Headhunters: 7 Rules of Engagement

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Getting interviews is all about having contacts, and a "headhunter" can be your contact at a potential employer where you do not already have one. Also referred to as placement companies, recruiters and search firms, headhunters establish and maintain relationships with their client companies and source and screen potential employees for them.

Once they source you, they get to know you, your search criteria and your motivators. Not only do they help you get your foot in the door, but more importantly, they also know where all the doors are, who has the keys and what is behind each of them.

An effective headhunter is more than just a doorman. They also can be an excellent talent scout, coach, mentor, matchmaker and confidant. They will evaluate your marketability, identify areas of interest, assist in preparing for interviews, keep the process in motion, smooth out the bumps and help close the deal.

Caution: When working with a headhunter, keep in mind that you are not the client. The primary goal of a headhunter is to make money. That money comes from the customer -- the client -- and that is not you. You are most commonly referred to as a candidate, as in candidate for employment, although the word product would also be appropriate. The headhunter wants to fill the client's needs (job openings) with their product (you).

Although a headhunter can be a powerful tool in your transition toolbox, identifying the best ones and determining which one is right for you is tricky. Here are the 7 Rules of Engagement to consider when dealing with a headhunter:

1. Selectivity

Headhunters will screen and interview you prior to taking you on as a candidate. They look for two things: Are you the kind of person they want to put in front of a client, and do they represent clients that will meet your needs? Being selective works both ways. You should also interview them. Ask for references and a list of their clients. Reputable headhunters are proud of their client lists and use them as marketing tools. An unwillingness to disclose this information is a danger signal.

2. Compatibility

Find one that meshes well with your background and priorities. They are not all created equal. Most of them will profess or confess to some expertise or focus. Some specialize in a particular geography or a specific industry or a target segment of the military population. Select a headhunter with whom you feel some sort of a connection. Look for a feeling of trust, empathy, honesty, ethical behavior and maybe even some background commonality. Personal one-on-one contact is always preferred. Find one that makes you feel like a client, even though that is not the case.

3. Contracts or Fees

Avoid headhunters who ask you to sign any contracts or letters of understanding. Even if they do not require you to sign, the fact they even have one is a danger signal. Do not pay any fees at any time. Make sure the client companies pay all placement fees and that your compensation and the fees are independent issues, both upfront and after you are hired. Some people believe that your compensation is reduced by the amount of the fee. Although that can happen, working with an established, reputable headhunter eliminates that possibility.

4. Restrictions

Do not work with headhunters who require you to cease all job search activity beyond what they control, regardless of how they attempt to justify such a restriction. A request for an exclusive relationship is great for them, but whose job search is it anyway?

On the flip side, let the headhunter know that you intend to be proactive in your self-sponsored job search. Be open and specific with them about this independent activity. Remember that a headhunter can be an excellent supplement to, but never a total replacement for your overall search plan.

5. Multiple Headhunters

More is not necessarily better. Resist the temptation to register with more than two headhunters. If you pick the right one, one is all you need. Having a backup plan may be a good idea, but keep in mind that if you reduce the headhunter's odds of placing you too much, then the incentive to assist you will also be reduced. Besides, you want to spend your time job hunting, not directing traffic.

6. Communication

Be upfront with your headhunter(s) about your overall plan. Let them know the companies where you have inside connections. If appropriate, tell them of your plans to use another headhunter. Ask them not to market you to companies without your approval in advance. Duplication of effort can lead to sponsorship conflicts, the resolution of which could damage you the most. Do not self-sponsor to a company that the headhunter has proposed to you as a potential employer; being open and ethical flows both ways.

7. Longevity and Stability

Find a headhunting firm that has many years of experience and low turnover among its professional staff. This is especially important if you are assigned to a rookie. A rookie is fine as long as they have the support and resources of an experienced, professional team.

Avoid a headhunter where your file is continuously handed off to someone new. Look for continuity and closure. The good headhunters know that your long-term value to them as a representative of a client company in the future far exceeds the short-term value of placing you.

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