In my last posting, I talked about the importance of qualifying headhunters who call you. The world is now awash in hucksters calling themselves recruiter or headhunter. Many are calling from overseas, likely from the same call centers that you call for computer support.

To avoid wasting your time, risking your reputation and professional credibility (these clowns will make you look like you’re desperately searching for a job by widely distributing your information), and driving yourself nervous waiting for results, vet every caller carefully.

There’s one key thing to look for. The headhunter who calls should already know you. Otherwise, why would he waste his time calling? Real headhunters don’t cold-call people they know nothing about. They “source” potential candidates through people whose opinions they respect. They call you only when they already know enough about you to determine that you’re worth calling. Underneath it all, the headhunter’s clients are paying for the headhunter’s network of respected contacts.

A legitimate headhunter will call you because they identified you as a potential candidate. This doesn’t mean they found your resume on some job board. It means they spoke with someone who knows and recommends you. This is what a headhunter’s clients pay for — the headhunter’s inside contacts. (They can get bundles of resumes pretty much for free.)

A real headhunter will have background on you. He will have a recommendation from someone who made a judgment about you and shared it with the headhunter. The headhunter calls you because you are you. And the headhunter already knows who you are.

Headhunters who call blindly and reveal they know nothing about you are nothing more than want ads delivered by telephone or e-mail. They aren’t earning a fee. They’re spinning a roulette wheel. They’re dailing for dollars. Is it any wonder you never hear back from them? The odds they’re going to place a random individual (you) are miniscule.

So, judge the headhunter. Ask every headhunter or recruiter who calls you, What do you know about me? What is it about me that led you to call? Who recommended me?

If they can’t tell you, it means they haven’t done their homework, and they don’t know you. They’re not headhunters. They’re not for real.

Managers take note: If you’re paying a “headhunter” or “recruiter” to randomly solicit people for a key job you need to fill, you need to vet your headhunter carefully, too.

  1. By what means does a head hunter get to ‘know you’? Usually I don’t share all 600 of my closest friends and relatives with any headhunters. I assume all 600 of them do the same for me.

  2. This down economy sure brings them out of the wood work.

    I get lots of calls from “resume brokers” who have stumbled upon my info somewhere and want to fit me into some position. They’ll refer to the company as “our client.” Chances are the recruiter hasn’t talked to the company yet, much less entered into any kind of fiduciary arrangement with it. When I ask where they found my info, they always fence, and say “they can’t disclose sources,” or “passed along from a colleague whose identity we must protect.” Uh-huh.

    Others will call, play 20 questions about my local job market, etc., then tell me if they find something that fits my quals, they’ll contact me. Pure data-mining, nothing more. I quickly learned to steer the conversation to what opportunities they may have where my abilities could be of help. That flushes the posers out rather quickly.

    The lamest ones are those that do “telephone drive-bys.” They call during daytime hours when I’m not home, leaving a cryptic message: “Hi, this is ____ at XYZ company. Please call me at 212-555-1234.”

    No subject given, what they do, etc. Not even a toll-free number for me to call back. It always seems to be 212 area code. Somethin’ funny going on in New York.

    OTOH, I recently encountered a recruiter who had spotted my website. I don’t keep a full resume there, for obvious reasons, but do have a brief outline of my quals. The recruiter called and wanted to learn more. Turns out they had a couple openings with a local firm and wanted to present me. We exchanged info – I sent a detailed resume and they sent job descriptions. Though nothing came of it for me, I did find it to be a better experience.


  3. Well written Nick. I think the Pareto principle most definitely applies here. Candidates should assume 80% of the headhunter contacts they get will be unqualified. Look for the 20% by asking intelligent questions. I’m a headhunter with 9 years of experience and I approved this message.

  4. Lucille,
    Headhunters get to know people through the people they already know. It’s like asking a friend for a referral to a good mechanic. I’ll ask a client or someone I’ve placed to recommend people who might know others suitable for a search I’m doing. That kind of phone call is very different from a cold call. When I have a bit of information about someone, the call is easy and friendly. That’s actually a good test of a headhunter calling you — what do they already know? If the answer is nothing, then you’re not being recruited. You’re being solicited the same way a telemarketer tries to sell you a timeshare. Don’t forget that only about 3% of jobs are filled by headhunters. So such a call is pretty rare to begin with! That’s why it’s pretty easy to judge “the rest” of those calls.

  5. my search goes the same way every time: after 3 of talking to fruitcakes, a real headhunter will finish their homework, jump through the phone, ask very pointed questions, and make a very real evaluation. everything else is a waste of time.

  6. Great piece of advice.

    This will really help to weed-out the true headhunters from the less reputable ones. Many headhunters will already know the type of job you currently have, what jobs you may have had in the past and why they think your a good fit for a position they are recruiting for.