In the April 10, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter asks how to cut the cord to a headhunter:

If a recruiter gives a company your resume, how long are you tied to that recruiter concerning that company?

For several reasons, I recently lost what I consider to be a great opportunity with a small company, A. I am now accepting another good position at another company, B, but not the one I really wanted. In the situation with company A the recruiter was not very helpful and virtually non-responsive when I had questions, which I am learning is not unusual. I would like to approach company A again at a later date under my own representation. (Perhaps that is not the best attitude to have going into a new position, but my long-term career goal would be better served at company A.)

Can you please tell me how long this recruiter controls my resume at company A, and at what point the company may consider me without the original recruiter’s involvement?

My Advice

People get it into their heads that headhunters have some sort of magical powers, or that they control companies and jobs. It’s not true. The headhunter may have no rights at all if you contact company A on your own. A lot depends on what kind of headhunter or recruiter you’re dealing with.

To understand how to work effectively with headhunters, it’s important to know the differences between retained and contingency headhunters, employment agencies, job shops and career management firms. Also relevant are the kinds of contracts employers and headhunters use. Perhaps most important in this case is knowing how employers routinely deal with headhunters. It’s not complicated, but if you don’t know how employers manage headhunters you’ll never be able to manage them yourself. I cover all these issues and more (including how to find headhunters and how to leverage them to negotiate the best salary offers) in How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you.)

How long company A would respect the recruiter’s involvement depends on a few things.

Did the recruiter send you to an interview with the company?
If no interview took place, I think you could reapply at any time without a conflict, though I’d probably wait a few months to avoid irritating the headhunter. If you had an interview, it depends on the company’s policy and on the contract it has with the recruiter–if there is one at all.

Did the headhunter give the company your resume?
Companies usually rely on an actual interview as proof of the recruiter’s referral. If the headhunter submitted your resume but there’s no interview, the headhunter probably has no claim to you. However, if the personnel office read and tagged your resume REJECT, and you then reapply on your own, the initial rejection may be invoked and you’re toast.

I don’t think it’s ethical to go around a headhunter who introduced you to a job and a company. But if that headhunter was not able to get you in the door for an interview, then he probably has no claim on you. You could approach the company anew on your own.

How about if the headhunter got you an interview, but you were not hired? The headhunter’s contract with the employer might earn him a fee if you are hired within a certain period of time. Here’s what I’d do to test the waters. Have a friend call the company’s personnel manager to find out what the policy about headhunters is.

How to Say It:

“I’d like to ask about your headhunter policy, but I’d rather not disclose my name. If I interviewed with you through a recruiter at one time [don’t say when–the less info the better], and then I came back to apply for a job myself, would you consider me without the recruiter’s involvement? What are your rules about that?”

Don’t make this call yourself. There is no telling how the personnel manager might react, and you don’t want this to backfire. (I see nothing inappropriate or unethical about someone calling a company to ask about its policy.)

Where confusion might arise is if the headhunter (or recruiter) works for a “job shop” or “consulting firm.” These businesses will recruit and hire you, put you on their own payroll, and assign you to do work at their clients’ offices. A contract protects the recruiter from company A “poaching” you without a fee, after the recruiter made the initial introduction. And that’s as it should be. The contract probably locks you out of company A for one or more years, unless the recruiter is involved. (There’s an entire section in the aforementioned book about job shops and how to protect your options when working with them. There’s also a section that answers the question, Can I fire the headhunter?)

The best way to settle this might be to notify the headhunter that you consider his involvement with you terminated. (While this is a powerful move, it might end your relationship completely.) There’s a special How to Say It section in How to Work with Headhunters about how to handle this effectively.

Know what you’re doing when you work with headhunters. A good headhunter can boost you into the next phase of your career. An inexperienced headhunter might frustrate you by being unresponsive, and your misunderstanding of his role could cost you a great job.

Have you ever had to cut the cord to a headhunter? What happened? Were you able to “get back in the door” at a company where a headhunter failed to get you an interview (or to get you hired)?

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  1. I’ve had nothing but bad experiences with recruiters, so I’ve chosen not to work with them anymore.

    I think Nick provided good advice about how to deal with this situation.

  2. I’ve also had nothing but bad experiences with recruiters. There are a lot of grossly unprofessional and incompetent people out there who call themselves recruiters. I’m sure there are good ones too but they’re rare. My policy now is that I never work with a recruiter who has not been recommended to me by someone I know.

  3. @Nick –

    And of course, what you write is one of the reasons people dislike working with recruiters/head hunters, on both the employer and employee sides.

    If I don’t get a specific job that I’m going through a recruiter/head hunter for, I should be free to get any other job that a potential employer, especially after a certain period of time. I don’t want a fee, that I will not see a penny of, attached to my head for any future oppurtunities.

