How to Deal with Recruiters

Over the years, I’ve had my share of interactions with recruiters. Just like with jobs and people, some have been pleasant and helpful, while others obstinate and persistent. In today’s tough job market, some people inevitably turn to using them. But will using a recruiter help you find a job or cut you out of the running completely? With this post, I’ll show you the inside baseball on job hunting with respect to headhunters/recruiters. Should you use them? Should you believe what they say? Can you realistically cut them out and deal directly with the company doing the hiring?

How recruiters make their money

It depends. Most are employed by or own their own small companies. Many are niche are specialize in recruiting for hard-to-fill jobs, such as medicine where there is a shortage, or the C-suite, where the ramifications for a poor hire can be huge. Some firms charge a fixed price for the search, and then a percent of the contract signed if there is a successful hire. Others present a batch of candidates from their database for an open position and if one presented by the recruiter is hired, the recruiter takes a percentage cut from the contract signed. Sometimes, instead of a percentage cut the recruiter takes a fixed dollar sum per successful placement.

All humans operate based on incentives and penalties. Understanding what the compensation structure is for recruiters is important to determine whether they have our best interests in mind.


What value does a recruiter add to the business?

Businesses obviously specialize in their core function. Most aren’t good at HR or recruiting. Sometimes, the business is too small to have a large or dedicated HR department. They obviously don’t have the manpower to promote their company at trade fairs and university career forums. While it’s possible to put up an ad on Craigslist, Monster, or Linkedin, you may attract the dregs from the street. A poor hire can set the company back for years. Having a depot for resumes on the company’s website only works if the company is well-known and consumer-facing. For example, most lay people probably haven’t heard of Illinois Tool Works or Emerson Electric, large Fortune 500 companies that predominantly sell to corporate customers.

This is where employers can outsource the search for talent. Think of the search for good employees in terms of a subject most of us are more familiar with – dating. It’s possible to spend no money and cold-call at a bar, online, or through apps. On the other end of the spectrum are traditional matchmaker services, which keep a repository of the most wealthy, educated, beautiful, and eligible.

The analog for companies is headhunters/recruiters, who often have a database of their own. When they don’t or if they need to find a specific candidate that meets the company’s unique needs, they can do a talent search all across the world. This is how Stanford landed Jim Harbaugh as a football coach, for example, or how Sony settled on Howard Stringer as CEO.


Do you (as a candidate) really need a recruiter?

It all depends on how exclusive of a position you’re looking for. One situation that they can help is if you have a generic skill that’s universally applicable but not specific to any particular industry. An example of this is Russian language skill. Many companies may need one or two Russian speakers to deal with clients from that area, but very few companies will need that many of them. A recruiter who specializes in filling that need for companies generally has a reservoir of jobs already available and can send a resume to all of those places. It’s hard to find all of those openings on your own.

On the other end of the spectrum, a petroleum engineer has a very specialized skill and can generally apply to the big name companies in his or her field without needing a recruiter.

In other situations, like medicine, recruiters will come calling *you* because the supply/demand is so out of whack that companies pay generous bonuses if a recruiter is able to fill a position. This can get annoying at times, especially if you already have a job. C-suite headhunters are generally a bit more discreet with how they contact their potential hires.

One caveat that you should know is that if a company is faced with choosing between two otherwise identical resumes, one sent by a recruiter and the other from a cold-call applicant on their webpage, they’ll choose the one that doesn’t come with a separate fee to a recruiter.


Annoying things recruiters can do

Unfortunately, many people have experienced radio silence from recruiters after sending in a resume. This can be due to a multitude of reasons – sometimes the recruiter is simply swamped with too many applications. Other times, there aren’t enough jobs to go around. Suffice to say, if a generic low-level recruiter doesn’t get back to you, it’s because they had more attractive resumes to submit (higher chance of filling the job and earning a commission) or because they submitted but never heard back from HR. Remember, recruiters are middlemen themselves. Most of us have experienced the black hole that is HR – taking in hundreds of resumes and sending out notifications of rejection six months later to those who weren’t selected.

Generally, the higher up in the pecking order you go, the more personalized “service” you will receive from recruitment agencies. Recruiters lean obsequious and can work with nitpicky requirements from the candidate. Again, supply and demand. However, there is a downside to being sought after. Even after finding a job, you can get unsolicited emails and calls from other recruiters. Take for example my own field of medicine. As soon as I got my first state medical license, I was inundated with calls from recruiters from all across the country, asking if I was interested in “generic podunk job” in the boonies. Apparently, recruiters are so desperate to snare candidates that they troll the rolls of state medical boards and the NIH’s database of residents in training. As soon as someone shows up on the board list, recruiters can pounce on that information. Some information is posted in the public domain, and based on that they can contact the program administration for information on individual residents, or even show up at the hospital themselves.



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