LEGAL: Job Search Perils

Michael Howlett (not his real name) spent 10 productive years with a prominent, national engineering consulting firm. Following the merger of his firm with another group of technical consultants and a decline in solid waste projects, he was laid off.

Howlett began an aggressive job search, portraying his background and skills more broadly to attract a wider group of potential employers. One day, he received an e-mail from an executive recruitment firm that claimed to be familiar with his experience. “The message said I should call a certain person because the company thought it might have some opportunities for me,” he said.

Howlett spoke with someone who represented himself as a recruiter. The individual claimed to have contacts in several recognized firms that provide solid waste consulting services to public and private sector clients and assured Howlett that he was a strong candidate for placement at a salary comparable to, or greater than, what he had been earning.

To get underway, according to the recruiter, Howlett needed to pay a $3,000 fee up front. Skeptical, but somewhat desperate, he paid a $2,000 deposit and promised to pay the balance in 30 days. What he received from the placement firm made him realize he'd been railroaded: three versions of his resume, each one highlighting a different aspect of his career, and a batch of job listings he'd seen months earlier in trade magazines and on the Internet.

He never paid the balance, and the company refused his requests for any refund. After Howlett hired a lawyer and filed suit, he eventually settled for a $1,500 refund. He now works for a regional waste management firm as a field services engineer — a position he found through his solid waste association contacts.

If the economy does not improve and if jobless rates stay relatively high, consumer protection groups and legitimate career counselors predict there will be an increase in job-search scams.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus, Arlington Va., noted a 12-percent increase in complaints about career counseling and job search firms across the country in 2001 compared to the year before, a council spokeswoman told The New York Times. Further increases are expected when the 2002 data is available, she added.

Before hiring job-search help, a little homework can pay off handsomely. Look into the background and qualifications of the firms you are considering. Talk to individuals in your field who have successfully been placed by these companies. Also, visit the Web site of the national Better Business Bureau and local affiliates at

If you're paying money up front, be sure to get a written and full explanation of what the company promises to do and the time frame for its performance. Be aware of differences between what the sales representative says and what is written in the contract. If a company promises a money-back guarantee, check carefully for exceptions, pre-conditions and limitations. Don't feel obligated to sign a contract on your first visit.

Ultimately, even a credible and responsible employment consultant may not achieve desired results. A job seeker should have realistic expectations.