Why recruiter spam works and why you might as well stop complaining

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tl;dr; The incentives of employers, job-seekers and recruiters don’t align and won’t change. Platforms like LinkedIn make the situation worse by giving the tools to scale spam.

To understand why recruiter spam exist one has to understand the incentives of all players involved: Employers, recruiters and platforms like LinkedIn. To grok what’s happening, one has to take a bird’s-eye view. A misunderstanding of work and output of the other party is often at the core of frustration people have.

Recruiter spam, is it *the recruiters’* fault?

There are good recruiters who want to add value and minimize the level that others are pissed off (Note that it’s impossible to be a recruiter and to NOT piss of some people some of the time.) These recruiters want to gain and keep a good reputation long-term. But there are also others who don’t care so or aren’t aware that they are spamming people because they aren’t from “the internet world”.

Sadly, the incentives of recruiters are similar to those of spammers. If a recruiter contacts thousands developers with a generic as in “I came across your LinkedIn profile and I am so impressed with your skill set!” it is not because they love to waste these people’s time but it is because it works. When they just send enough of these messages, then some will reply very negatively, these get forgotten, and some will reply positively. Only the last group matters for the recruiter to make money.

Since many (agency) recruiters come from “non-tech” backgrounds such as barkeeping or selling insurances, they don’t care about their (online) reputation and some don’t even plan to stay in recruitment for too long. Hence, for them it is rational to just do the things that are most easy to them: Mass message people. Grey market tools that automate Linkedin are regularly blocked but still available and accessible to the most non-technical user. Since many recruiters come from a different background, they might not even consider it spam t to send the same message to thousands of people. This makes the situation even more asymmetrical. If you don’t think or don’t know that what your doing is wrong, then you won’t stop doing it. Some recruiters just don’t care to piss off 9.999 people if they connect with one only one interested person.

Recruiter spam, is it LinkedIn’s fault?

On Facebook, if you try to befriend more than ten people within ten minutes, the platform will either slow you down or block you entirely. That is not the case on LinkedIn. For some reason you can befriend 200 strangers that are in your second- or third-degree network, and you can continue doing this almost from dusk till dawn without the use of any grey-market automation tools.

You don’t even need a paid Linkedin subscription for it but using one will enable you to use one of their off-the shelf templates:

LinkedIn’s Recruiter provides these templates. 

Once I hired a freelancer and asked her to find programmers in Switzerland. To get a network to start from, she tried to befriend everyone in Switzerland on LinkedIn. After some weeks, she had over 600 connections with programmers, business owners and CTOs. (This is when Linkedin shows you the “over 500 connections” count.) She didn’t even bother to change her location to Switzerland. People were accepting her connection-requests without knowing her.

One of the person she added was a friend and a CTO of a small firm I work with. When I talked with him about this, he said he didn’t remember adding her to his network.

If she’d now try to befriend me, I’d see that she knows my CTO friend, so I’d be more willing to accept her contact request. I bet, this is how she managed to connect with him and he just forgot about it. It seems, people just click “yes” and “ok” when using apps.

LinkedIn is free and when something online is free, you’re not the customer, you are the product. In LinkedIn’s case this is more opaque than with other social networks. While people know that Facebook’s business model is showing you personalized adverts, LinkedIn’s way to make you a product is more hidden from most people.

Linkedin is a place where you are put at the mercy of more or less unfiltered recruiter spam and you’re paying by investing your time in reading recruitment messages because you hope for opportunities.

It would be much more pleasant if you’d get a personalized message instead of a generic, spammy one but complaining about how recruiters didn’t read your profile before sending you a message doesn’t help either. After all, you are free to ignore messages from people you don’t know. But you read the messages because you think some might lead to your next great job and you’re okay with the pain of reading spam once in a while to achieve this goal.

Recruiter spam, is it the hiring firms’ fault?

I never heard of clients really assessing their recruitment partners. If recruiters are lucky, they get a half an hour briefing about the role and the firm. If they’re not lucky they get a link to an obscure job description that is written by HR which is often a total mismatch to what is needed by the hiring team. So, the true job requirement gets lost in translation from team to hiring manager to internal recruiter to agency recruiter. In five years in recruitment I never got a proper check by a client:

Link to tweet

What is the solution?

Spam in recruitment is both nobody’s and everyone’s fault. Everybody complains because nobody understands the big picture.

  • Criticism-immune recruiters prefer to spray and pray one message to thousands of recipients instead of personalizing and contacting less prospects. (You can do the former while watching youtube parallel to your spamming activity while you can’t multitask with the latter)
  • Firms don’t care about their brand being misrepresented and contract recruitment out on a success-only basis.
  • Everyone thinks the other group is a bunch of idiots but actually each is doing what is rational for them.
Blind men and an elephant (Wikipedia) — An Indian story of a group of blind men. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant body. They then try to conceptualize and fight over what the elephant is really like. The same way programmers complain about recruiters and hiring firms because they lack the understanding of the whole picture.

LinkedIn charges recruiters to allow spam, recruiters are paid by employers to snatch people out of their jobs. Programmers read spam messages because they dream about a next career step. If Linkedin would just block people from sending hundreds of connection requests, firms would vett their recruiters better, and candidates would ignore messages from strangers, then spam would decrease. But for now the Ferris wheel continues turning and no one has an incentive to change the status quo. A different way to invest in your career growth is subscribing to my free weekly newsletter on tech, coding and careers or grab a copy of the comprehensive guide on how to grow your tech career.

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