Ask The Headhunter®

the insider's edge on job search & hiring™
December 15, 2009
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This week's Q&A

How long does the headhunter control me?

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What is the standard for recruiter-submitted resumes? That is, if a recruiter gives a company your resume, how long are you tied to that recruiter concerning that company?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

But if there was an interview and you were not hired, here's what I'd do to test the waters. Have a friend call the company's personnel manager to find out what the policy about headhunters is. Here's How to Say It:

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

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

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

The best way to settle this might be to notify the headhunter that you consider his involvement with you terminated. (While this is a powerful move, it might end your relationship completely.) There's a special How to Say It section in How to Work with Headhunters about how to handle this effectively. I'm reprinting it in the How to Say It sidebar at right—I hope you find it useful.

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


Nick Corcodilos
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How to Say It

Can I dispense with the headhunter?

In today's Q&A: A reader is worried that she can't apply for a job on her own, at a company where a headhunter was not able to get her a job offer.

Her concern might be justified. (Please see my response in the main column.) But regardless, no headhunter has a permanent claim on you. If he can't get you an interview at a company after a reasonable effort and window of time, you should close the window. First, send him a written request: Does his client intend to interview you? If the answer is no, then send a certified notice. (The tip below is reprinted from page 119 of How to Work with Headhunters.)

How to Say It (in writing): "Since you have not scheduled an interview with your client, I conclude that you have not been able to generate interest in me as a candidate. I therefore consider this matter closed. I hereby cancel any permission I may have granted you to present me to [company] or to any other company, effective immediately. Kindly confirm receipt of this notice."

If you'd like to continue working with the headhunter, you might omit "or to any other company"—that's up to you.

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