SVCinNYC's Blog

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MAY 17, 2012 11:41AM

Confessions of a Headhunter

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It’s likely that I violated every Federal, State & City law meant to prevent discrimination based on race, age, religion, sex and gender during the 15+ years I worked as a placement counselor in employment agencies in Manhattan.  Over the last years of crushing national unemployment, the public was shocked to discover what I had always known, that employers with jobs won’t even look at the résumés of the unemployed.  It is the Catch-22 of the employment world that you cannot get a job unless you already have one; the underlying theory being that since no employer will ever get rid of a really good employee, there’s a reason you’re out of work, and it isn’t the economy.  

It’s also hard to get a job if you’re overweight, proud of your ethnicity, have your own sense of style, are visibly religious, have a handicap or are simply perceived as not attractive enough.  All of these reasons not to hire are based on visual clues.  You’re out of the running before you begin because you didn’t look right in the first place. You are judged on all those things before you can say résumé.

From ’96-’08 I successfully placed hundreds of people in legal support staff capacities, everyone other than attorneys, in the top 100 law firms and corporate law departments.  Most of the hundreds of positions I filled were legal assistants, paralegals, word processors and their associated hierarchies.  I earned 50% of the agency fee, usually 20% of the annual starting salary, 90 days after the placement start date.   I built a reputation with my clients, both candidates and firms, based on forthright communication, loyalty and unswerving belief in doing what’s right. 

It was in my best interest to pressure candidates to accept bad offers, and then to coerce them into staying 90 days when the job turned out to be a bad fit, so that my firm would collect and pay me, but I just couldn’t do it.  This greatly dismayed my bosses, who constantly called me a “social worker,” a term of opprobrium in what had been known as the employment services sector but has since morphed into the human capital services sector.  I was viewed as a defective bleeding-heart capitalist because I refused to commodify my clients.   

I was included in meetings with the brass because I produced, and was flattered to be one of few women invited.  Once in the boardroom, however, I couldn’t wait to get out and stop wasting time in endless meetings where nothing was resolved and everything was scheduled to be “revisited” at the same time next week.  My allegiance was always to my job-seeking applicants first and then to the firms that listed their positions and paid our fees.  There were other counselors who felt as I did, but not nearly enough.  The systems in place for getting applicants to jobs discriminate against all but the currently employed with flawless job histories.

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Interesting read and not a surprise at all for the world you were in.
Something doesn't ring quite right here though, between you refusing to commodify, bosses unhappy, yet you were invited to meetings of the 'brass' because you produced and you had a 15 + year career in the field...
...maybe I'm reading this all wrong...
No, Just Thinking, you're not reading wrong, it's just that they treat you differently than a salaried employee when you work on a straight commission. Thanks for the careful read.
Thanks for confirming what I've always suspected. I remember a Denver Post editor telling me during a job interview, "Don't leave your current position until you've found another job because it's easier to get a job when you have a job." I always thought he was being trite, but I guess he was being brutally honest. ... What if you lost your job because of politics? You did not address that issue. You can be excellent at your job, but fall victim to politics in a work environment. Say, maybe the boss was intimidated by you and went out of his way to undermine your progress. Or what if other employees undermined your authority, threw up roadblocks, etc., and made you look bad? There are so many reasons people lose their jobs, and it's not always because they are not good at what they do.
I completely agree, Deborah, and when I was an agent I could get on the phone and sway interviewers to see people they might not have considered. Most large firms now use computerized systems for resume submission that make it that much easier to set the parameters for exclusion.
15 years ago, I moved back to the Midwest and had all the temporary work I could handle until the 2 months it took to land a particularly plum job. Every temp client I worked for wanted me to come on full-time.

10 years ago, I had my pick of jobs. I allowed 2 weeks to interview for as many of them as I could schedule and I couldn't do them all because there were so many. I negotiated a top salary with the best fit, but had to leave the job after a few months when I was diagnosed with a serious auto-immune disease and had to go into treatment.

