What To Say When An HR Recruiter Calls You — The 10 Do’s & Don’ts!

by Alan Collins

As an HR pro, you should always be prepared for recruiter and headhunter calls.

Here’s why…

You can never, ever predict when you might be suddenly thrust into the job market for reasons beyond your control.

The brutal truth is no matter how comfortable you feel currently, the reality is…

You are just one re-org away from being on the street.

You are only one job elimination from being handed your pink slip.

You are just one bad new boss away from getting whacked unjustifiably.

Especially as organizations continue
to grapple with the pandemic or
deal with openings resulting from
the “Great Resignation.

For these reasons, building relationships with headhunters and recruiters should be an important part of your career advancement strategy.

Working with them when they call is a skill you need to master, even if you’re NOT in actively seeking out your next HR opportunity.


Because there are some terrific HR jobs out there that you’ll learn about ONLY through professional HR recruiters.

With this in mind, here are ten do’s and don’ts to say when they ring your phone:

*   *   * 

#1:  Don’t say…
“I’m happy in my job right now.
Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

Instead say…“Thanks for the call. I’m pretty happy right now — but tell me about the opportunity first and why you think I might be a good fit.”

Here’s why:  It never hurts to give five minutes of your time for a listen, even if things are going well for you.

Your circumstances may change.

No matter what you’ve heard, great opportunities in HR surface every day.

And you may be investing these few minutes to hear about an HR dream job you didn’t expect to land for another 3-5 years.

*   *   * 

#2:  Don’t say
“Sorry. I’ve don’t accept
cold calls from recruiters.
Too many bad experiences.

Instead say…“I’m always open to learning more about other opportunities.  But I’ve learned to be a bit cautious…are you calling me about a specific HR position or are you just collecting information for your database?

Here’s why:  It may be worth it.  Or not.

But you won’t know until you invest a few minutes to decide whether it’s a good use of your time to help populate their database, if there is no actual open HR position available.

If it’s a well-known headhunter or search firm, it certainly COULD be worth it.

But on the other hand, beware!   There’s scum out there.

Any jerk with a phone can start a “recruiting business,” start making cold calls or offer to “place you in your dream job for $5000.”  If this is the case, hang up.  You know as well as I do, that employers pay recruiters for finding talent.  So don’t fall for this scam.

This is why it pays to be cautious.

Again, some of the best HR opportunities out there come only through headhunters and search firms.   So ask questions, probe and be selective.  But don’t be scared.

*   *   * 

#3: Don’t say
“I didn’t contact you.
How the heck did you find me?”

Instead say…“Why are you interested in me?” and “Did someone refer me?”

Here’s why:  Not only does this screen out the type of recruiter who’s just blindly cold-calling but it also helps you understand what qualities you possess that are appealing.

*   *   *

#4:  Don’t say
“Look, I’m at work and too
busy to talk right now.”
And hang up.

Instead say (especially if you’re actively looking)… “You caught me at an inconvenient time.  Could I call you back later this evening?”  Then get their name, the firm they’re working for and their phone number.

Here’s why:  Ideally, take this call away from your office, if you can.  And especially if privacy is an issue.

This will also give you a chance to check them out on Linkedin, google their search firm, check out the website and phone number, so that you’re certain you’re not dealing with some phantom organization.

If/when you do call back, ask for references for candidates they’ve previously placed.  Such probing is important and could prevent an embarrassing encounter with someone from your firm who’s posing as a recruiter to see whether you’re looking to jump ship.

*   *   *

#5:  Don’t say
“My salary is $XYZ annually.”

Instead say… “Before I share any of my personal information, can you tell me the salary range for this job?

Here’s why:  Don’t volunteer your numbers, before getting theirs first. If the recruiter won’t tell you the salary range, you can politely hang up the phone.

Professional recruiters will tell you what the job pays. After all — they reached out to you! If they are coy and cagey with you about something as basic as the salary range for a position, you don’t have time to waste with them.

When you do provide your salary, provide a broad range rather than an exact figure. However, if the job’s salary doesn’t meet your expectations, don’t immediately disqualify yourself.

Salaries can be negotiated.

Benefits, bonuses and perks can be enhanced.

These types of sweeteners can make that terrific HR opportunity, with its imperfect salary, even more attractive.

Finally, when asked about your accomplishments or earnings, don’t embellish. Recruiters check references thoroughly and any lies will disqualify you. Fudging your résumé will give you a black mark not only with the recruiter, but with his or her clients as well.

*   *   *

#6:  Don’t…
Surf the internet,
eat your lunch or do
work on your keyboard
while talking.

Instead…Give them your full attention and be professional on the phone.

Here’s why:  A good recruiter has done his or her homework and targeted YOU specifically for a reason.  Multi-tasking, being disrespectful or not fully engaged in the conversation is a turnoff.

The fact that a recruiter is calling you means they believe you may have the right background for their position.  It’s up to you to prove them correct.  Don’t assume you’re just chatting.  The search firm will be evaluating whether you have the communication skills and other intangibles needed for the job.

