Keil Hubert: Lost in Vexation

Keil Hubert: Lost in Vexation

A recruiter who doesn’t know how to read a map is wasting everyone’s time. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert advises business professionals to keep highly-detailed notes about the ‘head-hunters’ and firms that contact them about ridiculous ‘opportunities.’

Many so-called ‘head-hunters’ are simply rubbish at their jobs. If this comes as a surprise, let’s consider the eight unsolicited ‘invitations’ that I received after I posted last week’s column to my editor. Five of the ‘opportunities’ I received were for state government civil service positions – four with South Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (all pitched by different agencies), and one with Michigan’s DHHS. One invitation was for a defence contractor position at an Army base in Mississippi. Another was for a global mega-bank in New Jersey. All eight of these listings were for six-month contracts with no ‘temp-to-perm’ option … and no travel or relocation option.

One of the obvious signs that the person send you a job opportunity is either a damned fool or a con artist is when they offer you a non-permanent position located 500+ km away from your home region and expect you cover all your own costs for getting to where the ‘opportunity’ is. I could maybe understand this if the head-hunter was pitching a gig to a young, single, entry-level worker with no community ties. For a mature worker with a career, a home, and any sort of family responsibilities? Such pitch is more than just inappropriate – it’s insulting. It shows that the head-hunter either doesn’t know what he or she doing, or else is a shyster.

It’s that last factor that makes them (and the person sending them) rubbish: taking any of these gigs would require either leaving my family behind in Texas and starting up a second household in the client’s city (an expensive and logistically cumbersome proposition,) or else relocating my family across the country, an obscenely expensive effort that would take more than six months to complete in and of itself. That sort of challenge might be worth it for a permanent position with appropriate benefits, but for a six-month contract? One with no health insurance? One with no employee protections against arbitrary termination? And no opportunity for advancement? Ah, no.

That being said, I do enjoy chatting with these people. Mostly, this is because I want to understand exactly what they were thinking when they decided to pitch me on such an obviously nonviable prospect. Most of the time, I’ll carefully read the head-hunter’s ‘invitation to apply’ and then respond with a thoughtful counter-proposal. As an example, here’s a (slightly edited) note that I sent to a rather arrogant head-hunter back in 2014:

I may have taken some small amusement in yanking the fellow’s chain.

Good afternoon, Bob. [1]

Thank you for your e-mail and follow-on phone call this afternoon. To clarify what we discussed, you’re offering between $40-55/hour for a six-month-long, entry-level, technical writer position with an un-named defence-sector company in the Cambridge, Massachusetts region, starting ASAP. This is an independent contractor arrangement, with no benefits and no travel or expenses factored.

It should have been clear from my LinkedIn profile that I’m based out of Dallas, Texas. Texas is not generally considered part of New England, so I’m a bit puzzled as to why you’ve approached me for this role. It seems like you’d want someone already in the general area.

I researched the overhead cost of taking on this role, and discovered the following:

  • A single round-trip via personally-owned auto from Dallas to Cambridge and then back again at the end of the job would cost $2,002.56 (consuming $1.92/hour over the life of the six-month contract) using IRS 2014 rates for per-mile travel.
  • The absolute cheapest extended-stay hotel within 50 miles of Cambridge, Massachusetts from 15th September 2014 through 15th March 2015 is $13,849.65 with city and state taxed (consuming another $13.27/hour), assuming that there’s availability for the entire contract duration.
  • The Office of Personnel Management’s 2014 Meals & Incidental Expenses rate for food, tolls, etc. for Cambridge, Massachusetts for the same date range comes to $12,957.50 (consuming another $12.41/hour) not counting the ‘October surge’ rate listed in the OPM tables.

That means that the cost for me to drive myself to Massachusetts to perform this work for six months and then drive back to Texas at the end of the job imposes to an absolute minimum drain of $27.60 an hour per hour worked (not counting Massachusetts’s 5% state income tax). That’s almost exactly half of the proposed maximum gross hourly rate of $55/hour. A 50% drain on one’s earnings to subsidize one’s employer is economically counter-productive.

If you’re intent on robbing me, at least have the courtesy to not be so bloody obvious about it. Your naked condescension insults us both.

If I was somehow convinced to accept your proposed minimum rate of $40/hour, I’d net only $4,594 total after travel, which would work out to me taking home $4.40/hour … less than half of Massachusetts’ mandatory minimum wage.

This is all basic maths, by the way. I’m not factoring the region’s increased cost of living, the fact that my current health insurance won’t cover any medical expenses incurred outside of the state of Texas, or the need for region-specific expenses like snow tyres. In effect, then, you’re asking me to perform six months of work, over the holiday season, away from my spouse and school-age children, essentially for free. Or for as close to free as makes no difference.

