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The Recruitment Rumour Mill

By October 17, 20135 Comments

We all know that recruitment is a lot trickier and fraught with pitfalls than originally appears on the surface.  It’s why you will spend many days over the coming summer hearing stories around various BBQ’s that anyone can do recruitment and why is it we charge so much for our services?  The thing is that we work with two moving targets, both of which are constantly changing their minds and their stories.

Recruiting recruiters, as I do, is particularly paved with banana skins.  As moving targets themselves (ie. a recruiter who is looking for a new job) these are candidates who know all the tricks of the trade already.  They know what I want to hear, what my client wants to hear, and how the process will run.  They know that when it comes to references (that is if references are taken – not very often according to Greg Savage’s surprising revelation this week), that the referee is going to need to say all the right things, and so particular referees are duly chosen and appointed by the candidate on that basis.

But this isn’t often very helpful to me, who is trying to assess the veracity of a recruiter’s claims.  I am frequently regaled with lines such as:

“I was the top biller at my last firm” (real meaning: I was the highest Perm biller in the month of July 2012 which was followed by two Zero months as I had forced all of my placements through in July and the pipeline dried up)


“I built the desk from scratch and have no fear of business development” (real meaning: I joined at just the right time, the firm had won a place on a large new PSA and I was given a new vertical within that contract, and when Hermione left to join an internal recruitment team I was given all her warm clients who I had to call and introduce myself to)


“I am definitely leaving, if you get me an offer, and won’t listen to any kind of counter offers” (real meaning: I want you to work your ass off to present me the highest level offer you can so that I have some extra large tools to leverage a wage rise out of my existing employer)


So…what to do?  Well all of you experienced recruiters out there know well and good about the “off-the-record” chats.  It’s a small industry here in New Zealand and really is pretty impossible to fudge or hide truths.  Once your network is wide enough it’s easy to augment official probity checks such as employment references, credit checks and psych tests with the slightly shadier practice of getting the opinion of people not officially provided by the candidate.

None of you will openly admit to doing it, but it is often the only way to make sure your time as a recruiter isn’t wasted, and the money of your client possibly squandered on a dud.

The problem is that we in recruitment just love a good gossip.  And often the more salacious and negative, the better, sadly.  The Recruitment Grapevine is veritably bursting with succulent bouquets of rumour, tittle-tattle and scuttlebutt.  The likelihood of a recruitment boss having anything good to say about a well-performing recruiter who left them with ill feeling is very rare indeed.  Recruitment is an emotional business and those brave enough to run their own firms wear their hearts on their sleeves.  It makes consulting this grapevine trickier than usual.

But this week was a first.  Have any of you had this one before?  I received an application to one of my jobs directly through my website.  There was no CV attached, just a cover letter that read:


xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx was managed out of [well-known software company] for poor performance and an external consultant (former GM of HR @ xxxxx) was hired to manage him out.

That was it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The accused in question hadn’t even registered with our agency anyway.  But I wonder, if he had, would we be brave enough to dismiss this and work on the candidate anyway?  Certainly an extensive amount of background checking would need to arise out of this innovative rumour-spreading technique.  Maybe too much to warrant spending the time on the candidate when more easily-placeable, safe bet, candidates might be about.

Come on, be honest with me now.  How much faith do you place in officially garnered reference checks and psych tests over the “off-the-record” information you gather from your own personal networks?  I think I know the truth, but I welcome your comments all the same.

Jonathan Rice

MD at New Zealand rec-to-rec firm Rice Consulting and co-founder of on-demand recruiter offering Joyn. Recruitment agitator and frustrated idealist, father of two, husband of one, and lover of all things Arsenal and crafty beer.


  • Greg says:

    In the UK, the clients took references and and all other clients are willing to offer is: ’we can confirm XXXX worked here during these dates and left of their own volition’ – anything beyond that and its too subjective and leads to abuse – off the record or not you give a bad reference and you can (quite rightly) end up in court.

    There was a recent plotline in the TV show ‘The Newsroom’ where an employee who was fired put down a producer ON PURPOSE as a referee knowing it would be bad just so he could use it as further fuel his lawsuit for wrongful dismissal.

    I think its extremely unfair to expect recruitment consultants to take references – it leaves us open to accusations and at the end of the day the employee isn’t going to be working with us – if I was an employer I would be picking up the phone myself and having the ‘off the record’ conversations’.

    Anyway great blog – best recruitment blog I’ve read all week.

  • G says:

    In my years of recruitment I have only insisted a client pull an offer on two occasions based on refs (both very funny but not for a public forum). I’ve often received caveats which you dutifully pass on but I don’t recall any clients then pulling the offer based on these refs.

    If I don’t know somebody I’ll always seek an off-the-record ref, if recruiters aren’t using this channel I’d suggest they are missing a trick. I couldn’t recall just how many candidates I’ve pulled from being put forward for a role based on these. The biggest frustration is not being able to fully pass on positive information and sources gained from ‘off-the-record’ channels.

    I do recall one client equating recruiters taking references as asking Turkeys to vote for Christmas.

    Formal refs, in practical terms, add virtually nothing useful to making ‘best recruitment decisions’ for the client. They contribute to the ‘perception’ of work/value of recruiters. They are also a great new sales avenue so perhaps we shouldn’t grumble.

  • Leigh says:

    A comprehensive reference check, done well, with the right referee can be very useful. A bad reference check, done with the wrong referee can be absolutely useless. However sadly I can give an example of an instance when hiring a recruiter for our business, where formal references meant nothing. In this case good references were provided by good referees. This didn’t make a bit of difference when the recruiter in question was convicted of two counts of fraud last year and sentenced to six month’s home detention. (The $3,000 we spent in getting the case investigated before we lodged it with the police was money well spend, both for ourselves and the recruitment industry.)

    Having recently met an earlier employer of this recruiter (two steps prior to ourselves), I now know that there may have been information available that could have protected us.

    So does this mean that I can rely on the informal grapevine? No. Can I rely on formal references? Not all the time. As a result I am now very consciously looking at the trend of their tenure in prior employment. I have come to the conclusion that if any consultant is spending less than 18 months, in one or more agencies, then I cannot be confident that they have been a success in that agency. I believe that at the professional end of the market it takes that long to build a good reputation and become a trusted advisor to clients. And if they were meeting that benchmark, why would they move on?

    On another point, if I am asked for a reference of anyone who has worked for me I can assure you that I take it very seriously. It is my responsibility to act with integrity and fairness to all parties. As an industry we need to demonstrate that we ‘walk the talk’. Negative gossip only reflects badly on ourselves. Also how can we advise our clients on the value of formal references when our industry acts unprofessionally in this way or negates recommended best practice.

  • People within your trusted networks should give you honest information. As mentioned by Leigh, the wrong referee can be useless and eventually cost you a lot of time and money. I’m not a recruiter but know that LinkedIn and Google can be a good way to cross-check information. Online tools are a wonderful thing . . .