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Recruitment in the USA: Pitfalls and Advice

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Looking for a new job can be a strange and difficult task for anyone. There are CVs to send out, telephone calls to make, and if you are fortunate, there are interviews to attend (these days in the US, jobs are few and far between and the competition fierce). Should you - whether by some stroke of fortune or through your own ability - find an interview, you do the very best you can. Perhaps against what you thought the odds would be and what the papers have been saying, you, as the applicant, miraculously manage to shine so much so that you even surprise yourself. The pre-interview phone interview may go terrifically well, with an ease that you have not known before now. You then have a live, in-person, interview with an agency that claims to be extremely exclusive, during which your interrogator explains that their firm is 'by invitation only.'

More and more firms of this kind are cropping up on the east coast of the US, presenting themselves as exclusive recruiting firms. Any eager applicant is almost inevitably going to be enticed by such an offer and why not? On the surface it seems like a good idea - it certainly seems worth visiting the office.

The False Agency

Sadly, though, some agencies that do not fall into the standard definition of what you might expect from a recruiting agency.

The offices may be in an impressive and tall downtown building, lushly outfitted with leather sofas and chrome and leather chairs. Such fixtures lend an air of legitimacy. They all seem to hint at an established firm from old money with strong roots in the business community. An eager applicant may find it easy to overlook the boxes and files in the corners; the giveaway sign that perhaps the company is not as established as it would like the applicant to believe.

The initial interview may last up to several hours while the candidate and the so-called recruiter discuss serious issues related to the field that the applicant is in. The recruiter is likely to be well-informed of the needs of the field (these days, it seems to be largely high-tech and bio-technology, two of the largest industries on the east coast). He or she is often older than the applicant, well-dressed and well-mannered. In short, the recruiter appears to be a trustworthy person, perhaps even more so than most other recruiters that the applicant has encountered in the past. This, though not always, may be the first big tip-off that this particular agency may not be like other recruiting firms, for we are seeing a different kind of recruiting firm and in this case, it is the applicant who pays to get a job.

The deal will most often come at the end of the long interview process. Written assurances will be brought in along with legal documentation that claims that the company is bound to provide you with a job and that they will provide CV revision services, job and interview coaching and so on until such time as you get the right job - and they promise the applicant that the job will match their skills and be at the managerial or similarly high level, since that is the only kind of 'executive' that they represent. The salary, in black ink, is promised to be close to or within the 'six-figure range' (US dollars).

The Catch

What could possibly be wrong with this situation? The catch is that the applicant is then asked to sign a contract promising to pay upfront a three to five thousand dollar fee (depending on the salary of the job expected: an $80,000 a year job will most often mean a three thousand dollar fee. The higher the salary, the greater the fee. The unemployed applicant is expected to pay this fee for the 'executive services' that are provided by the recruiting firm.

To be clear, most recruiting firms - over 90% of them - do not expect the applicant to pay for their services. In fact, the payment for the job placement is almost always paid for by the hiring company at the time of employment and generally after a period of time to be sure that the applicant 'works out' - that is, stays at the company and is a good employee. This is most often known as the three-month trial period.

To expect an unemployed applicant to pay a fee of thousands of dollars seems unrealistic. The applicant is unemployed and any savings are most likely to be used for day-to-day living. Though the 'guarantee' of employment can be tempting if you do happen to have the money, such an agency is unlikely to deliver on the job front.

Yes, they may provide CV revision (which generally costs about one hundred to three hundred dollars professionally, not several thousand), but their job coaching involves working on interview skills, which the applicant may well already have (especially if they are at the executive level, then it follows that the applicant has interviewed successfully many times in the past). However, when it comes to delivering on the actual promise of a six-figure job (though some applicants may get lucky - and perhaps there are even 'for pay' firms that do deliver), by and large most recruiters and professionals agree that this is a scam.

Talk to any of the best financial services Vice Presidents or biotech Managers at the hiring level and they'll tell you that they have never hired anyone through such a process and that the employees they have hired either came through friends or job boards or recruiters hired by the company to find outstanding employees. In a recent interview, one of Boston's most prestigious financial services highly placed executives noted that he had never hired anyone through this method and found the whole process 'entirely suspect' and said outright that this was a 'scam'.

