Bad Practice Leaves a Bad Taste

Darren Ledger
9 min readMar 30, 2021

A fool and his money are soon parted, they say. Indeed that would appear to be the case.

Walking through the wonderful, culturally rich and historic city of Sofia, Bulgaria on Friday evening an incident occurred that whilst disturbing, was merely a part of the fabric of life in most cities. But it resonated so well with a conversation from earlier in the week, I thought I’d share it with you.

I’d enjoyed a delightful evening in some very eclectic company. You know the type of evening I mean, you’ve probably, hopefully, been there. One of those nights with mouthwateringly, lovingly crafted food, in this case, a crisp, sharp, citrus fuelled salad with manchego cheese followed by a deep rich paella. Of course, accompanied by some very smooth rakia and the kind of wine you’d blink at twice if it was on a menu in a good restaurant.

The conversation was broad, we covered everything from the U.K. political landscape to our travels around the globe, football and of course, our favourite movies and music. Between us, I think we’d probably lived all over this small planet we call earth. Our combined and very different life experiences made for lively, fast-moving and even controversial conversation and opinions.

On the wobble home somewhere around midnight, I had my pocket picked. It isn’t the first time this has happened to me. As a traveller and explorer, it kind of comes with the territory and it isn’t something that has ever really phased me.

In Uganda and Rwanda, I used the old trick of always having a $10 bill in my back pocket and a half-full packet of cigarettes in my front pocket. Pickpockets have an amazing system of collaboration and communication, once they have hustled you, harried you and left you bereft of the contents of your pockets, they quickly signal to each other a kind of job done semaphore and then everyone else leaves you alone. It’s actually a relief,

You know you’ve donated something to someone who needs it, you know that they’ve retained a form of self-respect and dignity and you’ve done this by conceding some ground without any fuss. It’s easier for them than begging, and it’s easier for you than giving everyone you pass a single $. Over a period of weeks, after a dozen incidents, you know that your contribution has helped someone, somewhere. Meanwhile, all your real valuables are in a holster wallet under your shirt. It’s a weird win/win scenario. The pickpockets stop hustling you and you can get on with your journey.

Back in Sofia, two charming young ladies approached me, chattering excitedly. Sofia’s answer to Thelma and Louise. As they got closer, the tallest one leaned in grabbed my hand, and spun around me. She went to put her arm around my waist and I felt a hand in my back pocket as her friend clumsily lifted my wallet…

It wasn’t the magical smooth invisible artiste style pickpocket you find in the London Underground or the Gard de Nord in Paris. It was more an Oliver Twist, Artful Dodger kind of desperate distract and hustle approach. Meanwhile, the young woman with her arm around my waist was nattering at me in Bulgarian. I didn’t flinch, didn’t alter my gait, I merely asked if she spoke English, to which she excitedly responded “Yes, yes, I do, you are Irish, you are Irish?”

I’m not sure why but everyone in Sofia thinks I’m Irish, maybe it’s my warm smiling eyes, who knows?

So I very calmly and clearly explained that they could have the money, but I needed the wallet. To which she responded with utter embarrassment and began apologising profusely. I spoke softly as we walked, her arm around my waist, a mock expression of shame upon her face, and I explained that my ID was the only thing I needed, could she please ask her friend to give me my wallet back. Which she happily did, and my wallet, now empty of money was back in my possession.

They needed the money more than I did, I needed my ID and my bank card more than they did. None of us needed a fuss. We’d reached a mutually agreeable compromise. For me, it was a good deed, a charitable act that maybe eased the burden and of course, extricated me from what could have been a much worse situation.

For them, they’d compromised and felt better about their mischief. No-fuss, no tears, no shouting and bawling and we all basically felt better. I removed her arm from my waist, wished them well and waved them goodbye and stumbled happily on my way.

It didn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth, it’s all part and parcel of the landscape of our lives, of desperate people, desperate acts and understanding that some of us don’t have what we need. Unless the pickpocket happens to be a recruiter.

So, you’re probably wondering what this narrative has to do with recruitment, why is the No Added Sugar Recruiter waffling about pickpockets? It’s because earlier this week I caught up with an old client from over 20 years ago, who is now more of a casual acquaintance. He works for a financial services company in Swindon. After the usual banter about our lives we got around to talking about recruitment, the reason he had called me.

They’d agreed to retain a recruiter to “headhunt” a Pricing/Chief Actuary for them. Initially, the process had gone very well. They’d paid £12,000 upfront and paid £12,000 for the shortlist stage having reviewed the submitted candidates and been impressed. They’d scheduled the first interviews to zoom meet 4 candidates in early March. So far, so good.

None of the candidates turned up. Alan and his colleague sat there in their virtual meeting room and talked bollocks whilst tumbleweeds rolled lazily across the screen. No candidates, no interviews, an entire day basically wasted talking the breeze. A couple of phone calls later and it transpired that the recruiter had left the company they’d retained at the end of February. No, his old manager didn’t know where the recruiter had gone, no, his old manager didn’t know anything about the candidates but he would look into it and get back to them.

Since then, Alan advises me that they’ve had a series of meetings online with this recruitment company, they’ve gone backwards and forwards with the main concern on their part being where are the candidates? Oddly, the main concern on the recruitment managers part is about how contractually they’re not obliged to return the fees. Now, Alan is a pretty laid back guy, he is long in the tooth, he’s spent 30 years transitioning large companies through international acquisitions, he knows how to deal with adversarial situations and how to negotiate difficult situations.

