In the March 26, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader complains about troublesome headhunters:

What’s your advice to someone who is dealing with unwanted cold calls from headhunters?

Somehow my name has been shared around as someone who is looking for a change. (I’m not. If I were, I would be the one making the calls.) I seem to get cold calls at work every other day. E-mails come about once a week, and I get cold calls at home about once every other week. I don’t respond to the e-mails, and my standard answer to the phone calls is, “Sorry, but I’m not currently interested.” Most people accept that at face value so the phone call is all of 30 seconds, but some have become downright rude, saying things like, “Well, if you don’t want to double your salary, that’s not my problem.” Yes, that is a direct quote.

Other than keeping notes about who is acting in an unprofessional manner, do you have any other suggestions? Thanks in advance.

Nick’s Reply

What you’re experiencing is partly a reflection of the economy and partly an display of poor headhunting practices.

harassingphonecallsReal headhunters — those who actually work on specific assignments from clients — really are looking for good candidates. If you’re good at what you do and people in your industry know it, these headhunters are getting your name from people they know and trust. It’s possible that several headhunters who are working on a handful of the same positions have all heard about you. That may be one reason you’re getting a lot of calls.

However, my guess is that only a few of those calls are from good headhunters. A good headhunter’s job is to entice, cajole and steal a good worker for his client. But, a good headhunter won’t be rude or pushy about it — and he won’t bother you. If you politely say, “No thanks,” he’ll respect you and leave you alone. He will also ask your permission to stay in touch periodically. My advice is to keep such connections open, and judge the headhunter on how he behaves.

The other class of headhunters — the ones who play “dialing for dollars” — don’t have legitimate search assignments. Their approach is to get someone like you interested in the idea of a new job. All they want is the resume of a good professional. Once they’ve got it, they call companies that may or may not be hiring, and use you as bait to get an assignment. Yours won’t be the only resume they will submit. Their hope is that they might get a hit here and there.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Call it supply-side headhunting, or call it desperation. Some people love it. But, when these guys become a nuisance, it’s time to cut them off.

I like that you keep a list and make notes about who’s good and who’s not. Once you judge someone to be rude, you should have no qualms about just hanging up. This works as well with nasty headhunters as with telemarketers. (If you argue with them, they’ll just keep calling.)

Make a list of questions that you want any headhunter to answer before you’ll even jot down his name. Here’s an important one from How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you. Put it at the top of your list:

“Can you give me two clients and two candidates as references I can check before we talk further?”

Headhunters who are looking for a warm body will decline, then you hang up. (Some are not even really headhunters.) The ones who provide references are worth putting on your A list. Don’t worry: You won’t get enough legitimate calls that you’ll have to devote much time to this. The hang-ups will be quick and much more frequent. Your A list will be correspondingly short.

You can of course just hang up on everyone soliciting you. But that’s not a great idea — especially in today’s economy.

Do headhunters harass you? How do you decide which ones to talk to, and which to hang up on?

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  1. The way I screen is to ask the headhunter if he or she knows what I do. If they have done the same kind of homework a job hunter should do before an interview they’ll have a high level idea, and I’ll chat with them even if I’m not interested. If they have no idea at all, I thank them politely and hang up. I’d say 50% know what they are doing, which isn’t bad.

  2. I get 2-3 unsolicited emails from various headhunters per day, which I don’t even bother opening. Like they placed me into a database and then shoot stuff to everybody matching their keywords. Technological progress! Some time ago I tried to get rid of spam, unsubscribed from whatever I could and asked the rest to remove me (they complained!). But after I placed my resume on Dice for something like 2 hours, the stream grew back and stayed.

    My standard test is whether recruiters read my cover letter and resume and address what’s there. The majority never bother about anything, my location, preferences or if I put “principals only”. I’m very specific about my location and provide a list of what would work, and specify that I’m NOT looking at one popular location outside of my area. Then I would not only get lots of emails about jobs at this “No” location, but also 2-3 followups asking why I didn’t reply. Often, not only from headhunters but direct employers too. I don’t know how to make people *read*.

  3. I’ve noticed an uptick in the unsolicited emails from headhunters in the past quarter. They usually start “I found your résumé in the database”. 90% of the time they don’t identify which site they found my stale résumé from. 95% of the time, if there is a job description in the email, the job doesn’t even match what I might be looking for or come close to what I’ve ever done.

