are most common) may cause you to open your ears to a new gig.
  3. Support recruiters that give back.  If a recruiter takes the time to review your resume or to provide you valuable career advice without having any financial interest in your decision, that should be someone you contact in the future when you look for work.  Do you know any recruiters that spread useful info on the industry?  Refer friends to this recruiter.  Supporting the good recruiters keeps their service available, and should help to eventually put the bad firms out of business.
  4. Let a recruiter know if you feel he/she is not providing a valuable service.  Maybe even tell them which other recruiters you respect.  Perhaps a shot to the ego will give them incentive to try and improve.

The Bottom Line

As a tech recruiter, I want to have positive relationships with as many of the best software professionals as possible.  If I follow you on social networks, blogs, and try to ‘link’ to you, it’s because I feel I can probably help your career down the road (and again, create a win-win-win) and I can learn about industry trends by reading your posts.  There are recruiters that are less skilled/ethical just as there are software engineers with the same qualities.  To completely turn away from recruiters based on the actions of some many in our industry is to do yourself a disservice.  Have faith, there are enough good ones that you will eventually find one that works for you.

If you found this post useful, you may find my ebook Job Tips For GEEKS: The Job Search very helpful.  You can also follow Job Tips For Geeks on FacebookTwitter, and Google +.


  1. Fred Stluka

    Good article. Yeah, I have 2 standard replies for recruiters that contact me. One is a list of questions about the company, position, technology, responsibilities, rate/salary, location, etc. If they answer all of the questions, I may be interested, or at least willing to forward it to my contacts. If they seem like a good person to work with, but not this position, I then send them my dream job blurb.


  2. afilina

    Ideally, you want to meet the recruiter after the initial phone screening. You need to build a relationship with the recruiter and know that you can trust him. If you’re looking for 120K+ job and he’s getting 10K+ for his service, then it’s worth investing that time. If you decide that he’s not worth it, then I say that this time was well spent. Otherwise, you waste a month or more at a job that has nothing to do with your skills. I dealt with a good recruiter once and I say it was a pleasant experience.

    • fecak

      There are definitely good recruiters out there (I consider myself one), and I’m glad you have had a good experience. You would be surprised at how many people haven’t had even one single positive experience. In the software industry recruiters tend to swarm every candidate, and it would be logistically impossible or for most candidates to meet every recruiter that contacts them. I’d definitely like to see candidates in this field (software engineering) be more selective about who which recruiters they do business with.

  3. Fadi (itoctopus)

    Hi Dave,

    in a previous company (not mine) we always had the worst candidates being pushed by recruiters. Unbelievable.

    I totally agree that recruiters are, in most cases, a nuisance for someone who’s hiring or for someone who’s looking for a job. In my opinion, they are more or less like real estate agents – they inflate prices (salaries), and they lower the quality.

    • fecak

      Fadi – Thanks for the comments. The difference between a good and bad recruiter is how much time they can save the hiring company’s staff, whether that be HR/recruiting staff or tech team staff. If a company is constantly reviewing resumes of unqualified candidates or, even worse, interviewing unqualified candidates, they are simply wasting time. This is often an element of what I mentioned in my article, where recruiters are rewarded for generating activity (no difference between productive or unproductive activity).

      I tell my clients up front that I am not a resume factory, and if they want to choose from 100 candidates they should use another recruiter. If you get one or two resumes a week from me, I feel I’m doing a good job, as many of my searches are completed with only a couple resumes/interviews. If my value is to save my client time, I should do a solid job screening out the bad apples and only send the good ones.

    • mrpibb64

      there are lazy a$$ recruiters as well; i.e. today i had two separate jobs emailed to me where the job description section were IDENTICAL! both recruiters were from different different agencies. so they were either lazy and/or SCAMMERS!. In the latter case I have heard it from reputable recruiters that some listings are only put on line to attract applicants WITH NO REAL JOB OR COMPANY INTENDING TO HIRE!! I would certainly hope that in such cases, laws against this crap are actually enforced.

      I can count on one hand the recruiters that i truly trust among the incompetent, lazy and cheaters out there. it is my intent to write a book on these ‘adventures’ in playing what i call the ‘skill set match game’

      • fecak

        So you received two identical job descriptions from two different agencies – why do you think they are lazy or scammers? Did you ever think that the same hiring company might use more than one agency for their recruiting? So assuming a large company (or even a small one) uses more than one recruiter for their hiring needs, it’s certainly reasonable to think that more than one agency might find you (LinkedIn, Monster, etc.) and contact you using the same job description.

