‘We’re Not Like Those Other Bums’

Tomato, tomahto; potato, potahto. Does one taste better than the other . . . or are we just victims of semantics?

A similar debate rages over the pecking order in the recruiting (or is it search?) business . . . with both sides (contingency v. retained) arguing over which way is the best to locate talent.

As an industry observer for more than three decades, I find the internecine squabbles interesting as a spectator, but troubling as a committed and enthusiastic member of the recruiting community.

I entered the business (from a personnel background) when the term “employment agency” was a righteous definition of what we did. It fit perfectly. We were, in fact, agents in the employment process, whether we worked to find a job for an applicant, or an employee for a company. Even though there is a certain heresy in using the term to describe the majority of today’s practitioners, it still fits . . . for everyone from the day labor provider to the hoity-toitiest of Park Avenue consultants.

I suppose it’s human nature to try to set oneself apart from the pack when one perceives a benefit in distancing themselves from the somewhat tarnished realities which evolved during the industry’s adolescent stages. But we’ve moved beyond that pubescent era and the only thing keeping us from full-fledged membership in the community of hirers is our own penchant for painting targets on the backs of those practitioners whose modus operandi might be somewhat different than our own.

The folly of trying to continually upgrade the nomenclature under which we earn our livelihoods was vividly pointed out after an eloquent and long-winded presentation by an executive searcher to a Human Resources V.P. At the end of the presentation, the searcher was introduced to the potential client’s president who asked, “How long have you been in the employment agency business?”

Civilians (and many hirers fall into that category) don’t understand the minor nuances within our business . . . and most, frankly, just don’t care. If a long-term veteran like myself is often confused by practitioner “positioning,” imagine the befuddlement of the fee-payers whose primary concern is filling a requisition and moving on to their next problem.

Let’s examine a few myths.

MYTH 1 – Contingency recruiters work only lower and mid-level jobs. Retained recruiters work only at the top levels.

We’ve seen hundreds of contingency fee checks in the $50 – 160,000 range so method of payment can be inconsequential.

MYTH 2 – Contingency searchers are often just presenting people from their files while retained recruiters begin every search anew.

Search is search. If you truly believe that retained searchers don’t occasionally activate their file candidates as finalists, you are mistaken. Conversely, contingency recruiters often times reach as far and wide as retained consultants. Don’t believe otherwise.

MYTH 3 – Contingency recruiters don’t have the integrity of the retainer community.

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Bums are about equally distributed between both segments. Thankfully, there aren’t many. (Incidentally, the same proportion of miscreants exists among hirers.)

MYTH 4 – Retained assignments produce better results than contingency assignments.

If you’re dealing with an honorable recruiter, the success rates are about the same, no matter how the fee is paid. The major difference is that you pay the contingency recruiter nothing unless the desired result occurs.

Our mythbook has hundreds of others but they are all in shades of gray, with no stark blacks or whites.

Are there times when the retainer relationship is better? Of course. And there are times when it makes no sense whatsoever. That’s why a number of “contingency” firms occasionally charge retainers (full or partial). It’s also why a number of retained firms will occasionally collect a contingency fee (even though most won’t admit it).

The industry (for most, it’s not yet a profession) is homogenizing. The methods of search and payment are being tailored to meet the needs of the client. The line between contingency and retained is becoming blurred. Clients will win with this new approach, and so will right-thinking search practitioners. The losers will be those hard-liners in both camps who fail to fashion their services to the solutions sought.

I don’t remember where I got this phraseology, but I like it and thought I would pass it along.

“If you decide that we aren’t a good fit, would you please tell me so? You won’t hurt my feelings and I won’t be confused and continue calling you and wasting your time blowing through voicemail and email messages from me. Okay?” You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many prospects can be disqualified from follow-up and you’ll save time and energy by moving on to better potential customers.

Paul Hawkinson is the editor of The Fordyce Letter, a publication for third-party recruiters that's part of ERE Media. He entered the personnel consulting industry in the late 1950's and began publishing for the industry in the 1970's. During his tenure as a practitioner, he personally billed over $5 million in both contingency and retainer assignments. He formed the Kimberly Organization and purchased The Fordyce Letter in 1980.

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