How and why to strategically leverage staffing firms the next time you're job hunting.


I fell backwards into my career.

I was a recent college grad (slash bartender), and in 2008, a friend of mine told me she got her job (at a HUGE, local company) by starting there as a “temp.” I had never heard of this before. So I went into the firm she used to inquire about how it all worked, and within a week, they hired me internally as an Admin Assistant. I learned everything from the ground up, and a year later, I was a Staffing Manager: the one behind the scenes serving as the connector between company and candidate. I saw first-hand just how successful (and easy!) this type of partnership could be, and I wondered “Why isn’t everyone using this type of resource?” 

Looking back, I was super fortunate to learn early on a.) WHAT staffing firms even were, and b.) just HOW helpful they could be if engaged properly. Truth be told, had I not had that experience, I probably would have held a lot of the same misconceptions many of my JOBTALK clients do now: “I heard it costs money to register with them? Don’t they only work with executives? Isn’t my background to niche for them to help me?”  No, no, and not usually. I’ve heard it all. But hey, we don’t know what we don’t know… until someone breaks it down for us. 

So in an effort to help demystify this employment resource, I thought I’d share a few tips on HOW and WHY you might want to consider adding them to your process next time you’re job hunting. I mean, if you’re looking for you, you might as well have others looking for you, too, right? Worst case scenario, you find yourself something before they do! It’s all up-side.  That being said, here are a few ways you can ensure you’re getting the most out of this partnership.

Getting Started: Choosing the right kind of firm for your needs.

The first thing you need to understand is that there are A LOT of different types of firms out there. Regardless of what they call themselves (e.g., temp agencies, staffing firms, executive search firms, “head-hunters,” etc.), they all essentially function in the same way. They help companies that are looking to hire, connect with you, the job seeker. Consider them the friend that sets you up on a blind date. They can’t guarantee you’ll like each other, but they know enough about what you’re both looking for that there’s a good chance it’ll work out. You both still get a say in the matter, but the firm is the liaison that talks you up to each other, hoping to spark an initial conversation or meeting. 

Understand the types of placement they offer.

As you look into firms, you’ll hear a few different terms: contract or temporary, temp-to-hire, and direct-hire. Not all firms offer all types of placement (some offer more), so you have to find ones that provide the types of assistance you’re looking for.  For instance, if you’re employed and confidentially searching, you’re probably not going to consider leaving your permanent job for say, a 2-month temp opportunity. You’d want to work with a firm you know specialized in, or at least offered, direct-hire placement.

Direct-hire means you’ll be hired by the company on day one. The company simply hired the firm to source candidates for them, because maybe they lacked the time or resources to manage the search process themselves. (At no point are you paid by, or employed by, the firm.) The company pays the firm a “finder’s fee,” and that’s where you and the firm express your thanks and part ways. 

This scenario may look different of course if you were unemployed and open to immediate work. Ultimately, you may desire direct-hire placement, but perhaps you’re also open to temporary or contract opportunities in the meantime. (This is great for some extra cash while you’re still continuing your own search for something permanent, and hey, maybe you gain some good experience while you’re at it.) As a temp, you work on-site at the company, but you are an employee of the firm, and your paychecks come from them, not the company.  A lot of people assume temp roles are entry-level. That’s not true. They may be, but the “temp” designation comes from the assignment’s duration, not experience level.

Temp-to-hire opportunities are similar, however, with these, there is an understanding up front that the company has a DESIRE to possibly hire someone permanently after 90 days or so,  assuming everyone feels it’s a great match. There are no guarantees of course, so I always tell clients - think of this as a 90-day job interview. On the flip side, it’s also 90 days that you get to decide if you’d even WANT to work there permanently. It’s a “try before you buy” scenario for everyone involved.  In a temp-to-hire scenario, you’d be paid by the firm until there was an agreement between you and the company that you were to be officially hired on. You’d have an official transition date where you would then go onto the company’s payroll, receive their benefits, etc.  (I know a lot of people who found amazing long-term jobs this way, and they appreciated being able to test the waters of the organization before committing, so there are some real benefits to this type of arrangement if you encounter it.)

Specialized vs. General Staffing

In addition to the placement type they offer, you also want to choose the type of firm that caters to your field or skill set. While general staffing firms may tackle a little bit of everything (accountants to truck drivers to engineers), specialized firms focus on certain fields or functions, and that’s their sweet spot.  So regardless of whether you’re in IT or graphic design, or a super specific niche (cellular biologists anyone?), there is most likely a specialized firm out there for you. Same thing goes for location. If you’re open to relocation, work with a firm that has a national scope in your space. Not relocatable? Use both; local firms may have deeper connections with local companies.

My advice -  if you’re a specialist, work with other specialists. They know your field, your job, and what companies in your space want. When you work with someone who spends 100% of their time (versus maybe 10% of their time) working on roles just like yours, they’re more likely to match you with the right opportunities because they know what they’re talking about. They’re also able to articulate your experience, and represent your value, to these companies in a real way because everyone is speaking the same language.

