In the October 11, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter who’s tired of high-pressure headhunters asks how to recognize the good ones:

The sales pitches I get from cold-calling headhunters are intense. They’re in a hurry, they avoid sharing details I need and they are high-pressure. How do I know when I’m talking to a good headhunter?

My Advice

This week’s Q&A is an excerpt from my PDF book, How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make them work for you. The book is 130 pages, packed with 62 myth-busting answers for fearless job hunters. I hope you enjoy this sample!

If the caller is a fast-talking salesman, hang up. It’s that simple.

Judging a headhunter and qualifying a headhunter are two different things. You can judge a headhunter’s character whether you decide to work with him or not. This kind of judgment is largely based on observation. If you’re going to actually work with a headhunter, first you must qualify him — and that means you’ve got to test him before you put yourself in his hands. Let’s discuss judging headhunters. (For a thorough discussion of how to qualify a headhunter, please check pages 28-33 of the book.)

  1. If the caller sounds like an earnest business person politely asking for your help with an assignment, you should keep talking.
  2. The best headhunters reveal high standards of conduct and reveal the same qualities they look for in candidates.
  3. They are easy to work with because they are straightforward. They speak clearly and directly. They are not secretive or cagey.
  4. They don’t waste time playing games or putting on airs. They make you feel special, rather than imply they are.
  5. They are not in a hurry. They take time to talk. They pay attention. They answer your questions.
  6. They are knowledgeable about their business, their client, the job they’re trying to fill and about you.
  7. A good headhunter doesn’t call anyone blindly. He already knows quite a bit about your background, or he wouldn’t call you.
  8. A good headhunter reveals integrity by being honest and trustworthy. He will do what he says — including returning your calls.
  9. He is conscientious. You’ll see this in the questions he asks. Rather than rely on your resume, the headhunter will learn about you by talking with you extensively.

If you’re a possible candidate for the headhunter’s client, you’ll get an interview in short order. If you’re not a fit, he won’t lead you on. He will move on. You may feel you’ve been dropped, but a busy headhunter won’t spend more time with you than his assignment warrants. He’s not being rude; he’s doing his job.

Try this test.

When you’re done talking to a headhunter who sought you out, ask yourself, Could this headhunter write an adequate resume about me based strictly on our phone call?

I sometimes write a candidate’s resume just like that, after a phone call, and I provide it as a summary to my client. It’s a good test of my own grasp of a candidate’s credentials and value. If a recruiter’s call is so cursory that you don’t think he could write your resume from it, that reveals an unskilled headhunter or an inadequate recruiting call. A headhunter who calls to merely request your resume is no better than a job posting on the Internet.

When you meet a good headhunter, you’ll know it from the characteristics listed above, and you’ll recognize him as someone with whom you want to cultivate a long-term relationship. (Needless to say, the headhunter could be female.)

(For more answers about headhunters, check the Table of Contents. 30 sub-sections of the book include 62 Q&As that teach you how to conduct your job search with and without headhunters… plus How to Say It examples and Insider’s Edge tips.)

How do you judge headhunters? What tips you off to a good one, and how do you avoid the lousy ones? Have questions about how headhunters behave? Post them and we’ll discuss.

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  1. Nick,

    Your description of a good headhunter is excellent. Concise and exactly on target.

    In my 20+ years in the headhunter industry I have worked with many of them who could not even come close to your level of integrity.

    Thank you!

  2. Ask the Headhunter a few questions that have to do with your area of expertise: “How do they feel about APICS?” “What WMS do they use?” Ask about direct reports; about the major problem they want you top solve,ask who the job reports to?
    Determine if you are talking to a professional who has been contracted to conduct a search and understands the company and the job OR a bozo with a giant phone list and a vague job description.You know, a guy who found you on Monster (where you should never have been in the first place, but that’s another issue).

  3. I always refer to the fast-talking callers with an immediate need to fill a 3-month position in Moose Neck as recruiters or body-shoppers. And I hang up on them, unless I need a paid vacation in Moose Neck.

    I still think a professional headhunter would take the minute or so to let the candidate know that the client (or headhunter) has decided to go in another direction.

  4. On the headhunter side, for starters I’d send potential candidates my resume, my bonafides.
    I could and would offer references from other candidates I worked with.

  5. I am always skeptical of Head hunters/Recruiters/HR folk that get back to you years after you apply to them saying that they have an oppurtunity (that could even be different than what you first applied to!).

    Secondly, what “irks” me is when I have no relationship with a recruiter or head hunter they want referrals – especially when coupled with the first thing. I don’t know what they protocol of asking someone for referrals is, so if I’m out of line Nick ;-)

  6. Miloak, LT and Don offer excellent suggestions and points about headhunters.

    @Dave: You’re not out of line about referrals. It’s up to the headhunter to make you comfortable about making such recommendations. My own approach is to share enough about myself and my business and my client that the person I’m calling feels I’m legit. Another thing I do is ask how I can help them out. I have tons of contacts and I’m always glad to offer an introduction. So you have to go by feel. Does the headhunter deserve a referral?

    Another way to handle it: Tell the headhunter you’d like to talk to your friend before you give up the name, to get permission. Then tell the HH to call you back at a specific time about it. If he doesn’t call, he’s not worth any more effort. Make him work a bit for it.

    Or, ask him for advice and perhaps a referral that can help you. Give him a chance to return the favor in advance.

    It’s not hard to figure out how sincere the HH is. A good HH knows that this is all about passing the help around. Everyone has to win. If he’s got no time for that, then he’s not worth your time.

  7. I have a simple test – I ask the headhunter who calls if he or she knows what I do. I don’t expect them to know my field, it is pretty specialized, but I do expect them to have found out about me. If they have no clue, I thank them and hang up. If they do, I tell them that I’m not looking for a job, but I do chat with them and ask them to send me an email for my files.
    The only one I ever used did know my field. I got the job, but the guy earned every penny of his fee.

  8. Nick –

    I am definitely going to be reading the rest of your book. Great information!


  9. @Scott

    I also have been toying with how to use a similar idea/approach. Basically asking them how they found me and what stands out.

    The problem (as mentioned eariler) is that I’ve been getting a “head hunters / Recruiters” that have finally contacted me many years after I tried to make contact with them. I get the feeling that many of them gladly took my info without vetting me in the first place and now are simply scrapping the bottom of their database and trying to contact me with outdated info.