When the Agent Asks

On this page we will list some common questions IT contractors will get from agents, each of which is an indication that the agent does not have a job for you or is trying to cheat you out of money.

We will grow the list over time.

When the Agent Asks For…

…a couple of references.

Very few firms will ask for references for short-term IT contract jobs. Where they do it is generally a legal requirement (such as in some areas of finance, for example) which they will treat in confidence and you will send direct to their HR. They will never ask for them before an interview.

The reasons for firms not requiring references for short-term workers are straight-forward and simple to understand: If they asked for references every time they interview somebody for a three-month contract, they will also have to give references for all of their former contractors’ next couple of dozen job applications once the job is over. This could prove very costly.

There is a second more insidious reason for firms not asking for references. Most recruitment agencies describe the number of CVs in their database as “contractors on our books“, giving their clients the false impression that they know these contractors and have sent them out on previous jobs in the past. The reality is that the only prior contact the agent has had with the contractors they submit derives from the job-ad they just cut and pasted into a job-board on behalf of their clients.

A third reason is that contractors are not actually employed by the clients and there is no obligation on the client to give a potentially problematic reference for somebody who was not one of their employees. Only the agencies that have placed us are obliged to give references, assuming we signed employment contracts with them, but they know nothing about the jobs we do and it would be a conflict of interests for them to refer us to their own competitors.

So when an agent tells you that you have to give the agency references he or she is either lying to you or has been lied to herself by her superior. All they want is the name and contact details of people who have hired you in the past. Once they have these they will not be calling you again, but they will be cold-calling your former managers poncing for headcount on a regular basis.

You should end the conversation immediately. If there was a real job there the agent will drop the request for references just as quickly.

…the names of other places you’ve applied

If you are asked this question hang up. If you must maintain politeness then simply end the call giving no more information other than you are ending the call. This agent is treating you like a fool. The only reason she or he has called you is because they figure that if you’re looking for work with them, you’re probably looking elsewhere as well. They want to find out where that “elsewhere” is so that they can put up their own candidates against you. Some agents will even slander you to places you’ve applied, further increasing the chances of their candidate getting the job.

They will tell you that “we need to know so that we don’t submit you to a place you’ve already applied to and spoil your chances“. Which is horseshit. Do they really think you are going to allow them to re-submit you to somewhere you’ve already applied? They cannot submit you anywhere without first telling you where it is and obtaining your permission. So on the one hand they are asking you to tell them where else you’ve applied, and on the other treating you as being so stupid that you don’t know where you’ve applied. There’s no talking your way into a better situation with these types. They are out to cheat you, so you need to cut the call as quickly as you can and blacklist them.

Occasionally you will find that you’ve applied for the same role with two different agencies, one of which has already put you forward before the second one calls. In this situation you should be careful about how you withdraw from the second agency. Under no circumstances tell them, “I’ve already applied for that with another agency, sorry“. If you do then you’ve put yourself into the position described above and this agent may now undermine your chances in favour of their own candidates.

It’s better to withdraw gracefully, for example by telling the agent that you don’t think this really sounds what you’re looking for and you’ve decided not to proceed. Or tell her you’ll let her know by tea-time, then call back and say you already got offered a job somewhere else.

The thing to always keep in mind is to never give a recruiter any more information than their client needs to know.

…confirmation that you have a skill that’s listed on your CV

The trend nowadays is for agencies to have school-leavers manning the phones and these will frequently be the first ones you get to speak to. These guys cannot verify if you have a skill that you’ve put on your CV by asking you questions about it because they have no idea what it is. A 19 year-old whose previous employment record consists of a summer job jockeying a cash-register in a department store is unlikely to be able to judge, for example, your depth of knowledge of object-oriented design patterns.

She will essentially have a list of requirements in front of her, and your CV has come up as matching those requirements. Without understanding a single word of what she is talking about, she is going to go through her list and ask you “Do you have ABC?“, “Do you have DEF“, all the way through to “Do you have XYZ“. Even though she has that information right in front of her on your CV. For an indication of how such conversations can fail read our article Senior Engineer Interview Skills.

So just say “yes” to everything she asks and she’ll be all happy and will pass you on to her supervisor who will at least know what “IT” stands for, if nothing else, and more importantly will be the one who has the decision making authority. If you’ve been working the job for more than a decade, however, a potential recruiter who inists that you submit to being vetted by a workfare recipient before he will speak to you is best avoided.

…your bottom line

One trick that recruitment agents will frequently use is to try to get you to negotiate a price before you even know what the job involves. Indeed, many of them will threaten not to put you forward if you don’t agree to an up-front price. Naturally they will work to make this price as low as they can possibly get it. If you give them your bottom-line that will become the the most you will get out of them, but they will expect you to cut it by another 10% if you actually get offered the job.

One way to handle this kind of premature haggling is to agree only to a target rate “subject to terms and conditions“. That way you are free to renegotiate the rate if the contract contains any terms and conditions that you were not previously made aware of, which it will.

The best way is to not discuss a specific price prior to interview. You give the agent a range that you expect and say that you will negotiate a final figure only when you know all the details of the job and the terms and conditions (i.e. when there is a contract on offer). If the job is paying below your range there is no point the agent submitting you.

More to come….

Are you an IT contractor? Are you sick and tired of agency scams, off-shoring, and body-shoppers? Let us know what pisses you off in confidence.

Banner image adapted from Man dressed as a spiv. Credit to Supermac1961 for sharing.