        I’m actually considering writing a book about tricks that recruiters play, based on some encouragement I received when I mentioned it on a Hacker News thread. As a recruiter, I’m quite aware of some recruiter tactics that other companies use that should be exposed to the public. Your anecdote about being contacted by two recruiters isn’t a good example of this though.

      • Tom

        Hilarious that people still think recruiters are useful. I started my business over a year ago and I’ve never used a single recruiter. I don’t need them , because a recruiter cannot possibly understand the requirements for the jobs I am offering better than I, or the others working for me can. And that is the catch. Most I.T shops/departments have not idea how to look for a good candidate, and neither do recruiters (unless they’re a former I.T. professional ) because simply put they lack the expertise to understand the environment in which they operate. How can a recruiter “filter” candidates if they don’t have the background to understand the answers to the “filtering” questions? For example,in C# when is it appropriate to declare a variable var? That is one of my basic interview questions. And I would be surprised if half the recruiters out there would have a clue on what the correct answer is. Yes I would tell them, but that doesn’t mean they understand in the context required to have a conversation about it. So essentially the weakest link is the person that knows the least , and that is the recruiter.

      • fecak

        So because you haven’t used a recruiter for a whole year, they aren’t useful? That’s a bit of a stretch, but OK. I agree that many recruiters aren’t all that useful, but a recruiter doesn’t need a programming background to be successful. If you have a favorite filtering question (as you mentioned), you could quite easily give that question and an appropriate answer to the recruiter – some may have the intelligence to be able to discern good answers from bad.

        You wrote that “Most I.T shops have not (sic) idea how to look for a good candidate, and neither do recruiters” – so how are recruiters any less useful than the people in the department?

        I agree that many recruiters aren’t useful, but your arguments as to why could be better. Many of the issues with recruiting are due to the contingency recruiting incentives and the size of those incentives. Take those incentives away, and reduce the size of those incentives, and your recruiters will get better.

    • fecak

      Jens – More evidence of the broken relationship between recruiters and tech professionals. Without knowing how well or poorly I do my job, you really have no way of knowing what kind of value I do/don’t provide. If you assume that no recruiters provide any value, I’d have to say that you are wrong, and I’m certain my clients and candidates would tell you the same thing. Hopefully people like myself will be able to change this negative image of my industry.

    • Anon

      This. I don’t need a recruiter telling me you will follow me to recruit; you’ll follow me for your commission check on my references you stole.

    • fecak

      Not only do they carry the reputation, I think the good ones are far outnumbered these days, and a recovering economy will only continue that trend.

  4. sunny

    Good Article Jim,as you are saying its not just the no.of Profiles we push but no.of right Profiles we present for client makes difference

  5. Yasin Hamid

    Nice article. During my career I met some unbelievably bad recruiters. Some were throwing at me job offers for positions I had many times told them I am not interested in. Others just amused me with their technical incompetence.
    Now I wonder, how to hire a good software developer. In my career I hired couple of people, some just didn’t fit and some proved to be exceptionally good. I hired few based just on interview and some based on giving them technical assignment. But I am not very convinced with assignments, seems like they test only very limited set of skills.

  6. Steve

    The worst part, and weakest aspect, of any job search I have ever untertaken has been the recruiter interaction. I have browsed all the above posts and in my mind, as it has always been, the recruiter is the weakest link in the job search. I use the major online services, Monster, Dice, CareerBuilder for getting my profile into the public profile. Doing so has had the effect of leaving chicken to sit in the sun during summer, the flies congregate, as in recruiters, an unfortunate aspect of the job search. Yes I am aware of the privacy and public settings, as well as personal information that can be included on the actual resume.

    I would no more trust my client representation to 95% of recruiters than I would trust a known criminal. Seems to me, 5% of the recruiters, local to my area, who have taken the time to meet with me, get to know me, have been shown to be the most effective and trustworthy. I have presented myself to clients where a recruiter firm has gotten me into an interview, only to find the firms have completely reformatted my resume, added bullet items, added vendor comments to the header of the resume, a host of other attributes could follow. In a couple cases, the vendor comments contained spelling and grammar errors. Other cases, vendor added bullet items were misrepresentative of me, not in my own words. The list could go on, and the actual companies associated with the calamity of missteps could follow with it.

