In the August 20, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader is confused about how a headhunter operates.


headhunterIs it an ethical or typical practice that a recruiting agency submits more than one person for the same position? A headhunter contacted me about a management role in information security. I went in for the interview first, and while following up with the headhunter afterwards I did a bit of a brain dump about the way it went and what their personalities were like. As I was telling the recruiter my experience, I heard her clicking away at the keyboard and instantly I was thinking who is helping whom? So I asked, are you submitting someone else, and she said yes, the agency was, but she was not personally. The information I shared was used to help the next person they sent to interview after me.

It seems there is a conflict of interest and cannibalization when you send two people for the same position.

Nick’s Reply

That’s exactly how recruiting agencies (headhunters) work. Unless this is some unusual situation where you are paying the agency a fee to get placed (Please don’t ever do that!), the agency’s customer is the employer, not you. The employer pays a fee to get a job filled.

On a typical assignment a headhunter will submit several candidates to an employer, not because the headhunter is gambling, but because the client wants several candidates from which to choose. The goal is to fill the job, not to get you a job. Even if this is an employee-fee agency, I doubt your agreement with the agency prohibits them from submitting other candidates anyway. But at your level, it’s safe to guess this is a traditional employer-fee deal.

One headhunter, several candidates

Because this is how the business works, there’s nothing unethical about it. An agency will use whatever information is available to help them get one of their candidates hired, including anything you told them during your debriefing. When you think about it this way, there’s no cannibalization or conflict of interest. The objective is to fill the job with a candidate, any candidate.

I wouldn’t hold it against the recruiter, but in the future I would refrain from telling her anything that might help another candidate from the firm to compete against you. Don’t compete with yourself or with the headhunter’s other candidates.

How the headhunter gets paid

This reminds me of a learning experience I had when I first started headhunting. It illustrates how headhunters get paid. I submitted a candidate to a company and they hired him without telling me. When I complained, they said they had received the same candidate from another search firm that was paid the fee. I was livid. My boss sat me down and explained the rules. I learned my lesson. Headhunters don’t have any exclusive control over a candidate. (See How long does the headhunter control me?)

When I confronted the candidate I had “lost,” he sheepishly admitted he’d already interviewed at the same company in another department. Did he behave unethically? I’m not sure about that, because his goal was to get a job. Did he know he was putting me in competition with another headhunter? Let’s call it an error of omission. Sure, he should have told me, but not for the reason you might think. In this case, the candidate was lucky. He might have gotten rejected for both jobs if the company realized it was interviewing him through two sources at almost the same time, because employers don’t like getting into the middle of fee fights between headhunters. If I’d started a legal battle for that fee, I would have lost — but the company’s lawyers probably would have advised that the employer stop dealing with both search firms!

I became more careful about submitting candidates, and always asked whether they’d already talked to company X.

Understand headhunters

I’d have a talk with the recruiter. Decide whether you trust her. Ask her to explain how the firm operates. If they’re going to refer you for another position, ask whether you’ll have competition from other candidates from the same firm. Keep in mind that even if you’re the headhunter’s only candidate, you’ll face competition from other candidates anyway.

There’s nothing you can do but decline the interview or avoid headhunters altogether, but why would you do that? More important, now that you’ve been rejected by that employer, and now that you know other headhunters at the agency work on similar jobs, ask about other opportunities they may be working on. Optimize your chances of getting placed by learning how headhunters work. But please remember that the agency’s business is to fill a job — not to find you one.

Additional resources

I know you’re frustrated. This is why I tell job seekers not to rely too much on headhunters! These articles might be helpful:

Headhunters find people, not jobs

Why do headhunters act like this?

If you need in-depth advice about headhunters, please check my PDF book, How to Work With Headhunters — and how to make headhunters work for you.

Hope it goes better next time!

Have you ever had a rude awakening when working with a headhunter? Do the rules of this game confuse you? What would you like to know about how headhunters operate?

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  1. If you are submitted by an external recruiter, tell them only limited feedback off an interview. Keep the real impressions to yourself. They have multiple horses in the race and even if you think that recruiter likes you, they are cagey too.

    • If you don’t trust the recruiter, then don’t partner with them. Your recruiter is your advocate, but she/he is required to present the strongest candidate (skills as it relates to the role, soft skills such as communication, presentation, team skills, etc.). You, as a candidate, will not typically only seek one opportunity as you are looking for the right, sometimes perfect, fit. The company is looking for the same. Also, Recruiters cannot force the company to hire you, nor can they force you. If you choose not to 100%, fully and honestly, partner with your recruiter, then don’t expect more from the Recruiter. Recruiters are often asked by the company
      – when the company likes more than one applicant but can only select one – who they like and why. This is when your relationship truly and really matters.

  2. You’re fortunate that you scored an interview through a garden-variety recruiter. All recruiters seem to do with me is tell me how fabulous I am, how skilled, how experienced, how wonderful, how they have dozens of perfect high-paying opportunities for me for which I will be instantly snatched up…and then I never hear another word. I find recruiters to be lying sacks of absolute uselessness. And what’s with this “call me at least once a week” garbage? Aren’t THEY getting the big fat check when I’m hired? Why do I have to call and call and call and flog them across the finish line?

