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Friday Philosophy – The Worst Thing About Contracting December 2, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in contracting, Friday Philosophy, humour, rant.
Tags: , , ,

A while back I was asked by a friend to blog about being a contractor. In the pub last week my friend reminded me of this and that I had not obliged him. I will – think of this as instalment one Jason…

I’ve been a contractor on and off for 18 years. For anyone not familiar with the concept, it is where you are self-employed and you simply hire yourself out to a company for a period of time or to do a specific job. You generally have less job security than an employee and less rights and benefits – No holiday pay, no paid sick leave, no annual pay increase {OK, so that one is rare for employees too these days}, no training and generally the first out the door when the money gets tight. In return you get more money when working and a lot, lot less to do with office politics, HR, annual reviews and the like.

It is not for everyone but I like being a contractor. It gives me a broader degree of experience.

I like it apart from one main thing.

Recruitment Consultants. For every good one there are 3 bad ones. And for each bad one there are 5 absolutely terrible ones.

There are good recruitment consultants out there, some absolutely fantastic ones who do things like actually read CV’s, understand the business they are hiring into and can be bothered responding to emails and telephone calls. You might even find one who has a mental list of their clients and their requirements and will actively look to place a good candidate in front of those clients. Claire Green at GT-Consulting is one. There are others of course.

However, most do little more than scan the database of candidate CVs for keywords and send the first three found off to the client for them to do the actual work of seeing if they actually have the skills and experience required. It would seem most have no ability or interest in trying to work out who would be a good or bad candidate themselves, like it being the service they are supposed to supply. If you try and get in touch directly to discuss a role, to maybe ask some questions to save both you and the consultant’s client a wasted interview, many will not take your call {“Can I ask who’s calling?” Brief pause whilst they realise you are a candidate not a client company “Ahh, sorry they are out of the office today, they’ll call you back. Who were you again?”}. Only the good ones call you back. You will hardly ever be called back.

If you do speak to them, some will be your best mate – but can’t quite fake sincerity… Sadly, it is often obvious that they have no idea about the business. I had a chap a week or two back telling me I needed PL or SQL to do the role and when I queried if they meant PL/SQL they got tetchy with me. Another a while back was insisting I was not suitable as I did not have 10 years of Oracle 10. As I beta tested Oracle 10 for over a year and thus, with around 8 years’ experience at that time, was well ahead of the pack I suggested that maybe they needed to alter that requirement – or find someone who helped develop it at Oracle Corp…Again, some kindly advice was poorly received. OK, I was not kindly, I was tetchy too. He had stared off being my insincere best mate.

I could just be having a self-centred moan of course, in that the recruitment consultants don’t realise how great I am ( 🙂 ) and find me lucrative jobs – but I’ve also been the client and had to wade through dozens of utterly unsuitable CVs sent in from them. The last time was particularly awful as we were not able to offer a great wage (but we were happy to take people with experience of prior versions and train them up to the latest-greatest). Most CVs sent in had the words Oracle, database and administration on them but not together. Several lacked any Oracle at all. Every recruitment consultant I dealt with that time gave me the same spiel about having the best candidates on their books, how they vetted everyone and sent only the ones with the best match of skills. They must have been telling a miss-truth about at least one of those claims as there was little match with our requirements for an Oracle DBA.

So, I really like contracting but not the dealing-with-agents bit. Oddly enough, any discussion with other contractors or managers who hire nearly always shows that my feelings are widely shared…

I’ve been thinking about doing this post ever since I started blogging but I didn’t – because many jobs are only available via recruitment consultants. Insulting them is not going to help me get put forward for jobs. However, last time I was mouthing off about Satan’s little Imps in the pub and how I had never done a Friday Philosophy on the topic, due to the fear of the consequences, one of the guys pointed out I was an idiot. Most recruitment consultants can’t even be bothered reading your CV so they are not going to go check out someone’s technical blog! {and Neil has just beaten me to posting about it and how they always ask for mostly irrelevant industry experience}. Any who do are going to be firmly in that rare Good category. I’d go as far as to say that any recruitment consultant who is reading this is in the top 5% of their field. Nice to talk to you again, Claire…



1. Tim Hall - December 2, 2011

I agee 1%.


2. Tim Hall - December 2, 2011

Bloody iPad keyboard. That was 100%. 🙂

mwidlake - December 2, 2011

Haha!! Thanks Tim.

3. Dom Brooks - December 2, 2011

Based on the fact that you’re insulting recruitment agents (are ex-News of the World journos higher or lower on the food chain?) and you’re “Available for Consultancy” indicator has disappeared, I take it you’d found a new gig then? If so, good news.

mwidlake - December 2, 2011

Actually, no, I just gave up looking this side of Christmas. Dealing with the agents was getting me down and my personal contacts were all drawing blanks. I think I might have to retire and live off salted peanuts and cheap beer, sat in my dressing gown watching daytime TV….

