Question

How can we screen headhunters? I know you’ve spoken at length about the difference between a real headhunter and those that are just casting a huge net and hoping to find someone to apply. Do you have any advice about what to look for, or what types of questions I can ask these headhunters off the bat to know whether they’re worth my time or not?

Nick’s Reply

screen headhuntersYou already know the odds that a job solicitation is a real opportunity are tiny, and that it’s far more likely you’re dealing with someone who will waste your time — again! Most job solicitations are about as helpful as an e-mail pitching a tinnitus cure.

If the solicitation e-mail or text reads like boilerplate, delete it. If the caller is a fast-talking salesperson, hang up. It’s that simple.

“Uh, Nick, how does that help me?” you’re wondering. “I don’t want to miss out on any good opportunities.”

If you’re going to work with a headhunter, first you must qualify them — and that means you’ve got to test them before you can believe anything they say, and before you put yourself in their hands.

How to screen headhunters

If the caller sounds like an earnest business person politely asking for your help with an assignment to fill a job, you should keep talking — because there really are a few good headhunters out there. If you pay attention, you’ll find the best headhunters demonstrate high standards of conduct and reveal the same qualities they look for in candidates.

  • They are easy to work with because they are straightforward. They speak clearly and directly. They are not secretive or cagey.
  • They don’t waste time playing games or putting on airs. They make you feel special, rather than imply they are.
  • If they start with an e-mail or text, they quickly follow up with a call or Zoom.
  • They are not in a hurry. They take time to talk. They pay attention. They answer your questions.
  • They are knowledgeable about their business, their client, the job they’re trying to fill and about you.
  • Good headhunters don’t call on anyone blindly. They already know quite a bit about your background — not just what they found on LinkedIn — or they wouldn’t contact you.
  • A good headhunter reveals integrity by being honest and trustworthy. They will do what they say — including returning your e-mails and calls.
  • A good headhunter is conscientious. You’ll see this in the questions they ask. Rather than ask for your resume, the headhunter will learn about you by talking with you extensively.
  • They will exhibit a sincere interest in your work and abilities, and in your interests and goals.
  • They will give useful advice if you ask for it.
  • Finally, a good headhunter is effective. If you’re a possible candidate for their client, you’ll get an interview in short order. If you’re not a fit, they’ll say so. They won’t lead you on.

Does that sound like any headhunter who has solicited you? I’m sure you’re shaking your head: What headhunter is going to do any of what’s in that list?

Right-O. Just a very few will. That’s why it’s so important to test or screen headhunters for those rare qualities immediately and every time. Most will fail, and that’s why you should test them all.

Try this test

When you’re done communicating (hopefully, talking) with a headhunter who contacted you, ask yourself, Could this headhunter write an adequate resume about me based strictly on our phone call?

I sometimes write a candidate’s resume just like that, after a phone call, and I provide it as a summary to my client. It’s a good test of my own grasp of a candidate’s credentials and value.

If a recruiter’s call is so cursory that you don’t think they could write your resume from it, that reveals an unskilled headhunter or an inadequate recruiting call. A headhunter who merely requests your resume or just asks you to fill out an application is no better than a job posting on the Internet. They’re going to waste your time. You don’t need them.

When you meet a good headhunter, you’ll know it from the characteristics listed above, and you’ll recognize someone with whom you’ll want to cultivate a long-term relationship.

Let’s get real: screen headhunters

You are likely shaking your head and maybe laughing at what I’ve said. “Nick, Nick, Nick! Let’s get real! The good headhunters you’re talking about don’t exist!”

A few good headhunter do exist — but they’re quite rare. So, why do most people who get bombarded with job solicitations respond to virtually any headhunter solicitation and waste time? (Loads of people fall for out and out job scams.)

The answer is easy, and embarrassing:  It’s lazy, wishful thinking. People don’t want to do the hard work of finding the right job. They want Mommy — a headhunter — to serve it up to them. But they don’t bother to screen headhunters. So they comply with too many silly solicitations and complain when these turn out badly.

Let’s get real. There really are very few good headhunters out there. That’s no excuse to entertain the worst ones when you know better. Think of the hours you’ll save that you could better invest in actually finding the right job opportunity yourself!

(For more on this thorny topic, please check out How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you.)

What percentage of headhunters (or recruiters) that contact you offer good, realistic job opportunities? How do the best ones behave? What behaviors tip you off to the worst?

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16 Comments
  1. I am one of the lucky few who was contacted by a really great recruiter who treated with me with respect, did all their homework, knew my background inside and out, and coached/supported me through the entire process to get the job I currently have. They were incredibly professional. After 3years in this role, I am really grateful to them because it taught me that not all headhunters are bad. I have indeed encountered quite a few bad ones who totally wasted my time, but don’t write them off completely! Someone may surprise you.

  2. I think you implied this when you noted they take their time. They don’t pressure for a fast commitment. They know you will need “think” time, you’ll need consult time eg. with a spouse. And you’ll need time to check them out, to vet them as you noted.

    As a recruiter I did take a lot of time (to the annoyance of some of my agency bosses) , and expected to have more discussions. I’d invite them to check me out, eg. linked in and I’d send them my resume (I wasn’t always a recruiter)

    And you should. Know who you’re doing business with. As noted, we recruiters do what it takes to know as much about you as we can before we call. So should you. AND if a recruiter isn’t a lone wolf, also check out who they work for. They will not be offended. They want your respect, they want your trust.

    Don’t hesitate to ask for references. If you are who you claim you are, you’ve placed people who will not hesitate to talk with you. That could be a client or
    a previous placement. They won’t be offended, but may reserve that until they know you’re past interviews and reaching decision making needs. Also they as good networkers will protect their network’s integrity by not tossing names around sans approval.