Such agencies - the You-Pay-Headhunters - are not new, but they are making a huge comeback and in most cases it is not a good thing. Sadly, the whole process of dealing with such an agency is enough to make even the most seasoned and experienced person feel foolish and slightly queasy, particularly if they turned over any cash money or spoke excitedly with a friend about the deal and were tipped off that in most cases, this is not the real deal.

There are too many people who are literally throwing out three thousand dollars or more and getting little more than a CV rewrite in return. As for the phantom job, the agency will work with you 'until you get a job', but that also means as long as they are around. For all you know, the agency could fold up shop tomorrow and then where would you be? They'll promise you the moon. It's a bit akin to offering to sell the Statue of Liberty.

Don't believe it. Though some of these agencies may be valid (and that is a long shot) most are scams set up to help those involved turn a profit. The process is not so different from selling a 'product' that is essentially a front for an exchange of money. In many cases like this, there is no real 'product' just as there never was any real job or those 'hundreds of opportunities' that the recruiter promises the applicant they have available at their fingertips. Simple common sense would dictate that if this promise were true, then like most other recruiting firms, they would not be asking the employee for cash up front, but would, like other reputable and established firms, have the company paying the fee as is the usual process. Any other process or procedure should immediately raise a red flag and applicants would be wise to thoroughly check out any company asking for money up front before turning over their money.

Some Helpful Advice

  • Ask which companies the firm represents and then telephone those firms' Human Resources department to ask if they have ever hired anyone from this firm and more and whether or not they pay for this service (you want to know if they are playing both ends and charging both applicant and employer as this is double-dealing).

  • Always check with your local Better Business Bureau. If there are outstanding complaints against this firm, then they will be listed; however, many of these firms are not as established as they may seem (or even say they are, despite the mahogany and the leather veneer - remember that a veneer is just that - a front). They may have been incorporated under a different name and then reformed after several complaints were filed.

  • You are well within your rights to ask for the names of several applicants with whom you can speak, ie, referrals (since they ask you for referrals, you are well within your rights to expect the same in return). Speak to these people, find out how they got their job, if they paid and, if so, how they knew or know of the company (recent research demonstrated that although an employee at one such firm had been placed, it was the receptionist's husband).

  • Look for the firm online. A cheap website is often a good tip-off. An established firm will have a 'deep' site with many layers, much information and very little fine print.

  • Most recruiting firms list the companies they represent. If this company does not provide that list, or at least some of it, right there on the site (assuming it has a site), that should also send up a red flag.

  • If you decide to go with the firm anyway, it is well worth the money that it would cost to have a solicitor look over the contract before you hand over your money. You want to be certain that the contract is iron-clad with the promise of a job within a set period of time. If they do not, you want some guarantee that your money will be refunded.

In short, do your homework. If something sounds too good to be true, it most often is. The unemployed are sadly an easy target. Such agencies are designed to play a smart hand and can be very convincing to even the most seasoned person, but when unemployed, the applicant is at a disadvantage and the company knows it: desperation can make even the smartest person do something that is out of character or that they would not normally do.

There are plenty of legitimate agencies, but again, their fee is paid on the other end by the organisations that hire them to find good employees. These agencies will never ask you for a fee, will help you find a job if they can, and will screen you carefully - this can include background checks and drug screening as these days many corporations require such checks for security and productivity purposes.

This is the way to go. Stick with a reputable agency, stick to a daily search, set hours for job-hunting online and in the papers and keep at it. Talk to friends, friends of friends and toot your own horn a bit, and while you are unemployed, make good use of your time by doing something that you are good at or that will help you when you do get a job (and you will, although it may not feel like it): take a class in what you do; write freelance about your industry if you are a writer; if an artist, arrange a gallery show and work on your art; if you do yoga or some other sport, put your energy and aggression into that and learn to be more non-judgmental and tolerant because it will only help you when you do land a job; maybe even take up a practice such as meditation or do some volunteer work in your community at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. In short, be of some use and you will be of some use, if you follow.

You will find a way to make it work and you will find work. Just do not fall into the money trap of headhunters who mess with your head and expect to get paid for such a service.

Nobody's pockets should ever be that deep.

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