In the September 17, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks why headhunters charge you to join their database so they can “find” you and earn big fees by placing you. Where’s the search in that?

I run a small, high-tech company and I’ve been looking at various models for hiring top-level executive talent, and also in case I decide to look for a new executive job myself. What’s your quick take on the BlueSteps Executive Search service that I keep seeing advertised? I know you say the candidate should never be paying to find a job. BlueSteps charges executive job seekers $329 to join its database. Is it the same story here? I thought headhunters got paid big fees to go find people — not to charge me to join the database they search.

Nick’s Reply

You nailed it. The candidate should never pay a dime to find a job — especially when a corporation is paying a big-name “executive search firm” huge fees to find the right candidates. (Real headhunters go out and find good candidates; they don’t charge candidates to be found.)

payoffWhat is it, anyway, with this new “business model” online? Create a database, charge job seekers to add their information, then charge employers (or headhunters) to find the information. Everybody pays! And the entrepreneurs doing business this way come off like slimeballs. Great business model!

We’ve discussed TheLadders, CareerBuilder, LinkedIn, and other job boards that charge job seekers — and then charge employers. (You should never pay for access to jobs — or to headhunters.)

Now there’s a new player in this league. BlueSteps — an operation of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC). It’s doing what LinkedIn does: tapping job seekers for fees. It’s a racket.

Then the executive search firms that belong to BlueSteps charge their clients — corporate employers — one-third of a new hire’s salary to fill executive positions. We’re talking $100,000+ fees.

What makes these search firms worth so much? It’s a good question, because according to BlueSteps’ website, (1) they fill jobs by surfing a resume database, and (2) they deliver job seekers who paid to join the database. That’s not worth $100,000.

Real executive headhunters don’t sit in front of a screen reading resumes that come across the BlueSteps — or any other — database. They actually go out into the world and hunt the people their clients need. They travel in their professional community. They go where top talent hangs out and mix it up. They talk to respected members of the executive community and form long-term relationships. They track down talent that is hidden or unknown to their clients and bring it home.

lazy_recruiterWhen headhunters find their candidates in a database that job seekers pay to join, something smells. This is not headhunting.

Consider: BlueSteps is an association of search firms that get paid in the vicinity of $200,000 to fill a $600,000 job (one-third of the new hire’s salary). So, why is the AESC charging people to put their resumes into a database that its members can then query to find candidates? It rightfully raises an alarm. Suddenly, executive search is not worth $200,000. Any employer’s own personnel jockeys can surf databases to find people at any salary level. The same executives that populate the BlueSteps database are in other databases, like LinkedIn.

The suckers here are not just executives who pay $329 to “join” the BlueSteps database. The really big suckers are corporations that pay exorbitant fees to lazy headhunters who while away their hours feeding at the database trough.

Check this testimonial on the BlueSteps website from a managing partner at a world-class executive search firm:

“BlueSteps is a very effective way of being visible to the retained search community, as its database is constantly mined by AESC member firms.”

Mined?? Why aren’t these lazy headhunters out actually finding top executive talent? Why are they relying on job seekers who paid to get into the database?

Another managing partner (Don’t you love that title?) at another executive search firm testifies:

“Through BlueSteps, we quickly located three of our top candidates located in a broad geographic cross-section including Los Angeles, New York City, St. Louis and London. The candidate signed on for a total compensation package of $500,000+.”

This headhunter collected a fee that was probably around $166,000 — for querying a database. This is not executive search. This is lazy. This is a racket.

BlueSteps says that “in the past 90 days 3,549 BlueSteps database searches [were conducted] by executive recruiters,” and that executive profiles in the BlueSteps database were viewed 12,732 times.

What those managing directors are saying is, We no longer conduct the searches we’re being paid to conduct. We search databases, just like you do — and we charge you $200,000 to fill your open job the way your own personnel jockeys do it.

So, now that we’ve dissected this silly proposition, let’s get to my advice.

If you need to hire an executive, and you have a $200,000 budget to pay a headhunter, go to a small boutique search firm that actually has good contacts in your industry. Use a headhunter who flies below the radar, and who will go out and meet, talk with, and cultivate the best industry sources to get credible, trusted referrals to the best candidates. These are often solo practitioners who are highly respected in the industries they hunt in — headhunters who have relationships that yield excellent referrals. They don’t need LinkedIn, and they don’t need BlueSteps. They make their money the old-fashioned way: They earn it. (You can learn How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make [real] headhunters work for you.) They invest in people and in relationships — not in cheap recruiting tricks. And they get off their butts and actually recruit.

But if you want candidates from a database that people pay to join, then try BlueSteps.

Or, if you have $200,000 to spend and you’re smart, my guess is you could fill the job yourself. And that’s the lesson here. Filling top jobs properly, by finding the best people, is hard work, but it’s not rocket science. It’s just astonishing that AESC and BlueSteps and their members, who call themselves “executive search” firms, conduct “searches” by surfing databases, and by charging job seekers fees “to be found.”

That’s not worth $200,000. Or even $329. Don’t pay lazy headhunters.

If you’re an employer, how much do you pay headhunters, and what do you get in return? If you’re a job seeker, have you ever paid a headhunter?

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  1. Hi Nick.

    Great advice, as always. I love the line in your recent post, “Use a headhunter who flies below the radar, and who will go out and meet, talk with, and cultivate the best industry sources to get credible, trusted referrals to the best candidates.”

