In the June 14, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what percentage of job-hunting time should be devoted to working with headhunters:

I’ve heard that headhunters fill less than 10% of open jobs, so one should spend no more than 10% of one’s job hunting time working with headhunters. Do you agree? Also, could you please explain the difference between contingency and retained headhunters? Thanks.

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

You should not rely on a headhunter to put you into a job any percentage of the time, because a headhunter is paid by a client to fill a particular position, not to find you a job. To put it another way, you couldn’t devote 10% of your job hunting time to “working with headhunters” even if you wanted to, because it’s not your choice to work with headhunters. They choose to work with you — so it makes no sense to plan to make headhunters part of your job search.

(For what it’s worth, surveys conducted over the past ten years suggest that headhunters and other “third party” recruiters fill only about 3% of jobs, not 10%.)

If a headhunter calls with a position that is suited to you, for a job he believes you can do exceptionally well, then there’s a chance you’ll get a job offer from the headhunter’s client. But a real headhunter is not going to “market” you to his or her clients. You may be confusing headhunters (who focus on finding a specific candidate for a specific assignment) with employment agencies (which focus on spreading your resume around to lots of employers).

(On another note, don’t confuse headhunting with what other career practitioners do: They’re not headhunters.)

When a headhunter identifies the right candidate for a client, that’s when the headhunter coaches (and helps) that candidate. Having identified the right candidate, the headhunter’s mission is to win a job offer and to complete the assignment. Otherwise, headhunters don’t spend time helping job hunters.

Retained Headhunters
When a headhunter works on retainer, the client pays a percentage (usually one third) of the fee up front, to retain the headhunter’s services. The headhunter becomes the exclusive channel to fill the job, and gets paid whether he fills the job, or whether the company hires someone who walks in the front door without the headhunter’s involvement. The next two thirds of the retainer are paid upon certain milestones. The retainer ensures the headhunter’s attention to the project, and usually buys other services for the employer (which I won’t get into here). Employers typically use retained headhunters only for the highest-level positions.

Contingency Headhunters
In a contingency arrangement, the headhunter earns a fee only if he actually fills the assigned position. The position may be assigned exclusively to one headhunter, or to more than one.

Is it better to be recruited by a headhunter who is on retainer, than one working on contingency? Nope. The chances of success depend more on the quality of the headhunter than on how he gets paid.

How to Work with Headhunters
Of course, if a good headhunter calls you with a good job opportunity, that’s a good thing. That’s when it’s important to know how to work with headhunters effectively, and how to optimize the outcome. Likewise, it’s good to make yourself “findable” to the best headhunters in your field. Here are a few tips, excerpted from How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you:

1. Judge headhunters before you work with them. Most people who try to “recruit” you are not headhunters. They collect thousands of resumes which they submit to hundreds of employers — unsolicited. Having your resume plastered all over kingdom come does you no good. It can hurt your reputation. So, judge every “headhunter” that calls you. Ask for references. Talk to people they’ve placed, and with companies that use their services. Otherwise, you’ll get frustrated and waste your time.

2. Meet good headhunters before lousy ones find you. Fast-buck artists posing as headhunters scrape the Net to find your name or resume. Legitimate headhunters find good candidates through trusted contacts. Meet those trusted contacts and establish your credibility with them. Who are they? They’re the respected workers in your field. They’re not necessarily famous, but they’re the experts others turn to for advice, guidance and introductions. You’ll find them on industry discussion forums, at professional events, and on the best blogs. Get to know them, and make sure they know you.

3. Be helpful. Most calls from headhunters will not yield job opportunities. The headhunter is usually looking for a referral to the right candidate. Be helpful. Introduce the headhunter to good workers in your field. But, do it only after you follow the two instructions above. Never introduce a headhunter you don’t know to associates you respect. If you think you’re the right candidate, don’t pitch yourself. Instead, ask smart questions about the headhunter’s assignment. Map your skills to the details of the job only after you find out what all of these are. Remember: The headhunter is trying to do his job. Help him, and even if this job isn’t for you, he’ll call you again next time.

If you’re going to work with a headhunter, know who you’re dealing with, and know what you’re doing. Make the experience pay off.

Headhunters work on some of the tastiest jobs. So, how do they figure into your job search strategy? Have you ever been placed by a headhunter who had a positive effect on your career? Ever waste your time with a sleaze ball who called himself a headhunter, but wasn’t?

