In the March 21, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager complains about losing a candidate to another employer, and blames the headhunter. Was the manager in too much of a hurry?

I used a headhunter to help me fill a position in my group, but it didn’t turn out well. The good news is that the headhunter found us a great candidate, and we made a good offer. But after some back and forth, the candidate decided to take a job at another company. This was our #1 candidate. I stopped working with the headhunter after that because I was pretty upset. Now I’m wondering, did I shoot myself in the foot?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

What I’m about to tell you is a story out of the ordinary. But it reveals the importance of cultivating relationships, staying in touch with people, and reading between the lines.

I had a client that made an offer to a candidate I found. As in your situation, the candidate turned the offer down, and took a job at another company. I thought the candidate had made the wrong choice, so I didn’t walk away from the deal. I applied some finesse.

I put my client on hold as the next week played itself out, and I left my candidate alone as he got oriented at his new company. Then I called the candidate at work, and asked him some detailed questions about “how’s it going?”

Knowing more than he did about the company he’d joined, I was not surprised to learn things weren’t perfect. I let him talk. He’d had no one to talk to about his first week, and now he gave vent to his disappointment. I just listened. He soon made it clear that he was unhappy with his choice… [The rest of this advice is in the newsletter. Want more? Subscribe to the free newsletter, which will tell you more each week.]

…And then I gently pounced. “I think you could have another shot at that, if you want.”

He wanted. What I then explained to him was that I had not disclosed to my client that he had taken another job. The offer was still active. He accepted it and spent several happy years with the company.

Someone might accuse me of not fulfilling my obligation to my client, because I didn’t disclose that the candidate had accepted another job… My obligation to my client was to find and deliver the best candidates I could. And I did. It just took a little longer in this case, because some finesse (and a bit of gambling) was necessary.

A bit of discretion on my part got the job filled. That was the secret sauce. (It’s just another insight about How to Work with Headhunters.) In a recent blog comment, reader Chris Walker (a training and placement specialist himself) shares a related experience:

“I have had 2 clients in the past year who were hired after being rejected because the new hire didn’t work out, one just 2 weeks after her rejection letter. That’s why candidates should always send a thank you in response to a rejection.”

When you’re the job candidate, remember that There is no sure thing. Don’t move so quickly to turn off other opportunities, even if you’ve accepted a job offer… My client got the candidate “because the new job didn’t work out…”

…Sometimes patience and a bit of diplomacy can get you where you want to go. Don’t let job boards and high-speed decision making deter you. Slow down, think, and exhibit some finesse, because even “final decisions” are subject to change.

Did you ever get rejected (whether you’re an employer or job hunter), and still make the deal happen? How did you turn No into Yes?


  1. Nick,
    Interesting story. One thing I didn’t see was how your client not only interviewed the candidate but marketed the job to the candidate. I know how I do it in my specialized market, but do you have suggestions for those recruiting for a position?

  2. No wait, let’s talk about how companies let great candidates slip through their fingers – 1. failure of interviewing managers to communicate enthusiasm about the firm, the position, or the skill set in the industry of the candidate, 2. a poorly structured compensation package which shows little thought about what the candidate thinks is important along with a “take it or leave it” attitude, 3. failure to answer the question from the candidate, “what does success look like for the person in this job a year from now? If the firm can’t answer it, why are they hiring?

  3. Here’s another way to look at the issue.

    Suppose you’re a company and you have a local representative who helps bring in potential leads. Will every bid you make be successful? Probably not. Should you stop working with that representative because you failed to get a contract?

    If the representative is doing a good job, and brings in quality prospects, the answer is obviously no. Not every opportunity pans out.

    Even if you don’t win this job, you’ll be high on the bid list for the next job if your representative is good. The odds will take care of themselves.

    Likewise with the recruiter. You can’t get every candidate that you want. But if the recruiter is bringing you good candidates, he/she is doing the job. And maybe next time, that candidate will reconsider the job and accept it.

  4. @Mayor Bongo: Regarding your point (1.), check this article, which I wrote long ago. The company (now defunct) was Memorex Corporation. Not the folks that made cassette tapes. This was the operation that Burroughs later bought – they made IBM compatible mainframe disc systems.

    Sad story. As for (2.) and (3.), more discussion would be good!

  5. @Scott: Good question about what the client did to “sell” the candidate on the job. The client did a pretty good job, but it could have been better.

    I’m not big on marketing or selling a job offer. I prefer to see it as building a relationship. I really think the best things an employer can do are these:

    1. Introduce the candidate to several key people in the group, and to other managers peripheral to the group. Create a sense of the team.
    2. Bring the candidate in for half a day to work with the team, whatever is practical. When a candidate sees what others are like to work with, that has a huge influence.
    3. Show the candidate the tools and resources she’ll have to work with.
    4. Outline the work objectives for the first month, 3 months, 6, and a year.

    All this makes the work environment real. And it creates a sense of being able to predict pretty accurately what it will be like once the person is on board. I think any candidate fears the unknown. Make it all more transparent.

    Of course, all those people, tools and work environment have to be good!

    Then there are the things Mayor Bongo pointed out. I’d love to hear what employers do on those points.

  6. Nick—bingo! You hit the nail on the head: it’s always all about relationships, not necessarily the details of a specific transaction. And you talk about another key value for a headhunter, or any consultant to have—listen!