    We learned early on a lesson about advertising our services: It attracts job seekers…which ain’t what we are looking for.

    We’ve found it very profitable to just get on with the work. Flying below the radar is where it’s at.



  2. Always a pleasure to read your column, Nick

    I consult to high tech industry and help build sales/marketing structures from VP level down. I do not use ‘database’ headhunters at all in my work.

    I can always tell a real headhunter from the fake when they do call.

    Real headhunter (when they find out I ‘compete’) – Im interested in working with you as new positions come up..can we do that?

    Fake – You are a competitor – CLICK!

  3. I’m curious about how someone found three candidates spread out over four cities. Do search firms dabble in body parts now? Should we start taking the term “headhunter” literally?

  4. There is a risk of buying just a pile of resumes.
    “I thought headhunters got paid big fees to go find people” I would more believe headhunters get paid big fees after their candidates were sucessfully placed with their client’s satisfaction guaranteed for 90 days.

  5. A data base full of people P T Barnum would like to born every minute. A place to check to see if you’re candidate isn’t executive material.

  6. Dear Nick,

    We would like to clarify some information about the BlueSteps service and about Retained Executive Search for your readers.

    First, it is absolutely correct that a candidate should never pay a search consultant for a job—no reputable search professional would ever accept fees from candidates. As you know, retained executive search professionals work for clients (the hiring organization), not candidates. The Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) represents exclusively retained search firms. These search consultants, with verified best-practices and adherence to a Candidate’s Bill-of-Rights, are retained to fill senior management positions for organizations. This includes utilizing their own existing networks of contacts, and providing a research-based process to clients that includes market analysis, detailed reference checking, significant support in salary and contract negotiations, ensuring that the recruitment process is exhaustive, systematic, fairly managed and open to inspection (especially relevant nowadays when diligence, auditability and good governance are a corporate priority). There is so much more to the search process than we can go into in full here, but to say the least, name generation and candidate identification by using a sourcing tool is just the beginning of a much more complex process.

    Senior executives are going to encounter search consultants at some point in their careers and it is important that they understand the search process and have strategies in place to develop good relationships with search consultants and understand how to leverage their opportunities when a search consultant contacts them.

    When an executive joins BlueSteps, they are not paying recruiters to find them a job. They are joining a career-long, career management service that offers a plethora of benefits tailored for executives, whether they are active or passive in the job market. Being in a database accessible by some 8,000 search professionals at the 350+ executive search firms worldwide that are members of the Association of Executive Search Consultants, is just one of those benefits. AESC member search firms conduct 70,000+ searches for executive positions each year, so anything a candidate can do to be more visible to the search community is only going to benefit them as one piece of their overall career management strategy. Yet, being passive in a database should only be a small part of an executive’s job search strategy, and that’s why BlueSteps offers a complete career service that focuses on every stage of an executive’s career.

    BlueSteps members receive career consultations and resume reviews from best-in-class career coaches and writers, tailored executive career content by industry vertical, function, and geographic location, webinars on a variety of executive career management topics including “Advanced LinkedIn Tactics” to “How to Obtain a Board Seat” or “Job Search Strategy for Executives 50+,” access to the International Search Firm Directory, a sample list of open searches being conducted by AESC member search firms, exclusive articles and reports on topics from executive compensation to digital transformation, among many other benefits.

    Operated by the AESC, we are a not-for-profit organization and charge a one-time membership fee for BlueSteps to cover our maintenance and production costs. Although not every BlueSteps member will be contacted by a search consultant, we assure everyone gets value from our career management services, and those who are contacted by search professionals are presented with serious opportunities (this is retained search, not contingency).

    Networking is by far the best way for executives to be considered for executive-level positions, and we have a number of resources available to assist executives in their online and offline networking strategies.

    We hope that helps clarify our service for your readers. If you or your readers have additional questions about the BlueSteps service or about Retained Executive Search, we’d be happy to discuss.

    The BlueSteps Team

  7. Dear “BlueSteps Team”:

    The approach you describe seems rife with conflicts of interest. Not many years ago, during economic downturns, many “search firms” had a hard time staying afloat. So they wandered into new territory: Charging job seekers for help finding jobs and “managing their careers.” Today that trend is a business model that shows up in places like TheLadders, CareerBuilder, and LinkedIn. It’s unfortunate, because it causes two serious problems:

    1. Recruiters who use a database comprising people who paid to join it are – by definition and practice – limiting the searches they conduct. It’s far easier to “find” candidates in a database, and far easier to rationalize avoiding a thorough search. This hurts employers who pay big fees for thorough searches, because it’s not search. It’s a kind of farming. Pardon the analogy, but when man shifted from being primarily a hunter to being a gatherer and farmer producing his own food, the game changed. His diet became more limited. He got fat. He stayed in one place and tended to see less of the world. I believe this is the problem inherent in headhunting by charging people to live in your barn.

    2. As you note, headhunters are hired and paid by employers (corporate clients). The minute headhunters start taking money from job seekers – for any reason, any purpose, including “career consultations and resume reviews” – then there is a conflict of interest. The business is changed.

