Myths and Realities About Headhunters

By Eric Spiegel

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When I first contacted a headhunter only a couple years after graduating from college, I thought I had struck gold. He gushed about my entire two years of experience, how much more money I could be making and how easy it would be to find a better job.

After months of no interviews, my new found treasure was starting to look like fools gold. So I had the bright idea to send my resume to multiple headhunters thinking the more exposure the better. My once-friendly headhunter called me in a snit saying that I had blown an opportunity because a hiring manager had received my resume from multiple sources and assumed I was desperate. Me desperate? Well, maybe, but I sure didn't intend that perception. Turns out there was a lot I didn't understand about headhunting.

Most IT professionals know that a headhunter (professionally referred to as a "search consultant") helps client companies find candidates for job openings. But do they really understand the process? Let's first briefly define the process and then explore three myths and realities that will help you avoid missing out on a great opportunity.

A search consultant works either independently or for a search firm. They must establish relationships with client companies who need assistance in finding qualified candidates. These clients pay the search consultants a finders fee, anywhere from 10% to 30% of the candidate's starting salary.

The search consultant recruits candidates using newspaper ads, web job boards, and referrals from other satisfied candidates. A client will interview referred candidates with a background that best matches the job description. If the client is impressed, then a job offer is extended through the search consultant to the candidate.

Pretty straightforward, right? Being IT professionals, we all know there are ways to optimize every process and this is no different. Let's delve into the myths and explain the realities that will help you improve the results of your next job search process.

Myth #1: Using multiple sources will improve my chances of find a job.

Reality: According to Chuck Sudina, owner of Sudina Search, a 20-year-old search firm in Baltimore, Md., you probably won't uncover more opportunities by using multiple sources.

"There are very few positions offered exclusively to one search firm, therefore you are not generally increasing your exposure to the job market by using multiple sources," says Sudina. "The one exception where search firms are exclusively retained is if a company is confidentially trying to replace an employee."

As I described earlier, using multiple sources can give the appearance of desperation. You want the potential employer to feel they have found a rare, hard to find candidate. Being introduced by one search firm can enhance this perception.

Myth #2: Using a web job board is a better alternative to search firms.

Reality: When you submit your resume through a web job board, such as Monster or CareerBuilder, you must realize that hundreds of other candidates may also be applying for the same job. The search consultant's relationship with their client will give your resume a better chance of being noticed and can also be perceived as better qualified.

Chris Kelley, a senior recruiter with Group 1 Software in Lanham, Md., expects search consultants to provide higher-quality candidates than job boards.

"As a general rule of thumb, when using job boards you typically get resumes from people who are actively looking because they are unemployed, not happy where they currently work, being laid off, etc. Whereas with a search consultant, with their network, they can present passive candidates, ones that are currently working, excelling where they are, but keeping their options open should an outstanding opportunity present itself," says Kelley.

Most people are not aware that using job boards can result in negative consequences. Mary Kruft, a senior consultant at Sudina Search, stresses that by using a search consultant you maintain confidentiality.

"A reputable search consultant will gain your approval before sending out your resume, whereas job boards can make your resume available to unintended parties," she said.

Kruft warns that you may think you are sending your resume to one company, but it might be a body shop that could end up sending your resume to your current employer.

"Another concern with job boards is that your current employer's HR recruiter might stumble upon your resume and raise concerns that you are looking to leave," says Kruft.

Myth #3: I can get a better starting salary if I find a job on my own.

Reality: Yes, it is true that it will cost a company more money to hire a candidate using a search consultant because of the resulting finders fee. The flip side is that the company builds that extra cost into their budget, with the expectation that they have to pay market value for a candidate.

In Kelley's experience the salary offered has never been influenced by whether the company has to pay a placement fee. But he does admit it can come into play.

"If there are two candidates as finalists for a position, one from a search consultant and one from another source, each equally qualified and impressive to the hiring company and it's a "toss-up" as to who ultimately receives the offer ... in this case, hands-down, the candidate not from the headhunter, where a fee won't have to be paid will win every time," says Kelley.

On one point Sudina and Kelley are in full agreement.

"In 25 years I have not seen a candidate have their salary negatively impacted as a result of a finders fee," says Sudina.

According to Kruft, using a search consultant may actually work in your favor when it comes to enhanced compensation.

"Our expertise is in negotiating, so usually we can get you an even better salary or other improved benefits," says Kruft.

In addition, a search consultant will have a better feel for salary averages in your field of expertise and will make sure you are not paid under market value. And remember, the search consultant absolutely wants you to obtain the highest possible starting salary because their commission is based on it.

Before I let you get back to your job search, consider one last thing. If a search consultant ever asks for payment under any circumstances, run screaming for the door. The client company always pays the commission. And you should never be asked to sign an exclusivity contract with a search firm.

Now that you are a little more informed about the process, you should build a long-term relationship with a reputable, well-established search firm. That will certainly improve your chances of turning fools gold into a gem of a dream job.