On Recruiters

Quick disclaimer:  I don't HATE recruiters.  I love them!  The good ones that is.  Without them I wouldn't have had ANY of the success I think I've had in my career.  But unfortunately most recruiters are sleazeballs.  That's why, over my almost 20 year career, I've only used 4 different recruiters.  And I've never used a job board.  A good recruiter is your partner.  This post is about every other recruiter.  

Have you ever received an email from a recruiter with the text Please send me an updated copy of your resume in Word format?  Assuming you thought you were a good fit, I'll bet you responded with an attached copy without giving it a second thought.  Well, this is a bad idea.  I'm going to outline a few horror stories for you.  Then I'll cover some things I've done over the last 20 years to avoid "recruiter fraud".  

Your resume might get published to online databases without your permission

In one case I had a recruiter, which shall remain nameless, take my resume and graciously post it on a public job board without my knowledge.  How do I know this?  Tip #1:  slightly alter every copy of your resume that you send to ANYONE.  Then when you see a copy of your resume somewhere you can trace that "version" back and determine who shared your resume without your consent.  I usually change the grammar on a single sentence and then log the change and who I sent that version to.  

Why go through this rigamarole?  Many recruiters will claim they have a position that is a perfect fit for you.  Meanwhile, there is no position.  The recruiter wants to add your name to their database.  So, what's the problem with that?  Here's a litany:

  1. These internal recruiting firm databases are EXTREMELY valuable intellectual property.  It is very common for a smaller recruiting firm to be bought out by a larger firm solely for the database.  Assuming the database accurately reflects your information then this might be OK.  But what if you live in Philly and have no desire to relocate to San Diego and the new owner of the database has offices in San Diego and you get calls DAILY from San Diego wondering if you are interested in a .net position there?  This happened to me...twice.  The latest time was when a large recruiting firm was bought out by one of the MONSTROUSLY large, ubiquitous job boards.  I had read about the buyout in WSJ and within a few weeks I was getting more spam than ever from India-based recruiters.  After some legwork I found a copy of my resume on this MONSTER of a job board, and after a few hours of fighting with their customer service people, got it removed.  BTW, the copy of my resume they had was over 10 years old.  
  2. When times get tough recruiters rent their database assets to non-recruiters.  They sell your information so you can later be spammed and scammed.  How do I know this?  I have methods that I use to track this that I don't want to divulge.  Hint:  it involves using different email address, just like subtle differences in resume text, to track who is using my data without my consent.  
  3. Recruiters will post your resume on some job boards, again, without your consent.  I call this the "buy side vs sell side" recruiting approach.  Most recruiters are "sell-side", meaning they focus on selling a service to their client.  The fact is, this generates the most money in the industry.  The theory is that there are far fewer COMPANIES looking for candidates than candidates looking for companies.  So the recruiter focuses on selling to the client first, then finding a candidate later.  But there are a few buy-side recruiters.  These guys find a superstar candidate...one that is a paper tiger, well-spoken, and knows his skills...and then market that candidate to ANYONE who will listen.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing...I know because it has happened to me.  A recruiter realizes that someone is a HOT commodity and he markets the candidate to all of his clients even if they may not have a current need.  It works!  It only becomes a problem when the buy-side recruiter takes this too far and starts posting your resume with her contact information instead on various job boards.  This will eventually come back to hurt you professionally.   

Your resume is easier for a recruiter to alter in Word format

Not all recruiters do this, but most will ALTER your resume before sending it to their client.  THIS PISSES ME OFF.  I put a lot of time and thought into my resume and while others might think my resume is GARBAGE it is MY GARBAGE.  And I don't care to have it altered without my consent.  I have no problem with ANYONE who wishes to provide me with criticism to make my resume better.  There are recruiters who have more experience than I do and I value their inputs.  But ultimately these decisions are mine to make.  

Some alterations are OK.  In most cases the recruiter will insert their firm's logo at the top of your resume and remove your personal contact information.  This is smart since some clients may decide to poach a candidate to avoid paying the recruiter's fees.  If a prospective employer EVER tried to do this with me I would not do business with them.  That shows a total lack of ethics.  Although I find most recruiters to be sleaze-balls, if a recruiter introduces me to a client then that recruiter has earned his fees.  Period.  Most of us believe recruiter fees are outrageously high and we all complain about it, but until our industry cuts out the middleman, then the middleman deserves his pay.  So, I certainly would not mind if a recruiter alters my resume to remove my contact information, but I should be notified FIRST and should need to APPROVE this and this is the ONLY thing that should change.  