Let’s talk about headhunters. No holds barred. Useful tips especially welcome!


  1. “Most people who try to “recruit” you are not headhunters. They collect thousands of resumes which they submit to hundreds of employers—unsolicited. Having your resume plastered all over kingdom come does you no good. It can hurt your reputation.”

    In terms of my practice as a search and placement professional this is a bit extreme. As far as someone’s “reputation” let’s not place status over results.

    The most successful professionals in an industry can step back and see when the current paradigm is going to shift, and actively engage in the creation of new markets.
    There are no openings for such individuals. They are often hired opportunistically based upon the ideas, concepts and solutions to problems that they are bringing to the table.

    A placement professional can drive the crystallization and effective presentation of those ideas, concepts and solutions to problems and develop a disciplined marketing effort that does not necessarily translate to plastering someone’s resume all over kingdom come (although in some cases it may mean proactively contacting hundreds of potential hiring parties.)

    For those folks preoccupied with the status of their reputation and whether or not to aggressively try to make something happen, or those who when presented with an outstanding opportunity to make a differnce express concerns about going in for a meeting because the position may not pay enough or hasn’t been presented on a silver platter at a senior enough level:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to he man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

  2. How has a headhunter affected my career? Here’s an interesting little story you may find amusing:

    In 1968, when I was pretty much just starting my career, I had worked for a year as a programmer for a bank in Philly, and decided it was time for a change. I replied to a headhunter’s ad for a position, and was sent on an interview at RCA in Camden NJ. RCA at the time was manufacturing computers. The manager who I interviewed with put a really hard sell on me: told me how much he needed me to come and work for him, etc.

    I had also interviewed with Control Data Corp (CDC), which also manufactured computers, in their Philly sales office. They had made an offer to me as well. After carefully considering both offers, I decided that I would accept the offer from CDC. As a courtesy to the manager at RCA I gave him a call to tell him my decision, but he wasn’t there. I then called the headhunter to tell them my decision. Guess who answered the phone?! Yep, the manager from RCA, who had gone to work for the headhunter just after he interviewed me. Hmmmmmm….

  3. Is the caller a scam artist or a real headhunter?
    Here’s a quick test:ask questions.How many direct reports? What system(s) does the company use? If there is a software product used almost always in your industry? ask about it.What position does this job report to? What is the breadth of responsibility of the job? Is it a new position? if not, why is it open? Does the person you are talking to seem to understand your industry? These sort of questions will usually tell you if you are talking to a real headhunter.It could be a legitimate headhunter who does not know what he is doing – he might as well be a scam artist.
    There may be a reason (beside headhunter’s paranoia)which prevents the headhunter from telling you the name of the company involved – an incumbent in the job, a chronically ill person being replaced etc.

  4. @Allan Geller: You’re not describing a headhunter. You’re talking about your own definition of what a “placement professional” does. “Placement” refers to finding a job for someone. That’s not what headhunters do.

    I’ve got no problem with new models for putting people into jobs. I have a problem with cold callers collecting resumes from people they don’t know without any intention of actually “working” with them. The market is rife with such scammers.

  5. @Steve Berkwits: Your story is played out every day on telephone poles across the U.S. Signs say “LOSE 100 LBS OF UGLY FAT!” and “WE BUY HOUSES!” What’s the job? Posting more of those signs, after you pony up $$ to buy your own inventory.

    Look, I know of cases where a headhunter’s candidate joined the search firm, and it was a legitimate deal and a good idea. But those are very, very rare. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  6. Pete Miller’s suggestion is a powerful one. Fast-buck cold-callers are in possession of a list of buzz words that they use on the phone or in an e-mail. Several detailed questions quickly reveal whether the “headhunter” really has a client, is expert in the field in which he recruits, and actually has a specific job to fill.

    Another good question: “What is it about my background that led you to call me?”

    A good headhunter already knows who you are, or would not be calling you. She will possess at least several useful facts about your credentials and experience. If the caller knows nothing about you, then you’re wasting your time, because the call did not come via a credible referral. Good headhunters track potential candidates down through people who know them.

  7. @Nick Corcodilos: “You’re not describing a headhunter. You’re talking about your own definition of what a “placement professional” does. “Placement” refers to finding a job for someone. That’s not what headhunters do.”

