A reader asks:

I realize that headhunters work for the employer, but my past experience has been that a good one will pick up an individual with good qualifications and do some marketing to achieve a match. They don’t seem to work this way any more. How can I find a headhunter who will really market me?

Discussion: July 6, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

In the newsletter, I explain that good headhunters don’t market individuals and they never have. Good headhunters focus on filling positions for which they’ve been assigned a “search” by a corporate client. I also offer a tip about how to find a good headhunter — it’s one of the 62 answers for fearless job hunters that’s included in How to Work with Headhunters.

The fact that some “headhunters” waste your time doesn’t mean all headhunters are bad, any more than all HR folks are. The best headhunters will recruit you and, if you’re the right candidate, negotiate a deal that will make you happy enough to refer your buddies the next time the headhunter comes looking…

It’s easy to turn up nasty stories about experiences with headhunters, and I’ve printed many over the years. Do you have a story about a good experience with a headhunter? Please post it. What did a headhunter do that made a difference in your job search?

(And if you’re really burned up about headhunters, well, I’m not going to delete your rants if you post those, too…)


  1. I’m a recruiter (headhunter) and 50% of my time and efforts are dedicated to candidate marketing provided that the candidate’s value proposition focuses on positively impacting the evolving customer demand hot spots that firms’ within my niche are facing.

    The candidates’ that I place straddle the fence between the innovation and implementation of core business strategies.

    I don’t know what “good qualifications” means. If someone has good qualifications and is focused on optimizing a cash cow business around pre-existing people, processes and technologies, I would most likely not be able to assist that individual as historically I receive push back from clients on those types of hires through my services.

  2. Your basic principle is correct: what a “headhunter” generally does is find people for the open positions they already know about. However your statement “…good headhunters don’t market individuals and they never have…” fails to account for one aspect of the behavior of every recruiter I’ve ever known: pursuing new business.

    From my (non-recruiter) view, the most common means of getting a new client is to get a trial with that company, where the company provides a position to be filled, and the business relationship proceeds based how well you deliver. A more creative approach is to leverage a proven candidate into that successful relationship. The good headhunters know who their candidates are, and also keep track of openings in the companies they are targeting, knowing that a good match can mean immediate business growth. (On 2 different occasions, it happened to me.)

    Candidates can take advantage of this by keeping one thought in mind: every position you have is also an audition for a future opportunity. Be in demand because you have more qualifications than just your skills. Should you ever find yourself in need of a headhunter, you may also find someone who knows there is much you can do for each other aside from just filling the next open position.

  3. @Ray: A good headhunter still starts with the assignment, then proves him/herself by delivering top quality candidates to the new client. You can’t “leverage a proven candidate” unless the assignment is a match.

    A headhunter who has broad and deep relationships with good workers in the field he searches in has a distinct advantage, as you suggest.

    But a headhunter will not often use one of those people to go land a search assignment.

    Having said that, I’ll add that headhunters do sometimes take a good candidate they found during a search to a company that’s not a client – and in the course of offering that candidate, they might get a new assignment. I’ve done that. But I’ve also “given” such candidates to existing clients and to non-clients on a purely courtesy basis. Sometimes that pays off in new business at some point, sometimes it doesn’t. But I always make new friends and contacts that way. And that’s good.

    But I don’t believe headhunters can run their business by finding jobs for anyone.

  4. Let’s not forget that a good recruiter needs to successfully market the searches that they’re working on to targeted candidates, quite often in cases where no pre-existing relationship exists.

    Isn’t it feasable that a good recuiter could just as easily market great candidates to targeted potential employers in cases where no pre-existing relationship exists?

  5. why would any company in their right mind pay a fee for a candidate in this depression?

  6. Great question. Anyone care to answer?

  7. Here’s my response to Alan’s question: I use a core/context framework as part of my analysis to help determine whether a company would pay me a fee (depression or not).

    Core is any aspect of a candidate’s value proposition that creates differentiation leading to an organization’s
    external customers’ preference during a purchase decision. In short I’m looking to represent candidates providing innovation in service of competitive advantage. I’m looking to partner with individuals that can bind long-term value creation to short-term financial return.

    Context, by contrast represents everything else, all other work performed by an enterprise. The work is extremely important and can be highly valued, but it does not differentiate an organization from its competition.

    My first-hand experience is that organizations will always be open to paying a fee for core candidates.

  8. I’ve had more than a few different experiences with headhunters, so here are my good stories, aside from those obvious ones where I got a job:

    1. Free interview preparation – This was where someone at a company spent a few hours with me to help me refine my whiteboard style, in terms of how to handle a programming problem on a whiteboard to solve. I went from having a disastrous interview to having the hiring manager on the fence, both interviews with the same company and similar position titles as I recall. It was rather surprising to me that someone could help me out that much that quickly.

    2. Clearing up miscommunication – I did have a couple of recruiters both submit me for the same position and the result was one of the recruiters talking to the other one to straighten things out. It was nice to not have to play referee on this though this is where I did learn the lesson of having a spreadsheet and being aware of who is applying me where.

  9. Nick,

    I read your column every time you publish and have commented on a couple. I also recommend to others subscribing to your newsletter regularly.You have even taken the time to respond directly which was much appreciated. I have a couple of comments to the answer on how to find a good headhunter.

