Startups, Recruiters, and Ethics

Share your experiences and opinions regarding the viability of using the recruiting industry to discover qualified candidates for WordPress startups.
Andrew Lundquist
Andrew Lundquist
May 22, 2013
February 15, 2024

I’m very curious about the experiences and opinions of others regarding the viability of using the recruiting industry to discover qualified candidates - particularly across our demographic of bootstrapped technology startup owners. We have zero debt, no strong funding ambitions, and a radical commitment to frugal and prudent fiscal approaches. These factors usually guide us clear of any consideration to involve recruiting agencies in our hiring process due to the overhead and politics they often introduce into to the picture. We simply don’t have the extra cash or time in our budget, but our radar is always scanning for exceptional talent paired with tight cultural commonalities. Recently, our need for additional team members grew to the point where we were actively hunting and interviewing, and a recruiter arrived on the scene. Our predisposition to living, working, and playing Outside the Box compelled us to ask: could we get an unconventional and valuable bootstrap-friendly result from the highly conventional and bureaucratic system of the recruiting world.

Before I go any further I need to make a few things very clear. I am not trying to build a case against the shortcomings and pitfalls of recruiting practices and the industry in general. There is a healthy debate to have there, but that is not my destination in this article. I’m sure they provide a valuable service to many companies. However, I am specifically interested in exploring the original question I hinted at: what stories and opinions are out there in this space, and how do they reflect on the intersection of the recruiting industry with cash-tight startups? Is there a market for that intersection? Or is that an approach better avoided by both sides?

Here’s a summary of our recent experience in this arena. A recruiter reached out to me via LinkedIn and asked if we needed help finding someone. Out of curiosity I didn't shut down the conversation. My internal logic suggested I should, knowing the potential factors involved, but I wanted more data on the possibilities and couldn’t escape the “what ifs” - what if this could actually save us time while staying within budget? The recruiter said he had a couple candidates we might be interested in. I brought the option to my partners and we collectively thought it was worth it to see where the path might lead.

With substantial first-hand experience in this area, Kenn picked up the torch. We soon had a resume in front of us that caught our interest. We aspire to extremely high standards of transparency and integrity, and we knew that it was really important to firmly establish the following clarifications from the very beginning:

  1. Our total, specific budget available for the hire overhead if we selected a candidate. The recruiter assured us they could work within all budgets. We made it clear that anything beyond our total spend limit would not be an option for us.
  2. The candidate did not have any standing contractual agreements with the recruiter. This was important because we didn't want to get entangled by proxy in something we could not agree to, and we wanted to drive the maximum possible benefit to the selected candidate while staying within budget.
  3. We sincerely valued the recruiter’s role in making introductions but did not need their services for anything beyond that. We would handle all interviewing, communication, and offer negotiation directly with the candidate if it reached that point. In recognition of the recruiter’s connecting role we would compensate them up to our budget. This was agreeable to the recruiter in the conversations we had.

We hit an unexpected wall when we decided to make an offer to the candidate and tried to finalize an agreement with the recruiter in order to provide the payment that we had discussed originally. They wanted a structure for the arrangement and signatures on verbiage that was different than we had discussed. “Standard procedure” was the reasoning presented (and I’m sure it truly was). On top of this, the total compensation they were asking for was several times our maximum budget that we had previously articulated. It was quite frustrating to watch what should have been a simple administrative exercise degenerate into a new round of negotiations that we thought had been hammered out at the very beginning.

This raises some fascinating questions. Is this something inherent in the industry or an anomaly we have stumbled upon? Is the factor more pronounced in our guarded financial stance? Even more troubling, however, is that we’re supposed to be at the end of this conversation with the recruiter and there is this huge apparent disconnect. It’s almost like they had a fundamental assumption at the beginning of the process that we didn't actually mean what we said - that it was expedient to be agreeable to what we wanted and needed based on an expectation that we could be convinced or won over to something different in the future. Is this how most “normal” business is conducted? Do people expect to say and hear things they don’t actually mean for the first few rounds of negotiation and then eventually say what they do actually intend to be the outcome? How can that possibly be productive or efficient or honest? I know corruption is endemic in the highest levels of both government and corporate America, but has it really become so completely pervasive that people no longer realize that they are even operating this way?

Let's explore a simple analogy. I walk up to a lemonade stand and say, “I only have a quarter, is that enough to buy a cup of lemonade?” The vendor responds with a smile, “Sure - here you go.” I say, “Fantastic!” and receive the cup and take a big gulp (it’s a very hot and humid day). Then, something really bizarre happens. The vendor says, “Tasty isn't it? That will be a dollar.” I scratch my head. “Wait,” I say, “you told me it would be a quarter. That’s all I have and here it is - here, you can have it just like we talked about.” The vendor frowns, says, “Well, I don’t want it - I need a dollar,” and crosses his arms. Then what?

Isn't this approach disingenuous if not misleading? I’m sure the recruiter would never consider themselves as being dishonest. And yet, our lemonade analogy is no exaggeration. Are those tactics acceptable in any business interaction? Are large traditional services like recruiting agencies unable to adapt and therefore ill-suited to the nimble requirements and hard constraints of startups who are, by their nature, doing as much as possible themselves to get their ideas off the ground? Or are the politics indicative of a problem that runs far deeper than mere bureaucratic incompatibilities?

What would you do? Has your startup intersected the recruiting world in any similar ways? What happened? What did you do? Or what would you do in a comparable situation? How would you try to resolve it? What is ethical?

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