    I think it’s great that AESC provides useful content to job seekers. It’s good for a vendor to educate its market and the community it works in. But, in my opinion, the conflict is enormous. Herding executives into a club — even if you don’t charge for membership — turns the very nature of “hunting” and “searching” into something else entirely. My concerns are substantiated by many small, boutique search firms that are not hampered by this new business model. It’s a model that may smooth out the business risks of search firms, but it’s a model that turns search firms into consumer services businesses. And that’s not what headhunting is.

    I think AESC provides useful services. But a database of self-selected members is not one of them. I think it perverts the very nature of the search business. The very existence of this database limits the quality of service that corporate clients pay handsomely for because it encourages limited searches. Such searches are not worth the fees charged because an employer’s own personnel department can do the same thing — the “members only” model is available on LinkedIn for a lot less money.

  8. @Nick

    Very well written article and response.

  9. @Nick

    Your comment about jobs where the example fee to the “headhunter” is $200K made me wonder about how you’d describe your target reader audience (which may be very different from what BlueSteps sees as it’s target audience).

    Do your job search method recommendations apply equally well to folks who aren’t high level executives – for example, technical professionals or mid-level managers who’d be very happy to have half of the example fee as their salary? Looking either higher or lower on the scale, is there an income/responsiblity level at which some of your recommendations might become more or less applicable?

  10. Hi Nick.

    Allow me, if you will, to respond on your behalf to Alan.

    Please buy Nick’s book and read it. You will see that Nick is speaking directly to people who WANT to be recognized and found by good recruiters.

    The advice and information that Nick provides about how to work with recruiters, approach your job search, avoid costly errors, and dozens of other valuable tips are – I firmly believe – independent of compensation level.

    At the risk of getting a bit “ZEN” on you (but I do live in Japan, so it’s a valid excuse) I’ll put forward an interesting observation I’ve made as a recruiter: The more that you focus on being the BEST you can possibly be – irrespective of consideration of your current compensation – the more quickly you will be recognized as invaluable, and your compensation will rise. And the likelihood that you will be contacted by good recruiters will increase.

    Of course, this assumes that your current company recognizes your contribution and assesses it in line with your own understanding of your “worth” to the company.

    (Good companies do this. Bad companies help us by pushing their unrewarded talent into our welcoming arms.)

    • “Bad companies help us by pushing their unrewarded talent into our welcoming arms.”

      Unfortunately, your comment presumes that hard-working, highly-productive, under-appreciated professionals know how to find their way to your welcoming arms. Most do not.

  11. We have all encountered LinkedIn surfers, recruiters that have seen our profile and then want to spam it around. Some are even more lazy:

    Recently I was called by a recruiter who said he had me recommended for a development geologist position (error 1) with a consultancey (error 2) in the UK (error 3). I told him plainly that if he had even bothered to just spend three minutes on my LInkedIn profile he would have seen that I left a consultancy three months ago, my expertise is exploration and I have no intention of moving abroad now.

    I told him straight out that if he did not bother to even spend five minutes googling the candidate, he should not Call. He said that he was in a hurry, and had not had the time. Yeah, right, better to waste time by calling irrelevant candidates?

  12. I would like to address the response Nick received, from my perspective as a C-level executive. I have a number of problems with what I am reading on this thread. I will overlook the majority of it and outline rule one in my book regarding business etiquette.

    When one is addressing someone directly, signing off with his (or her) full name (as Nick Corcodilos has done,) that individual is standing behind (i.e. owning) his or her communications. I immediately look for the same in a reply when that reply is directed back towards the individual.

    I do not accept nor appreciate being addressed by first name ever by a firm or individual when the individual writing me is not either introduced or previously known to me. The ultimate turn off is when I am addressed by first name by a stranger and then the same ends their letter with a canned signature line.

  13. @Alan: I write Ask The Headhunter for people at all levels. It’s not designed or intended just for executives, though I sometimes focus an article on the C-level. Most of the ATH audience is mid-level professional, including many engineers (the field I started in), IT folks, marketing, finance, sales… and we also have lots of middle to higher level managers. C-level executives are a pretty small population, but many are in the audience, too.

    The basic methods discussed on Ask The Headhunter are about doing profitable work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an exec or a programmer. The same story gets you hired: You’re here to make a business more successful by showing how you’ll do profitable work.

  14. Nick, Do headhunters even bother with entry level people or individuals that will make less than 50,000?
    LinkedIn makes it sound that everyone is being courted by headhunters. How can that be profitable for them and why would those employers pay?

  15. @Bonnie: The term “headhunter” is used so loosely nowadays that someone in a company’s own HR department might be referred to as a headhunter. This article discusses who’s NOT a headhunter:

    Real headhunters work at almost all levels. If you earn $40,000 and a headhunter places you with a client, the hh can earn a fee of $10,000. So you can see it’s a worthwhile enterprise even at that salary level. These are usually contingency headhunters — they get paid only when they fill the position, and the fee will be somewhere between 15%-25% of the new hire’s salary. And, yes, some employers will use headhunters for jobs below $50,000 salary.

    Retained headhunters are paid partly up front, when they start a search, and the balance when the hire is made. Unlike contingency headhunters, these guys get paid even if the job is never filled — or if the company hires the president’s daughter through a personal connection. Retained hh’s are usually used only for top-level jobs, and fees can run up to 33% of salary. Unfortunately, there are a lot of guys in this business who think an expensive suit, a fancy firm name, an air of mystery, and lots of executive-ese terminology makes them special. Yet, as the BlueSteps story above reveals, all they do is surf databases. These guys go out of business every day. The good ones usually fly beneath the radar — they operate quietly and with integrity. They’re worth every dime that they charge.

