When and How to Use a Headhunter

When and how to use a headhunter are common questions and good ones to ask early in your career.  Before we can talk about when and how to use a headhunter, it is important to understand what are headhunters and the different types that exist

What are headhunters?

  • Headhunters (aka recruiters) are independent recruiting professionals that contract with companies to help them source, screen, and hire good candidates.
  • Headhunters work for the company and NOT you, as they are paid by the company.  This is not obvious to many.  One senior recruiter friend told me that he had this one MBA candidate come in and basically started grilling him about what he will do for her in the next week and what is his plan in finding her a job. This is not a good way to make a first impression about your business sense with a recruiter.

Two general type of headhunters

  • Contingency headhunters are opportunists and are paid ONLY when a hire is made by the company AND they found the candidate hired;
  • Retainer headhunters are trusted recruiting advisers to a company and usually have a longer term contract with a company or department.  They are paid a regular fee every year to act as the company’s outsourced recruiting department.  A retained headhunter can be paid even if no hire happens.

These types are not mutually exclusive.  The same headhunting firm can be a retained one for one company and a contingent one for another company.  It all depends on the level of relationship they built.

When to Use a Headhunter

Companies use independent headhunter/recruiters for all level of job openings (entry to CXO).  However, the best time to start proactively using a headhunter is when your salary hits above $100K.   If you are looking for work under $100K a year, investing time to build a relationship with a headhunter is a waste of time.  Most recruiters won’t be that interested in spending time with you to build a relationship as 1) the potential revenue from getting you hired is minimal;  2) There are many candidates like you out there. and 3) hiring at a level under $100k is usually on a contingency basis.   With that said, headhunters will still reach out to you when they think you may be a fit for a job opening.  You should be courteous and professional to any recruiter that reach out to you for job opportunities.  Otherwise, you can be blacklisted.

How to Use a Headhunter (for jobs with salary >$100K)

  1. Build key relationships BEFORE you are looking for a job – Best time to network with headhunters is when you are NOT desperate for a job.   Look out for headhunters from prestigious firms that fill jobs at your level or one or two levels above.  A headhunter will not be interested in talking to you if you are just a manager and he only fills CXO jobs.    Target only a few headhunters to build relationship.  You don’t have a lot of time either so choose influential ones that you think can help you down the road.    One of the best ways to build relationships with headhunters is refer good candidates to them when you are not the right fit or you are not interested.
  2. Be courteous and professional with all headhunters – Many will reach out to you when you start progressing above $100K, even when you are not looking for work.  Respond to them, save emails of ones you may want to reach out to later when you are looking.  Generally rule is don’t ever be an ass or you could get blacklisted
  3. Reach out to Headhunters when you are looking – Send individual emails instead a mass one.  Be as specific as possible about what you are looking for and your qualifications.  Ask to see what opportunities they may have or other headhunters they would refer if they don’t have anything that might fit.
  4. Use only good headhunters – not all headhunters are created equal.  Some are just running a numbers game – submit a lot of candidates at a job opening and hope one sticks.  Many contingency headhunters operate like this.  They send generic emails, don’t really understand what the company is looking for in a job opening and will NOT represent you well to the company.   Avoid these like the plague.
  5. Be clear about what companies you plan to apply directly – Companies often post jobs online as well as use headhunters to fill positions.  If you already know people at a company or plan to apply directly, make sure you specify that to headhunters you email.  Otherwise, the headhunter may submit your resume first to the same company/position you already plan to apply to.  This can put you at a disadvantage 1) for interviews as the headhunter will submit a set of candidates and may not emphasize yours the way a friend would.  2) during salary negotiations as the company needs to also taken into account the fee  to be paid to the headhunter that found you.
  6. Don’t work exclusively with any headhunter – The more senior you are, the more a headhunter would love to work with your exclusively.  Never do this as no headhunting firm has access to all great job openings.
  7. Continue to use all avenues for job search – Using headhunters is just one channel and may not always work.   Continue to network, network, network, look on your own, post your resume, update your linkedin, etc…

The recruiting industry is very fragmented with many players of different skill sets.  It’s up to you to find and use good headhunters that work to your advantage.  Best wishes on your job search and career.  I am always in your corner.


2 thoughts on “When and How to Use a Headhunter

  1. Bryce Bell

    I am a supervisor in mechanical trades. Currently i find no problems i finding employment in Alberta and Saskatchwan. I am a journney man plumber, gassfitter and a steamfitter. I have alot of experiance in estimating and running alot of subtrades. I am currently working in a uranium mine as a supervisor underground. i would like to find employment in Nanaimo or Parksville Bc. I am concerned about keeping my income 100,000.00 or close I would be happy to work for the same at home .i am 47 in great shape ,run marathons so fitness is not an issue. I am even ok with going on the tools to work at home. If you can help drop me a line.

    1. Lei Han Post author

      I am sorry, but I don’t look for jobs for others. I only can offer your advice on job search. You need to do the hard work of looking for the right job for yourself. Good luck


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