Working Effectively with Staffing Firms, as a Candidate

Okay, you're on the job hunt!  You've been contacted by a staffing firm about a job opportunity.  The recruiter has left you a message to reach out to them to talk about this position.  Exciting, right? Staffing firms (otherwise known as agencies) are hired by companies looking to fill positions.  They are engaged in one of two ways:

  • Retained Search: This usually happens for about 10% to 20% of positions.  These roles tend to be (but aren't necessarily) senior managers or above. The Retained Search firm builds a slate of candidates that it presents to the client company, usually boiling it down to three to five of their top candidates.  The agency is paid by the company in installments (usually one third at the start of the search, one third upon presentation of their slate of candidates, and one third upon acceptance of the offer).
  • Contingent Search: 80%-90% of agency searches are in this category.  This means that the agency presents candidates to the client company, and gets paid their fee when the candidate is hired.

The one thing in common between both scenarios is that the agencies need to fill the job to make money.  The contingent agency won't collect one penny UNLESS THE PERSON GETS HIRED.  And, usually, that contact person at the agency is paid on commission.  So they are hungry to fill the job in a time-effective manner.

Got it?  If they don't fill the job, they don't fill their belly.  It's an important distinction from the corporate recruiter who works for the client company, and whose paycheck cashes regardless of whether a particular job fills.

Here's some tips to make that relationship more successful and help you land that job.

  • Remember that the agency works for the client company, not you.  The client company will pay them for putting the right person in the job.  The staffing firm recruiter may support your candidacy, and may be pulling for you, but they will keep talking to other candidates, also, because they may be a better fit.
  • Treat the people at the staffing firm (as well as everybody - come on, you're not five years old) with respect and courtesy.  If they like working with you, they are more likely to pull for you.  If you tick them off, they will drop you like a hot potato. Treat them as if your career depends upon them. It may.
  • Be very responsive to the folks at the staffing firm.  They call you, find a conference room immediately and call them back immediately.  And use phrases your mommy taught you, like "Thank you", "Yes ma'am", and "It's very nice to speak with you." If they ask you for an updated resume, send it within the hour (keep a copy on your smartphone so you don't have to use the company's computer). If they ask for references, ask them how many they would like and provide them promptly.
  • Know your parameters, and stick to them.  Know how far you will commute, your salary requirements for the right job, your reasons for considering another position, and if you will consider a new position. What you say will be shared with the company.  If you change any of these parameters down the line, the agency will likely never work with you again.  And they usually have lots of clients, so that would be bad. Be up front with the agency about all the comp you get including salary and bonus, any potential increases, how your 401(k) matches, etc.  It will become important in the offer process.
  • The agency may not be in a position to tell you who the client company is until a certain point in the process.  Respect this.  They are doing this because the search may be confidential, or because they don't want you telling them that you aren't interested, only to apply directly, cutting them out of a fee. If you think you might know (or actually do know) who the company is, and you've applied in the past, tell them.
  • This leads me to warn you that once the agency introduces you to a company, your agency contact is the point of contact for you at that company going forward. Period. Only exception to this rule is sending thank you notes to the folks with whom you interviewed.
  • Assuming that you've interviewed and the company is extending you an offer, the offer will likely come from the agency. You may or may not be able to negotiate the offer if it isn't within your original parameters through the agency, but don't assume that they will move heaven and earth to make this happen. Don't change your salary parameters at this point either, thinking you may have a super-strong hand. It will come across as disrespectful and dishonest. It may work, but more likely the company will move onto their next-choice candidate.

Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. He is a Human Resources professional and staffing expert with almost two decades of in-house corporate HR and staffing firm experience, and is a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) and Certified Professional Career Coach (CPCC).

Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, and career coaching services, including a free resume review. You can email Scott Singer at, or via the website,