    There are good headhunters working at almost all levels. Where things get sticky and sloppy is when an employer lets lots of contingency headhunters work on one position. They start running into one another like drunken sailors. As a job seeker, it’s smart to ask whether a contingency headhunter has an exclusive assignment — that is, he’s the only one working to fill that job. Your chances are much better then, if you’re a good fit.

    But make no mistake: Good contingency headhunters are every bit as good as the best retained hh’s. The type of business model they choose depends on lots of factors. I’ve done both, and I prefer working contingency because it gives me more degrees of freedom in my work.

    The trouble with all this is, the cost of entry to the headhunting biz is about zero. Anyone can play. Consequently, you’re going to meet lots of inexperienced, sloppy, sleazy, inept “headhunters” who — like the one Karsten tells about above — are “in a hurry.”

  16. “Where things get sticky and sloppy is when an employer lets lots of contingency headhunters work on one position.”

    I’ve seen/experienced where the HH/Recruiter is competing with the internal HR/manager for the position as well.

    And many times, they have never placed anyone in the company before. They just saw the job ad and said “hey, I’m a Recruiter/HH. Can I help you find someone?” Of course, since they are on contingency, they say sure. They don’t have to pay unless someone presented knocks their socks off.

    And of course a few things happen…
    Usually since they don’t have a good relationship with the end client. I.e. they always seem to hire someone else sourced a different way. And many times they just pass you off to the companies HR person (Not only do you have to wow the HH/Recruiter but the HR gatekeeper). Also, they give no insight into the specific work the company does, nor the specific benefits the company offers or any insight into the types of interview questions you’ll be asked.

    “The trouble with all this is, the cost of entry to the headhunting biz is about zero.”

    Anyone with a telephone, computer and internet connection…. ;-)

  17. @Dave: That’s the story. But smart companies will not accept referrals from contingency hh’s with whom they don’t have a contract. Lazy companies will look at anything coming over the transom, and it’s a stupid policy. There are headhunters who skim job postings and then send in every resume they have. It’s nuts.

    The problem for you is, such hh’s are sending in your resume as bait to get the company’s attention. And we all know how much bait fish are worth.

    In Silicon Valley, in the “old days,” we used to say the cost of entry was a dime and a pencil. You’d work out of a phone booth and take notes on the wall. :) There were actually some pretty good headhunters who worked that way. But far more who were just running resumes. Like today.

  18. Two questions:

    1)Do retained search firms pay for access to the list of potential ‘candidates’?

    2)Do Blue Step members (the folks who coughed up $239)pay additional fees for various services – you know, “… the career consultations and resume reviews from best-in-class career coaches and writers,…etc”
    If the answers are ‘yes’ how is Blue Step different from The Ladders et al?
    The phrase that comes to mind is ” walks like a duck, talks like a duck…”

  19. Loved the article this week and especially Nick’s reply back to the “Blue Steps Team”. One thing stood out that was so eloquently and artfully thought out which is what many of these “database headhunters” (lack of a better term) miss that Nick pointed out which is a great takeaway:

    “…when man shifted from being primarily a hunter to being a gatherer and farmer producing his own food, the game changed. His diet became more limited. He got fat. He stayed in one place and tended to see less of the world. I believe this is the problem inherent in headhunting by charging people to live in your barn.”

    This sums it up. It’s deep. Your talent pool is limited when you practice database headhunting.

    Nick’s articulation is almost on the same thought processes of what Steve jobs knew. An exact skill set doesn’t necessarily mean the best candidate. That’s why an art designer, who had the vision/soultion and not a techie designed the “apple look” you see in their computer design to this day. He didn’t limit his talent pool. He did the work to search and talk. Exactly what a real headhunter does.

    And not to sound crass and like a meanie, but I am not amused by Bluesteps seemingly articulated jargon of justifying those costs. I don’t think that amount of money can ever be justified just to place a candidate in an executive job or any other job for that matter. Do they know what economy we are living in? Gheez.

  20. @Gwen: You pointed something out that’s very important in a search: serendipity.

    Often, you don’t really know what you’re looking for. The “search” is the point. The object is not. And during the search, you have experiences, meet people, think, learn, tune your perspective. That all sounds lazy, but it’s a lot of work. It takes time. It requires judgment and the ability to put pieces of a vague puzzle together. When you find what or who you want, it often has little to do with what you thought you were looking for. Those you meet along the way help you see what you (or your client) need. You can’t do it from behind a display, or by watching resumes scroll by. A database can’t do it. A database can’t search.

    Clients pay headhunters for search. Not for a candidate. That’s lost on most employers and headhunters nowadays. The candidate falls out of the process; you don’t know who it is when you start.

    Thanks for your kind words, but you and others have added a lot to this Q&A.

  21. “Clients pay headhunters for search. Not for a candidate. That’s lost on most employers and headhunters nowadays. The candidate falls out of the process; you don’t know who it is when you start.”

    Many managers/Recruiters/headhunters don’t have the technical ability, drive or cajones to pull off an effective search.

