Applying Directly vs. Through a Recruiter – What You Need to Know

Let’s say you want to apply for a job at Amazon. You have two choices. You could either send your resume directly to them, or you could talk to a recruitment agency who works with Amazon.

When you send your application through an external recruiter, you have to continue interviewing through that specific recruiter for that position (for better or for worse). This means that they will be the ones handling everything from communication with Amazon, setting up interviews, and even negotiating your salary. This sounds great, but there can be downsides.

There is typically referred to as a “lock-in period” or an “candidate ownership policy,” which is perhaps the biggest factor to keep in mind before sending your application anywhere. You will have to go through that recruiter whether you like it or not, for a period ranging from three months to one year from the time you submit your application. There can also be some disputes between agency and internal recruiters that complicate the process.

Many people don’t know this until after they’ve casually submitted their resume to anywhere and everywhere. This backfires when you end up with a recruiter that you don’t like, or that doesn’t have a solid relationship with the client and therefore decreases your chances of actually getting the job. Thus it’s important to choose your path wisely, lest you have your resume locked in.

To help you better decide, let’s go through the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

Direct Application (Submitting your resume directly to a hiring manager/internal recruiter through LinkedIn or the company website)

PROS:

  1. There are fewer chances for miscommunication that could arise from having a middleman (a recruiter forgets to send you an email, or doesn’t relay a message from the company to you properly).
  2. You won’t feel any unnecessary pressure from external recruiters trying to push you through the interview process. Recruiters can be aggressive, and not always in a good way.
  3. You can apply for whatever role you’d like, not just taking the (possibly limited) “suggestion” of a recruiter. (Recruiters often have one or two roles they are given to focus on; regardless of your interests or qualifications, they might push it on you).

CONS:

  1. Even after your interview, the feedback will likely be thin as HR and internal recruiters tend to be quite vague with this information. They may still be working in the best interest of their company (they want to hire you), rather than what you want for your career (this is how hiring mistakes happen).
  2. You may never get feedback on your resume and/or your resume is never reviewed by HR because they’re too busy. Not knowing is worse than rejection.
  3. You will have limited information about the interview process and interviewers, as the internal recruitment team doesn’t spend much time preparing job seekers. They may have some insider tips, but they are often in a rush to fill lots of roles, which isn’t so different than external recruiter. (Of course, if you have contact and are going directly through the hiring manager, rather than an internal HR/recruiter, this can be advantageous)

Now let’s look at the pros and cons of using recruiters.

Recruiters (submitting your application through an external recruitment agency)

PROS

  1. A thoughtful and high-quality recruiter will spend hours helping you prepare for interviews. They will give you helpful advice that you wouldn’t get from HR; if they are particularly experienced, you might get a more thorough history and insights that even some hiring managers couldn’t provide!
  2. Recruiters can help you prepare for interviews and give you feedback that you wouldn’t get from HR; having a dedicated consultant to talk to, practice interviews with, and get advice throughout the process can help calm the nerves and increase your chances of getting the job.
  3. Recruiters can control the speed of the interview process (slowing or speeding it up in your favor) and negotiate your salary. They are accustomed to having uncomfortable conversations that you may not be so skilled at (and many are skilled negotiators). Recruiters can give you constructive feedback/advice on your resume and interviews; conversely, you’ll never get resume feedback from an internal recruiter/HR manager at a company!

CONS

  1. Lock-in period. Once you apply through one recruiter, you have to stick with them for the three month to one year ownership policy. You could be stuck with a recruiter you don’t like or who isn’t particularly helpful, jeopardizing you career, all because of a silly HR rule.
  2. Recruiters are often trying to fill one specific position, so the number of jobs they present to you could be limited/ biased in their favor. You might not get the whole picture, and there could be roles that are more suitable for your background.
  3. If the recruiter has a poor relationship with the company you’re applying for, it could hinder or slow down your application process. The company may not respond to the recruiter, and may not trust them with important information that could be useful for you.

There are clearly advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and it’s not often clear which one is best. However, there is no rule that you have to pick one approach; in fact, I suggest using a mix of both! For example, you could find a great recruiter that has a relationship with a startup you’re interested in (or exclusive information about a startup you didn’t even know was hiring), and use them to apply for the job. In parallel, you could also apply for a job directly to a company because your friend works there and put in a good word for you. Both approaches work.

The caveat with this pro and con analysis is that you should find a great recruiter with a strong relationship, otherwise, it can be a waste of time. The great recruiters will have access to all (or most) open opportunities, can prepare you for interviews, negotiate your salary, manage the interview timeline, and also have a financial incentive to get you hired. Similarly, you can have a bad experience with an internal HR manager or hiring manager when applying directly, regardless of the company or opportunity; or you can have an excellent experience with a caring HR manager that leaves a great impression. There is never a perfect approach, and you’re not always going to have an amazing experience — even if you do have a “nice” interview experience, it doesn’t mean you’ll get the job. This fact should not deter you from applying to a company!

How to Vet a Recruiter

The challenge is finding a good recruiter that has a strong connection with the company you’re applying for. Competence will vary greatly from recruiter to recruiter, even within the same company. The best thing you can do is to ask them to tell you about a few recent hires they made, and/or the hires they made for the specific company you’d like to apply for. Ask them how long it took to find the person for that job. Many times, you’ll find out that they’ve never hired someone for that company! That’s obviously a red flag since it means they still have to learn about the company you’re applying for.

But if they have successfully recruited for that company, they should be able to tell you a lot about their culture, people, roles, salaries, etc. in a lot of detail. You should be receiving a lot of information about their business that isn’t available with a simple google search. If they can’t go into this much detail, then that tells you their relationship is thin with that company (and they’re probably not a great recruiter).

Here are a few key questions you can ask each recruiter to weed out the good from the bad:

  1. Have you met the hiring manager? Can you tell me about them, what is their personality like? What is their interview style and what are they really looking for?
  2. What is your relationship like with the hiring manager?
  3. Have you ever had anyone interview there before or made any successful placements? Can you describe the interview process? What are the names of the interviewers and what are their roles?
  4. Can you explain the business model of the company? Who are their clients? How many users do they have?
  5. Can you tell me about the position? Who else is on the team? What are their specific functions and responsibilities?
  6. How would my performance be measured on the job?
  7. Why is the job open – is it a new job or a replacement? How long has the position been open?
  8. What is the career path for this role?
  9. What is the growth plan of the department over the next couple of years?
  10. Why do you think this is a good opportunity, considering my experience?

I suspect that some recruiters won’t even bother getting back to you after seeing and being asked these questions. However, the good recruiters will have detailed answers and even likely schedule a phone call or face to face with you to go over every single question.

The best recruiter will answer all of your questions in great detail, have a strong relationship with the hiring manager, and will follow up with you to understand your motivations. You can even copy and paste these questions and to send to potential recruiters. You will easily be able to discern who knows their shit, and who’s full of shit.

Great recruiters are on a first-name basis with the hiring manager, play golf on the weekends with them, and maybe they’ve even been to a couple of strip clubs together. And if they’re really good, their families hang out together. They have hired people for the company before. They have built up teams for them and their relationship goes way, way back. They know how to prepare you for an interview and what kind of curve balls might be thrown your way and can give you invaluable advice into the companies structure and pain points.

Lastly, a great recruiter will consult. They will give you objective feedback even if it means risking their commission. For example, if the company or team you are applying for has a bad reputation, they’ll be honest and let you know. If the salary bar is below your salary expectations, they’ll be upfront about it and tell you instead of wasting time, even if it means that you ultimately don’t apply for the job. They will be the difference between you getting the job and never even getting a response from HR.

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