recruiter flipped out when I asked about the company’s recent struggles

A reader writes:

A while back, I was speaking with a recruiter and she mentioned a position at a company she felt would be a good match for my experience. When she forwarded the job description, I realized that I was familiar with the company and had actually interviewed there prior to accepting my first post-college job at a different company. The company had significant struggles which resulted in bankruptcy, multiple changes in ownership, layoffs, etc. The job description seemed interesting and the company seemed to be making some improvements, but their struggles and frequent changes were a potential red flag for me. I ultimately decided to keep an open mind and reserve judgment until after the interview, figuring that at the very least I’d get more interview practice.

During a pre-interview call with the recruiter who was handling filling the position, she detailed the company’s positive attributes, her history with key people, etc. She asked if I had any questions, so I asked her if she had any insight into the impact the company’s bankruptcy and changes in ownership might have had on its culture or future. She cut me off and then completely flipped out. She told me that I was confusing the company with a different company that it was no longer associated with. (I was not; it turned out that she didn’t know about the company’s bankruptcy or layoffs until she Googled them during our conversation.) She then went on to explain that it wasn’t an appropriate question to ask in an interview and I should instead focus on convincing the company to consider me as a candidate. She felt asking about the company’s issues that early in the process was self-centered and similar to asking about salary in the first interview.

During the interview with the company, the hiring managers brought up the company’s issues and detailed the significant impact that the changes had and would continue to have on the company’s culture and future. I walked away from the situation with a positive perception of the hiring managers due to their honesty but a negative perception of the recruiter.

After retelling the story to my mom, she understood why a candidate might have questions about the company’s issues but agreed with the recruiter that companies wouldn’t want candidates to ask those questions. I felt that if companies can ask about candidates’ past successes / failures and how they’ve moved past or dealt with them, candidates should be able to ask similar questions. What do you think? If a company is experiencing hardships or some other publicly known drama that could affect a candidate’s desire to work for the company, when would it be ok for a candidate to broach the topic? How should these questions be phrased or what kinds of questions should the candidate ask?

What?! That recruiter was insane. And way off base.

In fact, I wish you’d told the hiring manager in the interview how the recruiter had reacted when you brought up the very issues they were taking the time to tell you about, because they should know how that person is representing them and how far afield she is from how they probably want it handled.

Of course it’s reasonable to ask about these things. After all, put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes: If a candidate was informed enough to know this type of thing about your company, wouldn’t you want to talk to them about it so that you could tell them your side of the story, answer their questions about it, and make sure that they’d be okay with whatever the company’s current situation was? And who would you rather hire: the person who’s thinking rigorously about these sorts of issues and taking the time to make sure she ends up at the right place, or the candidate who’s cavalier about their career or who’s worried about it but too unassertive to feel comfortable asking? (And sure, there might be some companies who prefer the uninformed or unassertive candidates, but they’re not going to be good places to work, so it’s useful to screen them out by finding that out early.)

Your recruiter’s argument that you should only focus on convincing the company to hire you is absurd. The best candidates certainly explain why they’d be a good hire, but they also investigate fit and look out for themselves too; that’s the whole point of having options, and good employers want the candidates who have options.

And her claim that your question was “self-centered” and similar to asking about salary — well, god forbid that candidates take an interest in what they’ll be paid for their work. It’s not like that’s a highly relevant factor or anything. She’s suffering from some fairly fundamental misconceptions about how good hiring works and how good candidates operate.

As for how to bring this type of thing up, it sounds like you handled it just fine. You don’t want to be accusatory or come out swinging, of course, but you didn’t. You simply noted what you’d read and asked about the impact — that’s reasonable, that’s normal, and any sane recruiter or hiring manager isn’t going to have a problem with that.

That recruiter was negligent and awful at her job.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Jazzy Red*

    That recruiter is only interested in getting her commission.

    Alison’s remark about bringing up the recruiter’s behavior during the interview is right on. If you get the job, you might mention it sometime to one of the people who interviewed you.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d even go a step further and say that in the interview itself, when they started talking about the struggles, she could/should have said, “I so appreciate you raising this. I’d actually asked Jane Smith about it, and she became fairly upset with me for asking, so I’m glad to know that it’s something you’re willing to discuss.”

    2. Kerry*

      That recruiter is only interested in getting her commission.

