The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The next time you get together with friends try mentioning offhandedly, “Did you know that half of all people are below average?” Unless your friends are a cynical bunch I’ll bet that, partially at least, one or two of them will begin to argue with you. The truth is, there are good and bad people in any profession; doctors, lawyers, teachers and…recruiters.

This piece will sort recruiters into three general groups and show you how to identify which one a particular recruiter belongs to: The Good, The Bad, or The Ugly.

The Bad

Like people in any undertaking from sports, to music, to cooking, 50% of recruiters are below average. This group usually doesn’t have very much experience or very good training. They typically work for very large recruiting firms who spend as much time trying to keep their own desks filled as they do trying to fill search assignments for companies. These recruiting firms gather up as many job openings as they can, and then post them online. They give the resumes that come in a cursory glance to make sure that they are at least somewhat qualified. Then they fire them off en masse to the hiring company. They are sending out as many resumes as they can to as many places as possible in the hope that something might stick. There isn’t a whole lot of personal contact between the recruiter and you the candidate. In fact, these guys are often referred to as point and click recruiters. The percentage of search assignments they actually fill is quite small.

The good news for job seekers is that these guys are mostly harmless because you can tell they aren’t very sharp just by talking to them. You will also see their companies posting dozens of jobs all over the web. They should be pretty easy to avoid.

The Ugly

Another 25% of recruiters are journeymen. They have a bit more experience. Journeymen can sound pretty knowledgeable but are really living from placement to placement or very close to it. Since they are always desperate for the next deal to close they may be less scrupulous. These guys can be downright dangerous to your career and for that reason I’ll spend more time discussing them.

Most journeymen have a decent understanding of the recruiting process, they just aren’t that good at it. Others may have a history of integrity problems, which has led to an ever-shrinking circle of clients and candidates who will work with them. One of the main ways that journeymen are able to talk a company into giving them a search is to offer to work at a discount to recruiters’ usual rates. For this reason, they are often referred to as “Discount Daves.”  The hallmark of a Discount Dave is that once he secures a search assignment, he can’t fill the job. After a company goes through this once or twice they begin to realize that a discount doesn’t mean very much if they can’t get their jobs filled. Typically, this means that a journeyman doesn’t have many long-term clients or much repeat business. This leads them to be constantly on the lookout for the next company that has never worked with or heard of them before.

They also tend to work with companies that don’t treat their own people very well. Most strong recruiters won’t take those companies on as clients, which allows the Discount Daves to sell their services with very little competition. This becomes one of their prime business areas.

This propensity to work with the worst companies actually helps us identify when a recruiter is a Discount Dave. When a recruiter comes to you with an opportunity at a company that you know that nobody wants to work for, it should cause you to raise an eyebrow. The first time this happens, it shouldn’t cause you to back away from a recruiter. Companies can change but usually only if new senior management is brought in. Find out if that is the case. However, if the same recruiter comes to you with more than two or three toxic companies and is trying to polish up these bad apples so that you don’t notice the worms – watch out! He’s probably a Discount Dave. He will be more than happy to shine you on and put you in a crappy job for a quick buck. He gets to pay his bills for the month but he has severely damaged his reputation with you. Presumably you and everyone you know will avoid working with him in the future. His slow downward spiral continues.

Another common trait of Discount Daves is that they will aggrandize their meager accomplishments and overpromise what they can do. If a recruiter promises you the sun, the moon and the stars – Look out! He’s probably a Discount Dave.

The Good

25% of recruiters are very professional. They have long and successful careers in the recruiting business. They maintain high ethical standards and are focused on building long-term relationships with both clients and candidates. The best recruiters tend to be very experienced and work at small boutique search firms. They usually specialize in very tight niches and are experts in their fields. They will be open, honest, and seek to set reasonable expectations. Strong recruiters know that every good relationship leads to more good relationships. They represent good companies that treat their people well because, after all, they’re in the sales business. They’d prefer to sell a good product that’s easy to sell. These are the recruiters you should seek out and actively maintain a good relationship with. They can open doors for you in your career that you wouldn’t otherwise know about. They will provide sound and reasonable advice rather than just telling you what you want to hear.

