Selecting a Recruitment Agency

Selecting a recruitment agency is a daunting thing to do. I’ve seen it from both sides. I’ve selected, negotiated with and briefed agencies from the small through to the top Search companies and I’ve been on the receiving end too since running my own business specialising in HR recruitment.

I’ve made mistakes too, of course I have, but the great thing about mistakes is you learn such a lot from them and, whilst there are many other considerations, here are some of the insider tips gained from what I have learnt along the way!

The Starting Point

The first thing to consider is what you want from your partner recruitment agency; and you need to be clear about this. This is such an important starting point. If you aren’t clear then you may find yourself in an arrangement that isn’t all together satisfactory for your needs. Weigh up what is feasible to ask for in your environment. The main factors to consider are:

  • The forecast of your vacancy pipeline. Will you be looking to recruit 5 jobs a month or will it be 25 jobs a month? How will that affect agency selection?
  • Do you want the one agency to do all your recruitment? Will you need contractors and fixed term hires as well as permanent employees? How about part-time, full time or shift workers. These factors are important in selecting the right agency for you.
  • There are so many different types of recruitment agencies out there: from the large volume recruiters, to the niche players. Consider a mix of agencies to complement your recruitment needs.
  • On a scale of 0 – 10 where do you want to be in terms of the quality of service you are looking for?
  • If you are up near the 10 mark, what are you prepared to pay for that level of service and do you have the budget for it?

Other factors to consider include HOW you work with your partner agencies; whether your preference is working on a retained, exclusive or contingent basis.

There are of course advantages to each scenario, and it will depend on:

  • The sensitivity or confidentiality of the role being recruited.
  • The level of control of the process you wish to maintain.
  • The importance of how the message is communicated to the market. Briefing multiple agencies can result in the same group of candidates being approached several times. This can reflect badly, especially when recruiting senior roles.
  • The speed in which the role needs to be recruited.
  • The volume of candidates available in the market.
  • The financial commitments and weighing up the ‘risk’ involved in paying a retainer for a search process.

The Non-negotiable Must Haves

Consider what you are absolutely not prepared to compromise on and make sure your chosen agency is able to deliver to that standard. I used to work in a scientific environment where attention to detail and the highest technical ability was critical. It was something I could never compromise on when recruiting for a key member of the scientific team and neither could any agency I dealt with. The reality of that was that to find the right candidate I had to be patient with the agency too and allow them the time to fine me the right person. Yes, it put me under pressure with my HR hat on but I got the best result for the business and ended up with a great recruitment partner in the agency.

On the other hand if speed is your ‘must-have’ then make sure the agency understands that before they pitch for the work. Some agencies are better suited to high volume and speed and their methods of sourcing will reflect that, so look for evidence.

The Recruitment Consultants

Check what their success rate is like and how many of their placements are still working with the same company after 12 months. Check how long the agency has been in business for. Most small businesses only last 3 years so make sure they have a good track record of business success as well as personal recruiting. Company track records (including staff tenure), can tell you a lot about a business.

It’s ok too to ask about the consultants who would be working on your assignments. There is nothing more frustrating than awarding a contract to someone and then 2 months’ later the people you really liked leave. Whilst there can never be any guarantees, finding out a bit more about the recruiter’s own employment history can be very revealing.

Ask about their training programmes. How do they keep up with the marketplace or their own area of specialisation. Is their own business investing in that and spending time and money to ensure their people are well trained. That will give you sense of how ‘grown-up’ the agency is.

Involving Procurement: Involving Procurement in the awarding of contracts is a good thing but you absolutely must get involved in the wider detail!

From an agency perspective we get RFIs that can be unprofessional, intrusive and sometimes verging on being unethical. They are your RFIs and they reflect on your organisation so pay attention to what they are asking for.

  • Read carefully what they are putting in the small print because every agency will be reading this too.
  • Think more about what you are asking an agency to do and remember that although the document comes from Procurement, it will be you who is judged on its content.


Many PSAs ask for reporting. That is fine, measurement is good; however, be careful you don’t send the wrong message. If you want quality and you are prepared to fulfill a thorough process to find the right person, then think about the signals you are giving if the reporting criteria is all about how quickly a role is filled.

If you want an agency to report back with meaningful information, then make sure someone reads and responds to the content of those reports.


  • What information will be really useful in effecting agency improvement?
  • How can you gather information from the agency that will improve what you do?

It may be worthwhile asking people you interview how they have found the process with the agency, or call them up afterwards for feedback. .

The Extra Mile

Go the extra mile to find out what the agency is really like. Take references from clients and candidates. Agencies represent you when they recruit for you so make sure they will represent you well. Check out their offices, see where your candidates will be interviewed. Check how they present themselves, through their website and their communications. Remember, it all reflects back on you, so if they’re thinking of interviewing in the lobby of a hotel, will that truly represent your business?