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Monday, 8 February 2010

Can contract recruitment agencies raise their game?

The relationship between contractors, such as Interim Managers, and the agencies who undertake to find candidates for interim roles for their clients is frequently a fraught one. The agency is paid by the client and has the dominant position in the commercial relationship with the interim - therefore their focus tends to be firmly on the client. The interim is their means of earning commission, but all too often is not treated as a supplier or partner, but as a necessary evil.

Now I have found in the course of my trawling for the next opportunity that there is a huge variation in the way that the potential contractor is treated, not only between agencies but also by individual agents within organisations. There are many who act responsibly and ethically towards their candidates, but regrettably there are more - and a growing percentage - who treat candidates poorly.

It is interesting that a recent discussion thread on LinkedIn's 'Interim Management' group, expressing concern about the status of the sector and the agencies' roles in it, attracted a torrent of comment from similarly dissatisfied interims - 83 comments at last count, and some other threads spawned (see it here).
The general unanimity of discontent of these comments must signal a warning to the interim provider industry. Notable recurrent themes include:

Candidates are not kept informed
It seems to have become the norm for many agencies that the candidate is only informed of positive news - requests for more details of the candidate, requests for interview, and of course any job offers. If the candidate has been turned down, or not short-listed, then he or she will only find out by contacting the agency for information - if of course they can get hold of a responsible adult. If there is no news, then there is scarcely a single agency I have worked with recently who will contact me to tell me that - and more to the point, to advise what actions they are taking and what they consider the implications of no progress to be. The rule seems to be: if you are on the client's radar, the agency is all over you; as soon as there is a drop in interest by the client, you are dropped faster than a toddler's ice cream cornet.

Opportunities are misrepresented
It seems that virtually all interim managers - myself included - have experienced agencies who engage in dubious practices, such as advertising jobs that don't exist, and initiating candidate searches for positions which the client has not yet confirmed and does not have signed off. I no longer bother applying for jobs advertised online, as they not only don't go anywhere, but all too often it is not even possible to follow up with the advertiser.

Price erosion is rife
The recession has significantly affected the opportunities for interims, not only due to the reduction in number of roles available, but also due to the number of "permies" who have been made redundant, and who are clutching at interim opportunities as a way of getting back onto the treadmill. These individuals may be very competent in their fields, but there is more to interim management than simply a willingness to work to a limited term contract. This has had the natural market effect of supply and demand, but many IMs clearly believe this has been exacerbated by the agencies. One comment suggested that the agencies are deliberately driving down prices "to appease clients and screw the interim".
There also seems to be an increasing trend for opportunities at "pro rata permanent salaries", which is a nice way for the employer to obtain temporary staff without any overhead costs (National Insurance, tax, holidays, pension and so on), which the contractor must then fund out of their fees, as well as funding the gap between contracts, meeting limited company costs and the necessary accountant's fees, and so on. I was approached recently by an agency for a short term senior project management role, demanding significant experience, at a day rate well below what I'd expect net of tax as a salary.
When rates get squeezed like this, it fuels what appears to be a considerable suspicion amongst IMs that the agencies are not bearing their share of the pain, or are failing to challenge their clients as to the wisdom of prices being demanded.

Now I believe that these kinds of treatment by agencies are very short sighted on their behalf - when I undertake a contract as an interim manager, I am frequently in the position of having to recruit other interim (and sometimes permanent) staff to resource the programme I am working on. Like other interims (and permies, for that matter) I will favour those agencies I consider have treated me responsibly and fairly. Those who have been cavalier, I now avoid giving further business to. I know that other interims, like I now do, maintain a list of both individuals and agencies who they trust or abhor, and act accordingly. Indeed, there are now 'consumer rating' websites to share experiences and score agencies.

So as the recession comes to an end, and a market recovery staggers onward and upward, there seems to me to be a clear warning message for recruitment agents: your attitudes and performances are being noted, and you will reap what you sow.