As an in-house recruiter in an SME, it can be expedient to engage one or more external agencies to help fill a critical role.
This is most appropriate when suitable candidates have proved hard to find or where you don’t have a good network in the field you’re recruiting for. If you’ve got the budget and you’re in a hurry, it would seem to be the no-brainer option. However, those external agencies can turn into a titanic millstone, sinking your hopes of filling that vacant role anytime soon.
Delegate, don’t abdicate
Let’s be clear about your recruitment objective – it’s to fill the defined role promptly with a rock-solid candidate who will actually turn up on day 1 and then be effective. That seems simple enough, but if saving money, recruiting faster or extending the job scope creep into the equation during the recruitment process, risks will rise, delays will ensue and costs will markedly increase.
Unfortunately, saving money and recruiting faster are the primary interests of external agencies. In some cases, their only interests. Theoretically, a recruitment consultant working on a contingency basis can be left to get on with it, since they don’t get paid unless they deliver a result. The same argument implies it’s worth commissioning several agencies and pitting them against each other. It’s an enticing picture, but there are several potential problems.
- Longer time to hire. If good candidates are hard to find in your field, an agency's most effective strategy is to initially hit the assignment very hard, but then switch off activity if no solid candidates emerge promptly. For them it’s highly cost effective. They can move on to other prospects whilst keeping this vacancy alive in the background. For you, it’s very costly, since you’re unknowingly being hung out to dry in the desert. Engaging multiple agencies heightens the initial frenzy of activity, but shortens it, because the agencies know they’re competing and won’t spend one penny on a potentially lost cause.
- Lower candidate quality. Agency recruiters have no interest in finding the best candidate. Any candidate that roughly fits the spec will do. They’re a commodity, to be packaged up and sold as quickly and cheaply as possible. There’s no immediate premium to be had for quality and no benefit to be had from spending further resource looking for a better candidate.
- Poorer candidate experience. Candidates can also feel hung out to dry by a time-pressured, bonus-driven, cost-conscious agency. Tales of no application acknowledgement, sporadic communication, misleading promises, endless delays and zero feedback are legion. Even successful applicants can come out feeling abused before they even start work. The loser is your company.
- Reduced employer-brand value. From the second the candidate knows who’s hiring – it’s your company’s reputation on the line. Poorly treated candidates will refuse to consider future opportunities with you and social media networks make it easy for them to poison your reputation with literally hundreds of their online contacts. If you work in a tight-knit field, your well can literally run dry as good candidates avoid you like the plague for years to come.
There are clear reasons why delegating some activities to an external agency may accelerate your access to more candidates, but many SME companies naively pass over responsibility for a key section of the recruitment process without understanding the difference between delegation and abdication. They risk later finding they’ve engaged the brides of Dracula as baby-sitters, and given them free rein.
10 steps to take control
Taking full responsibility for the process requires time-consuming effort. That might rankle when you’re paying a third party to work on your behalf, but sadly there are no free lunches. If you do choose to commission multiple agencies:
- Ensure a level playing field by giving them all the same information, and simultaneously.
- Make it clear which other agencies have been engaged and whether or not you’ll also be continuing to compete against them all by potentially recruiting directly, if you can.
- Be open about all previous recruitment activity on this post by you and by any other agencies.
- State your policy on any submissions you might receive from non-commissioned agencies.
- Separately from the agreed terms and conditions, produce a written outline of how conflict will be resolved when multiple agencies end up trying to submit the same candidate.
- Be open and clear about candidate must-haves and nice-to-haves, stick to them and judge fairly.
- Outline clear timescales and milestones and manage the agencies accordingly.
- From the outset, state your review and feedback process and run it at least weekly.
- If problems or changes from your side arise, communicate to all immediately.
- If problems arise from an agency’s behavior, terminate them, ensuring you have clauses to do so.
This is all vital to establish because the second an agency realizes they’re terminally disadvantaged is the exact point at which their commitment to the assignment evaporates. It would be nice to believe that you can operate as a partnership to achieve a win-win result. Unfortunately, that’s literally impossible with multiple agencies involved. Clearly, there is considerable merit in carefully selecting just one agency to work with and aiming to build a close working relationship. However, almost all of the points above still apply if you want to maintain control whilst fostering trust and commitment.
Finally, and regardless of whether you use one or multiple agencies, if you want timely results, for the love of God, answer your telephone and respond to emails immediately. Nothing is more frustrating for an agency than finding things seem to have changed and they’ve consequently become confused about your requirements. If they then have to wait a week to get even an acknowledgement from you, they risk candidates de-camping and other agencies poaching on their territory. The loser is always your organisation.
About the author: Jon Gregory an experienced management consultant, re-organisation specialist and recruitment professional. He currently works with both organisations and individuals, helping to get the right people working effectively in the right jobs.. He’s also the editor of www.win-that- job.com.