HR Recruitment Agencies today – I wanna know what love is…..


And I want you to show me……

Sadly for me, this was not the summer of love when it came to my dear old friend and acquaintance – the HR Recruitment world. Now I know this will come as a shock to some of you reading who I had the pleasure of meeting. You’ll recall how we laughed and giggled our way through stories of people we both knew, I drank my strong black coffee respectfully even if it tasted like liquidized tar and you thrust your business card at me like the Marlboro man hands out cigarettes. Sometimes you invited me to meet your colleagues who, on arriving, looked about 11 years old and then proceeded to ask me the same questions but in the theme of an interim. Like a recruitment ‘whose line is it anyway’ gameshow..

We went about the formulaic HR recruitment dance in one of your small, unlit, sweaty meeting rooms that was too hot. You asked me those same series of closed questions I could have answered staccato on the phone before you insisted that we needed to meet. We had to meet it was put to me. “No meety, no assignmenty” you said. At the end of our dance, you qualified me in equal terms with the signature ‘we have nothing for you’ in a way that sounded like ‘I’ve realised that you won’t help me make my commission this month so please leave now’. We stood up, you asked me who else I was meeting that day and how far I had travelled ? You always ask me that. You looked like you didn’t care for my answer so I played a tape recording of my 2009 interview response of the exact same question to save my energies for other recruiters later that day. You promised to stay in touch. You never did.

What a candidate experience ? In fact for the HR Recruitment market what is a candidate experience ?

Sometimes you surprised me by phoning afterwards. There was a chance that my 14st of middle aged blubber could help you earn some commission and that set my heart racing. There was a role, you didn’t really understand it but it said role at the top of the page and you’d agreed a rate for it too. You needed an even newer CV from me that covered the 48 hours since we last met and like Challenge Anneka I had 180 minutes to get it to you. The phones began to ring and then my light bulb moment went on – this was a Financial Services opening, guarded by some soulless RPO, who were dishing out the same piece of paper to their PSL. Like bounty hunters the talent search consisted of rallying together as big a multi agency as possible to find that elusive yet available person from the active market.

Despite this I submitted the CV and normal service resumed. You ignored my calls and got irate when you were inadvertently tracked down by me by mistake. No news is certainly not good news. Inside your black hole of recruitment activity, people were being interviewed, offers were being made and roles were being cancelled and redefined. But none of this touched me. Once again, I was cannon fodder in the war for a short term recruitment fix and only the winner would provide the funds for that 2012 Monsoon dress to be replaced.

You see, I’m a pragmatic man, I recognise this saturated and sizeable HR recruitment market operates in a dysfunctional bubble to meet a current need. That model is outdated and with experiences like the above (all too familiar) deserves to be consigned to the history books. Bad enough for a candidate, suicide if you are a client where this mediocre model delivers mediocre results far too often. However organisations need to get off the groove of short termist boom and bust, distressed hiring that is killing their future growth. It seems too many HR recruitment agencies are happy to bounce around the HR market and feed off this dysfunction charging enormous fees, destroying employer brands and wheeling and dealing in the same small, active talent pool. Transactional fees keep the bills paid and who cares if the hire isn’t sustainable, that’ll just create more revenue for more distressed hiring. And so it goes on.

Thankfully, there is a ripple effect taking place that will consume the poor performers in this market and potentially take the whole market down too.

1. There is a recognition that recruitment should move from the high street to in-house with technology enablers becoming more accessible and affordable (plugged into an ATS) which allows the ownership model to be scaled effectively in-house.

2. Candidate experience thankfully shows signs of moving mainstream as a clear differentiator for organisations in a highly transparent market. Agencies invariably too often provide a candidate-centric (for the lucky few) with little eye to the detail of the client brand or DNA.

3. Referrals will become commoditized and take root in talent strategies. Good people know good people and the power of social collaboration means that sharing these will bypass the high street HR agency where only the active market hangs out.