    Here’s where this gets confusing. A byproduct of finding a job for someone often leads to what you by definition would call a headhunting project. When I place someone and a client who incidentally pays me a placement fee from the same bank account that he uses for his headhunting projects turns around and asks me to recruit for a formalized position that he needs filled are you saying that I’m not a headhunter?

    FYI: Headhunters run blended businesses. Some combine contingency with retained models. Some combine headhunting with consulting services. I happen to combine seach (headhunting) with placement.

  8. I must have been successful in keeping my resume off the internet. I never get scammy head hunter calls or questionable email.

  9. The longer I stay in IT, the less I desire the “services” of scammers. Especially the ones who cannot tell me anything about the position in clear, lucid, un-accented English, but rather yammer on about this “necessary” position that I must fill, half across the county for only 3 months.

    What I really need to find is an agent in the league with Leon Rose, LeBron James’ agent. (Heck, if he thinks that he is up to the challenge, Mr. Rose can take a look at my resume, go represent me and bring back something interesting.)

    Maybe that’s it: Instead of relying on head hunters, scammers, resume shufflers, job boards, networking, etc. we just all need agents!

  10. @LT: I think agents are an interesting idea. But there’s a reason only pro players have them – there’s little benefit to an agent in working with Joe Off The Street. Joe needs to learn to be his own agent. It must be part of a successful career.

    The problem I tried to address is, people think that a “good headhunter” will serve as an agent. That’s not what they do.

    Allan Geller’s comments notwithstanding, a “headhunter” who calls out of the blue claiming he’s going to find you a job is likely wasting your time.

    Consider how often people get incredibly frustrated with “headhunters.” This is why.

  11. I have been recruiting for over 20 years. Nick is right on point. some of the best points are in the other two articles he wrote and recommended.

    Headhunters do not find people jobs, plain and simple. There are two incidences where a recruiter might market a candidate:
    !) As a recruiter you always have a few clients who want to see any A+ candidates you find in a search, or just maybe happen to contact you. But that is not thousands, hundreds or dozens. I can usually make those calls in a couple hours. As a candidate keep in mind you probably have to be in the top 5, maybe 10% to make this happen or have an unusual combination of skills.

    2) The second situation is marketing a candidate or two for job orders. This used to be fairly standard practice, but is used infrequently now. Notice a candidate is being “used” to get job orders. If a recruiter gets an interview for that candidate that’s a plus but not the real objective. Again this is not standard practice anymore but some, like me, still do it once in a while to stir the pot.

    Alan, in my mind and experience if I am having to call hundreds of companies with one resume I am not recruiting (which legitimately you may be saying.) But more important I am either doing some things wrong and/or wasting valuable time.

    I started in the industry with MR in 90 and was trained by the best recruiter in MR history. I was taught in those days of marketing candidates to develop a list of 500 potential clients, in general, not to present 1 candidate to all 500 companies. I have seen basically the same training from other trainers who specialize in “recruiting 101.”

    Finally the best recruiters do develop very strategic relationships with a few clients that go well beyond recruiting a few positions annually for them. But that is not going to typically help the job hunter.

    Bottom line, don’t wasted your time on the boards nor a whole lot on recruiters. Spend the bulk of your time networking. Also if you have not read Nick’s first book , in particular about how to perform in an interview, spend the few dollars and get it.

    The can mail the check Nick,

    Be well,


  12. @Bill Gaffney: “I started in the industry with MR in 90 and was trained by the best recruiter in MR history. I was taught in those days of marketing candidates to develop a list of 500 potential clients, in general, not to present 1 candidate to all 500 companies. I have seen basically the same training from other trainers who specialize in “recruiting 101.”

    Bill, I appreciate your perspective however IF I have a sunstantial candidate that can deliver the goods in terms of increased revenues or competitive advantage, I am willing to call on thousands of companies to make a placement for that individual. If your child is trying to walk and falls down time and time again do you give up your support and say that there’s something wrong and it’s ok not to walk? When you say that you may be doing some things wrong and/or wasting valuable time, could you be more specific?

