We’ve been discussing headhunters recently. One reader went off on a tear that’s worth sharing. And it includes a question worth answering. I’ll offer some advice at the end.

I just stumbled upon your blog after the last fruitless 30-minute phone call with another clueless recruiter. I could use some advice on qualifying recruiters in the first five minutes of the conversation. If you have some material on your blog/website along these lines, I’d really appreciate it.

Then I read your blog item, Headhunters: Novices, wannabes & clueless franchisees. You wrote:

“Today, the headhunting industry is so full of total novices, fast-buck entrepreneurs, online resume-scrapers, job-board mavens, LinkedIn miners, data-base scavengers, spam spreaders, and clueless franchisees that any company needs to ask one question when it interviews a headhunter: Do you know what the hell you’re doing?”

I said to myself, this guy has got it down. I am going crazy having seen all of the above in the past three months. I get recruiters who haven’t read my resume, who haven’t an idea of what the client really wants, and who propose me for jobs that I’ve told them I don’t want to consider (mostly short-term contract positions rather than permanent, direct hire). By the way, three of them came from Ladders and one involves a proposal for a classic Ponzi scheme.

Don’t get me started on LinkedIn. There, I get recruiters asking me to help them find the proverbial candidate who walks on water. Is perfection really the primary paradigm for filling positions?

Take project management. In this field you are either a specialist at scheduling, cost estimating, or system integration. Each specialty is totally consuming and no one does all three. What I get is exactly that — a request for someone who does all three at the same 100% level. Like most real people I’m good at all three, but best at one. You cannot maximize three variables in the same equation.

Rant off.

Whew! I think you covered all the bases! The problem is not how to deal with headhunters, but how to deal with people pretending to be headhunters. But let’s get to your question. How can you qualify a recruiter in the first five minutes of the conversation?

As I suggested to employers in the aforementioned blog posting, you, too (a potential job candidate) could ask the caller, Do you know what the hell you’re doing? But it’s better to finesse this.

  • Ask for this information: The recruiter’s full name, the firm they work for, a full address, their phone number, e-mail address, web site, and the name of the owner of the firm. Be respectful, because if it turns out you’ve got a real headhunter on the line, your behavior will determine whether the headhunter will want to continue the conversation, too.

A good headhunter will show respect for your safety and gladly provide verification of their identity. If the headhunter withholds any one of these items, end the call. You’re not talking to a headhunter. You’re talking to a dunce. If they provide the information, tell them you’ll call them back shortly. Then Google the firm, the owner, and the headhunter. Check their web site and call their phone number. If the results are questionable, forget it. If the information checks out, call back. It’s probably worth talking for more than five minutes.

  • Ask for references, including these two important ones:
    1. What companies do they recruit for? Get the names of managers and companies.
    2. Who have they placed? Get the names of candidates.

Few people would think to ask a headhunter these questions, so the headhunter may be startled. Your response should be calm and firm and your tone should be friendly and respectful: “If we work together, you will check my references and learn a lot about me so you can judge me. But likewise, I need to know about you, too. I’d be putting my career in your hands. Would you please share a few names?”

A legit headhunter who is truly interested in you will open up and share enough information to make you comfortable. You’re free to talk further if you want. But since the headhunter isn’t going to complete the search in the next ten minutes, you can check the references and call back. The headhunter may even be impressed with your diligence.

If the headhunter won’t take time to discuss his or her references, end the call. Most “headhunters” who call you don’t want you to know who they are, who they work for, where they work, or how they operate. If this sounds farfetched, consider that only about 3% of jobs are filled by headhunters. The odds that a good, legit headhunter is going to call you are pretty slim. Who’s calling you are wild dogs looking for easy meat.

(These suggestions come from a forthcoming guide I’m writing about how to deal with headhunters. If you’d like to be on the announcement list when it’s published, please drop me a note.)

In the next post, I’ll give you one more tip about how to immediately recognize a real headhunter on the phone.

In the meantime, I’d like to know how people judge headhunters on the phone. What’s your test? What do you ask? How do you know in the first five minutes of a call whether you’re talking to a legit headhunter?

  1. Usually the keyword search pulls up my name. Sometimes the keyword matches are on different aspects of my career and are not related. I ask what keywords they used to pull up my name. Then I asked them which of my experienences interested them in me. Usually the answer is so clunky, I know they don’t know the first thing about me.

  2. Good on all of you who actually want to know who you are dealing with!
    Remember too, that headhunters aren’t mind readers and the ones that actually ask you broader questions are likely know something about what they are doing. Recruiters who only do key word searches don’t really want to talk to you. They want to find your skill. So if you take the time to get to know who you are talking to, qualifying with what Nick’s recommended, you should be able to build a good relationship with this person.
    On the other hand, if you want a job right this second then you may be “using” a recruiter in the wrong way.

  3. My experience almost every time is about the same: I market for ~3 weeks, and get a little dispirited. Then in the 4th week, someone calls and starts immediately on real and pointed questions about *my* career and abilities. It’s clear in less than a minute that I’m not dealing with a monkey, and that they represent a real opportunity. It’s a very different call in every aspect, and usually the relationship grows from there. Calls from the rest last about one minute, because I’m polite.

    Lately moreso than usual I think to myself that in 6 weeks, I’ll have a job, and this “recruiter” who just wants to “touch base” with me about “opportunities” is in tomorrow’s breadline. Let’s be both honest and empathetic: Short term, I’m marketing and they’re doomed. So I will be polite and helpful if I can, even if they bluff like they’re bigshots offering grand… buzzwords.

  4. We