    I have actually found my last couple positions using my own resources, searching, cold letters to insiders at the client firms I wish to work. Trying to find a job, is a job. Using a recruiter is taking a risk. I have had times where a recruiter firm has submitted me to a client, for which I did not authorize, knew nothing about, and all of a sudden I get a call or an email, you were double submitted and have been disqualified. I have found the latter to be more the case with recruiters who obviously are not from this country, Indians. When I pickup the phone and I hear an Indian on the other end, I simply just hang up.

    I could ramble on more than I already have. Recruiters, in my opinion, are a group that lacks credibility, integrity, morality, and ethics. Pretty much low life, bottom of the barrel types, bottom feeders, just for the 95% of the group.

    • fecak

      I wouldn’t argue with your points. Contingency recruiting is competitive, and most in that world will cut corners for fees.

      If you don’t want your résumé tampered with, don’t put it out for public consumption. Putting a résumé on Monster or Dice reeks of desperation and should only be a last resort unless you are entry level. Otherwise, reach out in a more private way to employers and that 5% of recruiters.

      I don’t deal with recruiters very often, but I hear these stories quite a bit. I haven’t heard others differentiate between recruiters by ethnicity, so I certainly don’t subscribe to your comment about any foreign recruiters.

      Better luck to you in any future dealings with recruiters.

  7. albert

    Recruiters are just parasites trying to piggyback off the skills and talent of everyone else, because they have no skills or talent themselves. Recruiters need job seekers more than job seekers need recruiters. I’ve always considered recruiters and employment agents to be pseudo professionals.

    • fecak

      Well Albert, thanks for sharing your opinion. I would agree that there is a percentage of recruiters that add little value to the process, and there are others who earn their keep. Saying that recruiters as a whole have no skills or talent is going a bit overboard.

      Regarding ‘who needs who’ – without job seekers (active, passive, or otherwise) or companies to hire them, recruiters wouldn’t have much to do. So recruiters are most dependent on companies (they pay the bill, after all), and then secondly on job seekers.

      If you ever get tired of what you are doing, you should seriously consider recruiting. When done properly, it’s a win-win-win (candidate gets job, company gets employee, and recruiter gets fee) which is satisfying – and if money is your motivator, successful recruiters often make much more than the people they recruit.

      Thanks Albert

    • Anon

      To post a fair point up, recruiters have gotten me a lot of jobs; some more lasting than others. Either way, people still learning skills need recruiters to adopt new skills into their resumes. This is because companies will only hire the experienced, especially in these times of today. However, the recruiters just sort of looking for resumes in the collection are really just using you and you can tell by the types of questions they ask in their phone screen.

  8. keith

    I have recruiters spamming me with job offers in a place I haven’t lived for a decade. So rather than sending me an inquiry as to my current location/ employment status they just send me the job description without taking at least a minute to do the reality check. I would think that a true professional would notice that the resume they’re viewing is a decade out of date. Then when i call him out on this simply fact, he disparages my professional reputation by making up lies about my past employment history. Ie saying someone worked with me that didn’t and I know it cause i owned the business.

    Now of course I’m wise enough not to apply this limited experience to the entire profession.

    I believe the companies that rely on technical recruiters contribute to self selecting mediocrity.
    If a company can’t figure out how they need to hire then.

    1. the person doing to hiring doesn’t know their job well enough.

    2.how can someone else that knows the job even less (tech recruiter) fill that void?

    3.how can someone that has no professional knowledge or experience when it comes to technology contribute to either the company or the developer in a truly meaningful way that justifies the 50% the take of an hourly rate.

    This phenomenon seems to exist more and more as industries become more complicated.

    But put it this way. Go to a manufacturer of some kind. Walk into the bosses/owners office and tell them that you are the person they should use to determine who they should hire. Furthermore explain that you have no idea what their business does, how it works nor could you function in their company in any other capacity in any way, yet you somehow have the knowledge to know who they should hire and why.

    You will get laughed at…..

    I give this example to people that work in the more blue collar world, and the look on their face says it all.

    The U.S. has turned into a process driven / obsessed society, all while devaluing knowledge skill and experience. Our corporate culture seems to believe that you can reduce job skills to a formula that can be passed off to anyone regardless of competence. Tech recruiters are just a symptom.

    • fecak

      Keith – Thanks for reading. You make some interesting points here, but there are some things I’d disagree with. There are unskilled and disreputable recruiters, just as there are unskilled and disreputable software engineers, with the main difference being that recruiting has a lower barrier to entry and a higher incentive to do some unethical things. Higher end recruiters make more than the people they recruit, at least in many cases, so they may have an incentive to ‘cheat’ sometimes.