4. Data analytics will grow increasingly important allowing for science-based decisions on hiring to become the norm. Cost containment and increased quality will drive from this and I see nothing that the current high street agency model to provide value in this area as its too fragmented and focussed on pure transaction.

As for you my dear old HR recruitment friend ? You could continue to offer the experience outlined above, hoping that dysfunction and organisational short-sightedness continues to be your best friend. You could continue to operate an incentive model that drives too much focus on commission and the associated short term behaviours to the detriment of higher salaries and annual bonuses, more experienced recruiters and a focus on a truly consultative model that would provide more sustainable talent outcomes for key, niche clients.

In other words, you could react to the disruption and offer a value to your client that goes beyond the one-dimensional quarter to quarter hiring frenzy that served you well in the past. That world is dying and if it consigns with it these awful candidate experiences then the sooner the better.

Finally, as a candidate, as in life, there are choices :

Choose BetterPlacedHR, Choose PSD, Choose Digby Morgan, Choose Oakleaf Partnership, Choose MDH, Choose Badenoch & Clark, Choose Consult, Choose Three Partnership, Choose BiE, Choose Advantage Resourcing, Choose Penna, Choose Frazer Jones, Choose Hoggett Bowers, Choose Hays, Choose Leathwaite, Choose Fortune Hill, Choose Korn Ferry, Choose Spencer Stuart, Choose HRStaffSearch, Choose Carter Morris, Choose OasisHR, Choose Annapurna HR, Choose Michael Page, Choose Morgan McKinley, Choose Archer Mathieson, Choose Eton Bridge, Choose Green Park…..

But why would I want to do a thing like that.

Choose your future. Choose your own network. That’s what I did and that’s how I got placed.

Until next time.

p.s If you are a HR candidate and have been affected by issues of recruitment agency black hole syndrome then please be aware that putting the effort into building your own personal brand and professional network can help provide a way out. 


34 thoughts on “HR Recruitment Agencies today – I wanna know what love is…..

  1. Barry, when I met you last year at a HRD round table I just knew there was something I liked about your straight talking. This article had taken the words right out of a number of conversations I have been having with HR colleagues for the last five years. You are SPOT ON. Agencies take heed and ignore the message at your peril. Candidates become the clients who will take the recruitment business in house and to our own networks within the next few years.

  2. If you are registered with all those firms ( some excellent brands some weak mid market one) no wonder you don’t get looked after. The first part of you story can only be accepted, if you register with kids you will get treated like a child. But if you have no partnership ethos with proper firms why should they help you above those who invest in a relationship. ? Too much choice to play the numbers game

    • Thanks for the comments Muji and I agree. I didn’t ‘register’ per se with this many but used the list to articulate a very saturated HR recruitment market out there. Some of those mentioned are trying to do things differently but as they don’t pay me or I don’t possess shares in their firm then I wasn’t going to inflate their egos by singling them out. I operate both client side and candidate side in my career and the way I am treated isn’t consistent by lots of them. Too many are chasing the short term buck too often and I can understand after a tough economic period but it’s not sustainable over the long haul. But you raise a valid point about what a ‘partnership’ means in a candidate relationship and just how much can you scale and adopt in that relationship. Some of the firms are producing ‘stickiness’ in their strategy to create community and value to their proposition. Others are only interested in transaction and impersonality. What do you think differentiates the market currently ?

    • Thanks Jez for reading. To answer your question then it’s a categoric no from me. The relationship with the client is symbiotic and collusive. The model exists where that organisation is happy with mediocrity in its talent agenda and will ‘buy a bum’ to fit an immediate need. My other blogs take a very clear swipe at the buyside (client) as dysfunction exists in there too by the bucketload. When an agency tells me they have had their best quarter in years based on a modest upturn in economic confidence it will prove very difficult to risk that existing revenue stream. But there is serious disruption emerging and I think it will come as a shock to many, firms will fold, the market will contract and the best ones will realign around the new rules of engagement.