    This reminds me of a forum post I read several years ago. A headhunter did not understand people’s frustrations with strict adherence to job specs and database searches. The example used was for a Share Point programmer needed for a Share Point upgrade. The headhunter claimed that if his client wanted experience in a specific version, you would be thrown out of consideration – even if they were a well respected person. There was no obvious technical reasons why someone without that specific experience shouldn’t be considered other than “my client wants that and he/she pays the bills.” Any person worth hiring would learn the quirks of the new system in a reasonable amount of time. In other words, you could hire someone tomorrow and they could be up to speed in the time it would take to get someone with that specific experience. It also begs the question – why is the client so insistent? What happens if they want to upgrade again or move away from that platform? Does it mean they are firing that person?

    Another interesting read comes from David Heinemeier Hansson, who created Ruby on Rails, a popular framework for web applications. Some recruiter tried to recruit him as a Ruby on Rails work without doing the right research:

  22. @Dave: That’s better than the apocryphal story about the programmer who was rejected for a job that required 5 years experience with a programming language… that hadn’t been in existence for even 3 years. The ineptness, the stupidity, the lame laziness of “Kelly” is precious.

  23. @Nick

    Serendipity was always an important part of my process, and calls to mind something you wrote back in 2010 about the days when someone with a brain was reading between the lines when he or she studied a resume.

    Back then, you could hire someone on the basis of new insights someone might bring to your operation. I once hired a guy because of the quirky comments he made as he toured my facility. He became one of my best people ever.

    It would be nice if people “searching for talent” could cast a wide neural net instead of skimming resumes for narrowly defined keywords and laundry lists.

    They might find somebody useful.

  24. I am still at a loss over all this smog.
    I want to think the client pays the headhunter a fee for the candidate who the client hires.
    The headhunters who do not get their candidates hired even though they may have interviewed don’t get paid anything?
    Is this assumption correct?

  25. Dave, you would be surprised how often I am contaced by recruiters for geologist positions, where it turns out that I know the company or the technical topic far better than the recruiter. Or, may be the recruiter just pays lip service to the company propaganda or my wishes, and then get surprised when facts are different.

    As I wrote above, a recruiter tried to get me for a development geologist position – if he had spent three minutes on LikedIn, he would have seen that I am in exploration, which is quite different.

    Another time, a recruiter wanted me for a position with a company that suited very well according to his description. Of course, it was urgent; “Telephone interviews next week”. I already had singled out my current company, but the funny story is that the two companies cooperate (which he did not really know), and I have found that the other company is way off his description and my wishes.

  26. @Nick Thanks it’s a pleasure!

  27. I read carefully your article as well as its comments and…I eventually decided to pay the fee to BlueSteps. My view is that a “real” headhunter will obviously build a network of talented executives with direct contact and hard work but I also think he should do searches on BlueSteps and LinkedIn. Why would you miss a candidate that had a very good track in his current company but didn’t spend the required time to know all the good headhunters… Why would this headhunter miss a good option for his customer? You are obviously one of the best headhunter but how can you be sure you will not find a good candidate that decided to register on these sites?

  28. Not vouching for bluesteps or any of them, but one thing the fee does is keep the “non-serious” out. It’s a qualifying filter.

  29. @Ken: I’ve yet to see the pay wall for one of these sites that’s really a qualifying filter. That’s how TheLadders started out. People are suckers for any organization that charges for membership.

  30. Nick – Thanks for the article, and follow up comments. Decided not to pay for Blue$teps.

  31. Echo Pradeep. I’ve been considering Bluesteps for a while but have struggled with the point & genuine value as compared with any run of the mill useless job site.

    Very insightful. Thanks. I won’t be getting hosed for a Bluesteps membership.

  32. @nick, I do agree with job seeks should not pay for the service.

    I am at the impression that such sites are reasonably good source to know consolidated opportunities in the markets, especially at the senior level. Is it true?

    If not due to recommend other source?

  33. @nick, I think that all of your points are good ones but it seems to me that you are trying to hold on to a business model that is changing. HH fees at 15-33% of salary is exorbitant and when firms like Ladders, LinkedIn or Blue Step can provide at a much lower cost a whole database of candidates to be utilized by your in house recruiters, why pay it? It may not be better, but it is certainly cheaper and more convenient and isn’t that the way the trend turns every time? And from the candidate side, these people that may be highly qualified but don’t work in the top 5% companies within their industry (which is MOST people)will never get noticed by headhunters even if they are perfectly suited for the position. How do they get their names out there and why wouldn’t Blue step like companies be a good option?

    I’ve considered membership as I made the career mistakes of changing fields mid-career and having chosen salary and a (beautiful) city location as my criteria for job choice up until now. Thus I find I am stuck with trying to get noticed by the larger better paying companies for the high level positions i have enjoyed up until now. Any response or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

  34. @Kevin: The truth is, TheLadders and BlueStep don’t deliver like headhunters. Do I’m not promoting headhunting in any way. But digging through a (questionable at best) database full of people doesn’t constitute recruiting. Managers could do their own recruiting if they wanted to do it right – there is no mystery to what headhunters do. But most managers are lazy when it comes to recruiting. They’d rather let personnel jockeys judge design engineers, then complain there’s a talent shortage when HR doesn’t deliver good candidates.

    Only about 3% of jobs are filled by headhunters. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with good ones. It just means you should not rely on that channel to find a job. I wrote a whole book about How To Work With Headhunters. Most people don’t even understand what a headhunter is or does.

