Hunting down a headhunter
Tight job market got you down? Can't find your future
in the online employment sites?
Maybe you need a headhunter.
We've all heard rumors of these shadowy figures in
the corporate jungle, how they cut the best and brightest from the
working herd and haul them off to better jobs. Too good to be true?
Urban myth, you say?
On the contrary, executive recruiters or "headhunters"
are a quite real and vital part of the career ecosystem. As independent
contractors to corporate clients, they work on either a retainer
or per-head fee basis to identify and recruit job candidates for
hard-to-fill positions. The hiring company, not the candidate, always
pays the headhunter's fee.
Stealth is crucial to their success; corporate clients
don't want to appear desperate for help any more than skittish job
candidates want word to leak back to the boss that they're eyeing
Which is why, in all likelihood, you have never met
a recruiter, much less know how they operate and if or how they
might benefit you. But it's in your career's best interest to track
down a few.
"It's good to try to develop relationships with
a few recruiters in your niche," says Darrell Gurney, a Los
Angeles executive recruiter and author of Headhunters
"When you're busy in your job, it's good to have
somebody out there keeping their thumb on the pulse of the market
who can let you know when things are happening that you should know
The field guide to headhunters
Even if you're happy at your present watering hole, it never hurts
to know a few recruiters. Things do change and it is, after all,
a jungle out there.
Headhunters fall into five main categories, ranging
from top-executive recruiters to temporary agencies:
- Retained executive search:
Hiring companies retain these firms to fill a particular opening
or openings at the executive level. The client typically pays
a portion of the fee upfront and the remainder when the candidate
is hired. A typical fee would be one-third of the position's first-year
total compensation; for example, placing an exec at $210,000 would
fetch the headhunter a handsome $70,000. The focus of this service
is top-level executives (six-figure salaries and up).
- Contingency search firms:
These firms differ from retained firms in that they only get paid
if they successfully fill a position and may be in competition
with other search firms to do so. As a result, they typically
spend more time developing a buffed and ready pool of candidates.
The fee usually is 20 percent to 25 percent of first-year total
comp. Middle management placement is the focus of these companies.
- Employment agencies:
These firms typically collect a fixed fee for successful placement.
The focus is on lower, non-managerial levels of the organizational
- Outplacement firms:
In a twist on the headhunter model, companies faced with downsizing
will retain a recruitment firm to find new positions on a fixed-fee
basis for their outbound senior management.
- Temp services:
These agencies fill the temporary staffing needs of their clients.
The fee is typically based on a percent of the hourly rate and
varies widely. Some temp services offer temp-to-permanent placement
that enables the company and the candidate to try each other out
before committing. Temp services tend to concentrate on clerical,
hospitality and blue-collar placements.
Keith Kefgen, president of HVS Executive Search in
Mineola, N.Y., says a common misperception is that recruiters spot
talent first and then find them a position. In fact, the industry
works exactly the opposite.
"I'm a victim of my client base," he says.
"Whatever they're looking for is what I'm looking for.
"The person with the greatest credentials could
walk through my door and I might think, my God, this person is a
walking placement, but if I don't have the right assignment, I can't
create an assignment for them. But I certainly can keep in touch
with him and when the need arises, I know that is someone I need
to talk to."
Retained specialists such as Kefgen fill more than 90 percent of
their assignments between, on average, 60 and 90 days, and for good
reason: They have personal contacts with a relatively small pool
of candidates and they don't compete with other companies for the
assignment (though in some cases clients may fill a position themselves).
Once the placement company has assembled a short list
of candidates, it will usually conduct interviews, perhaps a professional
assessment using some sort of assessment tool, and run the candidates
past an industrial psychologist, all before presenting them to a
"Ultimately, I present no more than five to eight
candidates and my client will interview probably no more than three
to five," says Kefgen.
Confidentiality is critical, but there are other rules
as well. No headhunter should ever demand that you work with him
or her exclusively; recruiters such as Kefgen will even give you
the names of other recruiters to contact. And you should never be
asked to pay a fee -- ever.