Ask The Headhunter: What’s Your Problem with Headhunters?

BY Paul Solman  October 15, 2013 at 10:55 AM EDT

By Nick Corcodilos

Be wary of headhunters who don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Asking candidates for references before an interview or posting job listings on Craigslist should be big tip-off signs. Image courtesy of Art Glazer/Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: Some headhunters are asking me for references, and sometimes authorization to perform a background check and credit check, before they even schedule any type of interview. I told several of them that I completely disagree with their policy because I don’t know if there is even a mutual interest. I also explain that I hold my references very confidentially and I would never want anyone to speak with them before an interview is even scheduled. I think their requests are insane and I tell them to go pound sand. Your thoughts?

Nick Corcodilos: In my book, “How to Work with Headhunters,” I explain that a headhunter should not need to talk to your references before interviewing you — maybe later, to fill in the blanks after an interview, but not before. Why? Because a good headhunter found you after talking with other industry insiders who put their reputations on the line and recommended you. In other words, the headhunter has already checked some of your references. Otherwise, why would the headhunter call you?

Headhunters who cold call you got your name from a list. They know nothing about you. Then they expect you to handle your own reference check so they can avoid the work themselves. They aren’t worth talking to. They’re on fishing expeditions, and the odds that they have a client interested in you are about nil.

Look at it this way. You’d be handing over information about people who know and respect you — your references — to someone you don’t know. Do you really want this headhunter calling these people at your suggestion? (The dirty little secret is that these “headhunters” are using you to identify more “candidates” — your references. Don’t fall for it.)

Keep telling them to go pound sand. But if you’d like to test them first, ask, “Can you give me three references — managers you’ve placed people with and candidates you’ve placed? I’d like to talk with them to check you out before we continue our discussion.”

That will likely end the conversation and save you lots of time. I admire your standards.

Question: Thanks for all your good work. I look forward to your column every Tuesday morning! I have a quick question. We’ve been using a placement/staffing agency to help us fill a position in my company. I recently discovered that the agency is using Craigslist to advertise our position. Is this commonplace? I think it’s plain laziness and sets up my company for problems if we opt to use Craigslist ourselves to fill our opening. What say you? Thanks and keep up the good advice.

Nick Corcodilos: I’d fire the agency. A headhunter’s job is to source the best candidates through trusted contacts they have in the industry. That’s part of the value of a headhunter. It’s pretty clear this firm has no such contacts, so they’re soliciting anyone who comes along. They’ll pay Craigslist a few dollars, sort the results, then bill you for a fat placement fee. Sorry, but this kind of thing really burns me up. Lazy doesn’t begin to describe it. I think it’s a misrepresentation of what they do for you. And, as you point out, what they’re doing could interfere with your own advertising to fill the job.

If you confront the agency, they will likely tell you that you’re paying for their expertise at filtering all the applicants who answer their ads. But a good HR consultant could do that for a few bucks an hour, so you don’t need to pay a big headhunting fee for “sorting services.” Or you could do it yourself. A proper search turns up only good candidates. An ad turns up anyone who can press the enter key on their computer.

The purpose for a headhunter is to conduct a thoughtful, thorough search campaign, and to do it actively. That is, to go find the best candidates, not to process those who drop in over the transom.

But, while you’re avoiding headhunters who “search” on places like Craigslist, also be careful with headhunters who go over the top trying to present a high-class image. They could be worse. Their preoccupation with “image” could cost you some really good candidates. (See “The Horse’s Ass in The Rear-view Mirror.”)

Good headhunters who actually conduct searches are rare. I’d contact a few companies in the area that are not competitive with you, but in related businesses, and ask them what headhunters they use and recommend. Or, talk to people in your field who were placed by good headhunters. Better yet, conduct your own search. I think that’s “The manager’s #1 job.” Thanks for your kind words about this column.

Question: Hey, I’m glad I ran across your website. We’re a startup placement and recruiting agency. We’re struggling with finding a client engagement agreement. Do you know of a place where we can find those?

Nick Corcodilos: Hey right back at you! Your email gave me the idea for this entire column. I couldn’t have made up a better example of why job seekers and employers have terrible encounters with so many “headhunters.” Your question reveals that you have no idea what you’re doing and that you have no business in this business — like the headhunters in the stories above. So I’m not going to tell you how to write up a client engagement agreement.

If you had any experience, you’d know that good contracts require a lot of thought (as well as an investment in good legal advice) to make sure they are appropriate and enforceable. You’d know what such a contract looks like. If you’re starting cold, agreements are the least of your challenges.

Inexperience and lack of headhunting skills are what’s behind the troubles described by the employer and the job seeker in the two Q&As above. This also hurts the reputation of the search business a whole. If you don’t know what to put in a contract, what do you know about how to be a headhunter? I suggest you spend a few years at a good search firm. As you develop your skills, you will find out what terms and conditions belong in a client contract. Make the investment if you want to do this right, and if you want to be one of the very few headhunters who succeed.

My guess is you see the big headhunting fees employers pay, and you think you can just jump into the business. Think again. This article might be helpful to you: “So You Want to Be A Headhunter?”

Readers: What makes a good headhunter? I’ve discussed who and what to avoid. If you’ve had good experiences, please share the qualities that reveal the good headhunters. (There are some very good ones out there, but they’re not easy to find.)

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2013 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark. This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.