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This is Why You Should Avoid Staffing Agencies

Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do” Oscar Wilde (Placard in a French protest, 2010)
Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do” Oscar Wilde
(Placard in a French protest, 2010)

Even though common sense states that you should skip the middleman, I used to like staffing agencies. This is completely anecdotal, but in both France and Canada, these agencies gave me a chance—in France, I did stock inventory as a student, and in Canada, I was hired to work in a call center a few days after getting my work visa. Both jobs were unexciting short-term contracts but they served a purpose, mostly getting references and something to put on my resume.

During my first few years in Ottawa, I was assigned a few more jobs by large staffing agencies such as Manpower, Adecco, Kelly Services or Excel HR. I worked as a receptionist, supervised certification exams and I worked on the Ottawa Idol show as an usher.

Naively, I thought that what had worked for me could work for other people. Yes, I know, the plural of anecdote isn’t data.

For years, I advised immigrants who couldn’t find a job right away to give staffing agencies a call, at least to gain work experience in Canada. Staffing agencies deal with tons of applicants and are used to foreign-trained professionals. They need to fill positions quickly and are more likely to take a chance on applicants than formal HR departments, especially considering such contracts are typically short-term.

Today, I’m not sure I would give such advice.

I have a profile on LinkedIn as a translator, copywriter, editor and proofreader and I’m often contacted by staffing agencies. When I first started as a freelancer, I was actively looking for clients, contracts and money and I often followed up.

This has been my experience with staffing agencies for the past few years.

A tedious registration process

Whether you are applying for a specific offer or following up with a recruiter, be prepared to waste time. You often have to show up in person at the agency for absolutely no reason and “register” even if there is no job offer on the table at this stage. Each staffing agency has its own extensive application package with complete job history, background check and security clearance forms, payroll documents, etc.

First of all, it is a waste of time to fill out so many documents without a job offer. Second, I’m not crazy about leaving a trail of personal information everywhere. You shouldn’t have to give out your SIN or banking information until the very last stage of the hiring process.

You may have to complete tests as well—I completed grammar, typing and French language tests in the past. The last French test I attempted was awful: the questions had spelling and syntax errors that made the whole exercise pointless. I highly doubt these tests have any value whatsoever.

Bait-and-switch tactics

I used to apply for specific job offers I saw online, emailing my resume and a cover letter as specified. Then a staffing agency would contact me and quiz me about my training and work experience. If I attempted to get more info about the job I applied for, the reply was evasive. A few times, the staffing agency admitted there was no job offer but that “similar positions may be available in the future.”

Sometimes, agencies try to get me to register just to grow their database of professionals. Sometimes, they try to offer a completely different assignment for high-turnover positions, like call center agent. This was not the job I applied for. Back to square one, a huge waste of time and energy.

Hard sell on poor fit

A few years ago, I was contacted by an agency for a specific position. I was interested and it sounded like the job actually existed. I came over, registered, took the tests and sat down for an interview with the head of the staffing agency. At this stage, they knew everything about me but I still didn’t know much about the job offer.

Turned out that the salary was well below the market average. The minimum wage for long hours. I would have been better off working at Tim Hortons.

Since the recruiter knew that I was employed and how much I was making, facts that I disclosed early on, I was expecting her to at least suggest a perk of the position. Why would I quit the job I had where I was making three or four times the money? I just didn’t make any sense.

Unfortunately, her only argument was “because we think you would be the right person for the position.”  I turned down the offer. Duh.

Unrealistic expectations

A little while ago, an agency called me for an assignment: a 15,000-word translation. That’s a big job and a big commitment, so I asked questions to make sure I could handle it. The employee seemed annoyed by my attitude. “What’s the topic?” I asked. “General stuff.” “General stuff? In what field?” “Marketing. Look, let me know if you are interested and…” “What’s the deadline?” “Monday.”

I almost laughed out loud.

“I’m sorry, I can’t take it.”


“Because completing the job isn’t humanly possible.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“A translator usually handles about 1,000 to 2,000 words per day. Maybe a little bit more with a translation memory and a good editor and proofreader reviewing the work afterwards. It’s Friday evening. There is absolutely no way I can translate 15,000 words by Monday morning.”

“Well, I’ll find someone who can.”

“Good luck!”

Poor management

I spent most of last summer and fall trying to correct a payroll mistake with a staffing agency one of my clients used. The issue? The agency considered that the “total” line on my invoice was merely a suggestion and the past four invoices were short-paid. We are talking about a major agency, not a small business with cash flow issues.

After sending several emails and getting vague replies, I decided to call—but I wasn’t sure who to reach out to. The agency was the middleman between the client and I, they were only processing my invoices, and I had zero contact with them.

I called a bunch of people—Stacys, Kellys, Cyndies, Stephanies… It was never their responsibility. They would pass on the message to a supervisor.

Frustrated, I involved my client, who had paid the agency. It took me almost four months and countless phone calls to get the money. Never again, I vowed.

Maybe my overall experience is anecdotal and maybe I was unlucky. Maybe this is a reflection of the current economy—ten years ago, my experience had been better. Still, I wouldn’t recommend going through staffing agencies for the reasons I mentioned.

Have you ever used a staffing agency? Was your experience positive or negative?

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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