Headhunting firms routinely claim they will bring the best candidates to their clients. Employers like to say that people are their most important asset, and they hire only the best.

It’s a load of crap. Most headhunters and employers recruit and hire from what comes along. They not only don’t recruit who is the best in the field; they don’t know who is best because they don’t often seek them out. They don’t make it their business. Hiring managers who fail to recognize this risk the long-term success of their operations, and the people they hire risk their careers.

In Headhunters, Personnel Jockeys & Monkeys I wrote about companies that don’t want headhunters sending them job candidates whose resumes are already on the job boards. It seems the personnel jockeys at these companies are already busy “recruiting” from the boards (that is, scanning and sorting resumes), so why should these companies pay for more of the same?

A couple of headhunters responded to the aforementioned posting, saying that they’ll take their candidates anywhere they can find them. This sharpens the distinction between active headhunters and passive headhunters. It also points out the enormous quality gaffe employers themselves make when recruiting. They are not hiring the best people for the job.

The distinction is sharp and it reveals a fundamental and profound difference in the quality of recruiting and hiring practices among headhunters and employers.

You can identify, recruit and hire the people you want by going out into the world with a set of criteria and tracking down the best people in your industry. You’ll encounter a few surprises and meet interesting people. You’ll become part of their network. A good network is a circle of friends, and those new friends will be your source for future searches, too. You’ll also learn a lot about the industry and profession you recruit for, and that makes you a better and more credible headhunter.

Or, you can sit at a desk and take what comes along. But don’t tell me you’re headhunting. You’re not a headhunter. You’re passive, like the employer’s HR department that does the same. And the quality gaffe you’re making is that you have settled — you have not hunted, found or recruited. You’ve made a forced choice.

A forced choice is when an array of options is put before you by someone else, and you pick one. You’ve settled for what’s been offered to you, rather than exploring the universe of possible candidates. That makes you a passive headhunter, or a passive employer. You have no idea at all who the best candidates are, because you’re not seeking them. You are entertaining those who choose to come to you.

In the social sciences, what I referred to earlier as a quality problem is called a selection effect. The pool of possible candidates is subject to a selection bias. The source of candidates that armchair recruiters choose from narrows and limits their choices. Worse, the job boards are a perfect example of self-selection. That is, the pool is limited by the very people who choose to be a part of it. (Perhaps companies should pay those who post their resumes, since they — not the headhunter — are the actual source of a hire made via a job board.) And that contradicts the entire intention of headhunting or recruiting. There is simply no way recruiters can claim they are bringing the best people to their clients. And that raises the question of why headhunters or recruiters should be paid anything but a wage for sorting through what comes along.

It also begs the question, to what extent does a company’s success or failure stem from misconceived recruiting practices? If your board of directors knows your employee selection methods are so constrained, why would it fund your recruiting operations? Investors’ money is not being put to optimal use. The business plan is limited by a limited hiring process.

A lot of good people post their resumes on job boards, and good people apply for jobs off the street. They may even be a great fit for a particular job. But you don’t know whether they’re the best or the most suited for the job, do you? Not until you go out and look. Not until you go out and hunt.

Just as problematic as downloading resumes from job boards is soliciting resumes and hiring from the self-selected pool of people who decide to apply for a job. You’re not hiring the best. You’re picking from what appears at the door. (I think we all know that once upon a time employers turned to headhunters because they wanted something better than “what appears at the door.”)

If you’re the person being passively “recruited” — either because you put your resume on a board, or because you responded to an ad — consider the career implications of this passive process. You are likely not the best person for the job, merely the one who appeared. Thus, the job is likely not the fit you should be pursuing. Do you really believe that someone who is sorting key words on thousands of resumes — sorting “who comes along” — has any idea what the best job is for you? That recruiter believes there are hundreds of candidates for the job in question — but do you believe there are 400 jobs for you? (There aren’t.) You can face the guardian of the gate, or you can get past the guard. I’m convinced the single biggest reason people go job hunting is that they took the wrong job to begin with, simply because “it happened.” People talk themselves into what comes along every day. They pay for it later, and so do their employers.

When a headhunter is involved in filling a job, the headhunter has a responsibility to the candidate. For the job candidate, career success is about choice and control — not forced choice. A headhunter whose placements are made through forced choice winds up, over the long run, with unhappy placements — and loses the best sources of the best future referrals.

When you go out into the world to seek the best workers, then you’re an active headhunter, recruiter, or employer. Your choices are not limited to what comes along. You are creating your own choices by actively exploring the universe of options. That’s what makes real headhunters and recruiters worth the enormous fees they charge.

If you’re picking candidates from a self-selected, biased pool, you’re not headhunting or recruiting, and your services are not worth $10,000, $30,000, $50,000 or more per hire.

  1. Nick,

    Most Headhunters are not worth a spit. I recently asked a Headhunter in my industry how they select candidate’s for their clients. One stated that Most clients hire them because they don’t have time to search resumes online or the ones coming into the office. Can you believe that garbage? They never leave the computer? He went on to tell me his Clients don’t have the time to then go through all those resumes and pull out the 5% that actually fit. I said so you get paid a good fee for in a sense pre-screening? He said ya, some companies just don’t have time to do their own searching and that’s what they hire us to do. We go through at least 20 resumes a day just from each website and have to pick out the good ones which are usually 1 out of 10…. That sounds like the rest of the Personnel Jockeys :)

  2. Dustin,

    There’s an appropriate function for what some “headhunters” do – it’s done by an HR consultant. These folks are hired on contract to work in the HR department, to sort online resumes. Some are quite good at it, and it’s a legitimate job IF the company uses the boards to “recruit.” But there’s no need to pay a $20,000 fee to fill a position that way.

  3. Nick

    a very interesting and useful website.
    good work


    Scotland, UK