  13. @Nick Not so fast! Not only does LeBron have one, but so do authors, musicians, golfers, the weather girl on channel 32 … basically anyone with talent in a field where advancing your career yourself is just not the best use of your time (or the waters are so coral-reef infested to tear one’s soul to shreds before you get to shore .. gee, sounds like IT in the 21’s century!)

    So maybe not tomorrow (I’ll check my email anyway) but someday, some bright young agent is going to wake up in the morning and say “Hmmm. The best use of an IT guy’s time is actually doing IT, NOT trying to match themselves to the needs of the business as shrouded by HR, nor is it getting rejection after rejection. I think I can make a buck here!”

    I don’t know about you, but I’d gladly give up 10 or 15% to just sign a contract for really decent money that indicated respect for my 20+ years in IT, and a signing bonus.

    I don’t think the economy around here would be hurt by that, and it might be fun to watch as well.

  14. Interesting topic & discussion.
    One way of looking at the differences is like bookends. On one end are bottom feeder agency recruiters and on the other highly professional true headhunters. In reality one size doesn’t fit all as there are all kinds of flavors between.
    There are many ways to define the differences,some noted herein but one way to think of it is how you go about your business and in most cases, unless you are an independent headhunter/recruiter, how you are expected to go about your business.
    Agency recruiters are transactionally sales driven & reactive..reacting to job orders they either get themselves or are given to them by sales people depending on the office’s business model. meat to a pit bull. there’s a job, fill it! they are not in my experience good networkers
    Headhunters are pro-active relationship sales driven . plan ahead, research, build relationships with clients and candidates. anticipate & be ready to close. in my experience they are good networkers, if you are a good networker.
    Networking the magic word talked about in other columns. A candidate should strive to have some headhunters in their networks and themselves be proactive. A networking headhunter will always have an eye on business, but will still be in touch with you, not just when there’s a search on the table. The candidate should be in touch likewise, and be a willing source of help.
    What the candidate and those like him don’t understand is how the headhunter/recruiters working environment effects their behavior. There’s an old saying..”show me metrics, and I’ll show you behavior” If that recruiter works in an agency that is a cold calling boiler works you are not encouraged, nor have time to work on long cycle relationship building headhunting. And you’re likely metric’d on #’s of calls per day, duration of same and #’s on f/face interview. In short you’re focused on job transactions, not people.
    It’s a high turnover environment because the office either doesn’t like your #’s or you don’t like their metrics and the boiler room.
    Conversely headhunters work in a much different business model, one designed to establish close relationships with clients, candidates, potential candidates and the business community. And if they are good with managing relationships they shine.
    If you plan of utilizing headhunters or recruiters it’s no different from advice given here in other columns. If you’d like to work for a company, do your homework, research it. If you’d think you’d like to work with a recruiter or headhunter, do your homework, and research them or their company. Recruiters research you, turnaround is fair play. Know who you are doing business with.

  15. Hey Steve Berkwits. We come from the same time & place. You must be old like me. It was about 1968 in South Jersey, working in Philly for an IBM customer that I launched off. I found my way to NCR in Ohio in 68 but had an interview scheduled I think with CDC. Small world

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  17. @Alan Geller: “IF I have a sunstantial candidate that can deliver the goods in terms of increased revenues or competitive advantage, I am willing to call on thousands of companies to make a placement for that individual.”

    I get that, and that’s fine. But to echo Bill Gaffney, that’s not a headhunter. It’s a choice you make to do placement.

    @LT: Go for it, if you can get an agent. When I was trying to peddle my first book, an editor who’d read an article about my self-published book called me out of the blue and invited me in to meet the publisher in New York. These were big-time publishing people and I was floored. We sat around a table, and they told me they wanted my book. They said they wanted to make me an offer, and would I entertain that.

    I leaned across the table and I said to them, “Thank you, I’m humbled. But please don’t make me an offer. I’m a headhunter. If one of you were changing jobs, I could get you a lot more money than you could get on your own. That’s why I don’t want you to make me an offer. I’d rather you talk to the agent I’m about to sign a contract with, and work it out with her. Because she’ll get a better offer out of you than I ever could myself.”

    All they wanted to know was, who was the agent? When I told them I was trying to decide between two who were interested in working with me, they relaxed. “They’re both excellent. We can work with either one of them.”

    They made a first offer shortly after. By the time my agent was done, they paid double their first offer.

    I’m all for agents. When you can get one.