Graham - December 2, 2011

I’d probably have some sympathy for you if your house wasn’t a 50 bedroom mansion made out of gold. OK, maybe I’m stereotyping the riches of a long term contractor… but your point about job security doesn’t really stand up these days.

If anything the organisation I’m at presently is more likely to get rid of permies than contractors. That way they can show that headcount is reducing and shareholders are impressed with the cost cutting activities.

mwidlake - December 2, 2011

I had to sell the mansion Graham, when I stopped contacting and went and worked for a charity in 2001. I still have some of the gold though….

I know what you mean about replacing permies with contractors to please the shareholders. I was at one organisation (we both know who) and there were no permies to be seen. Everyone was either a contractor or a consultant. Of course, a contractor is 1/3 the price of a consultant from IBM but both do not appear on headcount so claims can be made about staff reduction. Much more money actually SPENT but lower headcount….

4. Øyvind Isene - December 2, 2011

I don’t have experience as a contractor, but I have the same perception of recruiters for permanent employment. That obvious scanning for keywords in your CV and absolutely no idea what is important for the employee. Networking and friends is all that matters. Good post.

5. Narendra - December 2, 2011

Oh My God!!!
Two posts on the same day on the same topic (other one by Neil) and both struck, what has now become the most sensitive nerve, for me.
Not sure if you have had any experience (after all, you are in a different league) but what I hate the most is in a typical telephone call from a recruitment consultant (in response to my application) how the conversation changes to the agent asking me about whom can he/she talk to in my current organisation. What the hell !!! After a few initial incidents, I realized that these consultants NEVER had any vacancy for any client (if they have any). They just tend to copy-paste some job description from somewhere and post it in order to get access to new clients. Nowadays, I find it extremely difficult to speak in civilized manner when I get similar hint from any consultant.

mwidlake - December 2, 2011

Hi Narendra,

Ahh, the “fake position” issue. Advertising a non-existent position was “banned” back in the early 90’s. I can’t remember now if it was just against the code of conduct for recruitment agencies or actually made illegal. My wife worked for a recruitment consultancy when the ruling came in and she thought it hilarious that people expected agencies to abide by it (so you see, I have inside information – She did not last long, she had this wild idea that her job was to match the right person to the right vacancy, not just cream off as much percentage as possible). I’m sure I’ve spotted a couple in the last month.

Yes, very often they just want names of potential hiring managers in your organisation to sell people into. I knew of one case, back in the 90’s, where a friend applied for a job via a consultancy and next thing he knew, the guy had contacted his boss saying they would need someone soon to replace “his contact, who was looking to leave”. It was obvious that my friend was the “contact who was looking to leave” and of course it put him in a poor position.

I get tetchy when they ring me about a job and, when it becomes obvious it is not for me, they want names of anyone else who might be able to do it. I say I’ll let anyone I am aware of know but I never pass on details but they just badger you for direct contact. I tend to get uncivil at that point.

jgarry - December 3, 2011

Recently my local paper had an article about tech jobs, and show statistics for certain jobs from several job posting sites. I couldn’t help but think they were multi-counting the same jobs from different recruiters.

Back in the early ’80s, my supervisor and I saw an ad in the paper that sounded just like our jobs. We confronted his boss, and it was, they were expanding and hadn’t bothered to let us know.

As far as contractor v. perm, for me contracts lasted longer, the HR type of expectations are so different for the same work. I’d still be a contractor (over 10 years at this site) if it weren’t for the health benefit situation in the US pushed me to perm. I’ve outlasted a number of perms…

Sometimes you can mine companies this time of year, avoiding HR and going direct to IS folk doing end-of-year things. ISTR several times in the past where I would get a “you can start with the new year” this time of year.

6. Claire Green - January 3, 2012

Little bit late on this one but I’ll comment anyway. Being the person Martin mentions as a decent recruiter, I have to say I cringe at some of the stories I hear about candidates dealings with agents. Especially frustrating is an agent asking what skills you have when it’s clear the agent does not understand what the technology is (from a non-tech point of view). Being your best buddy and promising the world is another common irritant.
As Martin says, there are some good ones out there so please remember positive experiences too.

12 years experience in IT recrutiment has taught me how to treat candidates and clients right. All I can do is apologise on behalf of the less able recruiters out there, and continue to hope the general image of IT recruitment consultants moves up the ladder from slimy gutter turd to something more acceptable..

7. Jihad - September 6, 2012

I have been contracting for the last 17 years and I could not agree more. Fortunately for me, I never had any issue getting a contract once I set my foot into the client’s premises and had a face to face interview. I have learned a lot and know how to deal with agents who waste my time.

Few tips:

Agent’s Question: May I please have the name of your hiring manager?
Your Answer: I am afraid I can’t, due to the Data protection Act as I have duty to not divulge my client’s information.

Agent’s Question: I need two references from your present employer to arrange an interview for you.
Your Answer: When I get a confirmed offer of the job, you will have two references.

