Black Hat Recruiter Tactics

Since starting Hirelite, where we get companies and software people talking directly, I've heard a lot of horror stories about working with recruiting agencies. When I hear these stories, I can't help but think of black hat vs. white hat hacking and SEO, so I call recruiters who engage in unethical practices "black hat recruiters". Black hat recruiters resort to the tactics below because they're too lazy to confront the real challenges involved in finding and matching good people and good companies. Please note that not all recruiters are bad, and some provide a lot of value, but this post is not about those recruiters. This post is about black hat recruiting where tactics range from lies to ethically gray practices to illegal activity (in approximate order of how common they are):

Posting misleading job descriptions - This is by far the most common form of abuse. Recruiters will post a job description for a legitimate position for a client, but falsify some of the information to entice candidates. For example, a recruiter will inflate the salary/compensation portion of the job description or inflate the job responsibilities while dumbing down the job requirements.

Posting bait-and-switch job descriptions - Black hat recruiters will advertise a job that does not exist or is already filled just to receive resumes from job seekers that they can contact about other job opportunities. This is very similar to a tactic that black hat apartment brokers use (mentioned in Rent Hop's comparison of headhunters and apartment brokers).

Surreptitiously modifying a job seeker's resume - Black hat recruiters often request a resume in a format they can modify. They will make modifications to job seekers resumes without telling job seekers and then give the modified resume to their clients. Modifications range from obscuring contact information so that the recruiter is always in the loop to more liberal modifications like inflating experience and skills. Nothing's worse than getting to an interview and finding out that you know COBOL from the hiring manager reading it off your resume.

Approaching other companies job seekers interview with - Recruiters often ask job seekers what other companies they are interviewing with under the guise of tailoring their search to the job seeker. Some recruiters will go as far as to ask who specifically the job seeker is in contact with. Armed with that information, a recruiter will contact the other companies and try to send competing job seekers. I've spoken to one job seeker who suspected this was happening and caught their recruiter in the act. This job seeker told the recruiter a friend's name and had the friend wait for the recruiter's call. The friend didn't have to wait long. Only 10 minutes after the initial call ended, the recruiter called the job seeker's friend. The recruiter denied everything.

Cold calling and pressuring low level employees - Black hat recruiters will call low level employees at a company and threaten termination and legal repercussions unless the employee passes the recruiter along to a hiring manager at the company.

Buying resumes from hiring companies - Black hat recruiters will give discounts to companies that will pass all the resumes for a particular position along to the recruiter. These resumes could be from other recruiters or from candidates who contacted a company directly.

Pressuring job seekers into interviews - Black hat recruiters will pressure job seekers into interviews that they don't want to go on. Sure, job seekers should stand up to them and say, "I don't want that job," but when a recruiter responds, "I'm not going to put you in front of <company> unless you go to this interview," job seekers may give in.

Promising exclusivity to job seekers - Black hat recruiters will promise a job seeker that they will not submit other job seekers for the same position as long as the job seeker agrees not to talk to any other recruiters. The recruiter then submits multiple competing job seekers for a position. If one is rejected, he tells that job seeker that the company decided there wasn't a fit and continues to send him to other companies.

Recruiting the references of a job seeker - Black hat recruiters request references from job seekers and recruit those references. Later, job seekers hear from their references that their recruiter pressured them for resumes to send to clients, sometimes for the exact job the original job seeker was up for!

Faking a relationship - Black hat recruiters will hear that Dunder Mifflin, a company they have no relationship with, is hiring. Instead of approaching Dunder Mifflin about working for them, the recruiter will solicit resumes from potential job seekers for exciting new openings at Dunder Mifflin. The recruiter will then approach Dunder Mifflin with the resumes they have. If Dunder Mifflin rejects the recruiter, the recruiter will tell the job seekers that Dunder Mifflin said there wasn't a fit for them.

Discrediting an employee's current company
- Black hat recruiters will contact an employed potential candidate and tell them that their current company is in a precarious financial state and offer to find the employee another job. Black hat recruiters will even do this to employees of their own clients.

Simulating expiring offers - When a company sends an offer to a job seeker, black hat recruiters will tell the job seeker that they only have X days (where X is usually 1 or 2) to accept the offer; otherwise, it will be rescinded. This practice is a bit more rare because job seekers and companies know each others' contact information by this point, but I've heard of this happening to at least one company and one job seeker (separate events).