    Search “TheLadders” on this blog before you pay up. You will not get “noticed” by anyone unless you go out and meet the people these employers do business with. Job hunting via database is a fool’s errand.

    You’ll find lots of free advice throughout this blog and on

  35. @Nick you said, ” People are suckers for any organization that charges for membership.”

    I think that goes for free membership (or access) too especially when they can be made to feel important or special, where people will “Like” what they have or listen to them, watch what they are doing, or make them feel like they are a part of something.

    In my opinion, it is nothing more than a form of self-created celebrity ….just look at self-gratifying antics of social media.

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  37. What do you mean candidates should never pay recruiters? The only reason the recruiter is being paid is because the candidate who is paid $25 an hour with no benefits, which would normally be considered good in his or her mind at a regular full time job because those jobs do come with benefits that are expensive to the employer, plus liability costs accrued by employer, is really earning $50 an hour. The extra $25 is the cash surrender value of those policies that the employer does not want to pay. It is actually worth more than that so to the employer it is a great deal, to the agency it is a really good deal because they do literally nothing and can pursue many other contracts and jobs while candidate mentioned above grinds away 40 hours a week doing data entry when he thought he was going to be a staff accountant; the whole liability shift thing. So essentially the recruiter is cashing out the employee’s benefits plan, and liability insurance policy because what candidate in their right mind would actually sue the agency over the agency’s client being abusive toward him. Both the agency and the client will team up and with all the money and best lawyers destroy the candidate. so that never happens. Anyways back to my point, you are selling our benefits and rights in exchange for a discounted cash value on our behalf, as the discount makes it attractive to the employer, and then paying yourselves a 100% commission on the sale. YOu are doing that with 5, 10,15, sh*t maybe even 100 clients and candidates all at the same time and earning potentially 100 times more than the candidate who is actually busting their @ss and being verbally and emotionally abused and treated like sub human feces so that he can make rent, buy groceries, and hopefully not get laid off one night without notice by the agency via call because client complained about you using the bathroom too much when you had diareahh one day. WTF! And under the false premise that you are our employers? Bull shit we have nothing to do with you. We introduced ourselves to the company and got the jobs ourselves. We had no further contact with you, maybe a few updates quarterly during the year. If anyone is our boss it is the client as they tell us what to do and have full responsibility for our work. If we do bad work you guys just lose a client. Big deal. That aint employment. The beurocrats are going to figure you out one of these days. I will be starting a blog about it soon to educate everyone on the abuse and fraud being committed. You are beyond pathetic. You steal from the worker, the backbone of our nations economy and make it so he not only loses his job if he takes a sick day, but you also force him to pay out of pocket for medical bills. He could sure use that extra $3K per month you guys pocket to pay for your high rise offices overlooking the pacific ocean. The party is coming to an end. Then you will all be looked at worse than Felons or ex Enron employees. The government will probably need to bribe employers to hire you a holes like they do with Vets who they should not need to bribe for. .

  38. @TomsALot: I agree with most of what you say. But you are confusing job shops, contracting companies, consulting firms, whatever you want to call them — with headhunters. Headhunters don’t hire you or put you on their payroll. You are never their employee. The headhunter is paid a one-time fee by the employer to fill the job. That’s it. There’s no hourly “surcharge” on the employee. I’ve never worked in the “contracting” business. Where I disagree with you is on your contention that the racket of “contracting” will end. It won’t. Employers benefit from it too much. They lobby to keep it alive. In a sense, the contracting business is akin to the mortgage business – salesmen earn ridiculous fees to match banks with borrowers. That’s not headhunting. That’s contracting.

  39. I find the job hunt process of today extremely demeaning and abusive at best.

    These quacks that call and email me with “Urgent” positions 100s-1000s of miles away and not even my line of expertise.

    Hard to answer questions of a kid “Recruiter” seeking me as an extremely experienced/educated Technical Professional. They cannot understand my answers and of course they do not know what to ask. How am I to converse with them any details of Engineering and Management? CANNOT DUE IT…BUT…They are to decide if to move me away from trash can!

    The common practice of today to not respond to one’s inquiries is offensive. Yesterday the approached me with interesting position and today they will not return calls/email? REALLY! It is just common decency in all matters to offer a reply. Maybe as simple as….”Will not work out this time”…”Working on it”…”Another candidate chosen”…etc…
    Takes a second to be professional and courteous.

    The Indian “Recruiters” fill all those above criteria and More! Cracks me up with their calls. Cannot understand them and have to say so every time they speak. Sounds like they are talking via String and Cans sound quality.

    What the Heck has America come to?

    I have been out of job market over a decade.

    Things have changed too much for the worse. The old, tried and proven Agencies have gone to wayside and replaced with kids calling me…Saying, “Hey, I saw your resume on Indeed or Ziprecruiter or LinkedIn, etc…
    I guess they are bored as hell and all this talk here says I am right and they are clueless.

    If you put enough Monkeys in a room with keyboards eventually semblance of a word will be achieved.

    If this is how Americans get a decent job now days….OMG.

    Good luck for all.

  40. @Christopher: The calls you’re getting are no better than telemarketers trying to sell you timeshares. You’re getting frustrated only because you field the calls and try to take them seriously. Unfortunately, the “search” business comprises mostly jerks dialing for dollars.

    Vet any headhunter immediately:

    1. Who is your client?
    2. Send me a written definition of the job.
    3. Give me 4 references: Managers who have hired people from you, and people in my field that you have placed. Then check them.

