A reader’s problem:

Five years ago a headhunter convinced me to interview with Company A. I wasn’t offered a job after the interview, but the experience motivated me to find a job with another company, B. After a few months, Company A offered me a job (through the headhunter), but I had to decline since I had already started working at Company B.

Now that 5 years have passed, I’d like to pursue a job at Company A. Am I obligated to work through the headhunter? Or is it fine to contact the hiring manager at Company A directly?

Forum: Does this reader owe the headhunter a call? What’s the best way to handle this? Post your comments and I’ll add mine later! (If you have a copy of How to Work with Headhunters, you can handle this one with your eyes closed… and you also know why the reader should have stayed closer to that headhunter!)


  1. I don’t see how you have any obligations to the original head hunter, whether its 5 years or 5 days. The HH was/is paid by the potential employer to find suitable staff, and to that extent you are a merely a commodity. Turning the situation around, would you think the HH has an obligation to you because company A didn’t hire you immediately?

    You don’t mention why whether or not company A is hiring. If they are, and the headhunter has been engaged again, then he would have been in touch with you (I would think.)If they are not hiring or if they have not engaged this particular HH, why should s/he care either way.

    Nick, I’d be interested in hearing your take on this from the point of view of the HH.

  2. Others may have different opinions on this, but here are several “rules of thumb” I’ve used in both contracting and direct work in the past, dealing with multiple headhunters. If a)the job at company A was the exact position the headhunter originally submitted you for, or b)if the timeframe was less than six months, I’d ask the contact at company A whether they had contacted the headhunter. It’s a bit of professional courtesy (as well as avoiding legal/contract issues with HH’s), and in my case it’s worked nicely. Many of the HH’s remember that courtesy and work harder for you when you need them later.

    Five years, however, is a lot of elapsed time. The reader’s experience level has probably changed and perhaps the position he/she is researching is different than the original one. Michael’s point in his second paragraph makes sense.

    On the other hand – by using the headhunter, can you get a real advantage in that job search? Does that HH still have an “in” with the hiring department? If so, it’s worth pursuing.

  3. I agree with Alicia. Unless it is the same job and a short time frame, I don’t think you owe the headhunter anything. Five years is a long time. If the headhunter was doing his/her job then that job was filled 5 years ago. Certainly from a legal standpoint you don’t owe the headhunter anything. If you are concerned about your ethical requirements or a possible hit on your reputation I would contact the hiring manager and explain the situation. But first I would explore the possibilities with the company. Good luck!

  4. While you do not have any obligation to the original headhunter, your situation brings up a concern of my own. You made a decision to stay with Company B instead of accepting an offer from A, if there were any contractual obligations you should have settled at that time. If you feel the headhunter preformed for you refer them.

    One point to consider, did you make a good decision going with Company B five years ago? This question underscores an area of personal concern. I am currently presented with several opportunities and need to make a decision.

  5. If you and the headhunter have maintained a relationship over the five years, sure you owe him a call, it’s known as common courtesy. If you have not stayed in touch (he didn’t call, you blew him off,he’s at a different company & didn’t steal your file when he left,etc) then why should you call him?
    Experienced headhunters try their best to maintain good relations with good clients and good candidates.Headhunting is Sales and Sales depends on relationships.

  6. You owe him nothing. It’s been 5 years.

  7. I’m always amazed at the misconceptions people have about headhunters. Let’s talk about the most basic fact about headhunters:

    A headhunter is always paid by the employer to find a worker, not by a worker to find a job. In this case, if the employer were trying to hire through a headhunter, the headhunter would be the one to notify our reader about the open job. Clearly, that’s not the case. She owes the headhunter nothing unless he has been in touch with her regularly.

    Next, consider the employer. If she were to “do a courtesy” by contacting her old headhunter so he could schedule an interview for a job she would otherwise pursue on her own, she’s doing the employer a disservice. If the employer accepted the referral through the headhunter, it would owe him a fee. For what? He didn’t bring the applicant to the company; she brought him into the picture.