Sending false offer letters - Black hat recruiters will send out fake offer letters to job seekers for companies they're having trouble getting interviews for. Black hat recruiters rely on job seekers requesting to interview with the company before accepting the offer. The recruiter then arranges an interview with the company. If the company like the job seeker, the recruiter makes sure to process and negotiate the offer, sometimes issuing a "revised" offer to the job seeker. If there is not a fit for the job seeker at the company, the recruiter is no worse off than they started, and they just drop all contact with a job seeker.

If you're thinking that any of these practices might work for you, think again. Seriously. They may work in the short term, but you will do irreparable harm to your reputation, the reputation of job seekers, and the reputation of companies you represent in addition to possibly opening yourself up to legal problems.

If you're a company or a software engineer who's tired of dealing with these tactics, check out Hirelite: Speed Dating for the Hiring Process. We have another event next Tuesday.

Got any more horror stories? Leave them in the comments.
44 responses
I've been victim of a few of these tactics, most notably the false offer letters when I was just starting my career. It would be beneficial to point out another utility of the false offer: when I get these offers, they're are often nothing more than techniques used to force candidates into registering into an applicant tracking system so the recruiter can play the game of numbers with potential clients, or bombard you with job offers that bear no relevance to the one advertised. It becomes a hybrid of the false job offer, with the bait and switch.

Excellent post.

How about recruiter / consulting companies lying their asses off about how much cut they are getting from their Client? I worked with Cardinal Technology Solutions and their CEO continuous lied to me about what they were making from their client. Once, I found out how much they were really making, I made sure they never got another contract from that client.
Question: A recruiter I met with recently asked me for the names of the companies I recently interviewed for so that they "don't duplicate efforts". I suspected this was BS and that they were just fishing for job openings they could try to weasel into. But how can a job seeker politely decline to give this information without being cast aside by the recruiter as uncooperative?
Job Seeker, 2 options: 1) request that the recruiter ask you before they contact a company on your behalf so they don't duplicate any effort or 2) just say, "I'm not comfortable giving out that information." Looking for a new job is often a confidential affair because you may not want your current employer to know about your search, so many recruiters will stop asking when they realize that confidentiality is very important to you.
While unemployed and receiving benefits, I had a recruiter threaten to report me to the unemployment office if I didn’t go on the interviews that he wanted me to accept.
Excellent post. I have listed some workarounds for these tactics here
Nice post Nathan.
One employee that worked for me signed a legal contract that the recruiter presented as "standard practice" before the recruiter would present a resume to the hiring manager. The contract said that if the employee was offered the job but didn't take it, the employee would pay the recruiter's fee instead of the hiring company. Later on, the employee learned that the hiring company wasn't a good place to work, but he was screwed because was legally obliged to either accept the offer, or pay the recruiter about $20k.
@Danny wow. No way. That is probably the worst one I've heard yet.
My Favorite: Get way too much information from the job you are leaving and contact supervisors about filling the position you may not have informed them you are leaving yet.
This is why I will never go through another recruiter ever again. I've wasted so much time and effort of my job searches that even trying to find a good recruiter was more trouble than it was worth. The last time I was searching, I had countless recruiters trying all sorts of things to try to get me to fall for their crap.
I had told a recruiter I specifically did not want to work with Oracle databases because that was what I was doing and hated it. He sent me to a place that it turned out that they sacrificed a goat every morning on the altar of Oracle. When I called him after the wasted interview, I asked him why he sent me there. He said "They do Unix too." I replied, "Only long enough to invoke Oracle." I then proceeded to give him a status report with every other sentence being "You know they only do Oracle here," or "Did I mention they work only in Oracle here." For twenty I was steamed. My current employer was one that would fire you even if there was a hint you were looking for another job and here I had taken a day off for that nonsense.
@sbenfsck - very dirty

@Aaron Smith - Good to hear you've given up on them. How did you end up finding something? Did you go directly to the company hiring?

@BrainiacV - Sounds awful. Incentives for recruiters are definitely not aligned with the best interests of job seekers and companies. They get paid the most for pushing someone into a job as quickly as possible regardless of fit.

@Nathan Going directly to the companies that are looking. Most companies that are worth working for will post ads themselves instead of ONLY going through one or more recruiters. I also have had a lot of luck just networking. The place I'm at now, and have been for the last 7 years, was a lead from a friend that was a client of the company. I went from just a programmer to the IT Manager. Will probably be here till the day I die unless something bad happens.
@Aaron Smith - Nice. That's definitely the way to go. You actually end up making more money that way too since headhunters end up costing developers money in the end
Funny enough, there are similar tactics used in UK as well, I have made this post 2 years ago regarding the same subject:
My wife used to work for a recruiting company. She had some pretty dirty / greasy stories before she left, but one that really struck me was that a *recruiter* once pretended to be the applicant and went through a tech interview with the hiring manager at the client. This particular recruiting company consisted of H1 tech folks from India who couldn't find tech jobs here so they ended up working as recruiters. I heard the recruiting company owner held some of their passports so that they couldn't go back to India (or something like that, such that it sounded a bit like indentured servitude).