But in his words, so excuse the profanity:

“I’m pulling my fucking hair out with the recruitment manager, I want to pull the scrawny pompous arse through the screen…”

It’s not a good scene, it’s not a great experience for the client. Apparently, it has transpired that the candidates presented are not available, were never available and not remotely interested in switching jobs. The recruiter has submitted candidates from their database simply to hit the deadline to get the 2nd stage retainer invoiced. Alan and his colleague have been ripped off, pickpocketed. By a recruiter who knew he was leaving his job and has simply thought, sod it,

That recruiter has basically promised to deliver and knowing he wouldn’t be there to finish the job, has blagged it.

The thing I can’t get my head around is the manager response? Now there are always two sides to every story and I only know one of them. So, I’m not going to denigrate the recruitment firm except to say that they’ve got their response to this situation entirely wrong. I could ask the question of why the manager wasn’t up to speed with this search assignment, had not contingency planned for the project to be taken over in a professional manner by someone else in their team or even the manager himself. But what concerns me more is why Alan and his colleague agreed to use this firm. It transpires that they were recommended by an interim consultant in the business and that is about all the due diligence they undertook. As such part of the blame for this scenario lays firmly with Alan, for uncharacteristic complacency.

Having reviewed the terms of business, I’ve counselled the firm on what I believe to be an amicable break and hopefully, that will be agreed upon this week. I’ve also referred them to someone else whom I know will get the job done for them. They asked me if I would undertake the recruitment, but actuaries are a strange breed and I’ve no idea how you even find the buttons in their data-filled heads to even begin to know what to push in terms of motivating them. It’s a wavelength I’m unable to tune into. Besides, I’m flat out presenting i-intro® and The Retained Recruiter Academy.

Basically, I’ve advised them to cut their losses, wash their hands of the money they’ve paid so far and reconcile it to the dustbin of lessons learned. In the same way, I dealt with my little foray with the pickpockets on Friday evening.

Now here is the issue for me. There is a lot of talk about selling retainers on LinkedIn. Which is good. Recruiters should work on retainers, it’s a much better commercial and practical business model. But only if they know what they’re doing. Selling retainers isn’t hard if you have your ducks in a row, have a list of credible, valid and accessible reference points and evidence that you’ve successfully hired these positions before. But actually delivering retained assignments is a whole different ball game, it requires tenacity and a fastidious approach to the process. Everything rests on your shoulders, there is nowhere to hide and once committed you have to deliver.

I’m concerned that there are literally hundreds of recruiters out there who have a perfect sales pitch for selling retained work but no real substance in terms of experience, tools, resources and even the character to get the job done properly. For every one that fails, a black mark is left on the industry as a whole.

Every hiring manager, HRD or similar who has that awful realisation that they’ve basically spunked tens of thousands of pounds down the drain for an inept, inadequate recruiter sits there thinking “Never again…”.

This is important. I worked in recruitment for about 6 years before I sold and delivered my first retainer. But I’d had comprehensive training internally, externally, even a two-day course with The Financial Times on how to sell advertised selection. The euphoria of the very first piece of retained work I won is still etched in my mind today. After a 2-hour board meeting with a business called Manor Bakeries in Barnsley, I floated across the car park with 2 cheques in my breast pocket. One for advertising costs in The Yorkshire Post and the FT and another for the 1st stage retainer. It had taken me 2 weeks to get to that moment. I’d presented research, prepared a comprehensive advertised search and selection document that was detailed and demonstrated every step of the process, no mystique, all clear and transparent.

2 weeks, 3 meetings and a final board meeting and presentation, that’s how long it took to pull together the details, the strategy and win them over. I was ecstatic with the outcome. But I was also terrified. I’d set hard deadlines and timescales. It meant that for at least the next 2 weeks, I would focus on nothing else. A half-page advert in the Financial Times on Thursday and the same in The Yorkshire Post on Friday meant that response from applicants would be a tsunami of emails and phone calls. It was, it was like an electronic avalanche, the phones in our Leeds office were on fire for 3–4 days as the full-colour advert featuring Mr Kiplings Cakes did its job and lured in Financial Directors from all over the U.K.

I worked Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons and well into the evenings as I drilled down through hundreds of CVs, tried to hit my headhunt targets, engaging, screening, qualifying and briefing. When you’re screening and interviewing Finance Directors every conversation is of course with a prospective client. Your credibility is already proven, a strong and well-respected company has co-branded with you, so you must be, should be excellent at what you do.

The difference between contingent and retained recruitment isn’t about the fees, it’s about the quality of service and delivery. Retained should have a project management style approach that is focused on success at any cost, however much time it takes it’s about the results. The fees are superfluous until that perfect candidate starts the job.

Every failed retained service leaves a bad taste in someone’s mouth, puts a hiring manager in a difficult situation, when they go back to the business and explain that they’ve paid XYZ £££’s and got nothing in return it brings their own professional judgement into question.

Stop selling what you can’t deliver and don’t agree to it unless you have a comprehensive plan about how you are going to exceed expectations. All you’re doing otherwise is making everyone else in the recruitment industries job harder.

If you’re walking away with fees without delivering, you’re a pickpocket, nothing more.

*The image in the header originates from New Orleans and is interesting in context. Today, it could just as easily read “Beware Pickpockets and Dangerous Men” or similar and would probably be more apt.

Originally published at



Darren Ledger

Inspirational & Informative Freelance Writer at Hardcore Content Solutions. Olympian Gold Medallist for wearing multiple hats and my heart on my sleeve.