10 essential tips for working with headhunters

While searching for a new job, or even if not actively searching for a new job, most executives wind up talking to headhunters, sooner or later. Most do not do it well, lessening their chances of actual placement. Here are a few tips for speaking to that strange form of life designated as a “headhunter.”

1). First and foremost, understand that, unless you’ve paid them, the headhunter does not work for you, he or she works for his or her client company. You are inventory for them to sell to a client company. This doesn’t mean that, in certain instances, they won’t work hard for you. They will. But they have a responsibility, first and foremost, to find the best candidate for the people who are paying them.

2). Understand that the best headhunters work by referral only. You are unlikely to have your cold call returned by one of the top headhunters unless you have exactly what they want. Tell the headhunter exactly, precisely what you have in a 30 second message or less, and very slowly repeat your name and phone number, as well as giving the best time to call. If a headhunter can’t reach you on the first try, they are unlikely to make a second try.

3). Headhunters work nationally, not locally. The very best headhunters have a niche market on a national or even international basis. While a few of their job orders may be local, the chances are against it. You should be prepared to relocate if a perfect opportunity comes along.

4). Say the following to the headhunter: “I will respect your clients, but, before you send my résumé or reveal my name to anyone, I must know the company name and to whom in the company my résumé is going.” If you don’t say this, your résumé could wind up being “papered” by an unscrupulous headhunter. This could cost you jobs.

5). Recognize the headhunter is in control, not you. Don’t try to control the conversation. Let the headhunter ask his or her questions and answer them rapidly and concisely. Give the headhunter whatever documentation he or she wants, except an agreement to work with them exclusively (which some headhunters are trying to have people sign). Let the headhunter control the direction of the conversation, and make sure that you thoroughly answer qualifications questions so that the headhunter has a good grasp of your skills. Don’t try to make small talk.

6). Don’t pester the headhunter, but keep yourself active. Headhunters purely hate candidates who call them daily to check on the progress of the company they’ve been presented to. Chill. If it’s going anywhere, they’ll call you. An occasional email (every couple of weeks at most) to remind the headhunter you’re alive and interested is more than sufficient.

7). If you’re sent out on an interview, call the headhunter the instant you’re finished the interview. This allows the headhunter to have information to finish selling his or her product: you. Most headhunters, rightly, will drop a candidate who is too rude to call at once when an interview is finished.

8). Don’t accept a counter-offer. If you’re employed and you accept a counter-offer from your current employer, you’ve burned the headhunter, his or her client and yourself. Counter-offers almost never work out. The same discontent that led you to listen to the headhunter’s call still exist. If you accept a counter-offer, you’ll probably be fired, have quit or be laid off within the year. You’ve also severely compromised your word. When you go to resign – resign.

9). Give the headhunter lots of names. When a headhunter calls you, give them other names if you aren’t qualified for the position they’re selling. This will make you a favorite candidate of the headhunter for the immediate future. And don’t get on your high horse about not giving the names of your friends and colleagues. Trust me, no one minds a headhunter call, especially not in this economy.

10). Don’t end the relationship after the placement. Give the headhunter who helped you as many of your job orders as possible. After all, you know how this person works.

One final caveat. Don’t count on a headhunter to find you a job. Continue your networking at an aggressive level. Headhunters only have 2 percent of the jobs out there. In my years of executive transition coaching, I’ve only had one candidate placed by a headhunter out of hundreds. Work well with headhunters, but don’t count on them.