    One of the best contacts I ever made was finding a local, creditable, outplacement agency with staffs that used to be recruiters or worked for a headhunter firm. They can give you advice, insight, and contacts for local companies which is invaluable. Finding the right person is the hard part. In this case, finding the right former headhunter might be more useful than trying to get youself marketed.

    I have seen where marketing of individuals by headhunters is done under special circumstances. This would be for either a very hot market or where the talent is highly specialized. In both cases the hiring company does not want to go through the sifting process to find a good match. I do agree though that this is unusual and each candidate really needs to do their own marketing.

    Chris McCarty

  10. “The fact that some ‘headhunters’ waste your time doesn’t mean all headhunters are bad” – This sentence deserves another mention. One must first analyze ones eligibility for the job before taking a shot on the headhunters.

  11. @Alan Geller: “Isn’t it feasable that a good recuiter could just as easily market great candidates to targeted potential employers in cases where no pre-existing relationship exists?”

    Nope. That’s not what a headhunter does. Someone else might do that, but not a headhunter.

  12. @JB King: Both your stories made me smile. It’s great when someone can show you how to communicate a bit better. When I learn something new about how to get my point across, it’s like my eyes pop out. You’re right: it’s surprising.

    The headhunter who refereed his own problem without sticking you in the middle has class. But again, you’re right: that spreadsheet is necessary, or you wind up crashing into yourself – and there’s not always a headhunter willing to settle it. Usually the headhunters wind up duking it out for the fee….!

  13. @Alan: “why would any company in their right mind pay a fee for a candidate in this depression?”

    That’s simple Because their HR department probably can’t find a good candidate. Better to ask, Why would any company pay its HR department when it also has to pay a headhunter to recruit people and fill positions?

  14. @Nick,

    I’m not sure what you mean by “that’s not what a headhunter does.”

    When I started in the business I was exposed to recruitment industry trainers such as Peter Leffkowitz of the Morgan Consulting Group and Danny Cahill of Hobson Associates who train contingency and retained recruiters in the art of candidate marketing. Peter Leffkowitz who for many years was top presenter at NAPS ( The National Association of Personnel Services) annual conference for the recruitmenrt industry

  15. Leffkowitz used to train recruiters to partner with strong candidates and create a marketing plan and market for “explosos” in which he meant exploratory interviews. Not too many recruiters are good at it but Leffkowitz was supposedly one of the country’s top contingency recruiters in terms of his personal production.

    There are many recruitment industry trainers that teach variations of proactive candidate marketing.

  16. @Alan Geller: That’s not a headhunter. That’s an agent. Different business model. Head “hunt” as in “go find” is very different from “encounter a talented person” and “go sell.”

    The trouble with many “headhunters” is that they get distracted from their business and start circulating candidates to companies, hoping to get a hire. This confuses both employers and job hunters.

  17. @Nick: An agent is typically paid by the parties that they’re representing. Theatrical and sports agents pay a percentage of their earnings to their agents. That’s not the case here. I’ve never received a cent from a candidate that I’ve represented whether I’m operating in “search” or “placement mode”.

    Here’s an email that I recieved from a non-client about a marketed candidate that she brought in through my efforts:

    “I’m keen to know more about this candidate. Send your fee structure over and I’ll consider if I want to work with you. Then I’d be interested in this person’s resume.”

    The information that I provided on the candidate was obvioulsy relevant enough to provoke such a response.

    Where’s the confusion? At the end of the day the “placement fee” for such a hire comes from the same bank account as the “headhunter fee” as far as the employer is concerned.

    If you could provide a concrete example of what makes marketing talent that can provide a company with an order of magnitude benefit over what’s in place confusing I’d appreciate it.

    Lastly, the facts are that just as other companies in other industries (such as hedge funds, insurance companies, consumer products companies, etc.) employ multiple strategies to earn their revenues, many recruitment and placement professionals also employ more than just the “go find” revenue model.

  18. At this stage of the game, I certainly don’t need those who claim the title of “headhunter”, but work with an old resume database, and who call and offer me a 1-week contract in a town I moved out of years ago when I am specifically looking for full-time, permanent placement (and told them that the last 5 times they called).

    I really want the IT version of LeBron James’ agent. Some guy who will review my skills, find the best place for me, obtain a big fat sign-on bonus, a salary to make others envious, and a contract with a very long-term commitment. Oh yeah, he can take his 15-20%, since my end will still be the envy of my peers.

    Any takers?

  19. @ L.T.: I’ve structured deals that resemble that without taking the 15-20% fron the candidate end.

  20. So, then, what’s the bottom line? While I’m going to assume it matters, and while I’m guessing that this may be addressed elsewhere on the site, DOES IT MATTER whether a candidate locates a job via a “head hunter” or an “agent”? While I get it that an agent will charge a fee to the candidate, whereas a head hunter charges the employer … in this market, who cares?

  21. @Lynda: The agent who will find you a job for a fee payable only when you get the job is rare. “Agents” who will charge you 20 grand up front with no guarantee of a job are everywhere, including in the display ads of the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times. You will care if you get fleeced. Good luck.