For these reasons, if you project low energy or respond with “yep” and “nope” answers…you’ll be passed over for someone else with a pulse, who replies in full sentences.

*   *   *

#7:  Don’t Say
“It sounds intriguing
but I’m happy in my job.
Maybe…uh…I’ll think about it.”

Instead…If you’re interested, don’t beat around the bush.  Say so.

Here’s why:  Being coy is a waste of everyone’s time.  But don’t start selling yourself yet.  Probe and ask further questions first to determine whether it’s a truly good match for you.

*   *   *

#8:  Don’t Say
”That’s not at all
what I’m looking for.
Please don’t call
me again.”

Say instead…“It doesn’t sound like a perfect fit for me.  But there is someone I know this might be a better match for.  If you’re interested, I’d be glad to give you with their name and contact information, if they’re ok with it.”

Then, make sure you get the approval of the person you have in mind and then leave a follow-up voicemail message back to the headhunter – with their answer.

Here’s why:  Play the long-term game.

It’s okay to quickly point out if the position is not right for you.  It’s even better if you can provide them with the contact information for a referral.

If you DON’T have a referral, that’s okay too,  just end the call on a positive note. Remember, your career in HR is long and this is a chance to potentially build a powerful, new relationship – with both the headhunter and anyone that you’ve referred.

*   *   *

#9: Don’t say:
“What are the next steps?”

Instead say… “If I send you my resume now, what will be the next step, and when will that next step take place?”

Here’s why:  Be specific.  Again, your time is valuable.  Nail the headhunter down on a specific time frame for follow-up.  If you’ve not heard back at that designated time, then you can call them.

*   *   *

#10:  Don’t say:
“Yes, it’s fine.
Please go ahead and
refer me to your client.”

Instead say….” I’m excited about this opportunity.  However, before you refer me I DO have certain requirements for recruiters who wish to represent me to their clients. My search is confidential and I’m being selective, so please don’t blast my resume out without my permission.  And also, I also need to hear back from you within two or three days after every interview that I participate in, whether the client has made a decision or not. Do those two requirements work for you?”

Here’s why.

Set some expectations so you aren’t pushed around.

Most recruiters will be happy to answer your questions and work with you on your terms.

However, there are a few out there that are arrogant, unprofessional and are used to treating job candidates like scum.  Don’t become a another piece of carpet they walk all over.

*   *   *

Here’s the bottom line…

Your career is too important to trust it someone who doesn’t value it!

Devote your time and attention to the many phenomenal recruiters and search firms out there that deserve to work with you…and who call you about new HR opportunities worthy of exploring.

Ignore everyone else.

Hope these ten do’s and don’ts work for you.

Wish you much success.


Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below by clicking HERE.


If you are going to respond to a recruiter’s call, there are two indispensable resources you should check out:  

HR RESUME SECRETS:  How to Create An Irresistible Human Resources Resume That Will Open Doors, Wow Hiring Managers & Get You Interviews! by CLICKING HERE.


HR INTERVIEW SECRETS: How to Ace Your Next Human Resources Interview, Dazzle Your Interviewers & LAND THE JOB YOU WANT!  For more details go HERE.

About the Author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling HR books including:  HR RESUME SECRETS and  HR INTERVIEW SECRETS.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

Feed your network: If you like this article, feel free to share it with your contacts by clicking the buttons below…

12 Responses to “What To Say When An HR Recruiter Calls You — The 10 Do’s & Don’ts!”

  1. Jayne Says:


    Great tips! I always have something new to learn from you.

  2. Anthony Anaba Says:

    Splendid!!! Can’t agree more with this very interesting piece.

  3. Phyllis Says:

    Thanks for the sharing as always

  4. Ronda Sheffield Says:

    Thanks for sharing. Excellent tips!

  5. Ego Says:

    Very interesting tips especially the salary negotiation.

  6. Noel Says:

    Very useful piece of information. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Linda Says:

    WISE counsel for ANY Professional!

  8. Rhonda Says:

    Being in HR the entire career I would constantly receive phone calls and emails from headhunters. I took it as a compliment that they considered me a reliable source to recommend someone or to reach out to me, specifically. I was always polite and professional, in corporating to suggestions in your article. Now that I am unemployed, those same exact headhunters aren’t worth a dime.

  9. Diana Says:

    Thank you, Alan! Precious advice coming from a broad and effective work experience. Worthy reading and refreshing, to be able to master understanding of the questions/answers and the confidence needed in those short time and and sometimes emotional phone conversations. Quite helpful.

  10. Alan Says:

    Diana, always thrilled to get your comments. Glad you found this particular article helpful. Headhunter calls, everyone gets them – just trying to offer a few tips to manage them successfully. Be well.

  11. Wesley Says:

    Thanks for your insight, Alan. Always helpful.

    What about the reverse? How do I find a good, reputable headhunter if I want to explore the market?

  12. Muhammad Tahir Says:

    Thank you Alan.