Sorting Them Out

“Okay, I get it. There are the Studs, the Duds, and the Downright Dangerous. How do I tell them apart?” What follows are a few steps you can take. Not one of these is foolproof and a recruiter shouldn’t be automatically disqualified by just one of them. However, if you are thorough and two or more red flags start going up it’s probably time to start backing away.

  • Look at their LinkedIn profile: All recruiters have them. If they have a sketchy work history – a year here, two years there and so forth, especially at big national firms, they are probably one of “the Bad.” “The Good” will have solid work histories at one or two but certainly not more than three search firms. “Discount Daves” can be either or anything in between. This isn’t an especially good way to weed them out.
  • Be an Active Listener: If they don’t really seem to know what they are talking about it’s pretty easy to identify them as one of “The Bad.” “The Ugly” will often puff up their accomplishments, oversell their abilities, and try to come across as all things to all people. They will tell you what you want to hear. “The Good” will be open and honest but won’t make spectacular promises. They will try to set reasonable expectations.
  • Ask Them Who Their Clients Are: All recruiters may be reluctant to reveal their client list but if they tell you – “The Bad” may be stymied. They may not even know. If they can give you an answer it might be only vague generalities. “The Ugly” may be reluctant to tell you who they work with but if they give you an actual list it will usually be quite unimpressive. They can be tricky though because just as they aggrandize themselves they have no problem stretching the truth about their client list. A company they worked with once three years ago but were unable to fill the search may become “a client.” “The Good” may also be reluctant to give out a client list but if they do so will generally do it without a lot of fanfare. Personally I just read the company names of the top of our most recent invoices.
  • Check Them Out Using Their Sources and Yours: This is by far the most important step you should take, but it can be a little tricky so let’s go through it. We’ll go over both who you shouldn’t talk to and who you should:


Some people have come up with all sorts of reasons for not liking recruiters. One group doesn’t really understand what the recruiting business is about. They think that recruiters exist to “get them a job.” In fact, recruiters work for hiring companies (the guys who pay them) and are retained to provide them with the best possible candidate pool. Then it is their job to facilitate the interviewing process and guide the company in securing the services of the candidates that they choose. I regularly have candidates email me attaching six of the jobs we have posted on our website, telling me: “I’m perfect for all of these.” The “always perfect” can get upset when they don’t make it into a final candidate pool. They want the recruiter to “throw my hat in the ring” for every job that they are marginally qualified for. However, a recruiter’s clients want him to narrow the field and only send the best possible candidates.

Then there’s “Amy in Marketing” who is the type of person who just hates communicating. She may say, “They’re always calling and bothering me. I never talk to them!” One wonders how many career opportunities have passed her by. Neither of these groups are the people you should be checking out a recruiter with. They are likely to have unkind things to say about most or even all recruiters. The people whose opinions you should value are those that have actually worked together with a recruiter as a real candidate on a search.


First, let the recruiter know what companies you’ve worked for. Unless you’ve only worked for very small or obscure companies, a strong recruiter should be able to give you a list of references of current and former co-workers and colleagues that you can check them out with. Don’t stop there. Talk to people in your network. Some of these may only know the recruiter by reputation. The ones you really want to pay attention to are the ones who have actually worked closely with the recruiter as a candidate or a client. Dig deep. Even a Discount Dave can get a couple of people to say nice things about them. However, if you’re consistently hearing good things from a lot of different people, the recruiter you are checking out is probably your guy.

So to wrap up – find yourself a top recruiter in your field. Listen actively to what he’s saying – is he is the real deal? Check them out thoroughly using his sources and yours. When you identify a good one, cultivate and maintain a good relationship. That’s a two-way street. A good relationship with a strong recruiter can benefit you greatly. It will bring you more career opportunities than you would otherwise know about. You will be able to pick choose which ones you are interested in. By shrewdly taking on the best jobs offered, your career will gather momentum and begin to snowball. A strong recruiter can act as a catalyst in this process. But please, qualify first. Marginal recruiters can be hazardous to your health, your wealth, and your career – Beware the Discount Daves!

Tom Keoughan ©2016