How can I qualify a headhunter who calls me?

We’ve been discussing headhunters recently. One reader went off on a tear that’s worth sharing. And it includes a question worth answering. I’ll offer some advice at the end.

I just stumbled upon your blog after the last fruitless 30-minute phone call with another clueless recruiter. I could use some advice on qualifying recruiters in the first five minutes of the conversation. If you have some material on your blog/website along these lines, I’d really appreciate it.

Then I read your blog item, Headhunters: Novices, wannabes & clueless franchisees. You wrote:

“Today, the headhunting industry is so full of total novices, fast-buck entrepreneurs, online resume-scrapers, job-board mavens, LinkedIn miners, data-base scavengers, spam spreaders, and clueless franchisees that any company needs to ask one question when it interviews a headhunter: Do you know what the hell you’re doing?”

I said to myself, this guy has got it down. I am going crazy having seen all of the above in the past three months. I get recruiters who haven’t read my resume, who haven’t an idea of what the client really wants, and who propose me for jobs that I’ve told them I don’t want to consider (mostly short-term contract positions rather than permanent, direct hire). By the way, three of them came from Ladders and one involves a proposal for a classic Ponzi scheme.

Don’t get me started on LinkedIn. There, I get recruiters asking me to help them find the proverbial candidate who walks on water. Is perfection really the primary paradigm for filling positions?

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Oops! There goes another one!

The foreman at a lumber mill is giving a tour to the Human Resources manager. He hears a voice over the din of all the machinery. “Ouch!” Concerned that the new, accelerated production schedule is resulting in accidents, they follow the sound to a worker running a huge saw that slices through trees like bars of butter. “What’s the matter? Why’d you cry ouch?” asks the foreman. “Well,” says the saw operator. “I was trying to put more logs through the saw faster, like we were told, and I just stuck my arm out like this, and… Whoa! I’ll be darned! There goes the other one!” The foreman turns to the HR manager: “Well, that does it. You were right. There goes another one. We need to post these jobs on CareerBuilder long before we need to fill them.”

Once again, a lousy economy is thrusting people into a job market where the talent is running scared. People will snatch up jobs, any jobs, to pay the mortgage.

I try to teach people the importance of pursuing the right job, not just a paycheck. But I always qualify that, because I certainly understand that putting food on the table and paying the rent may be a good reason — maybe the only reason — to take a job, any job. But even in dire circumstances, it’s important to step back and consider the consequences of such short-term thinking and decision making. The trouble is, business is leading the way.

Two articles in a recent edition of Computerworld highlight the problem. In Software Holding Back Spread of Multicore Chips, we learn that new computer microprocessors with four “cores” (translation: four brains) are now shipping to companies that want the extra processing power. But customers and analysts alike complain that there’s no software that takes advantage of this massive leap in computer hardware. Oops. Read more

Armchair Recruiting: Hiring what comes along

Headhunting firms routinely claim they will bring the best candidates to their clients. Employers like to say that people are their most important asset, and they hire only the best.

It’s a load of crap. Most headhunters and employers recruit and hire from what comes along. They not only don’t recruit who is the best in the field; they don’t know who is best because they don’t often seek them out. They don’t make it their business. Hiring managers who fail to recognize this risk the long-term success of their operations, and the people they hire risk their careers.

In Headhunters, Personnel Jockeys & Monkeys I wrote about companies that don’t want headhunters sending them job candidates whose resumes are already on the job boards. It seems the personnel jockeys at these companies are already busy “recruiting” from the boards (that is, scanning and sorting resumes), so why should these companies pay for more of the same?

A couple of headhunters responded to the aforementioned posting, saying that they’ll take their candidates anywhere they can find them. This sharpens the distinction between active headhunters and passive headhunters. It also points out the enormous quality gaffe employers themselves make when recruiting. They are not hiring the best people for the job.

The distinction is sharp and it reveals a fundamental and profound difference in the quality of recruiting and hiring practices among headhunters and employers.

You can identify, recruit and hire the people you want by going out into the world with a set of criteria and tracking down the best people in your industry. You’ll encounter a few surprises and meet interesting people. You’ll become part of their network. A good network is a circle of friends, and those new friends will be your source for future searches, too. You’ll also learn a lot about the industry and profession you recruit for, and that makes you a better and more credible headhunter.

Or, you can sit at a desk and take what comes along. But don’t tell me you’re headhunting. You’re not a headhunter. You’re passive, like the employer’s HR department that does the same. And the quality gaffe you’re making is that you have settled — you have not hunted, found or recruited. You’ve made a forced choice. Read more

Headhunters, Personnel Jockeys & Monkeys

Welcome to the monkeyhouse.
When the economy is tight, the marginal members of the headhunting business get very nervous because the low-hanging fruit disappears. They actually have to work to make a living. Meanwhile, the best headhunters are busy with challenging assignments because The Truth About Speeding Trains is that while they may slow down a bit for a curve, they don’t stop. These companies keep hiring, but carefully.

