Friday, August 04, 2006

Mr Angry's rules for recruitment agencies dealing with contractors

This final post in my series on contracting covers the often fraught but usually necessary relationship between contractors and recruitment agencies. I know it is possible to gain employment without dealing with employment agencies. In some cities the bias is stronger one way or the other. In my market it is theoretically possible to work as a contractor without going through intermediaries but in practice this is extremely hard to achieve and you would be cutting yourself out of 90+% of contract opportunities.

So let's be honest: as a contractor you're looking to get the maximum dollars for each job. We are the prostitutes of the workplace. And any hooker who wants to enjoy life has to choose their pimp carefully. You want one of the better pimps like Heidi Fleiss who will at least try to get you good surroundings, good pay and a higher class of... client. Avoid the ones who treat you like a low-class street worker and who seem to enjoy smacking you upside the head with regular frequency.

Jokes aside, the relationship between a contractor and an agency is important. It's how you find work and it's how you get paid. The suggestions in this post are aimed at recruitment agencies but of course my advice to contractors is seek out agencies who match the positive traits below and avoid the negative ones. I'll probably be treading a little lightly for two reasons. First, simply out of respect for all the agencies I've dealt with who do good work - this isn't a mindless complaining session. The relationship between a contractor and agency is a professional one and that requires professionalism from both sides to work effectively. Second, I may have mentioned before that the IT job market I find myself in is comparatively small, conservative and gossipy. I don't want the bad agencies all fired up to work out who I really am so they can blacklist me.

The number one recommendation I feel compelled to offer agencies is don't play games with contractors. The favourite game of agencies is undoubtedly "guess the pay rate you can get away with on this job." I have lost count of the number of times agencies have asked me "what rate are you looking for?" This question is absolutely pointless as the answer is always "the maximum I can possibly get away with." Money is not my only motivator but I if someone is asking me how much I want to be paid, the answer is the highest rate on offer.

Be open and honest with contractors. Come straight out and say "based on your experience and what this client has indicated they are willing to pay I think you should ask for $xxx." Let contractors know when they are asking for an unrealistically high amount (either because of their experience, equally qualified applicants willing to accept less, the job market generally or a particularly client being a tight-arse) but don't try to trick them into accepting less that they might have been able to get.

And speaking of being open and honest, always tell contractors what your cut of the deal is. Don't wait for them to ask (and definitely don't refuse to tell if they ask). The contractor deserves to know how much you are making out of their placement. The only possible reason I can think of for not telling a contractor this information is that you are screwing them and taking too big of a cut. Trust me, if this isn't your reason, contractors think that it's your reason.

Another thing to never do with contractors is to suggest that they should sign an exclusive deal with you unless they are on your permanent payroll (and then they cease to be contractors, don't they?) The very definition of contractors is that they are free agents; if you want them on your books, get them a contract. I have had this suggested to me many times over the years and always politely declined. The people responsible should be embarrassed for asking. The most egregious example I can remember was from an agency where I couldn't hear a single local accent, everyone who worked there seemed to be a tourist with a temporary work visa. Who exactly was I pledging my loyalty to when none of them were going to be in the country six months later?

And don't say that it looks "unprofessional" if a contractor has their resume with too many agencies. This is a complete lie. I don't care if you've convinced yourself it's true, my years of experience have proven to me that it isn't true. Over the years I've applied for jobs with dozens of agencies and I frequently have my resume with more than half a dozen at the same time and I have never suffered adversely. Employers simply don't know and agencies don't tell each other who's on their books - agencies trust each other less than contractors trust agencies.

Another important rule is when dealing with a specialised area like IT, try to have some understanding of the requirements for each role. It is blindingly obvious when an agency is completely ignorant about a role because they'll ask for something that's impossible. The usual is to ask for an absurd number of years' experience with a new technology. In the current market, this would be something like asking for 5 years' experience with AJAX or some other Web 2.0 technology. My favourite personal experience was from way back when everybody was working on Y2K projects and I was asked if I had previous Y2K experience. What, you mean from the last time it was the year 2000?

Smaller agencies tend to have people with a better understanding of the technical aspects of IT work as they often seem to be run by former contractors who figured that recruiting was where the real money was. But it really is unforgivable for any agency to be completely ignorant about the requirements for a role when they are recruiting. These agencies deserve the scorn they get from contractors.

And speaking of understanding the requirements, don't lie about your candidate's experience and/or skill in the hope of suckering an employer. And if you do this, have the common decency to tell the contractor you've done it. I have heard many times from employers railing against IT workers (particularly programmers it seems) lying on their resumes but I have personally experienced a situation where an agency lied "on my behalf" without telling me. Words don't quite capture the feeling of terror I experienced during an interview as I was reading the copy of my resume the interviewer was holding and saw it contained lies I hadn't put there. Thankfully I had rehearsed for all my own lies but I didn't know if I could convincingly fake a response to something I had no preparation for.

I have often thought the most difficult part of recruiting contractors for IT must be that you spend the whole day dealing with people who make significantly more money than you. In many cases astronomically more. I know front line staff in recruiting agencies do not tend to be fabulously well paid but to be brutally honest, this isn't the contractor's fault. If you can't deal with seeing people who already make way more money than you asking for more, you need to find another line of work.

To summarise, in order for the relationship between a contractor and an agency to work, it has to be based on openness and honestly. Many contractors, myself included, will suffer through a bad relationship with an agency for a limited time if suitably rewarded. But if your starting point is to exploit contractors as much as possible rather than to help them as much as possible, it's going to catch up with you. What goes around comes around.

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