Run away! Run away!

@Anon123 - It's pretty amazing that a recruiter can get through a tech interview!
Well. This is depressing...
@Nathan - Well, these are tech folks who got into recruiting as a last resort to stay in the U.S. It's entirely possible that they were qualified for these positions but the client didn't want to hire an H1. So the recruiter (who presumably is more qualified than the permanent resident / citizen applicant) fakes being the applicant to get the job for the applicant and then makes his/her commission.

Admittedly, I've never heard of any similar story elsewhere, but my experience with recruiters is also limited only to my wife's short stint at such a firm.

@Anon123 - I understand now. That's pretty amazing.

@Katie McNab - It is depressing. Just trying to spread a bit of awareness. Maybe if people know the tricks, they can watch out for them a bit better.

I never knew that recruiters do these kinds of things.. Looks like these recruiters often degrade their value by practicing black hat techniques... I know about black hat techniques by job seekers by placing white invisible text in their resumes with keywords..
I have been a technical recruiter for about 6 years and was recruited into my career by a friends boyfriend who had been a recruiter/headhunter for over 10 years. He was a personable, caring, charismatic individual who took pride is his work (he died of an accident a few years ago); I learned a lot from him and have always prided myself with being a sales person of careers. Careers to the engineers and to the managers I support the ability to build new and exciting products. I have never lied, never mislead, never bent the truth with candidates or managers. While I do network, I have never used anyone for the contacts or information. I do however have people that I have placed in jobs or worked with in some capacity who contact me years later and offer me unsolicited recommendations on linkedin as well as refer me to their friends and colleagues needing help in the staffing arena. I am writing this to let everyone know there are A LOT of very good, very honest and excellent recruiters who take pride in what they do. Who enjoy being part of helping to build a team that will create the new search engine or social networking platform. PLEASE REMEMBER THIS. Unfortunately, there are a a lot of really bad recruiters as well. I have worked with many recruiters who not only lie to their candidates and co-workers, but to hiring managers as well. I have personally reported these people to my managers in agency environment and choose not to associate myself with recruiters like this at all. I have been personally ripped off by a lead recruiter who I have worked for for thousands of dollars. I know the horror stories; but please do not persecute all recruiters for a couple of bad seeds. There is nothing worse then being treated badly by candidates that you only want to help; when you go out of your way in the evening or on the weekend to call and have conversations. I have had a few candidates talk to me on the phone in a way that I've never been spoken to in my life; mind you this has happen literally 3 times in the thousands of candidates I've spoken with. Remember not everyone is bad and not everyone is good. If you want a good recruiter, look them up on linkedin. If they have less then 5 or even 10 recommendations I would say skip them. Also make sure their recommendations are from a variety of sources. Candidates, co-workers, managers... Good luck everybody!
@Mikaela - thanks for your comment. You do sound like one of the good ones. It's upsetting that the bad ones have ruined things for your profession. Unfortunately, in addition to black hat tactics, incentives for contingency recruiters are misaligned and the amount that they get paid is no longer in line with the service they provide, leading to further bad behavior.
It seems these kind of tactics are used regardless of where you work and live. I've just posted about a pretty transparent piece of baiting I received which was so transparent I found it funny, the post is here:

The guy didnt make much of an effort to disguise his motives and even attached a job description entitled 'Generic Job Description' - how stupid do they think we are.

We' love to hear any similar stories as well ...

@Kieran [cross posted] Wow! It”s amazing how blatantly spammy they can be. Something makes me think that it must be working for them in some capacity (like spam, if 1 out of 100k buys your pills, it”s worth it for you). Do you see many recruiters behaving this way for contract work as well?
@Nathan [cross posted] Sometimes I wonder if this practice is more like phishing rather than spam, the recruiter is looking for you to disclose a lot of personal and confidential info.

In some ways, I think recruiter practices are worse when it comes to contract work. In the UK and Ireland, the recruiter negotiates the day or hourly rate with the employer and independently negotiates with, say, the contract software engineer. We have seen cases where the recruiter is charging out for a software engineer at 4 times the rate they are paying the engineer. Quite a lucrative practice over a typical 6 month contract period.

We will be blogging more on this topic in future posts

These are all examples of bad recruiters - and to be sure there are quite a few of them. Remember that just like in any job (OK, lawyers and recruiters are at the top of the list), you will find your snakes.