  3. This was an enjoyable read, thank you althought the subject matter tends to make me cross and a little sad, but such is the industry I work in. I share your hope that these poor operators will fail to survive as the market changes, leaving those of us who strive to provide a positive candidate experience and build long term, genuine relationships with our clients. One point though, in my particular market and I’m sure in many others, the candidate experience delivered by companies recruiting directly is often appalling. There is still a long way to go before both in-house teams and agencies get this right.

    • Thanks Sophie for the comments. I am keen the blog doesn’t look like a blanket condemnation of the entire industry. My major takeaway is that outside of the poor operators (and there are many of those in every industry) is a personal recognition that the world has moved on. The current model is a busted flush – doesn’t serve the wider talent agenda well and clearly comes up in data analytics as the poorest performing indicator. Take this with the poor candidate experience and you’ve got a problem. It’s model survives on organisational dysfnction and distressed hiring and if someone enlightened enough enters the corridors of power in talent acquisition then the dependency model (for that’s what it is) dries up and the business fails.

      • I agree. If agencies are going to survive in the new world order, they need to offer a more sophisticated (and flexible) range of services to their clients over and above transactional ‘vacancy filling’ in its crudest form. There is a lot of knowledge in the agency world for clients to tap into about, not only recruitment, but talent management, assessment methods and wider market intelligence. Clearly, the challenge is finding it!

      • Spot on but of course it challenges the old order that they’ve known for years – comp needs to be more long term and consultative, retention and churn needs to be part of the firm’s people policies to ensure ‘expertise’ is available and relationships with clients are on an equal footing. Value added services require investment – is this feasible when it’s more difficult to monetise or even see a return in the short term. Tough questions but the ‘do nothing’ strategy is what’s left and I think that ends with an abrupt death….fascinating times.

  4. This is a very good post written with depth, understanding and a good deal of humour and cutting right to the core of a problem that unfortunately exist more widely and more shockingly than words can describe. I myself have experienced exactly what you write about Barry more times that I by now can remember and to a wider degree than I think is mentally healthy. I have seen and been exposed to enough nonsense and unfathomable situations to write a whole book about, a book that will leave any sane and reasonably intelligent person astonished. I have crawled the walls in frustration over that some of the named HR agencies exist, that they have people there employed and earning money, while I myself a highly tried, tested and proven individual is struggling in finding a role. I have tried to attempt to rationalise and understand, yet had to give up in making heads or tails in what is truly going on, coming to the conclusion that there is no rationale and that most matters are more a question of chance and luck and perhaps being at the right place with the right skills and the right time rather than being a superior candidate. I am yet to meet one single agent that I have just a miniscule of respect for, that has just an idea about the area that they recruit for, that know the difference between recruitment tools channels and solutions of 2007 and of 2013, that have an idea about who are thought leaders, what they say and where they say it. What annoys me the most is that I am being rejected and not given the time of day by agents simply because of their ignorance and disinterest in the market they serve, that they profess to their clients to know what good looks like, yet haven’t got a single clue. I term this WASTE and waste on a very very big scale that appear to prevail in many many areas of recruitment overall. A waste for both clients and candidates alike and ultimately a waste for the chances of companies to be competitive, and to be sustainable. The level of competence throughout the wider HR and talent acquisition industry is shockingly low and appear to focus on very operational and mundane issues that show that neither do most people know how to use the Internet to find answers (and these there are in more abundance than seen for the last 25 years) as well as indifference in attempting to elevate themselves and their knowledge to a higher level. I have sat in front of senior directors, managers and people in leadership roles that have shocked me in how little they knew and how outdated their understanding being.
    You write Barry that Candidate Experience entering into mainstream, I am not so sure you are right in that when still only a maximum of 10 to 15% of all companies having this subject figuring somewhere on their agenda.