      Ding ding ding.

      Recruiters can be really weird about interview prep. I’ve never had an actually bad recruiter, but I remember a few years ago doing some research on my interviewers (nothing major, just Googling and seeing if we had any shared LinkedIn connections) and found out that one of them was into travel photography, an interest I also share. I mentioned that to my recruiter and he got a bit worked up and told me not to bring it up in the interview, as I needed to keep it 100% focused on work and not ‘take tangents’! Very odd. I think they’re just anxious about anything that deviates from their script of an interview norm.

  2. Anon*

    There are so many occasions where it would seem prudent to send a link to the AAM answer page to the person in question. This is one of this occasions.

    1. Runon*

      Just once I would love to see someone raise their hand and respond saying, “That was me.”

      (Not the OP but the other party.)

            1. Eric*

              Oh, I meant none of them would flip out at a job candidate for asking questions like this.

  3. PJ*

    I agree with the recruiter that the LW was self-centered in asking about the company’s issues. She clearly was not thinking about the important issue, which was the recruiter’s commission. Shame on you, LW.

  4. Brittany*

    Some recruiters are just batsh*t insane. I feel badly you experienced that because that person is the type who gives the people in recruiting a very bad name that are good at it and actually care.

    I remember when I was up for a job at a biotech, the recruiter spent the entire time on the phone telling me what a “hard sell” I was because I had been at my last position “only 2 years” (which let’s face it, for 20-something’s in this decade is actually a good amount of time, plus it was entry level). She kept saying that to me and telling me how hard it was going to be for them to like me. Thankfully, I was well-versed in the industry so I didn’t let it affect my confidence during the interview, but it easily could have if I didn’t know better. I rocked it and had an offer before I left.

    Needless to say, some recruiters are terrible. I agree that if there is follow-up from the company, you should make them aware of how badly this recruiter is making them look and potentially driving away good candidates for other positions. In my current role, we had no idea we had a recruiter who was acting similarly and HR was furious when they found out!

  5. Lisa*

    Personally, I love the recruiters that tell you that the position is paying 100k, then realize through later conversations that you are making 50k, and the offer is suddenly only at 55k and that you should be eternally grateful to get any bump.

      1. Lisa*

        Yup. I called out the recruiter saying that this bait-and-switch tactic on under-paid candidates was pathetic. Told him I deserve to be paid market-value for my level of experience and that since I didn’t expect him to go back to the originally advertised salary that our conversation was over. Had I never given salary history, I would have been offered at least 95k, which was the beginning of the salary range budgeted for the job according to our first conversation.

  6. Leslie Yep*

    I had a similar experience with an HR rep once who flipped out about a reasonable question. After receiving an offer for a grant-funded research job, I had a question about the benefits information published on the public website. I think my specific question was something about whether insurance coverage would apply to the position type.

    She became really agitated and assured me that it was “highly unusual!” for someone to ask a question about benefits before formally accepting an offer. “Highly unusual!”

    I would totally understand if there were some reason she couldn’t tell me–e.g. “We’re still working out the funding structure for this position”–but I’m pretty sure it’s commonplace to resolve questions about salary and benefits before accepting an offer, right?

    1. Natalie*

      “I’m pretty sure it’s commonplace to resolve questions about salary and benefits before accepting an offer, right?”

      I would say it’s nearly universal, given that once you accept the offer you’ve explicitly accepted whatever salary or benefits are part of that offer!

      1. Lisa*

        Yeah I waited 3 months for a job to tell me the salary of an offer that was coming, so I took another job and got a really amusing email. Saying how disappointed they were that I was being so short-sighted by not waiting to hear their offer.

  7. Joey*

    Remember, recruiters are salespeople. Some are interested in long term business while others the quick sale.

  8. MiketheRecruiter*

    Yet another reason I’m doing everything I can to transition out of the staffing side of recruiting – it’s full of slimy, dishonest salespeople, and a lot of straight up uneducated folks.

    A good recruiter should be honest with the candidate about the company – and good candidates ask good, hard questions.

    It’s a tight market in the technical and other highly skilled/specialized fields, so when people actually get someone on the phone, they do whatever they can to pressure you into making a huge decision.

    Since I’m not driven by money, I’m not a great staffing recruiter at all :).