    I have not been receiving many phone calls, but the ones that irk me the most are the ones where they just say “I’ve got something that you might be interested in”. Nothing more.. no title, no teasers as to responsibility or location. I tend to ignore these since I am sure they are just fishing for résumés.

    Another nit are the ones who leave message which I can not understand or decipher. If it is apparent that the person on the other end does not have a command of spoken English, I will not return the call.

    My final nit are the ones who are extremely casual with their message acting as if we are best buds. They will say “Hey XXX, I’ve got a job for you. Give me a call”. Talk about being presumptuous and rude..

    I’ve got plenty more gripes, but these are my top ones.

  4. Thanks Nick for again reminding your readers to quality the headhunter. You really need to know whether the person contacting you is credible. The reason is barriers to entry to headhunting are relatively low which means the tumbleweeds can blow in through an open door. A good screen door keeps the trash out, but lets the air and light in.

  5. While not an official policy, at my current employer there have been reports of managers and executives being given pink slips when it was determined they were discussing other professional opportunities at work.

    Therefore, if I pick up a call and I determine it is a recruiter, then I cut them off and state “I’m sorry but my company monitors and audits all calls so please do not contact me at my work numbers or email. Thank you.” If it is on voicemail, I just delete it. (Hint – ALWAYS listen to your voicemail on your handset or call in with your home/cell phone – you NEVER know who may overhear the loud, ebullient recruiter wanting to discuss the “opportunity”).

    If they are a legitimate headhunter seeking to contact me, they already KNOW my contact information, how to get in touch with me through LinkedIn and other email accounts, as well as a professional cell number. If they are cold calling, hopefully I get deleted from the lists.

    For email requests, I have a similar canned email response with a veiled reference to other sites they can “link to” to contact me. 90% I never hear from again as these seem to be the “I have a position available, please send it to your friends and colleagues if you have no interest blah blah…” It seems to be working as the call / email volume seems to be decreasing. For the ones who do follow up at LinkedIn, I can easily click “not interested” so as to keep it professional.

  6. Yesterday, I had a “headhunter” contact me through LinkedIn InMail, asking me if I was interested in Bay-area opportunities. I politely responded and said I wasn’t actively looking, and even if I was, I would not be able to be physically present at a location in the Valley. The response: “Well, can you send me an updated resume? I’ll see if I have something that’s a close fit. Oh, and please add me on LinkedIn!”

    Thanks for the timely update, Nick. Your newsletter and post pointed out exactly what’s going on, so that I don’t make a dumb mistake. Besides which – if I’m responding on LinkedIn, wouldn’t it make sense that my work profile (the “canned resume” you’re seeking) would be the thing that’s on my profile and up-to-date?

  7. Unfortunately, this type of thing is becoming all too common. With the proliferation of cheap computing and telecommunications, any idiot off the street can call themselves a “recruiter” or “headhunter.”

    I like the idea of having a someone qualify themselves. Too many times, the person on the other end has not done their homework nor has a high level understanding of what I am doing. Trying to get them to actually read about you is like pulling teeth.

    Secondly, I have something that has turned into a bit of an experiment. When I finished my undergrad and was looking for meaningful work, I tried to engage a few recruiters/HH’s. Wouldn’t give me the time of day. However, I would get calls from them years (sometimes almost a decade) later asking if I was looking for work. Make’s them look bad because my name was going into a database without being interviewed/vetted and then some lackey was doing a key word search years later. Makes the company look bad, IMHO.

  8. I love seeing all the methods you guys use to filter “headhunters” and avoid wasting your time! Thanks for sharing, and tell me more!

  9. Thanks for the updates, Nick! Your post and the comments confirmed for me that being careful is the order when dealing with “headhunters”. I’ll relay a story re headhunters, but not my personal experience. My brother had been contacted by a headhunter about a job. He indicated his interest, and then he said this headhunter proceeded to “burn” him by exposing him to his boss (headhunter called his boss and asked her if she’d fight to keep my brother on her staff) AND to HR at the company he then worked for. He said that things were fine between him and his boss, but that things got really bad once HR thought he would be scooped. What had prompted his telling of this experience was that he said he had been contacted by a friend and former colleague who is looking for a job–he wondered if my brother would be willing to give him a reference. My brother had no problem with doing that, until he learned that the headhunter who almost cost him his job due to exposing him (and his option of keeping his options open) to HR was also involved with his friend/former colleague. At that point, my brother said that he called his friend, said he be happy to give him a reference, but that was it. He would NOT deal with the headhunter, and if she was going to be getting his friend in front of hiring managers, then he wanted nothing to do with it and asked to be left out. My brother fears that this headhunter, who was so casual about exposing him to HR at his old employer, wouldn’t think twice about really burning him/harming his career now or in the future, so he avoids her like the plague. He gets calls from her, but doesn’t return them, and said he deletes any emails from her without opening them.

