Most people who become recruiters do not last. There are many reasons for that. Poor hiring decisions and inadequate training being high on the list.

But there is another key reason why so few people actually last in the hurly-burly world of agency recruiting.

It’s a frigging hard job!

So I know that sometimes you question why you do it. There are times you hate what you do. There are days you go home feeling deflated, worn-out and frankly, useless.

The world is littered with ‘ex-recruiters’, burnt out, scarred and resentful about their all-too-short recruiting career.

Seriously, the guy who cut my hair last week told me he had ‘been a recruiter once’.

It’s true too that being a recruiter can be the greatest job of all, but even so, to survive you have to know the pitfalls, prepare for them, minimise their impact where you can, and push through the inevitable challenges this job will throw you.

  • Recruiting is uniquely tough because it’s the only job that I know where what you are selling can turn around and say ‘no’. Think about it. I sell you my car. You agree to buy the car. I agree to sell the car. We agree a price. The car does not then jump up and say “Hey you know what, I am not going to go with this new guy”. Don’t laugh. That happens to recruiters every day. We do everything right. Take a great job spec. Impress our client. Recruit great talent. Make the match. Manage the process. Architect a fitting deal for all parties. Secure a great offer. Get everything agreed and at the last minute – our product – the candidate – says, “ Nah, I changed my mind, I will stay where I am”. And that is it. All over red rover!
  • Recruiting is a killer because for us, it is all or nothing. Sure, a tiny percentage of our work is retained, but mostly recruiting is first prize or nothing. Our business is not like the Olympics where you can pick up a respectable silver or bronze for competing well. For us it’s gold…or its donut! We do all the work, spend huge amounts of time and expertise, and manage the process with skill and diligence. But if our 5 great candidates get pipped by a late runner from another recruiter, or an internal candidate, then it is big fat zero for us. That’s tough. Hard to take. Especially when it happens often. And it does.
  • Recruiting grinds you down because you do so much work you don’t get paid for. When you hear the words “I am feeling burnt out” from a recruiter, what that actually means is “I just can’t stand doing so much work for so little return”. Contingent recruiters are lucky to fill one job out of 5 they take, and place one candidate out of 10 they meet. And combined with the ‘all or nothing’ fee model most work on, it means lots and lots of hours for which we don’t get paid, and equally importantly see no tangible success. And success, in the form of happy clients and happy talent, is the bedrock upon which our self-esteem is built. And once that crumbles, it is the beginning of the end.

So what to do?

  • Firstly recognise that if you are going to be a recruiter, these challenges come with the job. In the memorable words of my Under 16 rugby coach, ‘Toughen the f*** up’ and prepare yourself for plenty of disappointment.
  • Secondly, work hard to mitigate the risk of these things happening to you. Hone your recruitment skills, your talent management skills, and your job qualification ability. Build trusted advisor relationships and work to get exclusivity on orders to increase your job-fill ratios. Great recruiters, who move from transacting to consulting, start to win more than they lose.
  • Finally,  never forget that if you choose to be a recruiter, you have made a Faustian bargain. You have chosen a career fraught with pitfalls and sometimes it feels like a living hell, But do it right, and the fun and money we need for a great job is within our grasp, because being a recruiter can really rock too!


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Comment by Milly Rivera on October 26, 2011 at 5:34pm

Awesome post, great reading, definitely sharing w/my colleagues! 

Comment by Dominic Sutherland on October 27, 2011 at 8:12am

Thanks Greg, Love the post!! Exactly what I needed, I have just toughened up!!

Comment by Nathan on October 27, 2011 at 4:47pm

A classic read! Thank you


Comment by Daniel Sullivan on October 28, 2011 at 3:55pm

Great post.  I've been a IT Recruiter since 1987, and have owned my agency since 1991 and for a long time I ran listings for new recruiters stating "No Wimps Need Apply".   It kept out the candy-asses and attracted the right type of challenge-oriented, achievement-motivated and downright contrarian characters who thrive in the recruiting game. @david king...I agree on humility in recruiters.  Clients and candidates run from self-important people.  The definition that works for me is: Humility:  A modest sense of one's own importance.

I'd add time management to your list of skills, but that's a quibble.

Well done.