You’ve probably heard me say that 95% of HR workers aren’t worth spit. And I usually put that in context by adding that 95% of headhunters aren’t worth spit, either. But look at the bright side. 5% of HR workers and 5% of headhunters have no competition.

Many “headhunters” don’t know how to find new clients, and they sure don’t know how to find the best candidates. They pick the low-hanging fruit and call it a job. Let’s take a look at what this means, and how it affects you.

Don’t give us low-hanging fruit.
A headhunter recently wrote to me, complaining that her corporate clients don’t want her to submit resumes of people whose resumes are already plastered all over the job boards.

We have seen a couple of clients indicate that they do not want to see resumes of candidates who have been sourced on the popular job boards (even if they have not sourced the candidate themselves). [“Sourced” means “found.”] We always clear the candidate on the client company to determine if they have been contacted or applied to the company. We would never submit a candidate who has indicated contact with a client company.

Translation: We find resumes on Internet job boards and we send them to companies, hoping to get an interview, a hire, and a fee. Read more

Job-hunting insanity

In an edition of my syndicated column, I ran a poll in The Seattle Times. I asked readers to pick from four methods they’d use to get in the door at a company. In other words, how would you apply for a job?

77% responded that they would pursue the channel that is most closed to them — the HR department. Even though they know that the line is long and the competition is stiff, people still take this path. Something like 40%-70% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. I don’t think that surprises anyone, and most people know in their gut that “it’s who you know.”

So, why do people go through HR?

Let’s see if I can help you view this from another perspective. Suppose your boss gave you an important project, and you realized it could not be accomplished by conventional means. In other words, the way it’s always been done ain’t gonna cut it. Your boss just wants the job done. Would you continue applying the same-old methods? Or, would you demonstrate creativity and try something new? (Your boss is watching.)

Hold that thought. Read more

Career guidance from the netherworld

If my views on job hunting and hiring (and career development) seem different from most “experts” in the field, it’s mainly because I see the most fruitful ideas on these topics coming out of the netherworld. That is, from non-career-related areas. Unfortunately, the career industry spends so much time chewing and re-digesting its decades-old cud that its pipeline is clogged with crap. But, there’s guidance elsewhere, if you pay attention and look for it.

I should share more of the source material I find, so here are a couple of bits you might enjoy — and find stimulating. (Where do I find this stuff? It’s my lunch-time reading. I get more subscriptions than you’d ever want in your mailbox. Actual printed rags mean more to me than stuff published purely online. The way I see it, when a publisher spends money on paper and ink, what he publishes will be better than most of the mush we find online only. I emphasize most. There’s some great stuff online, of course…)

Fortune magazine has a cover feature this month titled Go Get the Money: How to sell in any market. (It’s in the September 29 edition, but not all the material from it that I discuss below is available online. So, buy a magazine that you can read anywhere.)

Item 1: Job hunting and hiring are 90% about selling. And 90% of sales is about your attitude and about the attitude you project to employers, job hunters, headhunters, and anyone else you brush up against in when your objective is to match a person with a company. Read more

Do you know where those references come from?

Is it okay if you write your own recommendation or reference letter and let your boss sign it? What does that say about you? About your boss?

Since it’s appeared in two recent editions of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, the volume of reader mail has pushed this topic to the blog. I want to make it easier for everyone to talk about it. The pertinent newsletter editions are:

A boss who — when asked if he’ll write a recommendation — tells the individual to write their own reference letter so the boss can sign it, is an irresponsible jerk. He’s dissing his own company, dissing the employee, and dissing the entire business community. Who’s going to read that reference and base a hiring decision on it — at least in part? (Is this where crummy hires come from?)

There are some legitimate ways for an employee to make the task a bit easier for the boss, and to reasonably influence the result, and I discuss those in the newsletter. But, a manager signing someone else’s judgments as one’s own — that undermines business at a fundamental level.

Most readers got their hackles up over this one. One said his former boss did this routinely, and called him “a feckless loser.” One called the failure of managers to actually take the time to write a reference “another example of the general malaise that exists in Corporate America; it is like a cancer that is spreading exponetially.” Consistently, readers focused on the bigger underlying management problem. One put it very simply: “Not only is it deceitful, it’s also lazy and bad management practice.”

One reader explained that this is just how business is done and chided me for not accepting it. Bob Hooson wrote (and gave me permission to print): Read more


You’ve heard enough out of me about why you should toss your resume in the trash and get your next job by actually talking to people who can hire you. A resume is a dumb piece of paper. It cannot “sell” you, or be your “marketing piece” or defend you when a manager sees something on it that bugs him. Too many people use a resume as a crutch. “Look, I mailed out 100 of them! I’m job hunting actively. Now I’ll wait for employers to call.” Yah. You might as well send a dog with a note in its mouth.

