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Four things you should never mention to a recruiter

Working as a recruiter for three years – and now working with them on a near-daily basis – I can tell you that, despite their sometimes less-than-stellar reputation, most operate with a strong moral compass. It’s become a pre-requisite for building the job into a lengthy recruiting career. Those that cut corners, lie and burn bridges in this economy simply won’t last.

Still, recruiters are sometimes faced with situations where it’s in their best interest to advise you to move in one – and only one – direction. In these situations, there is simply no upside in involving them in the conversation. Whether their bias is overt or sub-conscious, it’s bias nonetheless. Look to fight these four battles on your own.

When You Receive a Counter Offer: As our readers astutely point out, recruiters hate counter offers. Search any job site – including ours – and you’ll find comments from recruiters advising you to never take a counter offer. Now that isn’t to say there is no merit in the argument (after all, you are taking a job that you just quit) but there are times when accepting a counter offer may be in your best interest. It’s never in the best interest of recruiters, who lose in multiple ways.

Not only do they miss out on a hefty commission check, they are also forced to call their client and explain that you’ve walked away from the position, despite the verbal acceptance they just delivery on your behalf. It’s the least fun conversation a recruiter can have.

If you look to a recruiter as a sounding board to discuss the merits of a counter offer, expect a hard sell in the opposite direction. Choosing whether or not to accept the same position that you just left is difficult, but you are better off making that call on your own. Be 100% committed to the decision when you dial a recruiter to break the bad news as you’ll be forced to defend your position with vigor.

When you realize you may have made a big mistake: Every recruiter has dealt with it before. A candidate happily accepts an offer, and then calls you a month later wondering if they’ve made the wrong decision. No matter what the circumstances, recruiters will urge you to remain where you are.

Again, there is plenty of logic behind staying the course. At the very least, leaving prematurely will stamp a red flag on your resume and rob you of any leverage in your next job search. But only you know what is best for yourself and your career. If you mistakenly joined a sinking ship or your boss mistreats you, it may be in your best interest to move on sooner rather than later.

And yet again, it’s never in the best interest of recruiters. Most contracts with clients stipulate that companies receive a full or partial refund from recruiters if the employee leaves before three to six months from the date of the hire. You won’t get advice – you’ll be told to stay put.


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If you’ve already decided to leave: Say a year or two has gone by since you took a new role, the recruiter has been paid in full and you’re ready for a new opportunity. You still may want to think twice about calling the recruiter who originally placed you.

The problem lies in the nature of the relationship. Recruiters get paid by clients, not by candidates. They can also place dozens of people at one client, and there is only one of you. In short, recruiters by nature hold allegiance to clients over candidates, and it’s not close.

At best, they’ll tell you that they can’t in good conscience pull you from their client. I personally had to have that conversation with multiple candidates who were working at active clients. At worst, they could mention to the company that you are looking, putting your stability at risk before you are ready to move. Unless you know for certain that your desire to leave will be kept in confidence, you may want to tread carefully and put out some feelers on your own.

However, if you know the recruiter no longer works with your firm, feel free to give them a call without worry.

If there is a reason you may not be able to take the job: This is a tough one. Conventional wisdom says you should be forthright with your recruiter about all the circumstances surrounding your job search. But that may not always be in your best interest.

Say, for example, you are looking for a new job but you’d strongly prefer to wait six months until your bonus arrives before moving. Still, you tell your recruiter you would like to take the interview. They may not set it up for you.

If a recruiter has three other candidates who are motivated, packaged and ready to place, what motivation do they have to include you: the wild card? The goal in recruiting is always to eliminate the unknown as much as possible. If you have some “unknown” in your background, it may be better to keep it to yourself if you want to maximize your opportunities. Although, it may then be you who burns the bridges…

AUTHORBeecher Tuttle US Editor
  • La
    Lara Fiona
    25 September 2022

    One thing that I had to learn the hard way is that you negotiate your salary, not the recruiter. I had one who kept insisting, "don't talk about money, let me handle it". Come to find out later that she was taking $400 A WEEK out of my pay, for TWENTY WEEKS, that the company was paying to the agency as part of my gross compensation. She knew that I could have negotiated more for myself, and thus reduce her cut.

