When the Headhunter Calls

I sat on a panel at a job-search-advice event alongside a career placement person, a professor and a search guy, also known as a third-party recruiter. I have tons of headhunter friends and I may have even dated a recruiter or two somewhere along the way, but my fellow panelist that night was not someone the international brotherhood of headhunters would have chosen to speak on its behalf.

&Quot;When I call you or when another recruiter calls you on the phone, you pick up the phone," said my fellow panelist menacingly to the crowd. &Quot;We represent your best chance of getting a job.&Quot; I sat quietly in my seat with a pasted-on smile on my face as the search guy berated the audience of job-seekers.

&Quot;We represent jobs, so don't hang up on us, and when we ask you for a referral to a friend of yours, give us the referral. You're going to need a headhunter someday, believe me," the punk headhunter went on. I started reciting the U.S. Presidents in my mind to keep from stabbing the guy with my dinner fork. Washington. Adams. Jefferson. Madison. Monroe?

The search guy told the crowd how people like him go unappreciated by undeserving job-seeking slobs such as themselves. Well, I thought to myself as the panel concluded, that was painful, but at least I got a story out of it.

I have beloved headhunter friends, as I said. Third-party search is a critical part of the talent value chain, in my book, and when I was a corporate HR chief I relied on my search partners to a huge degree. My bros Bob and Steve in Chicago easily brought in 25% of the brilliant tech guys (a unisex term) who made U.S. Robotics grow from $17 million to $2.5 billion in sales while I was working there.

You have to have an outside person involved in a search in many cases, especially for some of the most-critical positions you hire for. There is something about the employer-candidate tango that screams for the participation of a mediating third party. I never felt that the recruiters I worked with earned a penny less than what they got paid. When you have that kind of partnership going, you see the value of a trusted search partner relationship close up. It works the same way on the other side of the equation, for job-seekers. I know brilliant people who have made all their job moves through one trusted search partner for twenty years or longer.

That being said, the guy who sat next to me on that panel from hell told a lie. Job-seekers don't need headhunters any more than headhunters need them.

The dude on the panel was speaking out of fear — trying to spook job-seekers into thinking he holds a magic key to their success. My friends in the search biz would groan if they heard that. This is a big part of the negative association some people have with recruiters, in fact – the mistaken belief that headhunters have magical powers to get people hired, powers they can use if they like a job-seeker and withhold if they don't.

Headhunters don't have any special ability to get people hired. When you work with a recruiter, you're saying "Go ahead and represent me. I know you don't owe me a job and you don't guarantee me one.&Quot; That is the deal. Search people work for employers, not for you, so don't expect them to provide free career coaching, any more than what's required to get your resume ready for the talent market.

Search people only have one way to make money, and that is by getting their candidates hired. If a search person calls you, your first question will be "How many people have you placed with this employer – the one you're calling me about today – in the past 12 months?" Unscrupulous search people are famous for throwing resumes at employers they have no relationships with, just to try and get a toehold.

That's bad for you, if you are one of the candidates who resume is being tossed about, because once a headhunter puts your resume into the employer's system that company is obligated to pay him a search fee if they hire you. By arriving through the search channel versus approaching the employer on your own, you become 25% more expensive to the employer (a typical search fee being 25% of the first year's comp plan). That makes you less appealing for many opportunities, not more!

Once you get the answer you want to your first question ("I've actually placed seven people in this client in the past year – I talk with them at least once a week") your next question will be "How many people have you placed in the past 12 months for this hiring manager?" Just because a headhunter puts lots of hires into an organization doesn't mean he or she has any traction with a particular manager. You are not bait to be squished onto a fishhook so that your guts come spilling out. You don't want to be represented by a search person who has no juice with the one guy we care about — your hiring manager, a/k/a With Luck Your Next Boss.

If you decide to proceed with a search partner, specify in writing that you must give written approval every time the headhunter wants to send your resume out. Tell the search guy that you expect to hear from him or her at least once a week when your resume is in play for an opportunity – whether there is any news or not.

You could think of a headhunter like a real estate agent who's listed your house for sale. &Quot;I'll call you when something worth reporting happens" doesn't cut it. Every headhunter has competitors, and if the search person you're working with goes radio silent on you just when you're dying for news, that's a sign you can do better in the search-partner department.

One last bit of advice: don't go in search of headhunters to help you find a job unless you know your experience is what the market is looking for. Most new college grads, for instance, are not search-friendly candidates, because employers can find tons of new grads to hire when they need them. They don't need to pay a 25% premium to find new graduates, except in a few techie or specialized majors.

Unless a kid has a degree in nuclear engineering or another hard-to-find diploma, the kid is better off conducting the job search the old-fashioned, self-service way. (Here's an article about that.)

Remember, the next time a headhunter calls you: any song and dance routine you get that smacks of "You need me, bucko" is pure bluster, a sign that the person on the other end of the phone is trying to browbeat you into giving up your resume. Don't be fooled by that.

You hold the cards in this equation, no matter how stridently anyone tries to tell you differently. If you're wavering, ask yourself this question: Why would a headhunter call me out of the blue if he didn't need my resume to get a sale? Stay in your power, remember what you bring, and keep talking to search partners until the right one comes along.

Liz Ryan | linkedin.Com/today/post/article/20130624194641-52594-when-the-headhunter-calls



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