But you’re gonna use a resume anyway. And I’ve got no beef with that. You should have a resume, a good one. Use it the way I do when I present a candidate to a client company. Not to get the candidate in the door, but to fill in the blanks.

I rely on my powers of persuasion to get my client to interview a candidate. Besides, my clients don’t want 500 resumes. They’re paying me to bring them three good candidates so they don’t have to waste their time sorting paper. If I provide a resume at all, it’s usually after the interview, when the manager needs to fill in the blanks — to understand the rest of the candidate’s background. And that resume had better be good, clear, to the point, and supportive of what the manager learned about the candidate in their meeting.

Most resumes are crap. Yadda-yadda-yadda. “OBJECTIVE: To work for a progressive company where I can experience career growth and where I can work with people.” (HINT: I love those resumes because the OBJECTIVE is right up top, and that helps me to instantly toss the thing in the trash. Gimme a break. You want to work with people. You want to work for a good company. You want your career to grow. So what? What’s that got to do with showing me why I should hire you, or present you to my client?)

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Loopy feedback failure

Do employers owe you feedback after a job interview? Jeez Louise. Could job hunters be more brainwashed? How could anyone even ask that question? You might as well ask, Does a job hunter owe an employer answers during a job interview?

Nah, let’s all just waste one another’s time and agree that our time is worthless and rude behavior is par for the course.

It’s not. And it’s not. An employer owes you candid, detailed feedback after a job interview because it’s the right thing to do. But a well-intentioned reader demonstrates just how pervasive the brainwashing is, and how loopy this feedback failure has become:

I am a subscriber to your e-mail newsletter and I wanted to give you some feedback. I disagree with the recent advice you gave in a column about, “Do I deserve feedback after the interview?”

The person who wrote to you was obsessing because they didn’t get feedback from a single interview. Why? This is par for the course. You advised the job hunter to contact the hiring manager to talk more about the job, and then to casually press for feedback about why he wasn’t hired. Then you suggested he go over the manager’s head to talk to his boss. This may just make the guy appear to be difficult to deal with.

It is much worse when you go on one, two, or even three interviews, spend a day or two, take vacation time off work, and don’t get feedback. From what I’ve heard, companies don’t want any liability surrounding providing feedback after an interview. I have never gotten any such feedback and I have interviewed with lots of companies. It is just part of the competitive interviewing world and people should just accept it.

You do have a point — not getting feedback after a job interview is routine. But look more closely at what you’re saying: “…companies don’t want any liability surrounding providing feedback after an interview.”

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The Ministry of Reference Checks

Smart job hunting requires picking good target companies carefully. Why apply for jobs at lousy companies? Life’s too short. It’s why I tell people There aren’t 400 jobs for you. At best, there might be a small handful. Don’t just look for a job. It’s far better to doggedly pursue four, five or six right companies than to shotgun the job market and go after every wrong company out there — just because the job boards let you.

This reader has a very, very smart approach to checking out companies. Yep, he checks a company’s references, and he does it like no one else I’ve ever seen. He starts by using the most credible references he can think of: church ministers. This gives a whole new meaning to being blessed…

I couldn’t agree more with your strong advice to carefully research a company’s reputation, in your article Peeling The Offer. I’d like to share an experience I had that illustrates just how important this is.

I applied for a management position and made it through four phone interviews and then a site visit where I was interviewed by three people. Following the interviews I felt that I had a very good shot at the job but I had some very bad feelings about the company, including the fact it had 150% staff turnover and all supervisors and managers had less than one year on the job. I would have been responsible for all new-hire training and it looked like I was going to be chasing a moving target even before I started to ask why the turnover rate was so high. I left the interview and stopped at a local sporting goods store on my way out of town. I mentioned to the store owner that I was in town for a job interview. Without hesitation the store owner said, “You don’t want to work there. That place is a mess.”

The next day I set up meetings with the ministers of the two largest churches in town. Ministers know a community. I asked both men about the reputation of the employer. I said I would appreciate their wisdom, advice and assistance and promised to keep their comments in the strictest confidence. One declined to say much, other than to agree that the company had a very high turn over rate. I felt that his reply was significant for what he did not say. He did not say it was a good place to work or that I would be happy working there. The second minister was much more vocal. He said that a number of his parishoners worked at the company and absolutely hated their jobs. He said the plant manager was extremely difficult to work for, the accident rate appeared to be very high, and working conditions and benefits for the hourly workers were very poor. Even though I would have received better benefits as a manager, I have major issues with a company that treats its hourly people like dirt.

I decided that if two local ministers – men of decent reputation and good education – couldn’t say anything good about an employer, I certainly didn’t want to work there. So I sent an e-mail off to the corporate recruiter with a “Thanks, but no thanks” message. I’m still looking, but I can sleep at night.

References on a company are key. References can save you time, trouble, and pain. But this story takes it up a notch: If you want useful references, go to credible references. Ministers. I love it.