How To Judge A Headhunter
By Joe Borer, Headhunter
Headhunters earn their living by finding and evaluating
job candidates for the benefit of their clients. Some are better at this than others, and
you should know what distinguishes a good headhunter from a not-so-good one -- at least
from the standpoint of the job hunter. This will help you avoid (a) wasting your time, (b)
divulging confidential information to the wrong people, and (c) developing false hopes.
There are a lot of headhunters out there, and they tend
to come in two types:
- Those who get into the business because the cost of entry
is low. They're looking for a quick buck. They're in a big rush to close deals, and they
aren't very concerned about what anyone thinks about how they're doing it. That's not to
say they're all dishonest; just that they aren't taking the long view. You'll get pretty
frustrated working with them because of the way they treat their clients, their
professional community, and their job candidates.
- Those who are building a business based on reputation,
relationships and trust -- and on making a contribution to their professional community.
They're in less of a rush, are more willing to take time to establish long term
relationships, and they seek to establish their credibility as much as to earn a buck.
This doesn't mean they'll take anyone's call, just that they'll act responsibly.
How does a job hunter separate a knowledgeable,
trustworthy, conscientious, effective headhunter from the rest? Assess him (or her) on
these four attributes:
A good headhunter will have tons of valuable information about the company he or
she is representing, about the job, the manager and his team, about why the job is open,
and about the technology (if applicable). He'll be able to tell you about the interview
itself: how the manager evaluates candidates, how his team will be involved and how the
selection process will play out. Most important, the headhunter will be able to coach you
in a way that will maximize your chances of winning an offer.
Even good headhunters don't have all the answers. But the
good ones will tell you when they don't know something.
Ask the headhunter thoughtful questions about the
position he or she called you about. Don't just focus on the title and salary -- get into
the work itself. A good headhunter will share lots of his knowledge and in doing so give
you enough information to help you make a decision about whether you want to pursue the
job (or recommend someone else). A not-so-good headhunter will quote you the title and the
salary, but will be in a rush to get off the phone so he can call the next person on his
A trustworthy headhunter is proud of his business and glad to talk about it. His success
depends on you trusting him. So, ask him thoughtful questions about himself and his work.
How many years has he been in the business? What areas does he specialize in? Who are his
client companies? What specific positions does he usually recruit for?
The answers matter, of course, but what you're really
looking for is an indication that the headhunter is forthright and willing to tell you
about himself. A headhunter who's in the business for a quick buck won't have much of a
story to tell because he's operating on the fringes, picking up fees wherever he can. A
good headhunter will demonstrate that he has good clients who respect him, and that he
knows the in's and out's of the industry he recruits in.
A good headhunter also reveals his trustworthiness by
keeping his or her promises. Don't let a headhunter slide on this point -- you'll wind up
wasting your time in the long run. Does the headhunter call when he promises to call? If
he says he'll call you early next week that means Monday or Tuesday of next week -- not
Friday at 6:00PM or two weeks later.
Does he return your calls? Once you've established a
relationship, a good headhunter always returns your calls, just as you should return his.
However, if you made the first contact and the headhunter didn't show any real interest,
don't expect he'll talk to you again in the near future. He's not being rude, but he's
also not in business to help you manage your career. Either way, you should expect the
headhunter to honor his commitments and to treat you considerately.
A good headhunter tries to locate and separate out the best qualifed talent for his client
company. That's why he won't take cold calls or waste time with people who want a
"job handout". His focus is on the companies and people who will help him do his
job. When he's working on a search that has led him to you, he will be 100% attentive to
A good headhunter won't just ask for your resume. He'll
do his research by taking the time to ask you the tough, detailed questions that will
reveal whether you fit the company, the manager, the job and the technology. (Some
headhunters will have a researcher on their staff handle this preliminary discussion.
Expect the researcher to be as professional as the headhunter, and insist on talking to
the headhunter himself if the discussion seems to indicate you're a potential candidate.)
To a good headhunter, your resume is a follow-up, a kind
of background material. It isn't his objective when he calls. If a headhunter just asks
for your resume and says, "I'll get back to you", you know you're dealing with a
guy who's too busy dialing for dollars and not taking the time to do a great job for his
By investing the time to get to know you, a headhunter
demonstrates his conscientiousness. So, pay attention to the questions the headhunter asks
you: he's revealing himself as much as he's probing you.
A good headhunter finds the right candidate and fills the job. That's his business. To
accomplish this, he has to gain the respect of the people he is recruiting, and he must
demonstrate his ability to be right. If he makes a few "wrong" placements, his
reputation is shot.
When people get frustrated because a headhunter won't
talk to them, it's often because the headhunter is very good at what he does. And talking
to just anyone isn't his job. A good headhunter usually does not have the time to spend
with individuals who contact him unless they happen to have expertise in the exact
assignment he's currently working on. (I've gotten such "lucky" calls only twice
in eleven years.) My own specialty is the semiconductor industry, which means I cannot
help the vast majority of the people who find me in the phone book.
What does all this mean to you? If you are actively
looking for a job, then take control of your own job search, because the good headhunters
won't talk to you. That seems contradictory, but it makes perfect sense when you consider
what we've said about the headhunter's business: he can't be an effective headhunter if he
starts acting like a career counselor. If you're the person the headhunter is looking for,
he prefers to find you himself. Believe it or not, this is one of the best ways to
recognize a good headhunter: he's the one who calls you.
But to judge him properly, evaluate the headhunter
carefully on all four of the attributes described above. When you encounter a good
headhunter, do your best to help him with his search. Because there's one last attribute
you should know about: a good headhunter remembers.
Please tell us
what you think of this article.
to learn more about How
to Work with Headhunters? Nick's new book covers it
all! Learn how to recognize the good headhunters and
dismiss the unsavory ones. Learn how to present yourself,
how to negotiate and how to develop life-long
out the book!
I just downloaded
How to Work with
Headhunters. Excellent! I will recommend that each of our Executive MBAs get this book. It's a very comprehensive treatment of every aspect of recruiting, search firms, career management firms and more. I especially like the Back of the Napkin section at the end. Looks like you thought of everything!
Director, ProMBA Career Management Center
EMBA Career Coach
UCLA Anderson School of Management
Joe Borer is a San Diego-based headhunter who specializes in the semiconductor industry.
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