Advice on Entering the Recruiting Field

Oct 5, 2011

Knowing that some readers of are not in recruiting, I wanted to address a question that Todd was sent about how to get into recruiting. This is an appropriate topic for recruiters still green in their careers as well as recruiters with years of experience.

The questions were as follows:

  1. How do I make the switch into the recruiting industry?
  2. How do I leverage my industry knowledge while I’m there to gain enough experience?
  3. And eventually start my own recruiting business?

Let me begin by answering the first question and telling you how I made the switch into recruiting. I’d been in the fitness industry, both in sales and working directly with members, for about eight years and really felt like a square peg in a round hole for much of that time. I moved from job to job, both in the health club industry and non-profit sectors. While out of work in 1992 it occurred to me that I should be looking at sales types of careers. I enjoyed sales and I had always been told I had the personality for it. I had a buddy who had been recruiting on Wall Street for many years and, when I told him I was considering recruiting, he said it would probably be a perfect fit for my personality and skills.

I subsequently found four firms to interview with, not having any clue about the recruiting industry. Remember, this was a time without the Internet or cell phones so I was potentially a lamb to the slaughter. Looking back on the interview experience I now know what the red flags were in the interviews. At that time I just didn’t get a good feeling about much of what I heard. Not sure why. Just didn’t feel right. So let me tell you about three of the four companies I interviewed with. (P.S.: All four wanted to hire me.)

One company I met with was a franchise firm. Its branding was that it was “expert” in about 20 different markets. That just didn’t sound right to me. Now I look back on it as the veritable Jack of all trades, master of none. On to the next opportunity.

Another company was privately held. I interviewed first with one of its recruiters who always did first interviews. I remember him saying, “We don’t need to lock our desks at night.” I thought that was a bit of an odd comment. All he did was put into my mind the question, “Why would it be necessary to lock my desk when I’m not here?”

Now I was concerned. He also made sure I met with one of the few women in the office so I’d know that there were other females working there. I was invited back for a second interview with the VP of the company (he was #2 in charge). As with any appointment, then and now, I always leave 15-30 minutes earlier than necessary just in case there is traffic. I was 15 minutes late for the interview, as there had been an accident on the highway. Remember, no cell phones. I was upset, as I can’t stand being late. Upon being introduced to the VP, I apologized for being tardy and said I’d left enough time but still got delayed by an accident. I’ll never forget his response, “I hate people who are late.” Needless to say, I didn’t join that firm.

The third firm was interesting, but too far of a commute for me. The fourth firm, and the one I subsequently joined, knew what they were doing when it came to recruiting recruiters. I interviewed with a number of people and it really knew how to sell me. It had a training program, and once I got my feet a bit wet I would get a territory and be sharing an office with the person who would be my mentor and teacher. I liked that.

The message here is that if you want to make the move into recruiting, be sure to do research and due diligence on agencies (retained and contingent) and corporate recruiting departments. With no experience it will likely be impossible to get a job in a retained firm or even a corporate recruiting department, outside of low-level grunt work while you’re learning. Contingent firms are usually more apt to hire folks with no experience because they will most likely be paying you on commission only. Less risk for them. More risk for you.

They each have their pros and cons. They each have different comp plans. Each of the firms I interviewed with had comp plans that were very misleading for a newbie like me. Three of the four had splits. They were in the neighborhood of 60/40, with 60% going to the individual who found the candidate and 40% to the person who found the job order.

What I didn’t realize (and they didn’t offer the info) was that this was a percentage of what’s left after the search firm takes its fee. For example, let’s say the total fee for a search is 20k. The split with your firm is 65/35. Therefore your firm takes 13K (65%) of the 20k fee and your share is 7k (35%) of the total fee. So if you were in a split fee arrangement with another recruiter in your firm as I said above, you and the other recruiter would split the remaining 7k 60/40, or 4,200/2,800.

No wonder so many contingent recruiters sling spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. And don’t forget about the possible problems splitting fees inside a firm can cause. No wonder the guy at the second firm made a point of telling me about the not needing to lock their desks. The firm I joined gave me a territory and told me I’d get 100% of my search fees (100% of my split). When I first started, I got 30% of the total fee, so on a 20k fee I’d earn 6k. My contract also showed me when I’d move to the next commission level and would eventually reach a max commission of 50%. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else in the company poaching my territory or candidates.

Call people who no longer work in these organizations you’re interviewing with and ask why they left. Make sure you listen for sour grapes. Ask about their culture, the management, what type of training they provided, if they had a mentor, how the company pays, if there is a non-compete agreement and about the laws about that in your state, etc. If it’s a corporate recruiting job, also make sure you ask how the management perceives and works with its recruiters and if the management is committed to a recruiting department that works. Remember, actions speak louder than words.

In hindsight I joined the right firm for me. That said, there were things I didn’t like about it, which is why I left after nine years to work for myself. I liked that I learned so much of what I know now and kept what worked and threw away what didn’t work for me. They were wonderful at teaching both tactical and strategic recruiting methods.

I also know many recruiters who were in industry (in my case tech guys) who left tech sales or sales management and jumped right into recruiting, which partly answers both questions one and two above. How do I leverage my industry knowledge? Every guy I know who left tech called everyone they knew in the industry, starting with the companies they had worked for in the past. In fact, one buddy who has been recruiting for 10 years now said, “Most of my clients to this day are those who worked with me in the past who respected the fact that I had the strong operational experience and a reputation for reliability and integrity.” He has used his background in software to his advantage.

In and of itself, though, this isn’t enough to make you successful. You have to know how to recruit. In the case of this buddy, I’ll never forget him telling me that he had no idea how hard it would be to make the transition from software to recruiting. There was so much he didn’t know. He also told me recently that he’s “still learning. The dynamics of the marketplace have changed so much in the last 10 years, and as a result you have to adapt in order to succeed. The hardest part is learning to qualify both the client and thecandidate and making an objective assessment. The goal is to be a trusted advisor to both sides.”

Lastly, how do you start your own recruiting business? You can do it like the guys in the example above or start with a firm that trains you. The latter is my recommendation. How many years will it take for you to learn enough to go out on your own? I’m sure I’d get almost as many answers as recruiters I asked. So the answer is, “It depends.” It depends on whether or not you have a non-compete agreement. It depends on your relationship with your clients. Will they follow you? It depends on how much you know about recruiting, so that when you leave and are on your own, will you be able to know the answers to the hard questions or be able to get the answers you need?

I remember a situation with a candidate after I was about 12 years in the industry. It was something I’d never dealt with and was blindsided by it such that I lost the deal. You will run into situations that are new; maybe you’ll figure them out or not. I can only hope that when you do make mistakes you will learn from them so as not to repeat them again. Do you want to work by yourself or build a firm? There’s much less to deal with if you just hang up a shingle. If you have interest in people working for you, then there’s much more to consider, like training, payroll, splits, collecting fees from clients who don’t want to pay on time, etc.

The bottom line is that recruiting is a great industry. Ask yourself why type of recruiter you want to be. Do you want to be a recruiter who slings spaghetti or one who becomes a trusted advisor to your clients?