    I had another TRY to pull a similar scam with the "let me know your minimum compensation so I can be as aggressive [GREEDY] as possible". I didn't fall for it, and told him to submit me, and that I would discuss compensation with the company once I found out more about the job and what my role entailed. Of course the scammer knew that I was on to him and ghosted me.

  • al
    16 January 2019

    Are contingency recruiters under pressure to submit a certain quantity of candidates for a contract?
    If so are they rewarded internally somehow? I.E. Recruiter #1 submitted x5 recruiter #2 submitted x8. Does recruiter to benefit somehow by submitting more.
    I've found they are excessively nice just to get you submitted.


  • St
    13 December 2018

    PS: Know the difference between a retained firm and a contingent one.

    Retained firm gets paid even if no one is hired. My job is to work frenetically to get a perfect match, and get more work from that client, or from people that client refers me to. I don't work with candidates, and don't line my pockets if you get hired. Someone else will get hired, and I'll get paid even if they find someone on their own or no one is hired. I do care a lot about whether the candidate is happy with his new job, in part because that's great, and in part because I've met the candidate and gotten to know him or her well during the vetting process. And in part because that makes my client happy. I got into this business because I want people to be happy in their jobs.

    Contingent firm gets paid if you get hired, otherwise, they will not. They do line their pockets if you get hired, if you care to view it that way. Yes, you can go direct to the employer, which is fine if you don't try to go backdoor on a recruiter; in fact, I recommend to friends that they do go direct to employers if they are looking for jobs.

    By the same token, good contingent firms do care about the candidate and hope that they are happy with their new employer. That's not only good business (it generates repeat business), but also makes work and life more pleasant. The good ones won't stuff the square peg into a round hole, because that doesn't generate repeat business. They won't move you if you are unhappy after their 3 or 6 months or a year has run out. That is bad business, and just gets clients angry.

    By the way, I warn every candidate and every client that somewhere between day one and day 365, they will think they've made a mistake. I then tell them not to react too quickly, because this happens most of the time - there are no perfect companies and all have their bugaboos. With time, this usually passes.

    A final note: treat recruiters as employers. They are paid by the employer, so they are part of the employer.

  • St
    13 December 2018

    The future bonus: A second comment from me. You may want to maximize your opportunities, but if you really aren't going to be available for 6 months, why are you interviewing? Besides the less likely possibility that word will get back to your employer (it happens, especially within your industry), any time that a candidate does something that causes pain or embarrasses a retained firm, that event is recorded in stone. You are ostracized by that firm. They don't really need you, you know. Clients pay their fees.

    If you have a bonus that won't be paid for 6 months, tell the recruiter up front, and he or she will communicate that to the client. The client may be willing to match it with a signing bonus (this is done on Wall Street all the time, in a place where 80%+ of income comes from bonus, as well as by many other companies). If this comes as a surprise after the client has met you and fallen in love with you, the client will be soured because you weren't forthright, and they aren't going to match your bonus.

    This is gong to come as a surprise to you, but being honest will help your case, not only in getting an advanced step in your career, but also in making a friend out of a retained search consultant (who often are the only ones with access to the best jobs in your industry). I'll still be here 6 months from now, when you've gotten your bonus.

    I'll present a candidate who is superior but a longshot at taking the job to the client, along with 3 or 4 lesser-qualified candidates, but if I do so, I'll tell the client what they'll have to do to attract the person. Usually, I'll discuss it with them ahead of time, and ask them what their thoughts are on seeing the person. You can be sneaky and not tell me that this position is not that interesting or that they'll need to pay an extra $100K than the others to attract you, but it will put you on our blacklist if I don't learn about this until afterwards.

  • St
    13 December 2018

    On Counter Offers - I gave the same advice before I got into retained search: don't give them and don't take them. There may be rare occasions when it is a good idea, but I really can't remember seeing any of those cases. I can remember trying to talk 2 friends (not candidates) out of taking them. They both got fired a year later, and that is not an uncommon occurrence.

    The research I've seen is as follows: of those who accepted counter offers, 80% were gone within 12 months, and in another study, 94% were gone within 18 months. The reasons included finding out that all the promises that were made to keep you there weren't kept (generally the case with promises - that's why you decided to accept a different job in the first place), that you got moved to the slow track ('well, if she's still here ..." - your loyalty is now questionable), to them firing you after they've had the time to prepare a successor.

    Do as you care to, but you've been forewarned.

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