HR Headhunters: Things You Should Know Before Talking With A Headhunter

by Joseph J. Tomaino

When you are interested or looking for a new HR job, a call from an HR headhunter can bring excitement about potential opportunities.

If you are successful and happy in a job, a call from a headhunter can bring the promise of accelerated career growth. But can talking with a headhunter actually hinder your chances of landing a job?  There are some things you need to understand about headhunters before you return that call.

There are two different categories of headhunters, and when one calls you, find out which one they are in. Headhunters who are hired by a company to help them develop the hiring criteria and lead the process of recruiting from inside the company and outside to find the right person for a position are known as retained search firms.

They actually function as consultants to the company. These types of headhunters are hired exclusively by the company and their fee is paid regardless of who ends up being hired for the position and whether or not they came from within the company itself.

The other category is made up of headhunters who become aware of open positions and approach companies with candidates who they feel may meet the criteria for that position. These types of headhunters are known as contingency search firms and they only get paid if their candidate is hired by the company–usually a percentage of the annual salary of the position they have helped to fill. They learn of these positions like you might–from the newspaper, networking with contacts, and occasionally because companies call them about positions but not offering them any exclusivity.

Headhunters in retained search firms may advertise for a position, but more commonly they find candidates by reviewing the database of resumes of industry leaders they maintain, or by calling industry leaders to see if they themselves or someone they know may have an interest in the position.

From a dozen or so possibilities, they conduct phone interviews and then conduct in-person interviews with semi-finalists. They then present to the company the final three or four candidates that they feel best meet the criteria and the company leaders interview these finalists and select the person they feel is best.

When you talk to a headhunter who is performing a retained search, you have the security of knowing that you are talking to someone who is working for the company and not just trolling for candidates for a position that he or she then needs to solicit the opportunity to present to the company as a contingency recruiter must do.

You also can feel good if you advance through the process that you are competing with a diminishing number of other candidates because unless the pool of semi-finalists does not appeal to the company leaders, it is rare that new candidates are brought into the process at that point.

However, it is also important to know that once a headhunter in a retained search firm presents you for a position, they will not present you to any other client until that first search is totally completed–even if you are a weak candidate for the first position and a much stronger candidate for the new position.

In the case of a contingency firm, you do not have the assurance that he or she will actually get the opportunity to present your resume for a position. If a contingency recruiter calls a company and says that they have a candidate who may meet the criteria for a position, the company may not want to accept the terms of paying the contingency recruiter a percentage of your first year’s salary if you are hired.

Additionally, even if the recruiter is able to submit your resume and you become a finalist among other candidates that the company recruited by itself and would not have to pay a contingency fee for, you then compete at a disadvantage. If most things are equal between two finalists and the company has to pay twenty per cent of the annual salary to a headhunter for one and no fee for the other, it is clear that you would not be in a better position being represented by the headhunter and would have been better off if you had found out about the position yourself.

On the other hand, many contingency recruiters establish excellent working relationships with companies and industry leaders and often hear about positions that are not advertised or which need to be filled quickly or quietly. Another advantage of a contingency recruiter is that he or she only gets paid if you get hired, so they are more likely to present you to a variety of potential employers to increase the chances that you get hired and they get paid.

Each category of headhunters has advantages and disadvantages, but in any case here are some strategies to consider when called by one:

* If a retained search firm requests the opportunity to present you for a position, make sure you feel comfortable that you really meet the criteria the company is looking for and that you have a chance to be selected. That way, you won’t mind not being presented by the firm for other available positions during the two to four months that the selection process may take place.

* If contingency search firm offers to present you for a position make certain that it is for a position that you could not learn of by yourself. Don’t ask for the name of the company until you are reasonably sure you want them to present you because once they actually tell you of the specific position, you probably have an ethical if not legal prohibition from calling up the company about the position yourself without the recruiter’s contingency fee attached.

* Make it clear if you send your resume to a contingency recruiter that you want them to get your permission each and every time they want to submit your resume for a position.

* If you are out of a job and need to get one quickly, a contingency recruiter may get you broader exposure over a shorter period of time.

* If you are happy in your current position, dealing with retained search firms may be a more discrete way of exploring growth opportunities without your resume being broadcast throughout the industry.

Over the course of your career, you will develop relationships with headhunters in both categories. The appropriateness of each of the categories for your current search depends on your situation and also on the personal relationships and trust you develop with recruiters over time. Take care to be thoughtful about the process and know who can represent you best at a given point of time in your career.

About the Author: Joseph J. Tomaino, The Tomaino Group, 834 Heritage Court, Yorktown Heights, NY 10598. Email:  These are articles and tips on enhancing your Human Resources skills and competencies as well as seminars, conferences, workshops, tools, techniques for beefing up your HR competencies.