I once had an ambitious recruiter alter my contact information at the top of my resume.  At the face-to-face interview I saw this and asked if I could peruse their copy more closely since this was not my version.  I was surprised to see that my blog information, LinkedIn profile address, and even my NAME were altered.  The recruiter altered my NAME!  That is unacceptable.  Smart clients wish to do their own candidate vetting independently of the recruiting firm and the best way to do this is via reading someone's blog, LinkedIn profile, and googling their legal name.  They can't do this if the recruiter altered this data.  

Blatant falsification of my resume

On another face-to-face interview the interviewer wanted to know about my experience with software XYZ.  I mentioned that I had no experience with XYZ and didn't even know what it was.  The interviewer showed me that it was displayed prominently on my resume in the "Skills" section.  


The recruiter actually falsified my resume!  I explained that I had no knowledge that XYZ was on my resume and apologized profusely.  The interviewer explained that XYZ was some industry-specific, esoteric piece of software that maybe a handful of people in the world worked with, but they were hoping to find someone with experience in it.  It was not a requirement, rather a "nice to have" for the position.  The interview proceeded and I think I did ok with everything else, and everyone was cordial and happy, but I never got a call back.  

And I didn't expect one.  

If you were that interviewer, would you recommend your company hire a candidate from a recruiting firm that falsifies documentation?  And then pay them a finder's fee for the privilege?  I wouldn't.  If it wasn't for the recruiter being too ambitious I am positive I would've gotten that job.  The recruiter lied his way right out of a commission.  

You're probably thinking that this kind of behavior is an edge case.  Certainly this is not prevalent?  WRONG.  For a number of years I was a team lead at a large ISV and interviewed, on average, about 1 candidate a week for various open positions...DBAs, Java guys, QA folks, etc.  I did a non-scientific study during this time. I asked every candidate to provide me with her copy of her resume.  Post-interview I compared the candidate's version with the recruiter-supplied version.  In more than half of the cases I saw "content" modifications to the resume.  By "content" I mean the change was not:

  • formatting (font change, bold/italic changes, styles)
  • spelling/grammar
  • reordering of sections (skills moved to the top, education to the bottom)
  • removal of candidate contact information
  • insertion of recruiter's logo/contact info

Those changes are OK.  I guess.  I don't approve of someone modifying my stuff, but you could make the case that the recruiter was just being overly "helpful".  Here are some examples of what was changed.  And there is no good reason for it, other than blatant FRAUD:

  • Employment dates were altered to hide periods of unemployment.  
  • Company names were altered.  Usually this was something like "American Bancorp May 2013-May 2014" to something like "Large Banking Institution May 2013 - May 2014".  Why would this need to be altered?  I couldn't think of a good reason.  I did some research and in some cases American Bancorp was also one of the recruiter's clients, and the recruiter was trying to avoid being accused of poaching.  Utterly sleazy.  The recruiter was trying to pass off someone he placed elsewhere.  
  • Employment responsibilities were rewritten to sound like the candidate was more "senior"
  • And the most prevalent edit...SKILLS.  My company used Rational tools and I saw lots of resumes that were altered to include the word "Rational" somewhere.  This was so unbelievably prevalent with one recruiter that I called him and told we really need people with NFC experience.  He asked what NFC was and I replied that it is a standard ITIL tool used in TOGAF analysis.  (BTW, NFC is really "No Fuck1ng Clue"...I made it up).  Can you believe that I started seeing resumes with NFC experience on them?  I now had ammunition to remove that recruiter from my company's "preferred vendor list".  

Need more proof?

If you still think these stories of recruiter fraud are merely edge cases and not indicative of most recruiters, well, perhaps we should ask a recruiter?  Read this article, written by a recruiter on a recruiting forum website.  The author, and frankly most of the commenters (also recruiters), see nothing wrong with recruiters who alter resumes to make them look better in front of a client.  And they do it without seeking the permission of the candidate. Here are some screenshots that should get your blood boiling:

OMG!  This is fraud folks.  It's like a used car salesman saying, "Yeah, GM didn't put air conditioning in this model but it blows out cold air anyway."  Of course it does...when you test drive it in December.  

Here's another:

Thanks for doing me that favor pal!  See my story above where the recruiter did me a FAVOR and cost me the job.  I can't believe the arrogance.  

Let's move to the comments:

Gotta love the author/editor analogy.  Here are the problems with that fallacious analogy.  The (non-sleazeball) editor always runs his edits past the author before publication.  More importantly, an editor may change grammar, spelling, or style, but doesn't change FACTS.  The editor is not the fact-checker.  Note above that Craig also knows his target market better than the candidate.  Yeah, the day a recruiter knows more about my domain than I do is the day I retire.  What an asshat!