    No answers? Hang up. You’re dealing with a time-eating robot. It really is that simple. What’s hard is dropping the wishful thinking, that these guys can help you. It’s understandable that you expect these clowns to be professionals, but the sooner you learn how to vet them, the better you’ll feel and the more productive other avenues will be for you – because you’ll stop wasting time and energy.

    I wish you the best. If you need help dealing with headhunters, check out my PDF book on the subject, in the right-hand sidebar of this page.

  41. Nick,

    Thanks for the comments.

    I discovered the uselessness of these Monkeys years back sitting in my office at multi-billion $ company. Somehow they got my phone # from time to time. They would spurt out almost unidentifiable lingo about job and stupidity.

    Today I was poking around the Net regarding Blue Steps and found your blog I guess this is.

    I find it funny and so sad what we are dealing with these days. Scammers galore!

    Trying to describe Technical achievements to kids of little to no experience is exhaustive in a work environment much less these “New Day Recruiters”. And they just Graduated from whatever Basket Weaving online University and now they are smart…They know so.

    I am so tired for over 20 years being assigned to mentor someone and they so often tell me all about what they know whether it has anything to do with task at hand is irrelevant.
    My friend has mentioned several times maybe I should be a Teacher. hahaha…Been there…Did that for the most un-grateful.

    Sad to imagine my Mother had way successful Employment Agency she started in 1960s. 1960s not so friendly to Woman owning business and all the other hurdles. Primary focus was Executives. No contract malarchy. A lower pay level job she would fill would be along lines of Executive Secretary. Typically those Job Orders came from someone she had previously placed! She made a small fortune helping people get employed. She retired early and very comfortable.
    All of her employees were over $100K/yr and that was real $ back then. It can be all so lucrative and rewarding done correctly.

    Going to check that Tab you mentioned on the Right of this page.

  42. @Christopher: I was 24 when I started headhunting for a small firm. We handled electronics engineers and managers. I knew nothing about technology. But I was fascinated. So I started asking engineers a lot of questions, and they loved explaining their work and business to me. I never pretended I was a EE, but I did learn to program (wrote a system for my business). And it would take an engineer at least half an hour over lunch to realize I wasn’t a EE – but I never faked it. I built my business by being honest, taking time to learn, and by listening.

    Years later, when I started writing Ask The Headhunter, Electronic Engineering Times licensed my columns – it was lucrative, but it was also an honor to be accepted as a legit headhunter!

    I quickly realized my competitors embarrassed themselves with buzzwords. Engineers hated this. So they loved me :-). That’s how I got started, so I’m very aware of the racket out there. My advice is, don’t settle for working with ignorant recruiters.

    As for your mom, I learned the biz from a woman in the 1980s who had her own little firm. We did all our business through people she knew, so I learned that relationships are what it’s all about. There are good headhunters out there. You’ll instantly know them when you meet them! I wish you the best.

  43. Yep, it is all about Who You Know. Not about getting 9 million out of scope people rounded up and shove the one or two your in-experienced clerks chose.

    USA business, Engineering at least has been on long slide down tubes since 1970s. Individualism and Innovation have been long tossed to the curb.

    I completely appreciate Personnel people understanding and learning about the positions and people they are associating with, trying to match for openings.

    My Mom – She many times said she did not understand what I do. I told her to look around you, everything you see man made was inside someone’s mind at one time and got manufactured. For Pete’s sake, My Dad was Engineer and owned Manufacturing companies. Guess she was wise and didn’t dabble in his pursuits.

    I know not one Head Hunter anymore. The one’s I have encountered found me and I am waiting for them again. I just do not think they comb Indeed or Careerbuilder daily and I think you have said you agree with that.

    Brings up an encounter: A woman called me few months back and stated she had seen me on Indeed. She went on and on about lot’s of useless issues and expressed her dis-pleasure that I live in a home in remote location on the Coast. She said nobody would ever hire me as I live there(She also said she had no idea where it is I live). Several have over the years, I decided not to tell her I have another home very near large City.
    Hahaha- It is nice at times to know when to keep mouth shut. Just another snooty kid running her un-educated and in-experienced mouth. Dime a Dozen.

  44. Question — I have never yet engaged an executive search firm, but am considering the process now. One firm I approached talks about being “retained search” but it is the candidate paying the entire retainer, hiring company pays nothing. I guess there is a lot of “coaching” and network intros involved, the fee is not 30-35% of annual salary but it is still a LOT, enough to fund lots of other networking activity and to incline me to say “NO” despite the possibility of long-term value.

    They seem like nice, reputable people (also no red flags from online reviews), but when I originally approached them, proactively offering to pay for a couple hours of consultation/coaching prior to possibly engaging the full service, they wouldn’t accept and essentially pitched “full service or bust”.

    What do you think? Is this a common business model these days? It is not leaving a good taste in my mouth.

    • I am also in the same boat. Have you had any leads on this topic yet? Any reputable agent recommendations?

  45. I ended up turning them down, and by a combination of luck, skill, and travel expense that was still far less than the requested retainer, generated several additional consulting leads independently. One of those became an active contract I’m working right now, and it actually started as an FTE intro.

    Long-term I am still interested in the topic; another firm that looked like what I originally wanted from Firm #1, also turned out to be “candidate pays the retainer”.

