(Mike Shapiro)

In today’s difficult job market, I often get questions from readers about whether they should use outside agencies such as an employment agency, temporary agency or executive search firm when looking for a job. They wonder if these agencies can help them out and how to best use them if they decide to seek professional assistance. So, let’s walk through the options.

Types of Agencies

Outside agencies go by different names (staffing agency, temp agency, staffing firm, recruitment firm, search firm, etc.), so it can get confusing. There are also different structures for how they get paid.

Some agencies are run by the public sector. For example, in the United States, one of the major public employment agencies is the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, which provides online resources, job-seeking services and tools for workers.

There are also private agencies. They may specialize in recruiting workers for certain particular jobs (e.g., engineers, accountants, administrative). Typically, a candidate visits the agency’s office for an interview and any job tests before being taken on. Recruitment consultants then work to match candidates to their clients’ open positions. Suitable candidates are short-listed and put forward for an interview with potential employers.

Private placement firms can include temporary agencies. They usually work to identify applicants for companies in need of short-term positions. Temp agencies are often used for seasonal work, administrative or secretarial work, and finding positions for students or retirees.

Joyce Russell (John T. Consoli)

Then there are the executive search firms or headhunters. They are often used to recruit and place candidates for middle- and senior-level positions. Headhunters are also used to recruit very specialized individuals; for example, in some fields, such as emerging research or science areas, there may only be a handful of senior professionals who are active in the field. In this case, since there are so few qualified candidates, it makes more sense to directly recruit them one-by-one, rather than advertise internationally for them.

Benefits of using employment agencies

So, what’s the value of using an employment agency? They are especially beneficial in fields where the demand for candidates exceeds the supply of qualified candidates (e.g., engineering, computer science). In addition to specialized fields, the American Staffing Association says 90 to 95 percent of the large employers it has surveyed report using staffing services to find employees for all manner of positions, temporary and permanent.

Working with agencies

Since there are so many agencies in existence, it can be overwhelming to figure out which ones to work with. Use your network to see who has had success with an agency in the past. Also, check with the Better Business Bureau or other local government consumer protection agencies to make sure the agency has a good record and there are no complaints lodged against it. Make sure you “connect” with the person from the agency you will be working with. Are they accessible to you? Do they understand what you are looking for? Can they provide additional career assessments or other ways to coach you? One thing to remember is that employment agencies want you to look good so that they look good to the employer. If you aren’t prepared, then they look like they sent someone who they should not have to the employer. It is in their best interest to help you out. If they aren’t willing to help prepare you, then they probably are not the agency for you to consider.


There are a variety of payment options depending on the type of agency used, and job position and level of candidate, among other factors. In general, employment agencies collect fees when their referral results in a job offer being accepted by their candidate. There are some agencies that are paid only if they deliver a candidate who stays with the agency past the agreed upon probationary period. There are others who are paid based a percentage of the candidate’s salary

A “fee-paid” position is when the employer (not the applicant) pays the placement fee. Also, in many cases, there are replacement guarantees paid if the candidate leaves early or fails to perform. In some cases, the company could pay a retainer for high-level executive searches or headhunters. A “non-fee paid” position means the applicant pays the fee, which can be up to 35 percent of the job’s annual gross salary. Some employment agencies can also get paid a negotiated hourly fee for a candidate’s work and then they pay the candidate as a consultant after deducting their cut.

It is important to do your research to find out which are the best agencies for your type of work and your level of job. Also, be sure to understand the payment options and what opportunities you may have to negotiate these fees.

In today’s competitive job market, sometimes some outside help can give you the extra help you may need.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.