Remember that this relationship is a PARTNERSHIP.  

Before I dive into this one, please hear me loud and clear. NOT ALL FIRMS ARE CREATED EQUAL. I have worked with some amazing, empathetic, and ethical Staffing Managers, and I have worked with some who I wouldn’t trust to read me the news. It’s important to remember that one bad egg doesn’t spoil the dozen, but you should know you have options in who you work with, and there are many, many firms out there to choose from.  That being said, remember that this is not a one-way street. If you look at staffing firms as a transactional resource, they will look at you like a transactional candidate.  

Be honest, be professional, and be real.  Investing time into your conversation or meetings with them is huge. Don’t just breeze through it. Talk to them in a way that you want them to remember when they’re on the phone with a company who may have something that matches your background.  Let them see your personality.  Be honest and transparent. What do they need to know? Remember, they are tasked with selling your background to companies for you, so don’t withhold important information related to your candidacy. Talk about the gaps on your resume or the fact that you got laid off from that last place.  They need to know, and in many cases, they will help you navigate tricky conversations. And why wouldn’t they? If you get placed – they make money. While that sounds transactional, this is where that partnership piece comes in. You WANT to get placed. You may NEED them to help you get a foot in the door. You help them, and they help you.


Accountability has to be shared.

As much as you want to hold them accountable for following up with you and providing you real feedback about what they think your chances are in getting placed, you need to hold yourself accountable, too! Do what you say you’re going to do. Be on time. Communicate with your Staffing Manager and share feedback from your interviews. Send them follow-up/thank you emails after you interview, so they can forward them to the company. Until you’re extended a job offer, you’re in this together.  This all goes for the newbies, too. If it’s been a few weeks since registering with a firm, and you haven’t heard anything, reach out to them! I promise you they are not avoiding you; they just have a lot of touch points and it’s non-stop.  So pick up the phone, or send an email, but don’t complain that you haven’t heard anything. Simply say hi. Maybe ask them what they’re working on, what they’re seeing in the market, and ask them if there is anything you can do to “stay on top of their radar” when something you’d be interested in opens up. They’ll appreciate it… and not screen your calls.


Build a foundation of trust, and ask for REAL feedback.

This is your chance to get honest and unfiltered feedback. A lot of people never hear the truth behind why they’re not moving past the phone screen. This is your chance, but you have to ask for it. As partners, if you are a tough sell for them (for whatever reason), you want them to share that insight with you so you can discuss it, grow from it, or work through it, right? Be humble. Be coachable. And be open to deepening your level of self-awareness. If they don’t think you can (or won’t) do that, or worse, they think you’ll deflect it and blame them for not placing you yet, then you’ll never get that feedback. I mean, come on, who wants to walk into that fire storm?  Instead, they’re going to focus their time on candidates that aren’t going to fly off the handlebars, because if you act that way with them, you might act that way towards one of their clients, and THAT is something they will NOT risk. That is something that will get you tossed into the Do Not Place (DNP) file. You have to remember this is a BUSINESS partnership – not a friendship. And they will not risk their business just to appease you.  So be gracious. Be patient. And say thank you. (Because trust me, to most hiring managers, attitude almost always trumps experience.)


Continue your own job search and communicate when you have interviews.

Regardless of how many firms you register with, or even if you’re on a contract assignment for one of them, never stop performing your own job search.  Staffing firms should complement your process, not become your only source of opportunities (in case there aren’t any). While they will absolutely have access to openings you may not see on the job boards (common), there may be companies that don’t use firms and, therefore, you’ll still want to apply to them directly.  You can always graciously decline if a firm calls you with something that’s not the right fit. Just be sure to communicate why, so they can recalibrate their search.  

The same thing goes if you’re on a temp assignment and you land an interview for a role you applied to yourself. Don’t ghost the firm or the company. Simply communicate it to the firm first, and they’ll help you communicate it to the company you’re on-site with, ensuring you have the time to step away and go interview. As awkward as that may feel, the firm AND the company appreciate that you’re there, and they completely understand that you need to interview for permanent roles as they come up. It all circles back to having an open line of communication and a partnership based on mutual respect. If the firm or company does NOT support you in this way, don’t work with them in the future. If it turns sour in any regard, be a professional and simply offer them a two-week notice. Regardless of whether it’s your first day on an assignment or your last, you always want to protect your reputation and personal brand throughout. Some bridges just aren’t worth burning, especially if you’re early in your career or living in a more rural area. It’s a very small world.


In a nutshell…

Staffing firms can be an incredible compliment to your job hunt, but there is no way they can guarantee they’ll get a job order that matches what you’re looking for, so be patient, diversify your options by registering with a few firms, and always maintain your own search. Show up as an accountable, openminded partner to the process, and remember - even if they don’t place you in your forever role today, they may be who you’re calling tomorrow when YOU need to hire someone on your team, so keep it kosher.

Krystal Hicks