I have to ask, then, if you’re truly serious about this ‘opportunity’ to serve your client. I find it strange that you’d ask an out-of-state resource to ‘eat’ the entire cost of a cross-country re-location out of his wages. If you’re serious about this opportunity, then your contract rate would be entirely my earnings for the labour that I performed – and all travel costs would have to be expensed separately. That, or you pay me to relocate my family to Massachusetts. Both approaches work.

Or, more realistically, this work can be performed remotely at zero travel cost. There’s very little in the job description that requires the labourer to physically occupy a seat in the building. It says that the writer will generate policy documents from other people’s notes. Any half-way decent technical writer can do that from a random coffee shop with a laptop and a VPN connection.

Think about it and get back to me if you’d like to revise your proposal. And thanks again for your call. Respectfully,

Keil Hubert

‘Respectfully’ may have been stretching it a bit. 

If you’re thinking that I never heard back from this particular head-hunter, you’d be right. He immediately went into full comms-silence. Fortunately (for his dignity), the boutique staffing firm he represented has never (as yet) contacted me again. I assume that he blacklisted me just as I blacklisted both him personally and his company. Anything coming his top-level domain now gets recorded in my tracker, but gets neither considered nor acknowledged.

It’s not always like that, though. Some head-hunters are … let’s say ‘optimistic’ … enough to try and sweeten the deal on the assumption that I really can’t do sums. I’ve needled several companies with similar fact-based challenges, and more than a few have come back and suggested that they’d raise their top end rate by +$4-$5/hour to ‘cover’ the $28-$41/hour that I’d calculated in travel costs. HA! Onto the blacklist with them!

To be fair, a precious few head-hunters were thoughtful enough to deal with the facts as facts. One in particular called me to apologize and offered to increase the proposed contract rate for the expected travel expense amount and the potential federal income tax burden that might arise from moving up one income tax bracket. She demonstrated empathy, professionalism, and a sense of humour. Her client rejected the submission as being too far out of their range (as expected), but that particular head-hunter earned herself and her firm a positive reception for all future submissions.

I mentioned in last week’s column that I’ve been keeping job search records in an Excel workbook for the past five years. This cross-country job ‘opportunity’ experience is one of the main reasons why I keep a log. Every time a new ‘opportunity’ comes across my desk, the first thing that I do is to look up the name of the agency and the name of the submitter to remind myself what I thought of them the last time we interacted (assuming that we have). Any head-hunter or agency that I’ve blacklisted gets their submission sent straight to the bin.

This will have to do; I couldn’t find a stock photo of an office waste bin set on fire.

The second thing that I look for is how far away the gig is. If it’s more than four hours’ drive away, I look for the option for it to either be performed remotely. If that isn’t an option, then I look for mentions of either travel arrangements or relocation. If that isn’t there … I get curious. I start asking questions to see what sort of person I’m dealing with.

Many times, I discover that the sending agency is staffed by foreigners who have no clue at all about US geography. I’ve asked a head-hunter last week if he had any idea where New York City was. Could he even tell me which side of the country it was located on? Nope! He was spamming every American on Glassdoor about a gig on the East coast, as if all of America was Mega-City One from the 2000 A.D. comic. Only the blacklist you go, fella.

This is why I advise everyone to keep highly-detailed records of all of their job search activities, even when they’re not interested in taking a new position. The data helps to highlight who in the industry can possibly be trusted to represent your interests and who definitely can’t. Advocates are excellent force-multipliers for getting a great gig; crap advocates, on the other hand, can ruin your reputation with a potential employer by acting like a clueless buffoon while representing you.

That’s why I strongly recommend challenging the folks who approach you about potential gigs in order to see how they react to uncomfortable questions. If a person or agency isn’t willing to treat you with respect, dignity, and transparency during the ‘wooing’ phase, then they’re certainly not going to treat you well after they’ve made off with their cut of your pay cheque.

Some head-hunters strike me as the sort of miscreants who only got into recruiting because it was less physically demanding than traditional types of robbery.

I’ve assembled a list of about five dozen head-hunter agencies that I will never do business with based on how we’ve interacted in recent years. Similarly, there are a precious few good eggs out in the industry that I’ll take a call from, even when I’m not interested in considering a new gig. Courtesy, thoughtfulness, and respect build ferocious loyalty and goodwill, even in a mercenary business model.

Personal networking should be a crucial part of your professional life. Cultivate and respect the people who treat you with respect in-turn. Jettison the people who don’t. It’s hard enough finding decent work these days. Don’t’ make it any harder on yourself than absolutely necessary by entertaining idiots. Especially idiots who don’t understand elementary geography.


[1] Not his real name, obviously.

Title Allusion: Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation (2003 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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