Ask the Headhunter: Am I being bribed to take a job?

If you secretly take money from a headhunter when you accept a job, that's unethical.

Question: Last year I worked with a headhunter who attempted to place me with a firm in a city about 300 miles away. Everything was set, then the deal just disappeared. Neither the firm nor the headhunter contacted me for a year. Two months ago, the recruiter called to inform me that he was ready to pick up where we left off. That is when I learned that the salary had decreased, they would not pay my expenses for another interview trip and they would not pay any moving expenses.

The headhunter has not been forthcoming with me, and he was noticeably irritated with my questions about reimbursement for travel, and uncomfortable about advocating my financial requirements. This morning he informed me that the firm was anxious to hire me and that he would pay me $1,000 in moving expenses if I took the job.

It seems a little shady to me. The way he worded his offer to pay my moving expenses was definitely suspect: "You go down there, accept the position and technically you will be working for them. Then I will pay you the $1,000 in moving expenses." Is this normal?

Nick Corcodilos: No, it's not normal. A headhunter could legitimately "chip in" part of his fee to help you offset your relocation expenses, but this kind of payment can also be construed as a kickback.

Suppose the company finds out that the headhunter gave you that $1,000 and accuses you of taking the job because the headhunter bribed you. You could lose that job. Keep in mind that a headhunter usually guarantees a placement (often for 90 days), or the placement fee is refunded. Suppose that in four months — after that guarantee period ends — you decide the job's not right for you and you resign. To the company, it might look like you and the headhunter conspired to defraud it of the search fee.

I've heard of headhunters who routinely "share the commission" with the candidate. I think that's unethical, and it demeans the headhunter, the candidate and the employer. Instead of negotiating a hire, a salary and a fee that's fair for all parties, these "headhunters" take the low road and make the transaction sleazy.

Matters could get messy. How would you prove to the company that the headhunter didn't split his fee with you 50-50? For the benefit of the uninitiated, it's worth noting that if this job pays $60,000, the headhunter's fee could be $12,000-15,000. Half of that is a nice chunk of change.

The only way this scenario plays out legitimately is if the headhunter notifies the company that, in the interest of closing the deal, he will contribute $1,000 toward relocation expenses. That would be a nice thing. Then it's up to his client to judge whether this is acceptable.

If you secretly take money from a headhunter when you accept a job, that's unethical.

Your alternative is to tell the company what you're considering doing. If the headhunter is being generous, then the company should know about it and have no problem with it. But, it seems to me you're concerned you don't have the whole story. Go to the company and tell what you know, then ask them to confirm how this all came to pass. "I just want to be sure I've got the story straight before I accept the position. I want this to be on the up-and-up."

If you have any doubts about this headhunter, talk to the company directly.

The lesson to take from this is that you must take care about working with headhunters. In the book How To Work With Headhunters the section titled "How should I judge a headhunter?" (pp. 26-27) offers these tips:

The best headhunters reveal high standards of conduct and reveal the same qualities they look for in candidates.

  • They are easy to work with because they are straightforward. They speak clearly and directly. They are not secretive or cagey.
  • They don't waste time playing games or putting on airs. They make you feel special, rather than imply they are.
  • They are not in a hurry. They take time to talk. They pay attention. They answer your questions.
  • They are knowledgeable about their business, their client, the job they're trying to fill and about you.
  • A good headhunter reveals integrity by being honest and trustworthy. He will do what he says—including returning your calls.

Like anyone else you do business with, a headhunter should demonstrate a high level of integrity — or don't work with him.

Dear Readers: Has anyone ever offered you an unusual inducement to take a job? What would you do in this case?


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