Robey’s Blog: Getting off the Agency crack

Recruitment agents.  We HR professionals have a bit of a love-hate relationship with them, and I suspect the feeling is mutual.  It’s always been my practice to keep them at arm’s length, to be honest.  Keep turnover down.  Recruit through direct methods.  Turn to the Dark Side only when no other solution will do the job.

But I’ve landed in a new role where the company is well and truly addicted to Agency crack.  They love the quick fix that comes from handing over a vague job outline, picking out a few likely candidates from the deluge of CVs and, with a cursory interview, throwing them in at the deep end.  If it doesn’t work out, no worries!  There’s a whole heap of new CVs available for nothing more than an email to the right person.

Unsurprisingly, our turnover has been substantial and our recruitment bill, frankly, horrific.


From a purely commercial perspective, neither one of these things is particularly a problem.  If our recruitment turnover was high, but recruitment was cheap and easy, it could just be one of those things.  Not great.  Worth working on.  But fundamentally not a threat to the business.  And similarly, if our costs of recruitment were high, but we were paying for top talent that was sticking around for the medium-to-long term then, again, I might say “money well spent!”

The real threat is in the combination of high costs and high turnover.  And for all that I can talk about my priorities being to gather the data and meet the people, my new bosses were quite clear that what they wanted was better people, staying longer, for less money.

To which the easy answer is the engineers’ mantra: quick, correct or complex – pick two!

From my position, though, the real answer is to ease us off that Agency crack.  This isn’t about – to extend the metaphor – getting “clean”.  Agencies play a useful and constructive part in the recruitment landscape.  I never expect or want to stop talking to and using agencies to help me to recruit good quality candidates.  But I want to reduce our reliance upon them in a way that restores the balance of power.  I want them to be a resource we tap at need, when others are exhausted; not the first port of call.  And if you want to achieve anything in this life, the first step is to have a plan.


  1. Take control of the employer brand

This is no small or quick job.  But that’s why you must start here and get things moving in this respect first.  In this respect, agents can be your allies.  They will visit your sites and talk to you about your culture, your aspirations and the sorts of people you want to hire, and they will take that message out and spread it around their candidates, who will then pick it up and carry it on.  Of course, there are other outlets: your website, your social media presence, your existing employers… These are all resources to be put to use in communicating your employer brand and “value proposition”: what it means to be an employee at your company.


At every step that follows, the brand – or what you want the brand to be – has to be embedded in your relationships, your language and your tactics.


  1. Throw open the doors!

It can seem counter-intuitive, when thinking about reducing the reliance on agencies, to go out and invite even more of them in to pitch to you.  And there is a genuine risk of being overwhelmed: snowballed by an avalanche of potential candidates and offers.  But throwing the doors open makes your business an increasingly sought-after product.  Competition drives down prices and makes agents more willing to strike a deal.  It also gives you a real insight into who, exactly, is out there fighting for your attention and bringing you the best candidates in the greatest number.  Because once you can see that…


  1. Start trimming the fat

This is the point at which the number of agents you use can start to be reduced.  Now, some companies have a very streamlined Approved Supplier List: perhaps only two or three agencies and, if a call comes from some other agent, well, tough.  Your name’s not down, so you’re not coming in.  If you enjoy a very stable working population, this is a good idea.  It means you have time and space to have a relationship with the approved agents, and a bona fide excuse to ignore everything else.  But if your population is more volatile, you might just want to cut away the least effective and retain those that fulfil certain specific needs, such as agencies that are strong in a particular region, or which have a track record of filling a particular critical job type.


  1. Go direct

There are a number of ways of increasing the volume of direct applications that avoid agencies – and their fees – entirely, but they are more work and need careful planning.  Your own website, your social media presence and sites such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor offer opportunities to reach potential candidates directly.  If you’re prepared to put some money behind the effort to generate more direct candidates, then the returns will tend to be better.  Whether you go through a job board service online, or engage a social media consultant to raise the impact of your employer brand will depend upon both your budget and your particular industry.  Short term, it can look expensive when you consider that the returns are not guaranteed (at least with an agency, if you don’t appoint, you don’t pay).  But longer-term, this is where you will see the most year-on-year impact.


  1. Grow your own

Unquestionably the most cost-efficient and effective way to put new talent into your business is to find it already in your business, through development, promotion, sideways moves and other methods.  The steps involved in this are not straightforward, but they are intimately associated with the work on employer brand you should already be doing: investment in your staff, building retention and engagement, focussing on health, wellbeing and the environment…

A short blog isn’t enough to do this topic its full justice.  But the important thing to take away is that you can’t kick the habit overnight.  It’s a gradual process.  But it’s far too easy to decide that, because it’s gradual and complicated, it’s best not to bother.  No!  The first step is the hardest, but once you get moving, momentum will carry you where you need to go.

Kick the habit.  Break the cycle.  Put agencies back in the place they ought to be.

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