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How To Handle Recruiter Calls

February 28, 2013

Unsolicited calls from a tech recruiter are one of the banes of existence of a technologist with a LinkedIn and/or GitHub profile that has been anything close to meaningfully filled out. Or a startup founder. Both sides get hammered with calls. And emails. All. The. Time. If you haven’t been on the receiving side of these, it may be difficult to explain why these calls are so infuriating. After all, isn’t it nice to hear that someone thinks you’re employable or on the other side that someone has smart people who might be interested in working for you?

The thing is, most recruiters do not come from the field for which they are recruiting. They don’t know whether or not you are a good fit for a given job because they don’t know what a high-concurrency Erlang WebSocket specialist is. So they try and find those words on people’s resumes, even resumes that say “please don’t contact me” and they plow right ahead on and call if they find them. Why? Contingency recruiters will typically earn 20% or more of a placed engineer’s first year salary as their commission. So for, say, a $100k mid-level engineer, they would get paid a $20,000 earn-out!

These economics make them unstoppable: If they do 200 phone calls of half an hour each to find one engineering candidate willing to work with them and 200 phone calls of half an hour each to find one company willing to place that engineer, they are still earning $100/hour, less a dollar or two for their phone bill. Like spammers, recruiters are not charged money for wasting other people’s time, like those 199 engineers and 199 companies who were not a good fit. The possibility that you might be interested is just too tempting. So they call. And call. And call.

It’s not atypical for a good engineer in a hot area – perhaps a senior iOS developer in Silicon Valley – to get several phone calls and emails a day. I’ve seen recruiters try calling with blocked numbers or from local area codes. And when they connect, the quality of the calls is, by definition, pretty terrible. A contract recruiter can’t name the company they’re hiring for, lest you just apply directly and circumvent the recruiter. So they’ll wax on with vague aphorisms like “The Next Facebook”, “totally on fire right now”, and other equally meaningless terms without telling you about what the company is or does.

On the employer side, it’s no better, with recruiters assuring you that they have an engineer who is “very experienced, great stuff” who is “very excited to work with your company” while providing no validatable details, lest you reach out to the candidate yourself directly. This is akin to playing telephone between two Russian speakers via someone who does not speak Russian. Neither party can meaningfully vet the other through a recruiter who does not understand the work the company performs nor what the candidate actually does for a living.

Now, while I am not a lawyer – and this doesn’t constitute legal advice – in recruiters’  reckless pursuit of placement, they may overlook the law. They make unsolicited commercial calls placed to individuals’ mobile phones in likely violation of federal law. Many don’t check the Federal Do Not Call registry, a further and separate violation of federal law. If they don’t respect requests to be removed from their call lists, as many fail to do, it is yet another violation of law.

So what can you do about this?

  • Make a note of the time and date of the recruiter’s phone call. Make sure you record their caller ID and write down any information concerning their firm’s name and the caller’s name. During every call, clearly communicate that you would like to be removed from the recruiter’s call list. Keep a record somewhere, like Google Docs.
  • If you’re not already, join the Do Not Call Registry. If you are already in DNCR, any telemarketing call you receive can be reported to the federal registry as a violation.
  • Additionally, whether or not you are on the Do Not Call list, any unsolicited commercial call to your mobile device may be reported to the FCC electronically.
  • If you want to get really aggressive, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 allows you to sue for up to $1,500 per violation, which you could file for in small claims court. There are some fun stories of people finding success in this approach.

There are good guides out there, like How to Sue Telemarketers in Small Claims Court. Be bold! If only a small fraction of recipients of unwanted recruiter calls “strike back”, it will make it substantially less economically desirable for recruiters to mass-call without checking Do-Not-Call lists.

If you’re less of the lawsuit-wielding type but still want to do the world some good, instead of filing claims against the unwanted recruiter, you can point them at places like the Hacker Dojo‘s page explaining the right way to find awesome developer talent. These sponsorships have been critical in helping us build the world’s largest non-profit hackerspace. (You should come by! We’re open 24/7!)

Epilogue: Lest I be perceived as hating on a whole industry uniformly, there are some good recruiters out there who have a good understanding of the market for which they are hiring and know how to not harass potential recruits or businesses. These recruiters will often work in a full-time position at a company for a period of time to help them spool up a team. They reach out through social networks with carefully researched individually-specific messages showing thoughtfulness and an understanding of a match between the candidate and the company. These people are great, and they convert really well. Treasure them.

Discuss on Hacker News and season to taste.

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