8 legendary recruitment agency tricks to be aware of

Agents are a wily bunch and their tricks on contractors start from the very first call when an IT employee picks up the phone and says “I’m thinking of becoming a contractor”.

Here are eight legendary agency dirty tricks to look out for!

1. Agents love First Time Contractors

Older contractors may be long in the tooth but new soon-to-be contractors are there for the taking. They haven’t done their market research and they also assume that the person soon to become ‘their agent’ will be on their side and will do their best by them.

The love of agents for first time contractors actually makes contracting a very easy profession to break into.

Your ‘agent’ WILL want to get you work but will be eyeing an opportunity for a killing. Margins of 10% to 20% are the industry norm but agents will spy the opportunity to make much more than that that form a new contractor.

There are many tales where agents were actually taking more than half of what a client paid for a contractor.

2. The Jobs that don’t exist

When contractors are out of work they scan the job boards to find contracts suitable for them and when they do they apply immediately. However, often agencies just put these ‘jobs’ on the job boards so that they can fill up their database with suitable candidates with these skills. The job doesn’t actually exist.

When contractors call up the agency about them after sending in their CV the agency will usually say “it’s been filled”.

Contractors have told us that this has happened within minutes of the jobs being posted and their CV sent in.

3. What is your current rate?

This is a regular stunt that agencies pull. Instead of asking the contractor “what rate are you looking for?”, which is more appropriate, they ask them what their current rate is or their rate at their previous contract.

This is so that they can get a baseline of what a contractor will take.

Of course, the contractor will say “but I’m looking for that amount plus X for this contract”. The agency will say “we’ll try to get you that” but they won’t as they know that you took less than that at your previous job and would surely take that again.

This leaves the extra money for the agent.

4. We need to take references from previous clients of yours

Very very occasionally this is true, probably in less than 1% of the cases where agencies ask for it.

What they really want to get are the names of firms, and the departments, who source contractors. If they can get the name of the person who hires contractors that is even better.

Agencies hire people to do just this, i.e. trawl for useful contacts. They are not the ones who have contact with potential clients, although they always say they are calling because there is a vacancy that they want to put the contractor forward to.

5. What is your bottom line?

This a question that agents put to contractors especially in recessionary times when they know that contractors are desperate.

The contractor has previously quoted the rate that he or she wants. They are a bit nervous about replying to this agency question. However the agent reassures them that he or she will try and get them the rate they want but “we don’t want to count you out for some jobs on lower rates, do we?”

The suspicious but desperate contractor will then quote a ‘base rate’. By law, agencies have to tell you each job that they put you forward for so you can deal with that if and when the opportunity comes along. What happens now is that your base rate now becomes your new rate.

If an agent knows that you will take that, why would he or she offer you any more? He or she can pocket the difference.

6. When are you available?

Agencies call contractors ever so often to find out when they are available. Contractors usually tell them, thinking that this will give the agency an opportunity to get them a contract at the end of their contract period in case they don’t get renewed.

However, unless this is an agent that the contractor has dealt with before this is likely to be a dirty trick. They are more interested in when your job might become available than when you are available. Contractors should be even more suspicious if they want more information like who you are working for, etc.

Once they know when the contractor is up for renewal they will call the client company with a ‘top class’ contractor hoping that this contractor can displace you.

Most contracts are sourced from contractors initiating the contact, e.g. after they have seen a job on one of the job boards. Virtually none come from the result of an agency calling to see if the contractor is available unless the contractor knows the agent.

7. They’ll try to cut your rate

The contractor tells the agent what rate he or she wants. The agency put them forward on that basis. The contractor goes for the interview and gets the job. The agency then contacts the contractor to tell him or her this news but then says “there’s only one thing; I wasn’t able to get you the rate you were looking for. The client could only go to X rather than Y which is £30 a day less than you were asking for”. This is almost certainly a lie.

The agent is just making a late attempt to claw some more money back from the contractor.

If the agent couldn’t get the rate, he or she would have told you before going to the interview.

8. They don’t tell you that you are not going to be renewed

With about a month to go before the contract ends the contractor contacts the agent to see if they will get renewed. The agent says that he will contact the client. If the client is going to renew then the agent quickly ties that up. He doesn’t want to lose business. If there is going to be no renewal, the agent tells the contractor that he can’t get a hold of the client. This agent is on the client’s side and doesn’t want the contractor to waste time by looking for work or even leaving early.

The agent will string the contractor along until just a few days to go.

By that time the contractor will have no chance to get himself or herself another contract and will then spend weeks or even months ‘on the bench’.

The relationship between agent and contractor is like the one between Aesop’s Fox and the Crow. Know that whatever they say, it is with the purpose of getting you to drop your cheese.

This article was provided by Gerry McLaughlin who has 23 years experience of IT Contracting and who writes for

Partner Contractor Accountants

Last updated: 18th January 2024