  10. Any reasonable solicitation acknowledges the value of your time by including enough detail for you to make a cursory guess whether it might be worth responding.

    Solicitations that ignore the criteria paired with my contact information are assumed to be automated mailings. e.g. fishing on behalf of something other than a full time permanent position. Trout might eat spam; I don’t.

    Any company that has offshored its recruitment for stateside positions is instantly eliminated from consideration.

  11. @Phil –
    “Solicitations that ignore the criteria paired with my contact information are assumed to be automated mailings. e.g. fishing on behalf of something other than a full time permanent position”

    Amen. I have had “recruiters” contact me after “viewing” my LinkedIn profile and then sending me info about a 6 month contract. If you really read my profile/job experience you should conclude that I am in a permanent (yes, I know about at-will employment) position.

    One other thing I dislike, especially when paired with this or any other poor behavior, is asking if I know of anyone who would be interested. You’ve already pissed me off so why should I subject any of my friends/co-workers/etc. to your poor behavior? Oh, and what is my cut of the placement fees if they get the job?

  12. “Can you give me two clients and two candidates as references I can check before we talk further?”

    From my perspective as a recruiter my references are my currency and I wouldn’t want to use that currency up for everyone that asks.

    Between recruited candidates from search assignments and individuals that approach me about opportunities in general and referred candidates that were given my name and number by acquaintances, some weeks I could be approached by 10-20 potential candidates interested in possible representation.

    Frankly, I don’t have enough references to go around for those kind of numbers and my greatest references are very busy people that are going to be difficult to reach and thus slow the process down considerably.

    There needs to be a better way.

  13. Here’s an idea:

    If you’re on the fence about speaking with a recruiter suggest an after hours time for an initial phone call, say a Friday morning at 7:30 AM.

    If the recruiter is serious about speaking with you she’ll call. If not, she won’t. “Watch what I do; Not what I say.”

    Personally for years I’ve set aside that day and time as my cold call vendor slot and no one yet has followed through on the invitation to speak at that time.

    My first year as a recruiter I met a stellar candidate in-person, on-campus at 11 PM after he finished up with a continuing education class that he was taking.

  14. Nick –
    Thanks for another insightful blog post. I’ve followed your advice for years with great success, and after reading this, I’ve decided to bite the bullet: I’m going cold turkey on all social media (Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter) and all job boards. I haven’t used one in quite some time, but I’ve gotten tired of contacts from uninformed hacks trying to make a quick buck off my stale resume. As soon as possible, I’m pulling it from Dice, Monster, and anywhere else I’ve made the mistake of posting it. I’ve already dumped Linkedin, and I’m beginning to feel the air clear a bit.

    Thanks again for another well timed topic.


  15. @Alan Geller:

    “From my perspective as a recruiter my references are my currency and I wouldn’t want to use that currency up for everyone that asks.”

    But isn’t that the problem job hunters face, too? One solution is to have several references and rotate them. Another is to let a candidate know who referred them to you — that’s a reference in itself. Often, that’s enough. But I wouldn’t worry about this — very few people you contact will ask you for references. The few who do are serious. The rest are just following a script, like most headhunters do.

  16. @Tom: The “online recruiting industry,” for the most part, is in the business of making money by selling database services. Not in the business of matching people to jobs. The number of kooky “new recruiting ideas” I see publicized each week is testament that the people behind these know nothing about recruiting. They come up with goofy “ideas” and produce an app or a website. It’s all about databases that hum along… but fail to deliver hires and jobs except when they get lucky. I’ll be publishing some stats shortly. The industry has gotten worse, not better, at filling jobs. Please keep us up to date on your cold turkey… sure beats stale databases!

