#31: Recruitment - Working with agencies

This episode is part of a recruitment mini-series; where I will be focusing on various characteristics that I believe are important in recruitment. And while I believe many of these themes are universal, I will, of course, be focusing on software development.

In this episode, I talk about working with recruitment agencies.

For better or worse, most software development recruitment is undertaken through agencies. While it is possible, and desirable, to attract potential employees directly, most organisations are not appropriately placed for this.

In this episode, I talk about how I engage with agencies for best effect - as well as touch on some longer-term activities that can help to reduce your reliance on them.

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Published: Wed, 04 Mar 2020 16:52:12 GMT


For this episode, I'm going to assume you've got that briefing document to hand that I recommend in episode 29. If not, I'd recommend listening to that episode first.

Let's start with the age-old question; how many agencies should I use?

I recommend working with a single agency for any given role.

Working with a single agency is likely to be at odds with common practice.

I remember being encouraged to spread the net far and wide by a previous boss; the expectation was that the more agencies working the network, the quicker we'd fill the role.

I find the benefit of working with a single agency is that they can take their time and do a thorough job – rather than having to rush candidates through the process.

When more than one agency is in place, you find that you will receive poorly screened CVs through to make sure they get first "dibs".

I acknowledge that this would seem like a slower approach than casting a wider net.

In practice, however, I have found most agencies to have access to similar tools.

Most agencies have a mature candidate database.

Most agencies have local knowledge.

All agencies have access to all the standard job board tools.

Rarely have I found candidates "exclusive" to an agency.

I've also had to walk away from the right candidate previously because two agencies lay claim to them.

The agencies refused to agree who had approached the candidate and engaged them first. So ultimately, no matter how good the candidate looked on paper, it was impossible to progress them.

So how do you tell if an agency is going to work for you?

I'd certainly approach multiple agencies with the brief and get them to feedback on how they would approach.

But, be crystal clear upfront that they should not approach potential candidates until you have officially offered them the role to fill.

This stage is about making sure you are dealing with an agency that is engaged and fully understand what you are after.

If, after providing the briefing document, you don't feel they are on the same wavelength – then start to be concerned. You want to be confident that the agency is going to look for the right candidates and represent you appropriately in the market.

It can be very damaging to your organisation's brand if an agency behaves poorly in the market in your name.

Unfortunately, it is a fact of life, like every industry, poor agencies do exist.

And you need to avoid turning off good candidates by using one with a poor reputation.

There are agencies that I will refuse to deal with because of this.

From those multiple agencies, you want to narrow it down to a single agency.

So how do you tell if the agency is going to work for you?

First off, don't choose an agency based on rate.

Be very cautious of "beating" an agency rate down too low. You want to incentivise them to give you the best candidates – not another local organisation who is paying them 5% more.

As much as I'd like to see agencies as relationship led, they do have financial drivers. And those drivers are easy enough to understand - they need to place candidates to generate their finders fee.

Ultimately it is a commission led activity.

And any commission led activity will prioritising their focus where they feel like they are most likely to make that placement.

Where possible I'd recommend vetting the agency using your existing developers.

If the agency is unable to be convincing and engaging with your existing developers, what chance have they got to recruit for you in the market appropriately?

Get them to sit with the development team and allow the development team to question them about how they would approach the recruitment and engage great candidates.

I'd look at what outreach and value add work an agency carries out.

I've seen agencies investing in local technical meetups - even if only paying for the pizza and beers. While they will use the events to build their network, it still encourages local community growth which is great.

I've also seen agencies preparing briefing documents on relevant upcoming market changes.

There is a significant change coming in April regarding UK Contracting rules. Changes that shift certain tax liabilities from the contractor to the client. Its a fairly complex subject. And one with a real danger of being overlooked.  

I've seen superb work from some agencies around this.  

I've seen some excellent example of helping both their clients and contractors to prepare for the changes.

Again, there will also be a network-building opportunity for them in this. Still, it does help to provide a better industry.

Ultimately telling which agencies are good, come down to working with them.

The best agencies can be the ones that simply tell you it isn't going to happen.

When you go out to an agency, and they tell you it won't be possible, then that's a good sign they understand their market well.

I remember approaching an agency once with a rather ambitious set of requirements. I freely admitted what it was a rather unicorn role and likely to be challenging to fill.

The response I got back was that this wasn't a unicorn.

It was four unicorns strapped together.

It wasn't going to happen.

And that was probably the best feedback I could have received on the role. Rather than chasing a mythical creature, we could adjust to what was practically going to be available in the market at that time.

So what if you don't want to use agencies?

It depends on how much time you have.

I'd advise building your brand in the development industry, which should help you have a pipeline of great candidates knocking at your door.  

But if you haven't, in my personal experience, I'd recommend using an agency.

I've tried to use job board and advertising directly previously. I've received a feeble response for what can be quite a time-consuming activity.

I've not tried more direct marketing activities such as LinkedIn jobs or targeted ads on software developer websites.

I'd leave that sort of activity to the professional agencies that have the experience to use them.

I wanted to finish this episode with a brief discussion on branding.

Recruitment is a sales activity.

And with any sales activity, having a great brand is going to make your life so much easier.

Wouldn't it be great to have quality developers contacting you because they love what you do?

And that is where a killer brand can help.

Things to consider:

  • What do your developers say about you and your organisation?
  • Are you contributing to open source?
  • Are you working with charities, schools, or universities?
  • Are you engaging in local technical user groups (proving speakers, running hackathons, funding pizza & beer)

There is a good chance that your developers are already out in the community.

Giving them support can go a long way to building a brand, a brand that will appeal to other developers.

While it can be a considerable investment to build a brand, providing the right support to your developers will allow it to grow organically.

It does matter what your current people say about your organisation.

It is likely as you grow your brand, you will find that the results from the agencies improve. This is a cumulative effect of the agencies work, and you having a great brand.

So even if you don't get to a point where developers are beating a path to your door, then having a great brand will have a positive affect.

In this episode, I've talked about working with agencies.

I think most of us see agencies as a necessary evil. And while, like any industry, there are poor agencies out there - hopefully the advice in this podcast will help you engage with the better ones.

I've also talked about how your organisation's brand is both a potential source of candidates and a multiplier to agency work.