Agent’s Question: Are you still working with Dave blog? (they are waiting for you to say no I am working with so and so) . As soon as you give him/her a name, guess what is going to happen? your present client/employer will have a phone call from the agent asking about Mr. so and so trying to make a sale.
Your Answer: NO

Agent’s Question: What do you want as a daily rate for this contract?
Your Answer: what on offer? (The agent is trying to get you cheap for two reasons, one to look good in front of the client, or to take the difference in rate for him on top of the commission he/she is already getting).

I can write a book about Agent’s tricks.

Any way good luck contracting everyone and may the good and decent agent be with you all. 🙂

mwidlake - September 6, 2012

Thanks Jihad, all good advice 🙂

Perhaps the most obvious one they try is “Have you got any other interviews?” or similar.
Answer “Yes” {You are always in demand, you are selling valued service} ” – but I can’t mention them, just as you would not want me mentioning any of your roles”.
This often leads to the following though…
“Oh, but I need to know so I don’t put you forward for that one!”
“If you put me forward to a company without my permission you have broken your industry’s rules, you will never represent me again and I’ll let the client know”. Not friendly but heck, so many agents and so little time to annoy them all. Any agent who does this to you will do other, just as bad things.

Paul Brookes - January 13, 2015

A little late to the party here, but just came via your Twitter post.

I’ve also been contracting for around 18 years now, and the dirtiest trick I’ve come across was back in the late 90’s. I’m sure this is one that still happens.

Agent ‘A’ called me about an Oracle role and requested that should I be approached by another agency then I should not ask to be put forward again, as apparently clients do not like to receive the same CV twice and it could jeopardise my chances.

Later that day Agent ‘B’ called about the same role. Of course, I explained that I had already been put forward and didn’t want my CV sent again to the client. Agent ‘B’ accepted this and that was the end of that, or so I thought.

A day later Agent ‘B’ called me back and explained that he had taken the liberty of asking the client if they had already received my CV from another source. The client told him that they had not.

It was at this point the penny dropped. Agent ‘A’ had put forward what he felt were his strongest 3 CV’s, and had then called as many other contractors with the same skillset and spun each of us a line simply to keep us off from applying for the role elsewhere and maximizing his chances of placing one of his preferred candidates. Of course he didnt get back to me when I phoned to call him out.

There was a good ending to this though. I got an interview via Agent ‘B’, got the role, and ended up contracting with the client for 5 years.

The moral for me is ignore agent requests to tell other agents not to put you forward, and get your CV on the client’s desk by any means possible. It’s a jungle out there!

mwidlake - January 13, 2015

Thanks for that Pauk.

I think the moral of the story (stories) is to always keep in the front of your mind that 95% of Agents/Recruitment Consultants have their own interest firmly first and, like a lot of sales types, will lie and distort to get the sale 😦 Only believe otherwise once the individual agent has proven otherwise!

It sounds like you came across a right bad-un in the above case.

However, the “CV from Two Sources” is a real issue which I have encountered from 3 directions

The first was when an agent put me forward for a job without my permission – and I had already been put forward. The client wanted to interview me but then the agents both demanded I was “their” candidate. How the second agent could morally claim this is beyond me but the client did not want to deal with it, so that opportunity was closed to me.

The second was as a hiring manager when I had a good candidate but then received the details from a second agent – and after I had interviewed the guy the second agent started threatening me with legal action! Thankfully the guy did not pass muster and the end result was I told the second agent where he could stick his threats and never to contact my company again. Blacklisted.

The third was when my wife was an actual recruitment agent and she got into this issue several times when a second agency would also put one of her candidates forward – often as the candidate either did not know they were already up for that job or lied, thinking being referred twice or more would “look good”. I think it always ended up with the candidate losing out, and of course lots of name-calling between the agents. It’s part of what made her walk away from the industry.

Claire Green - January 13, 2015

It’s a shame there is a fair share of agents that have very low morals and values. It’s a constant battle to get past the barriers put up by IT candidates, after they have had their fingers burned. As Martin says, you can only trust them once they have proved themselves.
From an agents perspective, we do also encounter candidates that have equally low morals and values as the worst recruitment agents. I accept that this happens from time to time but set out on a positive footing with every encounter with a candidate and assume their intentions are positive. If I’m proved wrong, I’ll decline working with them in the future, That’s all I can do.

mwidlake - January 13, 2015

Clair, you are certainly in the good 5% :-). You also make a very valid point:

“From an agents perspective, we do also encounter candidates that have equally low morals and values as the worst recruitment agents.”

This is of course true. Candidates lying about their skills or claiming experience they do not have are the obvious issues but I am also aware of contractors who try and cut out an agent who has found them the job. There are a good few dodgy IT contractors out there.

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9. Ben - January 19, 2015

Well said mate! I have had the same poor experiences with recruiters and agencies in my career. For every good one, there are 1000 evil ones. I’ve decided at this point just to tell them to bugger off for the most part unless they have a clue about hiring good candidates.

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