Here's a more accurate analogy.  Let's say the local grocery store decides that the makers of Tide have horrendous marketing and the local grocery store could do better.  Does the local grocery store change Tide's marketing material?  Of course not.  In fact, that is trademark infringement and is illegal.  Resume altering is the same thing.  My resume is my "mark" (it isn't a trademark) and I would prefer my mark not be altered.  

Another comment:

"Sure Rebeccah, go ahead and modify my resume.  I promise not to be shocked at the interview when you total misrepresent my skills and experience."  Clearly Rebeccah is contradicting herself in the second sentence.  If Rebeccah asked me I would give her my consent but I would ASK to see the changes BEFORE they were submitted.  This avoids the shock.  I'm appalled that Rebeccah would want any of her candidates to be shocked at an interview.  Isn't that lack of preparation?  

And look at that last sentence...she actually modifies executive resumes.  Words fail me!

Rebeccah is clearly inexperienced.  I agree that Times New Roman is a yukky font, but there are very good reasons why it is used.  It is guaranteed to be an installed font with every copy of Word since...forever.  Clearly Rebeccah does not know how Word works when the font du jour she uses is not installed on her client's laptop.  Then there is the issue of the hiring manager that uses OCR and it can't interpret her nifty font.  The point is, TNR is horrible, but the alternatives can be worse.  Be careful!

If a candidate has a resume professionally prepared then that means they are better prepared.  I like that candidate already.  It shows initiative.  It shows attention to detail.  It shows that they understand their limitations.  I had mine professional prepared...15 years ago.  Since then I had other "professionals" try to modernize it but each one looked horrible and I like the style and am sticking with it.  As an interviewer I want to know how prepared the candidate is.  Craig is conflating "professional resume preparer" with "recruiter".  The two are totally different.  And I don't know any professional resume preparer that will alter CONTENT.  

And again, the analogy used by Craig is wrong.  If the candidate submits a professionally-prepared resume then the CANDIDATE gave his explicit consent.  If the recruiter prepares the resume and submits it then the CANDIDATE did NOT give his consent.  It all boils down to consent, ethics, and honesty.  

"But most technical people can't write a coherent English sentence in a resume and I'm helping the candidate by doing this"

I was told this once by a recruiter who reformatted my resume to make it look more modern without my consent.  To any recruiter reading this:  YOU ARE LYING WHEN YOU DO THIS.  If your candidate can't put together a good resume how do you think they are going to represent YOU in front of YOUR important client?  Get permission from the candidate before altering a resume.  And consider coaching the candidate and having them make the recommended edits. This helps the candidate LEARN how to present themselves to a client better.  When you add lipstick to a pig, you still have a pig. 

Some approaches to combat "recruiter resume fraud"

Here are some approaches I've tried to combat overzealous recruiters:

  1. Only work with reputable recruiters.  I've been in IT since 1997 and have always used recruiters.  Exactly 4 of them.  I've worked or consulted for at least 10 different companies and have used 4 recruiters.  These recruiters I trust implicitly.  I know they modify my resume and I approve of what they do.  I TRUST THEM BECAUSE THEY'VE EARNED IT.  There are lots of recruiting firms and many of them are disreputable.  I understand and accept that by not working with some recruiters that I am likely missing out on GREAT opportunities.  I'm ok with that.  If a company wants to work with a shady recruiting firm then I don't wish to work at that company.  The recruiters I work with know me, my personal foibles, my experience, and what I want out of a company.  They have a long term PERSONAL relationship with me.  And I know their relationship with their client is similarly strong.  When you lay down with dogs, don't be surprised when you get fleas.  ONCE I accepted an opportunity with a client of a disreputable firm because it was an amazing opportunity.  It really was an amazing opportunity.  And the recruiting firm was ALWAYS late paying me.  Once they were 5 months in arrears in fees.  I walked out on them, and the client.  It was a great opportunity, but a bad circumstance.
  2. Try sending your resume to a recruiter in pdf format and tell them you do not use Word.  Sometimes this is enough to thwart recruiters from resume fraud.  
  3. Create an online version of your resume and reference "supporting details" on your Word version that point to that online version.  If you do this in enough places the recruiter can't get too sleazy.  
  4. Whenever sending your resume to a recruiter, use the trick I outlined at the beginning of this post where you track subtle changes to your resume that can be traced back to a recruiter.  At least you'll know who is sleazy later.  
  5. Whenever you send your resume ensure you include a DISCLAIMER in the email text.  Here is the version I use.  This won't stop sleazeball recruiters from doing whatever they want, but it doesn't hurt to put them on notice.  If a recruiter balks at this just walk away.  Don't lower your standards because the recruiter claims to have some amazing opportunity.  They never do.  I've been burned so much by this that I've finally learned this truth.  
  6. Make your Word document as protected as possible without being a nuisance.  None of these settings are foolproof, but everything helps.  Here's what I do when I'm done editing the "version" for a given recruiter:
    1. File|Permissions|Restrict Editing.  
    2. Click Edit restrictions and select "No change (read only)"  
    3. Click "Yes, Start Enforcing Protection"
    4. Select Password and choose a simple password.  Remember that the recruiter is going to want to add their logo.  You aren't trying to thwart the NSA with this password.  
    5. File|Protection|Mark As FInal
    6. Now when a recruiter opens the document it will be read only.  This won't stop a recruiter from copy/pasting your resume text into another file, but sleazy recruiters will always be sleazy.  

