Ask the Headhunter: ‘Are Headhunters Worth Talking To?’

BY Paul Solman  December 25, 2012 at 2:26 PM EDT

Photo by Stockbyte via Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos is an expert on how to get a job. We ran into him while doing a story on the relative futility of Internet job boards and asked him to post his own job search secrets.

It became a palpable hit, so we asked Nick if he wouldn’t mind taking some questions from our readers. It turns out that in addition to giving interviews to PBS, Nick hosts a website called, and publishes a free weekly — the Ask the Headhunter© Newsletter.

John Galt — Baltimore: I receive a number of calls per week from recruiters/executive search firms — it has gotten to the point that I don’t answer my phone if I don’t recognize the number. For various reasons, I absolutely am not looking for a new position, and I don’t have people to recommend. That being said, I do recognize the value that headhunters can have (I’m in my current position because of one). How can I head them off without being rude?

Nick Corcodilos: Wow — John Galt, right out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged!

Think about it this way: If a telemarketer calls, how do you know she’s worth talking to? Odds are, she’s not. So it is with headhunters. Most are looking for a quick referral or a quick placement. Few so-called headhunters (or recruiters) are worth dealing with. The good ones are worth their weight in gold — and you should cultivate them.

How do you know a recruiter is legit? It’s simple: Find out who recommended you to them, and then call that person to find out whether the headhunter is reputable. The best headhunters don’t cold-call. They will get your name from a trusted source and they have no problem telling you who recommended you. Those are the good guys. The worst will find your name online or in a database, and they’re merely fishing. They’re not really recruiting you for a job.

There are some tips about judging headhunters in my PDF book, “How to Work with Headhunters … and How to Make Headhunters Work for You”:

If you establish yourself as someone headhunters go to for insight, advice and introductions, you will join their inner circle. You will earn a place on their list.

At times I have referred people to companies for which I was not even doing a search — as a courtesy. I didn’t make a dime. But I made new friends. That’s the reason why you should invest time to help a headhunter. However, you should judge the headhunter first and decide which headhunters are worth your effort.

Judge a headhunter by how much she appreciates your help. Does she share useful industry information with you? Does she make casual introductions that might help your career (even if these are not job interviews)? Does she return your calls?

Working with headhunters is like working with anyone else in business: It takes time to build trust. The rule of thumb is simple: Don’t trust your valuable contacts to someone you don’t know, but do invest those contacts in headhunters you trust.

If you disregard headhunters until you need them, that’s not going to work. You must invest in their success if you want them to help with yours. Learn to identify the good ones, and cultivate them.

Ava Bowdler — London, England: I went for an interview and was told I didn’t get the job but was next in line. I was then asked if I would take the job if the other candidate did not accept their offer. What should I read into this?

Nick Corcodilos: It depends on how sneaky the employer is. The question posed to you is actually used by some employers to test candidates. In other words, there may not be another candidate, and if you hesitate to accept the offer as their number two, you’ve failed the test and they won’t hire you. I don’t think this is an ethical test of applicants and I wish employers would not do it.

But more likely, the employer is asking an honest question. If you’re not offended at being the No. 2 candidate, then tell them you’d take the job. If it turns out they’re playing games with you and this is a test question, saying yes won’t hurt, either. If their tactics turn out to be questionable, you can always change your mind.

My policy in such matters is to be yourself and to be honest. There’s altogether too much game-playing in the hiring process already.

Dale Anderson — New Rochelle, N.Y.: Online job search is a waste of time. Once you have given up as I have, how is one expected to go out and try to put on a positive face when all one faces is no positive direction? Everything in the Unites States is a scam.

Nick Corcodilos: No, everything is not a scam. There are a lot of companies that are hiring, but there are more that are nervous about investing in more personnel in a volatile economy. It’s understandable: So much is in flux today that companies hesitate to spend money, and they over-compensate by insisting on “perfect hires.” That’s as big a mistake for employers as thinking everything is a scam is for you.

Getting angry about it won’t help you. Figuring out how to make companies say yes to you, will. So let’s step back and consider what you can do.

First, we already know that applying for jobs online is largely a waste of time. The competition is just too big, and employers simply cannot process all the applicants they solicit. It’s a self-defeating system. Your challenge is to help employers meet you outside of that numskull system. Help them see what you can do for them.

Second, we know that employers tend to hire through personal contacts. So you must face that reality and learn how to apply for jobs through people a company knows and trusts. This is awkward for most, but it’s a skill that’s as important as any work skill. Rather than search the job postings, devote yourself to meeting people who do business (or work for) the companies you want to work for.

Third, there is no way to pursue hundreds or even dozens of jobs through personal contacts, because no one can cultivate so many genuine relationships at once. You must pick your target companies carefully and focus your energies on a small handful. The nice thing about this is that it’s easier to make the relationships that lead to jobs when you’re focusing on just a few companies.

So get to work picking the right companies. This article will help: Due Diligence: Don’t Take a Job Without It.

I started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and I’ve answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask the Headhunter community over the past decade — and I’m glad to share what I know with you. I offer no guarantees — but I’ll do my best to offer you useful advice — so please feel free to post your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. I am the author of three how-to PDF books, available on my website: “How to Work with Headhunters … and How to Make Headhunters Work for You”, “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps”.

Questions will be collected from here and we’ll post my advice on a series of Ask the Headhunter columns here on Making Sen$e. You’ll also find my comments sprinkled throughout this discussion forum about various topics. Thanks for participating!

Copyright© 2012 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions.