Anyone who has worked with a recruiter has probably been asked “Where else are you interviewing?” or “What other companies have you applied to?“. The question comes from both agency recruiters (‘headhunter‘) representing several hiring firms and internal corporate recruiters hiring only for their company. Candidates are understandably not always willing to answer, and recruiters may stumble to give convincing explanations as to why they want to know. Some recruiters will insist that they need to know.
Technologists with some natural level of distrust for recruiters are likely to question a recruiter’s motives in asking. It’s useful to consider when naming names is relatively harmless, when to avoid the question, and one scenario where it may be in the candidate’s best interest to provide an honest answer. Let’s look at some common explanations given by recruiters and the possible motivations behind the request.
“I need to know so I don’t send your résumé to companies where you are already in play” – This answer is exclusive to agency recruiters, as internal recruiters don’t send resumes outside their company. On the surface this response seems valid. If your résumé is sent to a company that is already considering you it could be costly. Companies that receive the same résumé from two recruiters may fear being invoiced for two placement fees, or even see this as a sign that the candidate has poor communication skills.
The simple solution for candidates is to instruct agency recruiters to divulge client names and ask permission before submitting résumés anywhere. Be wary of recruiters who are unwilling to accept this compromise.
“I need to know if we need to speed things up” – If a candidate is already involved in the interview process with other companies, it is in the candidate’s best interest to inform the recruiter as to how early or late they are in the process. This maximizes the candidate’s chances of being able to have their candidacy expedited if necessary, which raises the potential for multiple competing offers. However, the identities of the companies competing for a candidate’s services are irrelevant unless the recruiter happens to know the typical process and estimated duration at the other firms. Are the competing firms historically slow or fast to act? Many recruiters will claim to know these details, but most will not.
It makes sense to say how far along you are in that process, but identifying the company isn’t useful.
A litmus test for candidate control – Candidate Control is a recruiting concept where a recruiter tries to establish influence on a candidate’s actions throughout the recruiting process which will in theory make it easier to get a “yes” from the candidate when an offer is made. This control is acquired over time, and the recruiter’s process in achieving control starts with the candidate complying to various simple requests. A recruiter can gauge how much control they might establish by asking questions that could make candidates uncomfortable.
Competitor lists – For internal recruiters, the answer reveals potential source companies where the firm can solicit and poach employees. This is harmless to candidates, which is why some may choose to help friendly recruiters by sharing information on where they were interviewing only after they have accepted any offer.
Fishing for new clients – If you tell an agency recruiter that you are interviewing with Companies A and B, that provides two new client leads where he/she can market other candidates with similar backgrounds. This practice is harmless to a candidate unless the recruiter immediately contacts the companies and attempts to insert other candidates into the pipeline that will now compete for the position. If a recruiter does choose to pursue named companies as new clients, they should feel some ethical obligation to wait until their candidate has completed the process.
Leverage at offer stage – If the recruiter (agency or corporate) learns you are considering an offer from a company that has public scandals, layoffs, bad public reviews, or some other negative association, prepare to hear about those reputation issues when the recruiter tries to get you to accept an offer from their client. Unscrupulous recruiters might concoct rumors just to influence your decision. Knowing details about the competition makes it relatively easy for skilled recruiters to highlight areas where their client’s offer is favorable to a competitor’s offer.
This motivation is the most damaging, as it is solely intended to dissuade candidates from taking other offers that may best for them. Independently validate any claims made by the recruiter regarding companies he/she does not represent.
When Should You Answer
In most cases, revealing the names of other companies where you are interviewing is helpful to the recruiter but not necessarily helpful to the candidate. One exception would be to name any firm(s) you are speaking to that has an outstanding employer reputation. This strategy could serve two purposes. First, it signals that your skills are in demand by major players, and suggests your skills are on par with high-end talent. Second, it lets the recruiter know that an offer will need to be competitive with what one might expect from top employers. Recruiters are likely to share this information with clients in order to set the client’s expectation regarding compensation package.