Why recruiters are vague when contacting you

Amsterdam on King’s Day

I read a letter this week on Ask a Manager, one of my favorite career-advice blogs, and wanted to throw in my two cents. The topic was “Why Don’t Recruiters Send Me Any Information on the Jobs They’re Recruiting Me For?”

I had to chuckle in recognition; I’ve seen a lot of this in my almost-decade in recruiting. I find it fascinating how mysterious people find the job-hunting process,* as if there’s a single secret code to crack in order to win. But then recruiters do stuff like this, or refuse to even acknowledge important topics like salary, and I’m reminded why people are mystified.

Alison, the writer of Ask a Manager, and her excellent commentariat covered some common explanations for this recruiter behavior.

1. It gives employers leverage in negotiating salaries

It’s straightforward: when recruiters keep candidates in the dark about the salary range for a position, it’s easier to lowball at offer time. It’s slimy and un-transparent, but also practically the default approach to salary negotiations. Employers know they have the advantage in negotiations when they have more information than the candidates. The hope is that candidates will worry about pricing themselves out of a job and ask for or accept less than their market value.

I’m not a fan of this practice and find it risky for retention: even if you can hire someone below market, they’re likely to piece together that they’re underpaid once they’re on board. At best, they’ll demand a raise, and at worst, they’ll go find something better, leaving the employer right back where they started: short-staffed and with the added insult of the time and money wasted on hiring and training. This approach is exploitative and shady, but also short-sighted when it comes to retention.

2. Recruiters are “phone people” rather than “email people”

Vague reach-outs from recruiters usually happen on LinkedIn, email, or similar, with the goal of getting the candidate on the phone. The theory is that this is because recruiters are more phone-oriented than writing-oriented. There are a couple reasons for this beyond recruiters’ personal preference.

One is practical: recruiters are discouraged from putting too much (e.g. salary range) in writing, lest a candidate try to hold them to it later. But the main reason is that recruiters are salespeople. Recruiters want to get you on the phone because they know that it’s easier to sell you once you’ve built rapport. When you talk to a recruiter, they become a real person capable of persuading you, rather than a faceless message bot on LinkedIn.

These are both strong explanations for why a recruiter might be vague in their reach-outs. But there are other reasons** I thought could also be illuminating.

3. They’re expected to “build pipeline”

In industries with high-volume hiring (like manufacturing) or where hiring is cyclical (like consulting), openings often come in batches, rather than individually. Recruiters prepare for future batches by rounding up candidates before there’s a concrete opening—that is, building a candidate pipeline—through job postings, LinkedIn, referrals, and so forth.

It’s also not uncommon for a recruiter to get pressure from leadership or salespeople to “have a pipeline,” regardless of the hiring need. The pipeline approach works fine if it’s customary in your industry; for instance, consultants in my industry want to be in several recruiters’ databases so they can get contacted when work pops up.

But in non-project-based work, like permanent corporate roles (think Staff Accountant or HR Manager), this can be a weird, confusing experience for candidates. Most candidates reasonably expect to be contacted about real job openings. If a recruiter gets in touch and the details are fuzzy, candidates can feel like their time is being wasted, or worse, that they’re being conned.

So while it might make a hiring manager feel less anxious if there are lots of “people in the pipeline,” they may not realize that being vague with candidates risks damaging the company’s reputation as an employer. Business networks are surprisingly small and candidates talk to each other. You don’t want your reputation to be, “Oh, ABC Corp? They’re not worth your time. They just spam you with fake jobs.” Even if that’s not the whole picture, perception is everything when it comes to employer brand.

4. They have quotas

At pure staffing firms, recruiters typically work on commission, which they earn via placements of an employee/temp/consultant with a client. Staffing is a probability game: the more candidates in your pipeline, the likelier you are to find a match and make a placement when a need comes up, so keeping a broad pipeline can be an effective strategy.

In other firms, though, recruiters have metrics down to how many calls to make per day (sounds awful, right?). So insisting you get on the phone with them can be just to meet their call quota. Is that a good candidate experience for you? Of course not. Do they risk burning a bridge? Yep. But churn-and-burn seems to be the chosen approach for these firms.

5. They’re working with insufficient information

Recruiters often get orders to go out and find people when the role they’re searching for is a work in progress, isn’t fully approved, or might become a need down the line. Similar to the “have a pipeline” expectation, this largely functions to make hiring managers feel better. But unless the job posting becomes concrete within a few weeks, savvy candidates will write it off and move on. The candidates you want tend to be those you can’t hang onto for long: they’ll get scooped up by another company, or if passively searching, opt to stay put. Don’t blow your chances by contacting them prematurely.

Why this matters

I frequently remind recruiters and hiring managers that the hiring process is the beginning of someone’s employee experience with your company. It doesn’t start on their first day; it started at first contact, usually with a recruiter. If you want to hire and retain good people, don’t bungle the beginning of the relationship with crappy communication. Hire with retention in mind (stay tuned for a post on this).

In a job market where everyone is struggling to fill openings, hiring managers and recruiters can get transactional in their thinking: I just need to fill this position and move onto the next thing. But hiring someone is the start of your working relationship and not just an item on your to-do list, so treat it with care.

What companies can do better

1. Be transparent about compensation and benefits from the outset

You don’t have to reveal your whole hand and hurt your competitive advantage with other firms, but candidates are likelier to respond if you include a starting salary range when contacting them or posting a job. Don’t be naive; people work for a living. If you can’t be competitive with salary but offer strong benefits, sell yourself on that from the beginning. And don’t cheat people. They’re going to be working with you every day, remember?

2. Listen to your recruiters

If they tell you it doesn’t make sense to have 35 candidates lined up for a single opening “just in case,” trust that they understand the market and hiring conventions for that particular position. Don’t risk turning off potential candidates by being shifty with details in the early hiring stages.

3. Get your act together before asking a recruiter to contact candidates

Know your compensation range and what of it the recruiter can share with candidates, benefits the position is eligible for, the important skills qualifications needed for the job and a summary of the key duties (if you don’t have a fully baked job description yet), and a desired start date. People will be more receptive to your recruiters’ reach-outs if you share these important details upfront. Or they may use them to self-select out, saving everyone involved a lot of time. It’s much better to get a “no” from a candidate early on than to have them back out as a finalist because the job isn’t what they thought it would be.

*An important caveat that applies to this entire piece: I’m talking within the context of professional/office jobs broadly within business. Different industries and job types will have different conventions, so my explanations might not apply to everything.

**This article had a good number of comments, so I may have missed it if one of these was in there. Forgive me if that’s the case.

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