Comment by Jason on October 31, 2011 at 1:58pm

One thing that you missed is take pride in your work.  To many times I see agencies hiring college grads giving them a phone book and telling them now your a recruiter.  Recruiting isn't 9 to 5 and everyone wants the paycheck but doesn't want to do the work.  As a industry whole we should be setting standards.  It's sad that headhunters have such a bad name or stigma attached to it.  I think companies should start by investing in your people.  Set the bar from the get-go and hold them accountable to hit the bar.  Don't post-n-pray and don't send every single person to a job opening.  Actually understand the company, people your dealing with and most of all your candidates.  Quality not Quantity!

Comment by Raman Ramamurthy on November 7, 2011 at 5:08am

dealing with people, whom you are promoting (selling) to fill up an opening, is really tough. It is not like selling product or service!! with practice and experience, recruiting efforts turn out okay!

Comment by Dyll Davies on January 11, 2013 at 3:33am

Greg.  Spot on.  Fortunately I have been in this game a wee while now and can manage the ups and downs, but you are right not many can.  It helps that my conversion rate is far higher than your 1 in 5 number (I place 90%+ of roles I am given) but then I have made a conscious decision to work in a specialist sector and work on an exclusive basis - almost exclusively.

I agree wholeheartedly that achieving 'trusted advisor' rather than 'supplier' status is key but it seems this is becoming increasingly hard to do.  The increasing commoditisation of recruitment through job boards and what I call CV shuffling recruiters whose business model works on the subtle principle of mud eventually sticking to walls has misled many clients into thinking 'more is more' and that a recruiter is no more than a supplier like the proverbial photocopier toner man.

I have spent the last eighteen months placing multiple candidates for a company to whom I was recommended by a VC.  I have never, ever failed to fulfil a search for this company despite some seriously challenging issues that affect their ability to recruit in their core market, placing 8 candidates in a variety of sales and senior (VP/C) level roles.  I have a personal recommendation from the CEO on my LinkedIn page indicating he has referred associates to me as an excellent recruiter - I have even worked for one!  Despite this the client has now gone with another agency introduced by new VCs on a retained basis (having refused a similar relationship with me despite my excellent track record)!  They are still asking me to do all the tough stuff – I have a candidate at second interview stage as we speak - but the nice VP level positions have been taken away.  What have I done wrong?  And what price loyalty?

But heh you have to take it on the chin and move on.  It’s tough though sometimes . . .

Comment by Bruce Rowles on January 11, 2013 at 8:17am

Great post - thanks for sharing Greg.   recruiters will hear the word "NO" more then "YES".

Comment by Ashley Barker on January 11, 2013 at 9:31am

Thank you for this post! I have a friend who just got into recruiting, but for the last 6 months she has been trained by someone who claimed to know what she was doing. She feels she is not a good recruiter but I think otherwise. I am going to share this with her before she potentially misses out on her calling!

Comment by bill josephson on January 11, 2013 at 9:59am

Delete Comment

Lots of excellent comments on this topic.
To Dyll--you've hit the essence of what recruiting's become--commoditized.  Wasn't that way back in 1980 when I began--it was more like the wild West as cowboys.

Today, IMO, recruiters need to be able to perform a role HR is unable to.  They have social media, web sites, doing Google/Boolean searches, some have dedicated teams of 50 recruiters solely scouring the Internet, in this economy scores of people hitting those web sites with a surprising number being good enough to be considered.  So we are definitely competing with HR, the resistance to working with us greater, and the assignments we receive are usually "problematic" jobs--if you're lucky your contact will truthfully share what the "problem" with it actually is.

Being indispensible is the key.  Having a niche where you're valued by your client being the "go to" person.  Finding passive/insivible candidates companies absolutely can't.  Dyll's doing it the right way.  But any financially rewarding/attractive business (or personal) relationship/situation we can always count on competition as someone else will want it--as Dyll expressed.

Being relevant in the marketplace is crucial to survival today.  Finding out what that relevance is--even for this 32 year recruiter--isn't always easy and I'd get long winded explaining why.  But if your client can do it, they likely don't need/don't want you.

Ashley, you raise an important point.  That was my experience.  I changed going from a small to a national chain agency for 10 years before becoming self-employed.  Your environment experience counts for a lot.


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