    1. Joey*

      Yes this is the difficult part of staffing – finding great candidates in a tight market. But in all honesty that’s the whole point of hiring recruiters.

  9. Ed*

    I would be very hesitant to take a job at a company either going into or just coming out of bankruptcy. I’ve been there before and they are sometimes hiring people who are technically temporary but they don’t disclose that or they would never fill the job. When they decide they get can rid of your job in a year and you quit early, they still have to fill your role with someone competent for the rest of that year. Obviously the ethical thing to do is either disclose that or to fill it with a contractor but there are definitely companies that would keep it to themselves.

    I’ve had a couple of interviews where it sort of accidentally came out towards the end that the job in question was actually ending but they were obligated to fill it. I can remember one interview in particular that involved relocation (at my expense but I was actually looking to relocate at the time) for a 2-year contract. The pay was good so I thought it would be a decent opportunity to move with a job lined up. It turned out the “2-year contract” was already 18 months in, the person quit to have a baby so it was really just the 6 months that were left on the contract and the company informed told them they were not renewing the contract. I immediately asked why they didn’t lead with that when they knew I wasn’t local and they didn’t really have an answer.

    1. Ruffingit*

      That’s terrible Ed! Glad you figured out that the 2-year job was really only 6 months before you put the effort into relocation. It would have been possibly disastrous to uproot your life and then find that out!

    2. Elizabeth West*

      One of my interviews was with a company that was facing federal charges for something one of their importers did, and was involved in bankruptcy. When they told me that, I told them I honestly didn’t think I would take the job if it were offered, because I had already been through one business closing. They said they expected to come through it okay, but I didn’t want to be there if they were wrong. We were all very nice about it. Just no. No no no. I hope they worked it all out, though. They seemed nice. :(

      1. Ruffingit*

        I can’t blame you for steering clear of that company. Facing federal charges and bankruptcy? Yeah, that screams “Stable and ethical.” Getting involved in that would have been quite a gamble. They might have come through it just fine, but if they didn’t, you’d be out of a job. Not worth it.

  10. OP*

    Thank you Alison and everyone else for the feedback!

    The hiring managers would probably benefit from knowing about the recruiter’s practices but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable mentioning it to them in the interview. The recruiter supposedly has a long-standing relationship with some members of the management team so I don’t think it would have been a good move. Not to mention, the recruiter was weird and I wouldn’t want to do anything that might give her a reason to contact me.

    I followed up with the recruiter a few weeks after the interview to see where things stood. I found out that they’d informed her the week before that I wasn’t a good cultural match (my exact concern). It seems that if I hadn’t contacted her she wasn’t going to call or email me to let me know that I was no longer being considered. However, I am allowed to check-in from time to time about other opportunities. (Which I look forward to never doing.)

  11. Elizabeth*

    Wow – that recruiter sound like she hasn’t got a clue about what she is supposedly doing for a living. She’s really bad at her job. I think your question was completely appropriate, and obviously the company would have felt the same way, as they brought it up in the interview.

    I think the recruiter is not operating with a full deck.

  12. Rachel*

    The initial conversation with the recruiter would have been enough to convince me that even if I had been interested in being considered, I wouldn’t have been interested in *them* putting my CV forward for consideration. You knew the people involved, so there’d have been nothing stopping you contacting the company directly on LinkedIn, asking them the same polite and respectful question you asked the recruiter, and deciding whether you wanted to apply directly or not based on the answer you got. Either way, there’s never any reason to work with a recruiter that thinks recruitment is all about you impressing the prospective employer, with no onus being on the employer (and, indeed, the recruiter) to impress you too.

  13. anon-2*

    Back in the “glory days” of computing – the mid-80s, the mid-90s, headhunters were prevalent, and I had a very good one. He was even fired once from a firm, because he was too ethical.

    Some headhunters are the most non-scrupled people I’ve ever met in a 40-year career. You’ve probably seen some of my prior posts about counter-offers – I am quick to point out that a counter offer is a headhunter’s worse nightmare, and they are the ones who are most vehement and write things “Don’t accept it, you will be fired in six months!” etc. — fully realizing that a counter offer is sometimes the only way a line manager can reward and promote his employees.

    Even in bad times, watch out for them. In my “Dinner Table Stories” collection I will have two doozies concerning crooked headhunters.

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