Five bad incentives recruiters have and what job seekers can do about it

Iwan Gulenko
11 min readDec 27, 2020


When there is big money involved and little chance of getting caught, people do immoral things. As a recruiter, I am often faced with such a dilemma. In over five years in this business, I wasn’t honest or ethical all the time.

When I use the term “recruiter” I refer to a so-called recruitment agent whose only job is to connect job-seekers and companies. This is what I do at

I will tell you all the (bad) incentives recruiters have, what usually happens as a result, and how you can make the best of it as a job seeker.

1. Actual understanding of who is hired vs. keyword matching

Good recruiter: Before we start to recruit, let’s say, for a senior Java developer role, we first try to understand what the job entails, and what the needed skills and frameworks are. We need to understand that the best programmers are actually programming language agnostic.

We need to find out what motivates candidates going from one company to another and what our client companies offer to them.

Ideally, we have a somewhat relevant background (for instance, I worked as a coder before) and if we don’t, we research to prepare ourselves so as not to waste the candidates’ time.

If someone asks “Does the team you are hiring for use CI/CD?”, we know the answer, and if we don’t, we tell the candidate that we will find out and get back to them. Although we are super busy, we actually do follow up because we understand that a pissed candidate is a lost candidate. We talk to our client firm, get the question answered, and send it back to the candidate swiftly. Our clients trust us to engage with their developers because we’d never headhunt from our client base.

Bad recruiter: Our boss needs us to make commissions as fast as possible. If we don’t perform, we get fired. We don’t have time to deeply understand the roles we recruit for. Moreover, we now have “AI” that matches keywords from job adverts directly to profiles on Linkedin, so why bother?

If we get difficult questions from candidates, we either lie (“of course they have CI/CD!”) or claim that we will find out the answer, but we never do due to three reasons, each one worse than the last: 1. We forget about it, 2. We are too lazy to do it, and 3. We don’t even know whom to ask at our client’s team: We barely have any contact with them, and they’d never let us talk to the technical people anyway because they are scared we will snatch their developers.

2. Real vs. fantasy job adverts

Good recruiter: We send you two to three fitting jobs with firms that we know well and work with for years. With our clients, we either have a retained or very close commission-based relationship. Retained means that they prepay us before we even start working. Commission-based means that they pay on successful “placement” only. Either way, we are constantly in the loop of what is going on in the company, which roles are most urgent to fill, which are passive, the firm’s overall (financial) situation, and the types of people who work there.

Often, we get told details that are too sensitive to be put on a public job advert, like salary ranges or the actual reason why they are hiring (e.g., to replace someone who should be let go). We visit the firm’s office regularly or at least once before the search, and hence we have an idea of how it is to work there.

We give you, the candidate, all the needed details either in an email, a chat, or a call, whatever you prefer. After we made sure all your questions are answered, we compile a full profile about you based on your wishes and send it over to our long-term client companies.

Bad recruiter: We cold-call you and refuse to communicate in any other way, because we need your full attention when it fits us best. After all, we need to call ~50 other people today to fill our “calling quota”. (Our boss bases our performance on how long we are in calls.)

Here an extreme story from a friend who had to talk to a recruiter while on the toilet. If you are very sensitive maybe don’t read this:

A friend allowed me to share their recruiter experience.

We, bad recruiters, present you several dozen “fitting jobs” at companies that somewhat agreed via email that they might look at our candidates but never gave us a proper briefing besides sending a link to the public job adverts. We have no clue about how it is to work there because all information we have is the same available to anyone online.

With some vacancies that we send you, it is even worse: They aren’t actually client companies. Yes, you read that right, we advertise jobs that we don’t even know whether they exist. We found those jobs using automated scraping web tools. Of course, some of the adverts are stale, but we still pitch them to you and waste your time because it might mean a placement to us.

If you like one of our client companies, we send your resume to them straight up, usually with minimal notes about you, which means there isn’t even an advantage working with us vs. applying on your own.

If the firm you like is from the list of “not-yet-clients”, it can go wild: Even if you tell us you are about to apply there on your own, we lie to you that they are a client so we can front-run your job search, and send your profile to them before you can. We may even lie to you later that they rejected you although we just didn’t get any reply to our cold-mail, evil right?

We send your resume to hundreds of firms at the same time with automated tools. Of course, we attach our terms and conditions in which we ask for money, should you be hired.

In the worst case, that means you either can’t apply on your own anymore to those firms because they think you agreed to work with us to find you a job or, in the best case, there will be some friction for you. Some firms put on their site explicitly “we don’t work with recruiters, resumes sent via cold email will be treated as direct applicants”, but since we rarely read job adverts, we either don’t see this or care. If they indeed treat you as a “direct applicant,” we have many other firms that will actually take our cold mail seriously and consider paying us. Our approach is similar to Viagra spam: As long as one recipient shows interest, we’re good. And hey, maybe the “spam method” (we call it “efficient business development”) will get you a job that actually is a great fit for you!

3. High vs. low client expectations

Good recruiter: Clients require us to assess each candidate we send for hard- and soft-skill fit. We need to explain to candidates what our clients do and what jobs they offer, and they find it more pleasant to talk to a human like us compared to reading a boring job advert. Some will refuse to interview with our clients. Sometimes with understandable reasons, at other times because they misunderstood something. We need to represent the companies we work with correctly but find out whether the candidate really does fit, but suffers from Imposter Syndrome. We need to be salesy but not pushy.

We see our job as making sure people who should talk to each other actually talk to each other.

After we send your profile to our clients, the firms review our extensive notes and your CV, and if they are interested, they directly contact you.