A few years later, I was in remission, but virtually unemployable. My tech skills were no longer enough. Every job listing demanded a string of certifications and expertise in a long list of programming languages. I often wondered if anyone could actually fit that bill, but even the most modest and poorly-paid jobs wanted these crazy credentials.

So I went to law school. Attorney jobs were plentiful when I started law school. They were gone by the time I graduated. I took a corporate job that started as a temp position and ended up paying the same money I made before law school.

That corporation went through a couple of mergers and laid me off in 2009. I have not been able to find another job since then and have only had a few interviews. It all sounds great on the phone, but then they meet me and see that I'm middle-aged. It's over at that point, no matter how perfect I was for the job. In fact, they would even retool and repost these job listings based on my resume, but hoping to find someone 20 years younger who could meet them.

Right now I'm volunteering part-time for a legal aid office, and hoping that it will work into a paying gig, whether it's my own law practice or a job I can get through networking.

If that doesn't happen, then I don't know what to do. My husband has a modestly-paid job that isn't quite enough to support our frugal habits. I'm not eligible for social security for another 12 years. I'm taking classes part-time and supplementing my husband's income with school loans.

Finding a job was never a problem for me before, but by 2005 it became difficult. By 2009, it was hopeless and it isn't getting better. I'll have to be truly creative though and figure this out somehow. Wish me luck! (Thanks!)
Louisa,

So sorry to hear how things haven't worked out so far. Don't lose heart. I wish you loads of good luck. Network and keep smiling.
From other articles I've read and my own experience in the working world, your observations aren't a real surprise. But it's interesting to see it confirmed by someone with direct experience in the field. In the 90s and again the the aughts I had two 15 month bouts of unemployment. Both times they ended when a lucky job basically fell into my lap. And both times I was a short spell away from real desperation.
I worked in placement for a few years when I moved back to Chicago in the late 90s. From that experience and what I've seen since, I've experienced the truth of what you've written. In the economy of the last few years, since I got laid off from a law firm support position of almost 10 years, it's become even more of a rigged game than it was before.

HR people and recruiters are discriminating for the most superficial reasons. I've experienced it, and heard the same from many friends.

Months back, I got a call from a recruiter and made it through 3 interviews for a job that looked like a reasonably good fit. Unfortunately, the location was really difficult for me, and no matter what transit combination I tried, it was too miserable a commute to do on a daily basis. Driving was not an option. The commute would have destroyed me. As much as I hated to do it, I had to say no. The recruiter started verbally abusing me, then screaming at me over the phone. I saw through that quickly and told him "This job has to be a good fit for me, because I have to live with it. The world does not revolve around your commission." And I hung up on him.
Sounds to me like you placed employees in positions you knew would provide you with a paycheck and then when your employer called you into board meetings to show your worthiness the employer fired you due to poor management of what it saw as an accounts receivable loss scenario.
Sounds to me, Belinda, like your point of view is clouding your perception of what I wrote. Interesting you know more about my career than I do.
Thanks for being honest about the dirty secrets of the employment and staffing industry. I have a friend who worked for a staffing company and was told by a client "don't send us any black people." To her manager's consternation, she told the client they weren't allowed to discriminate and sent them every QUALIFIED candidate, regardless of race. She was so disgusted with the situation that she (eventually) left for another job.

Let's be honest about the interview: It's a beauty contest in which anyone with any of the following perceived blemishes loses: being out of work, overweight (especially for women), being over 40, perceived as unattractive, or being a minority.

I'm an HR professional with more than 15 years experience in my field. You may be interested in my essay "The Unemployed Need not apply" which you can find here.

http://open.salon.com/blog/brokenwing/2011/03/14/the_unemployed_need_not_apply
I worked for a large southern California company in the late-70s (I was a teenage receptionist), and I'll never forget the day a young black woman came in to interview for an administrative position. She asked to use the bathroom, and I pointed her to the closest one, which was across the hall from the president's office. After the young black woman interviewed and left two things happened:

1. The president's "executive secretary" came out and scolded me for allowing the black woman to use the ladies room and added with a visible shudder, "Oh, I just don't think I can bring myself to sit on that toilet again."