    They will follow up. Status you, as you should with them. They won’t ghost you. They won’t make you chase after them.

    As noted, they will be good networkers. Headhunting is a long cycle sell. It’s not a case of “oh you don’t fit, I’m out of here.” You may not fit this opportunity, but you will fit one in the future. they know that. This is one thing that separates them from the recruiter masses. They don’t brag about it, but headhunters really do have working relationships with clients, people who could potentially hire you for the opportunity they are discussing with you.

  3. If they are on Linkedin, At least you can partially screen. Just click on their name in the messaging section, This will give you their profile. Look at their background. Determine if they are a contract recruiter, you might want to ditch them. They have no stake in the success of the placement.They are just collecting resumes to show their clueless bosses they are not spending all day at the bar. If they are a contingency headhunter they get paid only if they place the candidate. More chances for sucess.

    However, understand the headhunter’s job is finding candidates for clients, Not Jobs for candidates.

    • Right, I call them the resume collectors. When they ask me to please put my resume in their “inbox”, I tell them my LinkedIn profile is just like my resume and I never hear from them again.

      • @Dave G: Right on! Why do I need to send you a resume if it’s already on LinkedIn?? The dirty little secret is that many employers will pay the placement fee only to the recruiter that “proves” they were the one to “deliver” the candidate by virtue of being the first to submit the actual resume.

    • @Eddie: You’re making a very important distinction between contract recruiters and contingency headhunters. Typically the former are getting paid a salary and perhaps a small commission for every hired candidate they deliver. Sometimes they’re paid for nothing more than delivering resumes that might be a fit. They have little if any skin in the game. They don’t care what any candidate thinks about them because they’ll probably never talk to that person again.

      A contingency headhunter, as you note, gets paid only if their candidate is hired. This HH has a big incentive to play nice because they want referrals from candidates they place and even from ones they don’t place — a good stream of candidates is their lifeblood. It’s why they behave differently from contract recruiters.

      LinkedIn is one step in screening. But I’ve found too many questionable profiles to trust LinkedIn by itself. You really have to talk with the headhunter. If they act like talking on the phone is silly, walk away.

  4. Just about every recruiter I have dealt with seems to have only been interested in “jumping on the bandwagon” and pursue anyone with any word in their resume that the prospective client wants. So they are in a hurry and bug you to get them your resume, and maybe to embellish it to fit them client(only to stop communication with you once you jumped through those hoops). Clearly examples that show bad recruiters.

    I have bit on these a few times just because I needed work badly, but I’ve since learned to smell a rat and ask THEM questions about them opportunity. That chases them away and save me lots of times and pain!

  5. I start out with whether they are talking abojut a job in my (rare) specilaty. If they are offering a job that I would throw out my own application (such 4-6 years experience in something I have none in, at 2/3 my current salary). I ignore them. Two of the three that have contacted me in my specialty have been good headhunters (the other was discussing a position I had appled for 30 years before, and did not notice I am now a senior person).

    • I respond to recruiters with a reply like the one below:

      Good Morning/Afternoon [RECRUITER/HIRING MANAGER’S NAME HERE],

      Thank you for reaching out to me for this position. I am honored that you saw my skill set and thought it was a great match for your role. I have a few clarifying questions before I decide to proceed with this position:

      1. Why is this position vacant?
      2. Do you mind sharing the salary band?
      3. How long has this position been open?
      4. Can you share what the hiring manager is looking for in an ideal candidate?
      5. What is the link to the position where I can officially apply?

      I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you again for contacting me.

      Best,
      [YOUR NAME HERE]

      I hope this helps.

  6. One way to filter out the useless drones, is to ask, “Do you personally speak to the hiring manager, and if not, can you connect me with the person in your company who does?” Another way, is to look for local job placement companies. These companies are much more likely to have cultivated local connections.

  7. I always insist to know the name of the company, and that they present a written confirmation that they are on assignment to fill a position, rather than send unsolicited resumes. Some are able to present this, most become evasive.

    Some try another tactic; they give the company name outright, even attach a job description with company logo, which gives the impression that they are on assignment. Often, this description is copy-pasted from the text on open job posts on Finn.no. (I am Norwegian; Finn.no is the Norwegian site for ads for everything from jobs and real estate to used toy trains). So I ask, pretending to be curious, if it is the same job. Some become evasive, some admit that it is.

    Most of these recruiters are British, from a Recruiting Company With Long And Posh Sounding Name. They all seem to be a bit confused or embarrassed when I point out that if I wanted to apply, as a petroleum geologist, I would use my contact network and that the recruiter is redundant.

  8. I think that reliable headhunters will always be forthcoming about the name and location of the company theuy are recruiting for. But on the negative side, frequently, about 8 times a year, I get phone calls and / or emails about jobs that turn out to be entirely unrelated to what I do. Such as a salary range half below what I am making. [This does not even address Glassdoor and Indeed, which send me OTR jobs in Maine or Maryland. I am not a driver and I live in Utah. Also, they send Lean Six Sigma Blackbelt – which is on target – but not for jobs for Maine; and the fact that I live in Utah and specified jobs in Utah only, has no effect on these companies.]

  9. I kind of like the concept behind “Reverse Apply” to prequalify headhunters, as outlined in this LinkedIn article:

    https://tinyurl.com/yrk3ckms

  10. Agree with all of your points Nick.
    I was recruited into my previous role by a HH who was extremely patient and professional.
    Within a few years I moved into a management role and when I’m hiring some of my best candidates come from the same firm and same individual who placed me.

  11. Plot twist here: If I am looking for a job in the manner that Nick prescribes, what need would I have for a headhunter to begin with?

  12. You don’t. Nick basic message is “be your own headhunter”.

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