More to point - How to find decent recruiters:

Ask for referrals - your network is bound to refer a couple good ones they like
Meet them - meeting in person is best and use your radar to spot problems
Don't send a resume until you meet
Only work with recruiters who will tell you the name of the company before sending your resume
Only tell them where you have interviewed at until after you have rejected or been rejected by the company
Hire a recruiter to help recruit for one of your positions and see how they operate
They have a history with the company you wish to get into

That should just about do it!

"Recommendations" on LinkedIn having nothing to do with a recruiter being ethical-unethical, good or bad sorry Mikaela. The only way to make sure you're working with a genuine ethical recruiter is to go by way of referral. Good post Nathan.
I work for a tech recruiting company (we only work with startups) and we make it a policy to call AND meet candidates before we ever pitch them a job. I thought this was standard practice but after reading this post and the comments it doesn't seem like it? Crazy.

I've definitely had some candidates take their anger at other recruiters out on me, even though I genuinely just want to help. I've also had people refuse to meet with me until I pitched them a specific job. My response was always "How am I supposed to know what to offer you if I know nothing about you?"

At this point I've given up on changing anyone's mind about recruiters, those who hate them are going to hate them regardless of how hard I try to prove that I'm different. However, I 100% agree with Startuprecroot, meet a recruiter in person, always. It's hard to bullshit someone when you're sitting right in front of them.

I am a techie who has been working with recruiters for more than 10 years. Mostly good experiences. Good article here, tho. But it seems like the latest trend in slimy recruiters are the hoards of indians who can't speak english, who LIE about their names. For example, I get a mail from a guy named 'Andy Jones', I call him and he has the thickest hindi accent I have ever heard. Happens more and more. I am not racist but that is just dishonest and deceptive. I will just say it flat out: the indians are a pain to do business with: they dont listen (or understand?), they cant pronounce english words in a way that english speakers can understand them, and they are supremely disorganized - a bane to the recruiting industry. Not very politically correct, but I always tell it like it is.
@Jonathan G
Same here. I get 5-15 calls a day right now from people who don't speak english well, and really low ball the offers. I'm just screening now.

For me, the biggest gripe is outright dishonestly from recruiters. Latest issue is the typical bait and switch and the last minute to try and lower the rate.

Hirelight please feel free to contact me about running an event in San Diego.

Hey Nathan, I was psyched to find your post on black hat tactics. We just had this bad agency recruiter experience we thought we'd share with your audience:
Thanks for article Nathan. These are some very sneaky tactics.
I was also a victim of some of these tactics by a recruiter. Unfortunately, this has now resulted in me losing the job that I was hired for and since the staffing agency persuaded me to quit my job before my 2 wk notice was up, I am now unemployed as I cannot go back to my old employer.
I wrote this piece on a nasty agency recruiter our company had: I just found out the recruiter in question was dismissed.
I think I have discovered another 'Black Hat' tactic, that may be illegal. I am being contacted by numerous recruiters for positions for which it is obvious I am not qualified. Suspicion began to grow and this morning I read an article on a company that posted a position to satisfy Department of Labor requirements but for which they had no intention of hiring an American worker because their intent was an HB1 visa. I now believe that these recruiters are collecting resumes from individuals to fulfill the DOL requirement from people they know will not qualify for the position. If you think about it, this tactic fulfills the DOL requirement and 'proves' they 'made every effort to hire locally'. This also separates the company from the HB1 recruitment process. The tells are: You lack the qualifications and experience, the job is located in another state and they won't pay relocation costs, the salary is too low to justify the move, they obtain basic information in a small table or list that could quickly be pasted into any government form or cataloged into list should the DOL require documentation, and you never hear from them again. It has reached the point where I don't know who is legit if the call or email is from someone with an accent. I dislike this intensely because I have worked with some wonderful people in science and business who were here on a work visas. That they would waste my time is frustrating to say the least.
I did go through couple of scenarios where the client team is looking for a solution on a certain business case scenario and they did not have an intention to hire new member to get a 1-2 week task. They announce a position and get some qualified aspirants, they put forward their problem and ask them to solve. As a job aspirant we give the best to provide multiple ways. These un-ethical b*stds would coolly grab all the required info and never get back to us. They work it out amongst their under-qualified team with the gathered info until they encounter next problem to a new job posting. Who can crack these kind of conspiracies and punish. A white collared unethical practice noticed in Equinix of Sunnyvale, CA. Keep away from them. Save your time.
I'm tired and refuse to work with offshore recruiters. Done with their bs.
4 visitors upvoted this post.