      Your ask how can someone who has “no professional knowledge or experience when it comes to technology contribute to either the company or the developer in a truly meaningful way that justifies the 50% the take of an hourly rate”? Well first of all, 50% of an hourly rate is (IMHO) gouging, and if any recruiter you work with is taking anywhere near that you should expose that. The market should correct that problem, as another firm might be happy with 40% and then another will be happy to take 30% until we get into a competitive situation where firms are all around the same neighborhood (which should be much less than 50%).

      But beyond just talking about rate – do you really think it is that important for a recruiter to know how to code in order to be effective? I hear that sometimes, and I think it’s a pretty flimsy argument. I think an understanding of developer culture and what an individual developer finds important in relation to what any particular company offers if far more important than being able to understand language syntax – don’t you?

      The manufacturing metaphor is interesting, but suppose I went to that same person and said “I’ve never worked on a factory floor personally, but for the past fifteen years I have worked with most of the other manufacturing companies in the area, and I’ve helped them attract, hire, and retain some of the best factory workers in the area. I am able to do this because for years I have spoken to thousands of factory workers, and since I’ve worked with dozens of companies over those fifteen years, I know more factory workers than anybody. Beyond that, I know which factories are looking for which skills, I know which hiring managers look for which ‘profile’, and my thousands of conversations with factory workers have given me an unparalleled understanding of what motivates factory workers to apply for certain jobs and leave other jobs.”

      Your job may be writing software, and perhaps you are good at it. My job is getting to know people that write software, and to know what gets them interested in a company, and to know how they are qualified or unqualified to work for a company, and to try and guess whether or not the developer’s motivations will be a good fit for the company. I am very good at it. Others are not.

  9. Joy Kaufman

    I have no defense for recruiters that contact you about wrong locations, jobs that aren’t your skillset, etc. I also dislike the practice that has become very common of having commissioned recruiters/account reps. It works in a way that degrades the integrity of the value it is possible for recruiters to bring to the table.

    WHAT VALUE? You ask–you’ve had bad experiences, I get it. Here is how I actually can help you as a “good recruiter” I am, honest to god, and IT guys remark to the effect with surprise often.

    1. I had a perfect candidate for a technical PM role where they wanted the classic PMP certification on someone who had an engineering background. I had a person who took the class, passed the test, and then was AUDITED by the Project Management Institute, delaying him getting his “official” PMP.. A normal website filter means this candidate wouldn’t have made it through the gatekeepers, but being a human being I was able to lobby this individuals case and get him an interview even though he lacked the official qualification.

    2.We can roll up our sleeves when we need to, and some of us do. I’m CompTIA and ITIL Intermediate certified, so if I talk to you I have at least taken baby steps towards feeling some of your pain. I read techie forums, I’ve learned some basic coding, and while I am not as technically gifted as the people I recruit I am smart enough to be able to get the “Flavor” of someone’s knowledge and extrapolate the possibilities for them, at least try to.

    3. Consistently I can actually give people meaningful advice. No, not on how you should troubleshoot or on what version of a software you need, not at all. But here’s where we can help: we can tell you what certifications are hot if you want to get into a certain specialty, we can tell you what the hiring manager will be curious about when they interview you, we can advise Veterans on civilian jobs that employ skills they may have had that were labeled differently in the armed forces than they are in the commercial world.

  10. M

    I view recruiters as a “bottle neck” of employment.
    They are paid by employers to “please them”. And that
    means they only send them candidates “they feel” are
    qualified. Problem is…..recruiters as a whole are not
    always a good judge of what is and isn’t qualified.
    They will for instance hire a 20 year old kid from McDonald’s
    to work in a mill….doing hot and heavy work, before they
    will consider a man of 50 who has already had mill experience.
    The kids friends throw a party and he quits to enjoy himself.
    While the 50 year old man with a family has his unemployment
    benefits run out. There is more to a job and job candidate
    than being young. But I think this is the younger generations
    blindside. They still believe “what looks good is good”.
    Problem is….today’s younger generation has no self discipline.
    No staying power.

    Bottom line……you need to fill the need of the EMPLOYEE as well
    as the employer. Stop being greedy schmucks!
    We ALL have to work…..young and old.

    • fecak

      Some recruiters are a bottle neck, while others actually help prevent bottle necks. Just like developers, we have some that are helpful and some that hurt. Based on your comments, it sounds as though you’ve been discriminated against due to age. I probably fall into the category of older worker at this point in my career, but I wouldn’t subscribe to your generalities about the younger generation’s discipline or staying power. Those aren’t helpful to curing the issues with recruiters.

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