    Finally, there is a good point made about maintaining good long-term relationships with good headhunters. Sometimes these relationships take years to pay off. If she had stayed in regular contact with that headhunter, she might have been referred by him to several other jobs during those 5 years.

    The one plausible reason for going to the headhunter is because he once had a good relationship with the company, and that might facilitate our reader getting back in the door. What I don’t understand is why, if the reader earned an offer from Company A the first time around, the headhunter didn’t stay in close contact with her… to capitalize on her future interest in A. She was a good bet that the headhunter missed.

    It’s true that the headhunter might have an “inside track” on a new position at the company. But it’s also true that IF the headhunter is working on this position, he might have another #1 candidate lined up, and working through him on this could actually diminish the reader’s chances at the job.

    It’s a huge stretch to go back 5 years and call on a headhunter who has nothing to do with a job opportunity for this reader.

    My advice: If she thinks the headhunter might actually help her with this, she might ask him whether he’s working on the position. But if she feels she has some obligation, I don’t think that’s true.

    My two bits!

  8. I agree, after five years it might seem out of place. But I would be inclined to start with the headhunter, just in case there is still an active relationship between the headhunter and the company. There’s no harm if there isn’t and it may be the correct protocl if there is.

  9. Past experience
    – I was referred to one company by a headhunter. The company was wondering if I had submitted directly and searched the last 6 months of resumes in an attempt to avoid the headhunters fee by saying that I was already on file. I don’t consider this very ethical as the company was not interested in me until the headhunter made a convincing argument 0 and I feel that he earned his fee. Fortunately the company could not find the resume so the headhunter got his fee – but I was a little uncomfortable with the company’s unethical attempt to avoid it.

    – Once a headhunter referred me to a company, only to find out at the interview that another headhunter had submitted my resume (without my approval). I told the headhunter that submitted without my approval to tell me if there were any other submissions and remove my resume from my system.

    – I now have a notice on my homepage and in any resumes sent to recruiters “Note to agencies: All submittals of name or resume by agencies must be registered and cleared with me prior to submission to client companies in order to avoid submissions by multiple agencies to the same company. Agencies that fail to do this are not authorized to represent me.” I have had a few agencies tell me that they can not release the client name. I tell them that without the client’s name I will not authorize release of information. I also mention that I would be willing to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) if necessary. I also tell them that I will not provide the information to any other headhunter, except to say that I have already been submitted to a potential client.

    Any comments on my policies?

  10. BTW: a few headhunters will ask me where I have been submitted. I tell them that that would violate the confidence of the other headhunters as it would provide him with leads of companies to hunt in. Sometimes I have to spell this out for them by asking if they would want me to tell other headhunters about the companies that this headhunter is working with. I tell them that I will confirm whether or not I have already been submitted.

    Sometimes I get emails and/or calls from several headhunters about the same position, usually within a few days of each other, so it pays to keep good notes.

  11. The reader declined the offer with Company A.

    Let’s assume that the hiring manager(s) at Company A and the recruiter have stayed in touch over the years.

    The reader doesn’t have to go in through the headhunter five years after the fact, but imagine this:

    The reader contacts Company A and is told that there’s nothing for him there.

    Company A then calls the headhunter to inform him that “That candidate that turned us down five years ago contacted us directly but we don’t have anything for him right now.”

    The reader then contacts the headhunter to see if the headhunter can help him.

    I’m a headhunter. I had this happen over a two year time horizon (not five). The candidate had serious reservations about the company and criticized the hiring manager’s intelligence and had issues with the work environment, so I had no inkling that he would even consider going back to this company.

    That individual burned a bridge with me and I will no longer work represent him.

  12. Alan,
    You don’t represent the individual job hunter, you represent the company. Saying you “no long work represent him” is shows a disturbing lack of understanding of your fiduciary responsibility (along with a lack of understanding of grammar).

  13. 1. I disagree. I’m representing the candidate’s capabilities and the results that the candidate can deliver to the marketplace. If you want to discuss grammar, “a” company will compensate me for the proposed results, not “the” company.

    2. There’s a difference between a lack of understanding of grammar and the inability for one to edit their comments after posting.