  46. Nick, thank you!

    You provide a lot of succinct and “on point” advice, which can only come from your confidence about what works. Your confidence inspires confidence in candidates like me. Girds us to ward off the “posers” in the search process, and press on!

    Actually, I was very successful in my career, rising to VP Marketing, R&D GM, and Executive in Residence roles in the Tech industry by circa age 40. Early in my career, a broad and deep skill base for senior management was developed in various industry and functional manager roles as well as a stellar engineering and MBA education. Then, focused contributions to internet evolution and building existing/new business divisions made the grade.

    Your advice rings true with my search experiences as both a candidate and employer. As a candidate, I’ve had unscrupulous headhunters demand a fee they didn’t really earn. And I’ve had the privilege of winning a great position through a very professional retained recruiter, who was (and you say it’s common profile) a boutique class act. As an employer, I’ve been given lame piles of useless resumes with not one candidate of interest because a headhunter specified the job with lame acronymns rather than understanding the business and its need. Sometimes, even though I thoroughly knew the search process and types of players, accidents would happen because, like everyone, we’re sometimes stuck with the cards we are dealt.

    To all the candidates out there, if you do everything right, but still an employer or recruiter doesn’t call back … it’s probably because they are not really in the market for what you offer. So, keep refining targeting until you find buying “prospects” instead of non-buying “suspects”. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes you’re not screwed up; they are. Move on.

    Nick, I have one new concern. An insidious health problem disrupted every aspect of my life until it was diagnosed after about 10 years. I’m recovered over the 5 years since diagnosis until today. I have a low-income interim job a few years now, and it’s a job that requires federal government medical certification. And actually I have added skills through it all. The challenge I face is how to find an “on-ramp” back into my proper career level after I’ve been away so long. A lot of contacts got very stale, although I can name many people. I sometimes worry I’m “out of the loop”, but it’s most likely just doubt from lost momentum so many years. Anyway, any advice you can offer to a career version of Rip Van Winkle would be much appreciated.

    Regardless of any help, I would like to count a honest, hard-working, and smart guy like you among my friends and resources.

  47. I will tell you my experience with BlueSteps. I am actively looking for an executive position.
    I paid for a full membership and to my surprise you can only send 7 messages to the listed headhunters and a total of 50 every 90 days.
    If you are actively looking for a job you can figure out that the restriction really makes Blue Steps a useless tool.
    Also, you will find out that most of the jobs posted in this site are also posted in common free websites such as Indeed. Most of them re-direct you to such -free- websites.
    Finally this is my personal statistic … after 40 directs messages to headhunters through BlueSteps’ web, I had 0 (ZERO!) answers. So, maybe the message app does not work, maybe the messages go straight to the headhunters spam folders, or …. maybe the Member Firms do not give a damn about Blue Steps.
    So, if you are looking for a job …just .. STAY AWAY from Blue Steps.

  48. Blue Steps DOES NOT work. After a year of joining not even one headhunter has contacted me and only one has even looked at my profile. Blue Steps charged my credit card for ‘premium’ service $85/yr extra WITHOUT my permission. When confronted they refunded it. I asked them to refund my basic ‘life’ membership and they say its NOT refundable after TEN days. Ten days is a testament to the confidence they have in their product and service. This is a SCAM, A SHAM, TOTALLY BOGUS. I fell for it out of desperation. DO NOT FALL FOR IT. Even lazy headhunters do not use it!

  49. Thanks for the detailed reviews to Nick and all those who have voiced their opinions, it was useful for me to take a decision about not registering with Bluesteps.

    I was anyway skeptical about paying to find a job and what all of you pointed out made sense to me.

    At the end of the day, as mentioned in this forum by others, good headhunters engage with candidates by trying to understand their requirements, skills and most importantly in my opinion what I call a “culture fit” which means that the HH evaluates if the candidate will be able to fit in / feel comfortable in the organisation where he’s going to be placed ( though this is easier said than done).

  50. I just had registered last Monday and found Blue-steps to be a pathetic and fraudulent website . I wish I had seen the above comments before I registered. They are money suckers and you dont get anything in return!

    • Hi Sam, thanks for your message. In fact I was about to cave in to paying Bluesteps. Issue is I find that some job seekers like myself may get anxious and want to maximize our opportunities. I guess that’s their business model as well. Pay for the fee to get in the game; and you can’t blame them for not being able to find a job. Good luck to all in your job hunt!

  51. I feel the feeling behind this article is fair however it misses several major questions.

    1. Are ‘big names’ who already heavily networked executives always the best people for the job or are they just the easiest people to find ?

    2. In leverage ‘old boys’ and existing C-Suite members headhunters and companies risk completely missing high talented individuals who may be starting out their executive careers rather than having already been earning £300,000 + a year to fund the executive lifestyle and locations.

    3. What is the best way to attract ‘new blood’ into executive positions beyond internal promotion ? The ‘old-fashioned’ ways won’t cater that market and in an economy and society where let us be honest the old stalwarts are not longer delivering the full scope of returns how does business and executive search adapt ?

    It is worth mentioning I write this as someone who is in between the above categories currently making the step for executive SME positions to (having specialised through further studies) to C-suite level roles, but is not priviledged to be part of any exclusive clubs frquented by executives. Hence executive search firms who don’t solely rely on these old networks can often be the only route for job oppportunities.