  17. The last thing I did before Easter vacation was to hand in my resignation, going from a consultancy to a small oil company. I got that job by simply calling their exploration manager, whom I knew from before, and suggest we should talk. No big formals, just some discussion. Then, two meetings with their HR people, who actually asked real, good questions, none of the usual canned ones. Then, offer :)

    This in contrast to all the recruiters who call after finding me on LinkedIn (some even emailed me at work, by guessing my email address!). Some of these were on assignment to fill positions (often far away), some were just resume smpammers. None of them have provided a real job yet.

  18. A few things headhunters won’t tell you :
    1.Your interview attire is outdated/messy/too tight/too revealing/too flashy.
    2.Your physical appearance is disheveled/outdated/sloppy/smelly/overpowering (i.e. too much perfume).
    3.Your eye contact is weak/shifty/intense.
    4.Your handshake is limp/too forceful/clammy.
    5.You say ah/um/like too much.
    6.You talk too much/use poor grammar/say inappropriate things (i.e. swearing) when you answer interview questions.
    7.You appear overconfident/pushy/self-centered/insecure/aloof/ditzy/scatter-brained/desperate.
    8.You talk too fast/too slow/too loud/too soft.
    9.You giggle/fidget/act awkward/have facial tics/lack expression.
    10.You lack sincerity/self-confidence/clarity/conviction.

    This is quite annoying.

    • Mostly they won’t tell you those things because they’ve never even met you. So even if they were true, they wouldn’t know it.

  19. Word of advice: If you do not want to be “harassed”, take your listing off of LinkedIn or another networking site.

    I love these guy (or gals), who plaster their life story on LinkedIn and are then somehow taken back if someone reaches out to them. If you’re not interested–be professional and tell the recruiter that you’re not interested. But don’t be rude or burn bridges, because the economy can stop on a dime (see 2001 and 2008) and you may be in a position to come crawling back to us with your tail in-between your legs. I’ve seen this several times over the last few years and I get a pretty good chuckle at your expense

  20. Another suggestion to these “professionals” who somehow feel “harassed” because they are contacted at work or at home. Be happy that someone is contacting you and interested in potentially improving your life. Yes, the recruiter stands to make some money off of you (obviously), but it doesn’t COST YOU A DIME to listen. Also, one day, those calls will stop and no one will be interested in your skillset anymore. It is inevitable. Don’t be so arrogant. It’s not like you run a 4.2 40 or can throw a fastball 95 MPH

    • “It doesn’t cost me a dime to listen?” Yeah, it does. My time is money, and so are my minutes. “I should be happy someone is contacting me?” I already have a great FT job and I am not seeking opportunities, as indicated by Linkedin. Learn to do your job better and read. I don’t need you to find me a job, I can find my own opportunities just fine–and the employer will greatly value my initiative over having to pay you extra for finding mostly unfitting applicants (due to your laziness).

    • Yeah. And pretty girls that attract the unwanted attention of jerks should be “flattered” too, right?

  21. The ones that bother me are the ones who say “oh yes I sent you in an email” I check my email and low and behold there’s nothing from them.

    In general I only work with recruiters who have a good reputation. I’ve had the bait and switch happen to me before and it’s never a good thing.

    More recently I’ve had a “recruiter” who calls me from an 888 number saying he can place me at a client that I’ve already submitted my name to, have already spoken with the hiring manager, and in addition I’ve told him that he cannot represent me for the opportunity but he doesn’t seem to understand that.

    The ones I don’t understand either are the ones who send you an email maybe two or three minutes before then call you wanting to discuss this “great opportunity”. I don’t know about the rest of the world but if I’m in the middle of something I don’t check my phone right away.

  22. A couple of recruiters have actually asked to meet me. One even travelled 45 minutes on the tube either way for that. At least I can tell these two are serious.

  23. I am constantly harassed via email from IT recruiters who are looking for jobs from people from India or Pakistan. Here’s the kicker. I AM NOT A RECRUITER. I DO NOT OWN A COMPANY. For years I have been harassed by various IT recruiters asking me to hire one of their consultants. Requests to cease and desist have been ignored. Requests to find out how they obtained my email address is ignored and they lie and say that they will scrub it. One day I received over 1300 emails from I received over 78,000 spamming emails because some recruiter refused to honor my request not to send me any emails or put me on a list.

    I am sick of this and now my attitude is now coming down to let’s deport these people and get rid of them due to the constant harassment and abuse.