    As for result of my own experiences I by now have in excess of 50 companies that I would never dream of entertaining working for and another 50 agents (many of which on the list you give) that I have had enough encounters with to n e v e r considering working with. I have zero respect for them and their abilities and their understanding or insight into what good looks likes, – they would not be able to recognise it if it was thrust in their face.
    Jacob Sten Madsen

    • Thanks for taking the time to write this Jacob, I feel for the tough times you are going through and hope you get the role your talent deserves. I think there are some good people out there in the HR recruitment world, the model is just broken for all of them and with distressed hiring producing unreasonable timescales in an unqualified active market you get all sorts of dysfunctional byproducts – nobody has the time or inclination to go after the candidate experience and nobody agency side is comped on it. I think there is a change coming. Technology has made organisations more transparent. These things can damage reputation and smart organisations are seeing the value in looking at this aspect. Some interesting organisations are entering the market looking to provide some value added services. Keep the faith.

  5. Ah gone are the days when there was some respect in the profession. At one point, many moons ago, HR like some other sectors were only really served by true specialists. Alas, once the big boys jumped on the functional wagon, it all went tits up. It’s a sorry story across the whole industry obviously but there is something distinctly grubby about the way ‘agency’ recruitment has entered the HR field in particular.

    I don’t think there is a lot of hope. The agency model won’t survive, certainly not if it tries to:

    “to offer a more sophisticated (and flexible) range of services to their clients over and above transactional ‘vacancy filling’ in its crudest form.”

    It’s lipstick on a pig. More kissable? Possibly. Still a pig? Absolutely.

    Watch this space. Technology, thanks mainly to the social infrastructure, is actually starting to demonstrate how it could add value here. Early days, and nothing yet matured, but the potential, using big data techniques and studying unstructured content (like tweets, updates and blogs etc) is mindblowing. In my view, we will return to more proactive sourcing, supported by very smart technology. And im not talking applicant tracking systems… 😉

    • so what you are saying is the very best and most enlightened of the bunch will be underpinned by new, sexy technology enablers probably merging with other interesting parties. Something will morph and change post-agency world and the sooner the better. A lot of organisations are still sucking on the proverbial agency nipple !

  6. Thank you Barry for kind encouraging words! still waiting and meanwhile continually kissing a huge range of frogs, Aaaarrghhh!
    To Gareth’s comments. Sure there are zillion of great tools and solutions out there and they are coming over the hill faster and with more efficiency than ever seen before and for those that keep an eye out great advantages and much else. However I can point to probably 90% of every single element in recruitment! agency, in-house or RPO that simply haven’t got a clue, have no real interest and are still applying pre 2007 (early stages of LinkedIn and the ‘new dawn of recruitment’) So we will likely only see a very slow adoption and change in the order of perhaps another 10 or at most 15% of industry that will come around. Astonishing to say it mildly and leaving me personally baffled.
    In response to you Barry. Yes the structure and system is flawed and dysfunctional. However to say that the model make it so I do not agree with. For me and why I entered into the circus of recruitment was on basis of an interest that since then has grown to be a business outcome (show me anything that does not either come from the hands or involvement of humans, meaning pretty much the key and reason for more or less everything in our world, products, services or anything else) passion and engagement that mean that I am in the game on basis of an interest and engagement with the subjects involved.
    OK so clients pay the fees why they are the primary interest, but to disregard and not understand the importance of candidates is as misguided as it can be. As for time and having worked in a company that had a near hysterical attitude towards candidate experience, as well as dysfunctional ATS meaning much had to be done manually via email, I can tell you that making sure that candidates provided acknowledgement, information and updates take up perhaps 1 – 2 hours extra per week (30 reqs and 100 candidates/applicants for each) all it takes is structure, templates and making it efficient. If people in the business and their respective managers, leaders etc. cannot figure out how to allow room for this and ensure it happens, then we are really far out. It is all a matter of indifference or not, and to have a mind-set that set out to care and have some sort of professional integrity and pride. Obviously that is rarely the case, and that it when the whole thing starts to become quite depressing.