2. Our H.R. person came out and said it was sad that the company would never allow her to hire a black person and said, "I just have to crumple up their applications and throw them away."

There are reasons Affirmative Action and other anti-discrimination laws came into play. They did not result in a vacuum, or because black and brown people asked for them. They came about because of proactive racism and discrimination by companies and the people who work at those companies.
since no employer will ever get rid of a really good employee, there’s a reason you’re out of work, and it isn’t the economy - This belief demonstrates that business/the private sector is not the paragon of efficiency & excellent practice popular culture seems to take as given and it is possibly the stupidest thing I've ever read. No offense, SVC, I don't doubt the belief is out there. Ironically, it's my experience that conditions in this respect are slightly better in the public sector.
-- an almost 63 year old woman who's been temping for 5 years and is on the verge of giving up hope.
Many employers do believe that if you're unemployed you certainly did something to get that way -- and the longer you are unemployed the smell of "unfortunate victim" becomes the stench of "deserving to be unemployed for some reason that no one is legally able to talk about...."

Thankfully I haven't experienced that. But recently I put in an application for a non profit job for which I was overqualified but excited about because I believed in the organization and I'm anxious to move back into non profit. I'd expect to start at any organization from the ground up regardless of qualifications -- making copies, answering phones, cleaning toilets. I ain't proud, and there's no real money in the trenches of non profits anyway...but despite my impressive resume and even my record of $$$$$ FUNDRAISING for my previous non profit, I didn't even get a call for an interview. That was certainly an eye-opener.
You bring up good points, Bellweather. It's been my experience that employers do not want to hire people like you who are 'overqualified' because they claim you will consider it a demotion and chafe at your loss of clout. They project your future unhappiness in the position and alleviate your discomfort at a perceived demotion by not offering the chance at all. Same goes for those who've been self-employed and are viewed as unemployable because they'll always be malcontents if they can't run the show. I really thought you were going to say you got the job. How short-sighted of them.
Thanks for the insightful read. Interesting to see how the otherside works.
Thanks for the insightful read. Interesting to see how the otherside works.
Your article confirms the fears I've had. I have had similar experience to Louisa, and chose to go back to school, I hope when I am through I will find an employer that doesn't discriminate because of age. I can dream can't I?
Retooling myself, Anne. Dreaming the same dream.
This is appalling and sad and yet I know it to be true. I am certainly a hard core victim of this state of affairs. I have become, after going to school in my 50's and studying what I always wanted to study, an "unemployable" because of my age, being unemployed for a year and my inability to quantify myself. I notice all across the board that in spite of always going on about "customer service" most businesses and employers want your loyalty to the company not to the customers. Customers are victims, and in your case, your agency wanted you to adhere to them not to the desperate job seekers you were supposedly serving. The fact that they cynically labeled you a "social worker" is telling--it is showing me just how nasty and mean our social structure has become. Something's got to give.
Wow!!!

Only humans can be so illogical and cruel at the same time.
All so smart people taking the easy way out rather than get to know the applicants.
Course...the "winnowing" process has to hinge on something I guess....but just wow!
Well stated, SVC. I have worked in a similar position, where I had managed contract and permanent placement of technical staff. If you want the roller coaster ride of no two days alike, it is a great job. You drew out the exceptional service side of this business, which is considerable. I would do well at this -- but always felt divided; either I favored the applicant/candidate too much; or, the owners would tell us to increase billings, spreads, etc. It is a grind.
You know well of what you speak here. I feel for you, as it is a tough, grind it out business. Yet, I liked changing lives by helping them seek the best possible position and compensation pkg. Thanks for sharing your experience.