  3. I go called by a recruiter for a job (with an employer she named) that she said had been placed with them only an hour or two earlier. I had all of the skills and qualifications listed and it was pretty similar to the work I had been doing. The recruiter wanted to get me to the employer quickly but first they wanted me to interview with them. I agreed to come the next morning. The receptionist seemed a bit cold when she gave a form to fill out and sign. I read the paragraph above the signature-it seemed pretty standard that they would get a fee from the employer for placement, hold harmless, blah blah. The recruiter came out to greet me and the smile froze on her face: I was over 60 and have grey hair I got some cursory questions and was told that they would submit my resume and get back to me. I never heard back despite repeated phone messages and e-mails.

    A couple of days later, I saw the job posted on nearly every job board and also directly by the employer. I applied through a couple of the other recruiter sites and directly with they employer. Crickets. I met the requirements and experience requested and it’s not like there were a lot of us in the field. What I surmised from that the recruiteer submitted my name and resume to the employer with other candidates and indicated that I was unsuitable in some way.

    What I took away was, since I had signed this agency’s paperwork, I could not be hired for the position without the fee being paid to them and, anyway, they tainted me as unsuitable. If other recruiters submitted me for the job, thr employer backed off. After that, if there was any way the employer could be identified, I applied directly to them and avoided the recruiters.

    • @Kathy: I’d love to see the agreement you signed with the recruiter. I’m not convinced the agreement is stopping that same employer from interviewing/hiring you directly or via another recruiter. It also depends on the written agreement the recruiter has with the employer. Typically, no matter what agreements are in place, what governs who gets the fee for a placement is who actually sent the candidate in for an interview with the employer. This is not legal advice — just what I know to be standard practice. Just because the recruiter interviewed you doesn’t mean it has a lock on you with that employer. I’d contact the VP of HR at that employer and candidly ask about this — if the recruiter never sent you to talk to the employer, is the employer obligated to pay her a fee if it hires you some other way? My guess is no. But you need to find out.

      More likely this is a case of age discrimination. Shame on the recruiter, and possibly the employer. Both are behaving stupidly. Experience is valuable no matter what your age is.

      • This happened in 2014 and I retired a couple of years ago (because I could get Medicare and decided I was done). When this happened, I already knew that most such agreements often don’t hold up in court; that’s why I applied through other channels. The age discrimination was blatant; my resume made me look 40-ish so my age was a surprise to them. Since I was well-qualified and available but never heard a word from 3 or 4 other submissions (including a direct submission), I concluded that the first agency said something that poisoned me with the employer which was a start up. It was a no-win in my eyes.

      • Nice, and true, response Nick. These types of recruiters make it very difficult for other hard and smart working recruiters. This is truly BAD … behavior and is illegal.

  4. About 20 years ago I was looking for a job and had an interview with a woman who was a friend of one of my ex-bosses. I did not get that job, but the interviewer called me later and said that she had been contacted by a headhunter about another job and wanted to know whether she could give him my contact information; I said “yes.” So the headhunter calls me and asks me all kinds of questions. He asked for my resume. I told him that I was not qualified for the position that he was looking to fill. He kept asking for my resume, so I e-mailed it to him. I never heard from him again. Not even a “Thank-You” and “You’re right, you are not qualified for this job.” Why doesn’t the public school system teach us this stuff about job hunting and headhunters, etc. Thank God, I’m retired now. There’s so much I never knew about job hunting. What a sleazy business.

  5. I have a great idea but will never have a chance to try it (because I’m retired now). If a headhunter persists in trying to get my resume from me (and I don’t want to send it), I will ask him or her to pay $X for it. Then I will see how desperate he or she is for my resume.

  6. Many recruiters like to play head games with candidates, even ones who present themselves as professionals and quite friendly. Some years back when I was in the travel industry and jobs were scarce after 9/11, I answered online postings for Starwood. Months later, a external recruiter called on a different spot. When I was submitted, Starwood threw back at her that my resume was ‘in their system’. I then get bawled out by that recruiter–over a drink, BTW–and after realizing my explanation cut no ice, it was all I could do from throwing it in her face. I learned about Starwood (lousy company) and how recruiters can be spiteful and flat out lie to you.

  7. I know the standard advice is to run from anyone who charges to find you a job…but my question is:  Why can’t the model be flipped around so the headhunter is hired by the job seeker? A headhunter’s primary concern is satisfying his client, who’s cutting his check. I get that. But why can’t he have a business model where the job seeker is his client, rather than a company?  With all the career coaches, resume writers, et al who market their services to desperate job seekers on LinkedIn, you’d think that business model would be like shooting fish in a barrel – and if these guys are as good as they say they are, it shouldn’t be a problem for them to deliver.

    Why is it ethical for a company to engage a third party to fill a position, but it’s unethical for an individual to engage a third party to find a job for him? If both scenarios are “no pay unless you deliver the goods,” what is the difference? I have never understood why the one is legitimate and the other not.

    • Oops…s/b “why is it UNethical…”

      • Ahh..nevermind…had it right the first time. It’s been a long day….

  8. One misconception, IMO, is that “headhunters are your friend”. Headhunters are like used car salesmen, they are your friend when they need something. They don’t have your best interest at heart, and they are not there to do your (nor will they) any favors.. My policy is “NO HEADHUNTERS” period!!!