Finding a Headhunter Who Fits

Before you start sending off your resume to any who call, consider these tips from some pros on picking the right recruiter

At last count, some 5,200 recruiting firms in North America were trying to play matchmaker between hiring managers and job seekers. Many of these outfits opened shop during the hiring frenzy of the late 1990s and are now struggling to land clients in the current slowdown. Just ask Lyn Van Huben, staffing manager at Wildfire Communications, a speech-recognition technology company in Waltham, Mass. that's still hiring. Lately, her department has been fielding 70 calls a day from recruiters pitching their services.

With so many headhunters scrounging for work -- some are even shopping their own resumes these days -- how can job seekers figure out which ones can best help them? Recently, BusinessWeek Online reporter Jennifer Gill spoke to employment directors and search firms for tips on finding a good recruiter, plus insights on what a headhunter expects from a top candidate. Here's what the experts say:

Know the difference between "contingency" and "retained" search firms.

Contingency firms generally handle searches for junior and mid-level executives, with salaries ranging from $50,000 to $150,000. Typically, they compete to fill a job, and they get paid only if their candidate is hired. A standard placement fee ranges from 25% to 35% of the first year's cash compensation, although some recruiters take much less, according to Darrell W. Gurney, an executive recruiter and author of Headhunters Revealed! Career Secrets for Choosing and Using Professional Recruiters.

With that reward dangling in front of them, contingent recruiters have a real incentive to rush resumes of candidates into the hands of the hiring manager. For the job seeker, it means that you'll be one of dozens of candidates presented to a company. It also means that your resume may get widely distributed -- a good thing if you're unemployed, but a potential hazard if you're still in your current gig and don't want your employer to discover that you're looking around. "The higher you go up the ladder, the more you want to be discreet because you're a known commodity," says executive recruiter Jeffrey Heath at Landstone Group in New York.

Retained firms are called in for senior-level positions, with salaries starting at $100,000 and escalating to millions for CEOs and other corporate officers. They don't compete with other headhunters on assignments, and they get paid whether or not they fill the slot. Their average take is one-third of the candidate's first-year cash compensation. Retained firms routinely compile a short list of candidates for a job. If you make the cut, there's a good chance that your resume will be given serious consideration by the company.

Find recruiters in your field.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's essential that you work with headhunters who know your industry and profession. Ask colleagues for recommendations, or visit your local library and thumb through a copy of the Directory of Executive Recruiters, a thorough guide of headhunters in North America published annually by industry research group Kennedy Information, which also puts out an international edition. You can read both directories for a fee at Kennedy's Web site, Hunt-Scanlon, another industry researcher, has a database of retained executive recruiters that you can search for free at

Another tip: Bring your resume to industry conferences or meetings sponsored by professional associations. Recruiters often haunt these events scouting for bright stars.

Get on their radar screen before you need them.

Contrary to what may be the popular perception, you don't have to wait for a headhunter to call you. Once you've pinpointed several recruiters in your field, put out feelers at least six months before you would like to leave your employer, Heath suggests. Even if you have no intention of ditching your job, interview with a few recruiters so you can make a move if your circumstances change -- you get downsized, you clash with a new boss, and so on.

Send your resume along with a cover letter that spells out your requirements for salary, industry, and location. If you aren't willing to relocate, say so but be aware that it could limit your options. Don't call before sending your materials -- a recruiter "who doesn't have your information won't want to talk to you," Gurney says.

The recruiter may still not want to talk to you after looking at your resume. Heath receives about 300 unsolicited resumes a day, but most applicants don't have the skills or experience his clients require. If a person has the right stuff but no position is open, many headhunters will enter the candidate's specs into a database for future use. If not, chances are good that your resume will land in the garbage.

Most professionals have probably received at least one call at work from a recruiter trying to entice them with a job elsewhere. Even if you're not excited about the position, talk to the recruiter for five minutes anyway. Find out which industries they cover, whether they operate in various parts of the country, and who some of their big clients are. If you like what you hear, let them know to keep you in mind for jobs down the road.

Tell a good story.

Once your resume wows a recruiter, it won't take long for the headhunter to call you for more details. "Recruiters can smell a placement wherever they can find it," Gurney says. Executive recruiter Harriet Shohet spends nearly an hour on the phone grilling qualified candidates about their profit-and-loss responsibility, why they want to leave their employer, and what they hope to get out of a new job.

If a person has a history of switching jobs, she asks about that, too. Job-hopping isn't an automatic turnoff, she says, but a candidate had better be able to explain it. Highlight your proudest moments at work as well, especially those that drove revenue or cuts costs, Heath adds. "Recruiters don't want to hear about job chronology -- they want achievements."

They also don't want to be strung along by candidates who are only going through the motions so that they can bargain for a raise back at the office. Shohet was hoodwinked twice by the same candidate who used this ploy. "You burn bridges," she says. "I'd have to think hard before calling him again."

Expect service.

After a search firm has pumped you for information, it's your turn. For instance, Shohet suggests, ask if the job is new at the company. "If it is, you want to know: Is the organization really behind it? Will you have a staff and budget? If the position isn't new, why is there no one to fill it at the company?"

Despite what the law says, older job hunters may wonder if their age could be a barrier. "We don't care how old the person is," says Eric Wheel, executive recruiter at Management Recruiters International in Mill Valley, Calif. "We care about whether they have the skills that the company is looking for." Older workers should seek out headhunters who can pitch their years of experience as a selling point. "[An older job seeker] has seen a bunch of ways to attack problems," Wheel adds. "If the hiring manager is looking at some of those same problems, that candidate can point to real-world situations where they addressed those issues."

Also find out how long the headhunter has worked with the company: The longer the relationship, the better the recruiter will understand the organization and how you fit in. Expect them to prep you for the interview, explaining who you'll be meeting, the person's title, and whether the person would be your future boss. The headhunter should also follow through with a call after the interview to give you feedback from the employer and get your opinion about the job.

Be careful when dealing with multiple recruiters.

It could come back to bite you, particularly if you're working with contingency firms. Van Huben at Wildfire gets "many, many duplicates" of resumes that are funneled to her from various agencies. A date-stamped system tracks when resumes arrive so that the right agency gets credit -- and gets paid -- for delivering the winning candidate.

Not all staffing departments are that organized, however. Many employers that receive the same resume from more than one recruiter might ignore it because of potential legal hassles. "The two search firms are going to say "Mine!" and the client is going to say "None," Heath says. "Employers don't want a lawsuit on their hands."

If you've been laid off, say so.

With corporate downsizings still piling up, many recruiters won't be surprised to learn that you were pink-slipped. But they may scrutinize your credentials a bit more closely. No company wants to hire "somebody else's mistake," says one executive recruiter, who believes that "the majority of [laid-off employees] are people you don't want."

To prove that you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, come up with references who can vouch for your performance. You might even provide a copy of your last performance review to show that you're a first-class worker.

Whatever you do, don't lie about being axed. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone tell me that they were making $200K, but they left their job to focus on advancing their career full-time," Heath says. "I'm thinking, 'Yeah, right. You've got three kids at home.' It's like being a state trooper and pulling someone over. Give me a line I haven't heard before."

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