    • We are certainly on the same page here. I have seen a very discernible shift in certain organizations both buy and sell side in this market and more will follow. I’m hopeful as this circumstances are changing faster than at any time in my experience.

  7. The huge white elephant in the room (wearing lipstick, mascara and a tutu as well probably) is the ubiquitous mantra of “building long term, genuine relationships with our clients” that many agencies claim they are trying to do.

    Sadly, all the while they’re working on contingency, that dream will never be realised.

    At some point these agency recruiters are going to have to have a radical rethink about what it is that clients want to buy and what it is they need to sell. The problem then becomes double-edged, because not only are they going to need to massively overhaul their understanding of what recruitment delivery is, but they’re also going to have to get a lot better at selling.

    That last part of that last sentence is quite ironic, given that recruiters are already being accused of being too sales focused.

    People generally only see selling as being too aggressive when it’s being done badly. If agencies get that right, the whole ‘candidate experience’ thing will take care of itself.

    As always Barry, another beautifully expressed blog.

    • Thanks Mitch. You make great points. Lots of paradoxes here if you look at it emotionally. Giving the market what it wants is at the heart of this debate and for candidates that involves dialing up the experience.

  8. Hi Barry, I do like your article and it’s sentiment I hear time and time again from HR professionals (and I’m sure it’s not confined to this profession), that the candidate experience is an overlooked and under-estimated component of the recruitment process. It’s actually quite nice to hear the balanced view to point the finger at employer and agency rather than spilling into the usual battering of the latter – it’s the one time they won’t be asking for exclusivity! There is much talk of technology’s role to play in improving recruitment practice, but how do you feel the personalised approach fits in to that. Technology is amazing to speed things up, improve efficiency, but I still get more positive responses from people when I’ve taking the trouble to call them, or extend the offer of verbal feedback if having to email. At the risk of sounding like a luddite, is society changing in it’s attitudes to communication, with people emailing, texting, tweeting etc, is the value of speaking to someone now irrelevant, or still have a place in the candidate experience?
    Barry I’m happy to re-blog this article of yours if you’d like – can’t promise widespread coverage as website only just created so I don’t have as many followers as Richard Branson! As a result I’m also not too sure of the rules of the road in re-posting, but the message you have for people to build their own brands is an important message

    • More than happy to repost Tim. I’m all up for the democratic nature of the debate and the ability to help shape a better service model. Organizations that can marry technology to scale, coupled with a desire to put candidate care front and centre will rise to the top, disrupt the agency model to destruction and put social back into recruitment.

  9. Barry, this is a great post. We find that “brand”, whether it be employer brand or corporate brand, can only be done by those within the organization. TA executives need to vet “recruitment agency brand” more than ever, especially considering the digital age. As you indicated, they are one in the same, therefore their reputation of keeping your brand intact (whether you are a candidate, or a customer) is essential.

    One of my upcoming posts will be on how the business should focus on recruitment brand more than ever, as it impacts your overall brand. If a candidate for a B2C company is mistreated, would that candidate shop, or recommend the company to their colleagues? I doubt it. This is a great opportunity for TA and HR to align more with the business. I hope they wake up to see this massive tsunami.

    • Excellent points Harpaul, and true in every sense. If you look at a consumer brand like Unilever where the formidable Paul Maxin for the last 7 years have steered their global resourcing with extraordinary results you will see that they make a direct correlation between their brands and perception, their EVP and how they view and go about resourcing., simply sublime and out of this world. The amount of potential damage an agency can do is huge, why brand and perception conscious companies do everything in-house, able to control all from A to Z.

      • Whilst I’m clearly not an advocate of outsourcing everything I’m equally skeptical about the all in-house approach. Own the differentiators (brand, technology roadmap, etc) but there is a level of confidence a blended model that also introduced scale and commercial commonsense.

      • Not one single MNC or company with more than 1000 employees can exist without applying a ‘blended model’ Even co’s like Microsoft have after perfecting their model over 30 years come to having 85% of their hires direct, why although every intent reality is often a mix.

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