  4. It’s not my intent to trash all headhunters. There are relatively few very good ones. Keep in mind that a good headhunter will present you to only one client for which he or she is doing a specific search. A “headhunter” who spreads your resume all over the place is no headhunter. That’s a situation to avoid. G’s policy is a good one: Work only with headhunters recommended to you by someone you know and trust.

  5. I work for a staffing firm, this is my 10th year. It is true that we are not all created equally. Our policy is that if we have made the introduction to the client then you need to go through us for a period of 5 months afterwords. Both our clients and candidates sign an agreement to this point (and copies are provided). Depending on your situation (and relationship with the recruiter) I would simply call the recruiter and ask what your obligations are. Or send an e-mail and say that if you do not hear back by a certain date you will assume that you are free to contact company A.
    Good luck!

  6. @Nick

    Not all head hunters are bad :-)

    I guess this seems like one of those things that isn’t fair in some ways – i.e. ig the canidate and hiring manager do the leg work themselves after the fact, how much is the recruiter really owed?

  7. @KDD: Thanks for posting a nice, clear policy. I wish all firms did this, so all parties know the ground rules in advance.

  8. Good topic Nick. It happens all the time. A candidate will tell me he sent his resume or another agency sent his resume but he has never been contacted for an interview. I have often found that his resume was ever received ( via , say careebuilder) or the candidates was never even interviewed by the agency at all. Some clients will ignore my resending the candidate and call the 1st agency even though no permission or interview ever took place. This to me is just plain wrong! The 2nd is that they may not have received a resume from a job site(it was scanned for key words and taken out of consideration). If you have not heard from the company for heavens sake call them. I recently had this happen for a very key management role for a client…I resubmitted the resume for the candidate…he is now interviewing for the position…..his resume did not contain one key word and he was tossed out….I submitted explaining he did not have “that particular” machine skill but had all the other skills…they felt him to be a great fit! Be careful of these websites and use a PROFESSIONAL recruiter who will WORK FOR YOU! Or hand your resume into the company in person. It is frustrating to hear so many stories of people who missed out because of this ” key word” scanning nonsense!

  9. I too have had nothing but bad experiences from recruiters. I don’t think I’ve ever been contacted by a professional headhunter, merely these “sit and read CareerBuilder” recruiters.

    Even with a referral , you never know. I spoke to a recruiter on a referral from a friend who got a dream move and his dream job. Flew all the way out for the interview, only to discover that the recruiter had “won” a spot at a corporate offsite event, and I was in the hands of a 20-something kid wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt to the office. Of course I didn’t get the job.

    When the “real” recruiter called asking if there was anything she could do to help, I told her that getting me that exact job for the full contract term and with no further interviews would be a start. Never heard from her again.

  10. Nick, good advice, as usual. I like the idea of having a clear policy/contract. It eliminates confusion for ALL parties. I don’t think headhunters are any different from any other group of people–you find professionals in all fields, but there’s always those who aren’t professionals, either because they don’t care, weren’t trained/mentored properly, or are just scam artists. My take home from this is due diligence (something we all need to do beforehand). The real challenge is weeding out the professionals from the rest. It isn’t like they come with labels…

  11. @Lynda: You’re pointing out something I didn’t cover in the Q&A. Once one recruiter submits your info to a company, and you later approach the company yourself or through another, more effective recruiter, the HR department may “default” to the original source of the submission – who is clueless, and who could very well blow it for you.

    Clearly, job hunters need to be careful about who is “representing” them (even though recruiters technically don’t “represent” them). But underlying all of this is employers’ behavior. They set this entire problem into motion when they solicit and accept resumes haphazardly; never follow up with the candidate; and later on just react mindlessly when a ball starts rolling. It’s frankly stupid, irresponsible, and dangerous to all involved.

    Lousy recruiters wouldn’t be such a problem to job hunters if employers didn’t facilitate the behavior.

  12. @marybeth: I still can’t figure out why people are willing to turn their information over to someone they know nothing about. Then they wonder why things go awry.

  13. @ Nick

    “Clearly, job hunters need to be careful about who is “representing” them (even though recruiters technically don’t “represent” them). But underlying all of this is employers’ behavior. They set this entire problem into motion when they solicit and accept resumes haphazardly; never follow up with the candidate; and later on just react mindlessly when a ball starts rolling. It’s frankly stupid, irresponsible, and dangerous to all involved.”

    This is why I dislike going through the job boards/company websites, especially without some sort of contact on the inside.

    Which begs the question – why do companies spend big money on developing career sections on their websites and/or complicated applicant software, spend big money on job boards, then turn around and spend more money on head hunters and recruiters – who may do the same thing and present some of the same canidates?

  14. Great post. I am trying to learn as much as I can about executive search firms and what they really do. This has been very helpful, thanks for sharing.