When It Pays to Say No to Business (And When You Should Say ‘Yes’)

Jan 10, 2013

frustrated-guy-by-zach-kleinHere’s a thought. Sometimes it is good business to turn business down.

What do I mean? Surely any opportunity to earn money from a potential client must be worth taking on? Well, sometimes I think not.

Let’s look at the facts. There is plenty of evidence elsewhere that companies which drop their prices to compete in the market end up on the rocky road to ruin, so I will not cover that ground here. But a similar principle and mindset apply when considering what work to take on even at the right price.

When companies engage external recruiters to fill those hard-to-fill roles their internal recruiter is unable to fill, we know these jobs won’t be easy to fill otherwise the internal recruiter would have filled them already! Usually these are jobs requiring some kind of specialism. This is where the specialist, niche external recruiter can help. We know the market well, have an extensive contact database in the domain or geography and can get to the candidates other recruiters (internal or otherwise) simply can’t reach.

Now when a company comes to me — and it is usually that way round — and asks me to help them in these kind of situations, I like to know how long the headcount has been open (i.e. how long the internal recruiter has been working on it) and if they have previously engaged with any other recruiters for the same role.

You Said ‘No’?

This is where sometimes the internal recruiter or HR person starts to get vague:

“Well we did have a company looking at this but they didn’t send us any good CVs.”

 “OK how long did they work on the assignment?”

 “Oh I can’t remember. Not long.”

 “Do you have any other recruiters working on this at present.”

“Just one other.” 

“OK so let me summarize. I am effectively the fourth recruiter you have used to try to fill this role?”

“Well I guess if you put it like that . . .anyway is this something you are interested in?”


‘You said no?’

At this point there may be a temporary hiatus while my correspondent struggles for breath as they endeavor to cope with their incredulity. Eventually, they manage to say,



“Why? Business must be good for you if you can afford to turn things down!”

“Well, think about it. You have just described a wasteland to me.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well there have been four recruiters trampling all over this jungle for four weeks now, hacking at it with their machetes – one even had a flamethrower which was great at clearing the undergrowth, but unfortunately it burnt a few half decent candidates to a crisp in the process! With those dark goggles on that you have to wear when using a flamethrower the recruiter just didn’t see them – bless him! And you still haven’t found anyone. They will have all trodden the same routes – and on each other’s toes – and some candidates – particularly the really good ones – will have been contacted multiple times. The candidates will now most likely be pretty unimpressed as a result and the chances of me persuading them to talk to you have consequently been significantly diminished. Your company’s reputation has been sullied. Contacting a candidate multiple times makes you look desperate. Even if I get them to talk to you, they will know they can pretty much name their price. Am I making sense?”

“Well I guess I see your point. But I have heard you are a specialist in this area. Surely you can find us some candidates who have not been contacted?”

“It is possible, of course, but there are only so many candidates and the problem is even the ones that haven’t been contacted probably work in the same companies as those who have, and that reputation thing will be an issue again.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well these guys talk to each other and you can be pretty sure this role will have been batted about among a few of them in a company: ‘“Hey Jo, Widget Software is looking again. I had three recruiters call me in the last week, and the last one was a bit of an arsehole. I’m just too busy, but I dunno, thought you might be interested.’ Anna then chips in, ‘Is that the Widget Software spanner polisher job?’ ‘Yep that’s the one.’ ‘Oh I had two guys call me about that – you are right the second guy was a complete idiot!’ Even if Jo is interested, the role has been devalued by their colleagues’ rejection of it.”

“OK – well if you reconsider let me know.”

“Well I won’t but I tell you what. Next time you get a role that looks like a tough one to crack – and you should get to recognise them after a while. Call me before you do anything else, and we can have a chat. I can even maybe point you in a few directions if you want to have a go at it yourself, first. Or if we think it is something that is in my sweet spot, I’ll make sure we fill it while you get on with other stuff that’s on your desk. As you can see from this conversation you can trust me to be upfront and honest with you.”

“OK. Thanks for your time.”

The JO On Your Terms

Now the conversation above is, of course, fictitious but, trust me, it is based on reality. The HR/internal recruiter in this scenario is unlikely ever to call me again, as they probably have me marked down as ‘difficult,’ but I am not too bothered as I don’t want to work for companies that don’t think out their recruitment strategy. It becomes a self-qualifying exercise.

On the other hand, they may think on what I have said and come back to me. (This has happened to me, so it is not a fantasy). If they do, you will be taking on any assignment they give you on your terms and in a way which is far more likely to guarantee them -– and YOU — success.

Having fulfilled this first assignment you are then more likely to get another, and build a more lasting relationship with this company based on trust and mutual respect. They pay you to be what you are: a recruitment ‘consultant’. They will not treat you like the photocopier toner salesperson so many companies think recruiters are ten-a-penny, and just another supplier to grind to the floor on price. They will listen to your advice based on your years of experience, and you will earn more, have a longer life (stress is so aging don’t you know!), and enjoy recruiting for them.

Sometimes, ‘Yes’ Is Right

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I survey the jungle that an internal recruiter is describing to me and can spot an opportunity others have missed: a lone candidate waving desperately from the smoking wasteland all around them. Looking at a brief in its detail, and the real requirements of a role -– rather than just job title and headlines — can allow you to suss out the real meat of a requirement to find the pearl hidden within.

I once took on a role for a company who had employed six different recruiters before me to fill the position. All had failed. I could see why! The role required an almost ridiculous mix of skills and experience. Not the proverbial ‘juggling elephant’ — as in fact ‘juggling elephants’ are probably more common! — but a combination that was unlikely to be found by conventional thought or search techniques. Yet I could see a route which was perhaps, just perhaps, a way to go. I suggested this to the hiring manager in our first conversation, emphasizing there was no guarantee my idea would work. I was willing to give it a go for a short period, and report back. I did, and by chance I found a suitable candidate who was hired.

‘No’ Makes You Wanted

So bully for me! Well as we all know there is always some luck about these things, but the wider point is that by being open and honest with my hiring manager, as well as showing some creativity of thought, even if I hadn’t filled the role I am pretty sure he would have come back to me for others. I stood out from the crowd.

In either case the point is the same. Trust your instincts and back your integrity as a recruiter. Build trust and respect by having the guts to say, “You know what? This is not something I can do.” I actually have a client recommendation stating how much they value this quality in me! Saying ‘No’ can result in more successful business than saying ’Yes’ to everything that passes your way. Yes, you will lose some business in the short term, but in the long run you will build more, based on your reputation as an honest expert in your chosen field.

So next time you are surveying that smoking wasteland just described to you by the company internal recruiter, do yourself a favor and distinguish yourself from all the other recruiters who are scrambling around on the jungle floor for all the peanuts they can eat, and say, “Thanks but no thanks.” Trust me, sometimes it really is good business to turn business down.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!