The commissions we get are 20% — 25% of the yearly salary, which our clients happily pay. Why? Our work includes lots of things not going anywhere. We do tons of work “for free”. Our fee is fair considering that a new hire generates enough revenue within the first month or two to cover our cost.

Our goal is to place the right person in the right job where they can stay long-term because a happy candidate and client are long-term ones.

Our clients work with maybe 2–3 recruiters maximum or sometimes even exclusively. When something goes unexpectedly wrong with our candidates, we give discounts because long-term relationships with clients are more valuable to us than instant money.

Bad recruiter: Some of our clients don’t mind that we send them resumes of job seekers who haven’t even agreed to interview. (We do as if we don’t know data protection regulations.) If the client firm is interested, they will tell us. Then, we cold-call and pressure candidates into agreeing to talk to the firm.

Since we use the “spray and pray” approach, we don’t need to have big sales skills, we use tools to send resumes around as efficiently and to as many companies as possible. Our commissions here are usually 15%-18%.

Our not-so-great clients also work with many recruiters, likely 20+, which drive down prices. The cheaper the better, they say. We don’t mind that our clients are in competition with one another, because almost all of them treat us badly. Our clients work with so many agencies that often the same candidates will be submitted by several recruiters, either at the same time or months apart. Then, there is often a fight about who gets the commission and the whole thing turns into a giant shit show, very often to the detriment of the candidate.

Our client companies tend to be less great places to work, too, so people often leave after a year or so. Then, we offer a new giant list of companies we can send the resume to because our client base changes so often.

4. Real vs. fake salary negotiation

Good recruiter: Dear candidate, we help you to not only know the salary ranges but we negotiate an offer with the client on your behalf or coach you on how to do it either by actively training you on the phone until you feel comfortable, or pointing you to relevant negotiation resources. If a client firm doesn’t match your compensation wishes, we are okay with your decision, because we know that pressure won’t get us anywhere. If you hate us, you won’t give us another chance to work with you or your friends in the future. Reputation is more important to us than an immediate placement.

Bad recruiter: We ask you to accept any offer, even a low one because all we want is to make a placement to get our commission. If you resist, we call you forty times a day and use evil sales pressure techniques to make you sign the new work contract. I mean, you might like the job after all, so why not “force you into your luck”. Our reputation can’t get any worse, so we have nothing to lose.

5. Communicating rejection reasons: Truths vs. lies

Good recruiter: When our client firm you interviewed with doesn’t at first give us the reason why you were rejected, we keep asking them until they do. We communicate the rejection reason to you in a professional and calm manner.

Bad recruiter: When you ask us why the firm rejected you, we won’t bother the client. We rather make something up, so you stop asking. This might make you think you suck in a certain area where you actually don’t, but we are too busy to care.

As a candidate, how to filter out bad recruiters?

You might now be thinking: “This all sounds like lots of trouble, I don’t want to work with recruiters”.

I understand your sentiment but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes recruiters point you to opportunities that you’d overlook otherwise, or even if you apply, you won’t get noticed unless you have someone’s “approval” stamp on your resume. (That is why personal recommendations work best to find a job but sometimes you lack personal contacts and need to find other ways to get noticed.)

Recruiters’ pre-assessments and notes can be helpful for two reasons: First, they prove that someone has checked basic facts about you, like whether you have a work permit and are really open to a new job (many people send around CVs for other reasons, for instance, because they are bored, yes, really). Second, without proper notes about yourself, you might not get the attention you deserve. I had several clients telling me:

Iwan, I wouldn’t have hired this candidate if it weren’t for your notes about them.

To find out whether you are working with a bad or with a good recruiter, ask them:

“How often have you met the firm you recruit for and what did they tell you that isn’t in the job advert?”

I recommend asking this in a call because it is harder for the recruiter to lie on a live call than via an asynchronous email. If they give an answer that doesn’t sound off, then you’re good to continue. You recognize a bad recruiter, if the answers are too wishy-washy — here examples:

Likely a bad recruiter: “I am in touch with the client over email.” *switching topics*

Likely a good recruiter: “I just was at their office and had a briefing with Mike, the hiring manager, he gave me a demo of their app, and I must say it has awesome UX. The salary range is X to Y. Are there any other specifics I can answer for you?”

If the answer is detailed and comes fast, you can go ahead. And there is one more thing you can do:

After you have given them the details about you and about which jobs you are looking for, let them repeat this back to you. This is to check if they understood what is important to you. If they fail to repeat what you told them, it means they failed to listen and won’t be able to represent you well to companies.

Great recruiters will by themselves — without being prompted for it — repeat back to you what you told them to double-check if they understood everything right.

As recruiters, our lives aren’t easy. When we are in the heat of the moment we often need to choose between the chance of making a lot of money with dubious means plus little chance of getting caught ( “oops, I thought they agreed that I send their CV around”), or leave money on the table by doing the right, long-term thing. The kind of action your mom will approve of and on which you will look back on your deathbed and think: “This was the right thing to do”. Often, sadly, immediate money is more appealing.


Bad recruiters aren’t necessarily bad humans. Bad behavior can be a reaction to candidates and companies treating them badly. Only the best recruiters can shake off past bad experiences and keep their behavior ethical with a new client or candidate albeit the previous ones screwed them. (How candidates and clients screw over recruiters is the topic for another blog post.)

Naval’s infamous Tweet said play long-term games with long-term people”. For the sake of your career, you need to understand who plays which game. I hope this article helps recruitment agencies, candidates, and clients to work better together.

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Originally published at on December 27, 2020.