Regarding References...

When a recruiter asks you for references to call BEFORE any contact with a prospective client, tell them NO.  There is at least one HUGE national recruiting firm that does this under the premise of being a value-add for their clients.  On the surface this sounds reasonable.  They want to check your references before embarrassing themselves with an important client if you are a dud.  

Problems with that:

  1. People can (and do) fake their references.  Calling a reference is not a replacement for a background check, it is merely one part of good due diligence.  I've heard of cases where candidates used their spouse as their "manager reference."  So, if references are so darn important, then make the recruiter do a background check on you too prior to divulging your references.  They won't.  Why?  Background checks cost $$$.  
  2. Recruiters will try to recruit your references.  A recruiter from a HUGE national recruiting firm demanded to call my references.  I had a reference who is a BigShot in my industry.  Seriously, he's well known.  The recruiter called the reference because he had an opportunity for me.  The recruiter spent the entire time trying to recruit my reference.  Then he asked my reference if he knew anyone who was interested in being recruited too.  My reference called me and was furious at me for doing business with a sleazeball like that.  How many times can I go back to the well with this reference?  Don't abuse your references by giving them out to recruiters too early in the process.  
  3. Recruiters from the same recruiting firm will ALL want to talk to your references.  I get calls from this HUGE national recruiting firm at least 4 times a year and it is always a different recruiter.  And they always want my references BEFORE they even tell me about their opportunities.  I mention that Recruiter X already called my references a few months ago and that she should go talk to him.  It doesn't work, they still need to talk to my references.  There is no good reason for this other than that this recruiting firm is sleazy.
  4. I've had a recruiter tell me that I had to provide the references first, but that he wouldn't call them until I was prepared to move forward with a face-to-face interview.  In a moment of weakness I handed over my references.  Guess what?  He called them within the hour trying to recruit them.  How do I know this?  Because one of my references was my own HOME PHONE NUMBER with a made-up name.  The sleazeball recruiter didn't even bother to check the number.  (I love doing little social experiments with recruiters...have you noticed that yet?).  
  5. References will always say good things about the candidate...that's why they are the reference.  I'm not going to allow someone to be my reference unless I am POSITIVE that I will get a glowing recommendation.  Therefore, references, by their very nature, are worthless.  
  6. Your references may have loose lips.  Whenever you use someone as a reference, decorum states you should tell her first.  By asking the person to be a reference you are implicitly telling that person that you are looking for new opportunities.  In some circumstances this could be a problem if your reference goes and blabs.   

Don't give your references to any recruiter until you've gotten through at least the phone interview with the prospective client.  There is no good reason to hand out your references prior to that.  You need to be sure that you are a good fit for the opportunity.  And when the recruiter says that this is their NON-NEGOTIABLE policy, then tell them, "Thank you, but I'll look elsewhere."  

As I've said, I've interviewed dozens of candidates and I would never dream of asking for a reference first.  Most candidates are not good fits and I don't have the time or the inclination to do reference checking first.  I get a feel for the other person at the table and I go with my gut.  Then I get a background check.  Those are much harder to fake.  I couldn't care less about a reference.  

Concluding Thoughts

Whenever any industry is experiencing a boom you can rest assured that the percentage of charlatans will rise proportionally.  We see this with IT people that pad their resume to include the hot new skill that is in demand.  We also see recruiters who are just interested in getting asses in chairs and are not interested in ethics.  

My advice to IT people reading this blog post: Be leery of all recruiters until you've built up trust.  Never allow a recruiter to alter your resume's content and never provide references until you've had the opportunity to talk with the client.  

To any recruiters that might be reading this post I offer you my advice:  Never alter someone's resume without permission.  Never recruit someone's references.  Always be honest in your dealings with your clients and your candidates.  If you work at a sleazy recruiting firm get out now.  Life is too short to be a whore.  I know lots of good recruiters who have left these places and are much happier now.  If you can't abide by my rules, don't contact me.  I'm not interested in your business.  Remember: you called me, I didn't call you!  

I wish you the best of luck in life's endeavors.

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