When recruiters call: how to pick the right agency

Contractors are faced with a dilemma that full-time employees can only wish to have. When a company has a new contract position to fill, they often put the requisition out to several preferred agencies, and many more, who aren't preferred providers, can also submit candidates. When this happens, agencies have to work fast to source, call, pre-qualify and submit candidates. So contractors are likely to get contacted by several agencies about the same position.

Wow! You think. This is great! If I get submitted by five different agencies, the hiring manager will know I'm a great candidate, right?

Hang on there, buster. There's a little "gotcha" in the world of contract work. A candidate can only be submitted once for a position, by one agency. A double submission results in both submissions getting disqualified. This seems to be an unwritten rule that crosses all hiring companies and agencies. It's not a law, it's just an agreement that everyone seems to know about and honor.

If you get called by multiple agencies about the same position, don't be desperate. While most agencies are legitimate businesses, remember that not all agencies are created equal. It's time to be calm and smart. Choose an agency that you'd be comfortable working for. Remember, if you get hired, it's the agency that is your employer, so you need to interview them as much as they interview you. Ask a few probing questions to learn more before deciding whether to let them submit you.

1. Do you have a personal relationship with the hiring manager?

Contracting is moving towards a managed care model, where the agencies have on-site or dedicated personnel whose job it is to get to know the hiring managers, build relationships, understand the type of people they want and like, and can make phone calls and have meetings on your behalf. If the agency has this setup in place, this is probably a good bet. Build a relationship with these types of agencies, because you'll want to work for them again and again.

2. Where are you located, physically?

There are offshore recruiters who cast a wide net, using Internet job boards to make many, many cold calls, and use a company's ATS (Applicant Tracker System) to deposit candidates' resumes. They rely on volume to get the occasional "hit." Most of these agencies are legitimate and do place candidates all the time. If you are certain that this agency is offering you the best rate you can get, if you're pretty sure you aren't going to get any other calls for this position, go ahead and let them submit you. Just understand that you will not be personally represented during the interview process. And be aware of this:

3. How much personal information do I need to provide in order to be submitted?

Never provide your Social Security number over the phone, or in an email. Period. An "agency" that needs your complete Social Security number and birthdate just to submit you has no interest in getting you a job. An agency may ask you to provide a "candidate ID" which may includes the last four digits of your SSN and birthdate without the year (e.g. 5465-307). If you are uncomfortable with providing that, then either don't submit, or make something up. You don't need to provide this information until you've been hired and you're filling out your tax forms.

4. Can you send me an email and provide me with a job description?

This fairly basic request can actually tell you a lot about the legitimacy of the agency. In my experience, about 30 percent of the agencies to whom I make this request do not follow through. That weeds out bad experiences before they happen. Download an application like Sidekick, which is a Chrome extension that tells you when an email was opened, how many times it was opened, and where it came from. If they are prompt and honest in their initial contact, they'll usually be prompt and honest when it comes to paying you, too.

Remember--because an agency is offshore does not mean it's not legitimate. I have had several contracts with companies like this, and they were fine. Just make sure that the rate is competitive and that the agency checks out, because there are a few out there who make it tough for the rest. Don't get desperate, don't take a rate that's far below industry average, and remember, the calls will keep coming. You can only pick one agency per position, so make sure you do everything possible to ensure you're being represented by the right one.

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