What to Do When Headhunters Call

Here's how to avoid the most junior-level mistake

Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres
As employees move up within organizations, the funnel for talent narrows considerably—it’s best to establish a relationship with a trusted recruiter before you get there. Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres/Unsplash

Nobody ever grows up wanting to be an executive recruiter—it’s just a role that some of us fall into over the course of time. Similarly, no executive recruiter ever calls himself a “headhunter,” but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that’s how most people refer to us. I’ve also been doing this long enough that to know that many people really don’t understand what we do or how we work.

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I remember the first time I ever got a call from a recruiter. I was a newly-minted MBA and had been at my desk as an Assistant Brand Manager for Kraft for all of about a month when the phone rang. Frankly, I was somewhat appalled. I loved my new job, my company, and the people I worked with—why would I ever want to leave?

I also remember feeling somewhat guilty. We worked in close quarters. What if somebody in the next cubicle heard me? Worse yet, what if this was some kind of test? Perhaps somebody from HR was making the call to assess my loyalty.

I confided my fears to a manager in my brand group and she laughed it off. “I get those calls all the time,” she said. You never know when you might need somebody like that, she mused.

I was surprised. This manager was well-regarded in the company and had just been handed a plumb assignment. Why would she be talking with headhunters? She had a really bright future right here with us.

About a year later, Kraft was acquired by Philip Morris and I still loved my job, my company, and the people I worked with. As part of the merger, Kraft was restructured and many of my colleagues were laid off with generous severance packages. My Group Brand Manager told me at the time that of the nine people in our group, I was the only one who didn’t come to him to request the package. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake based on my own misguided youthful enthusiasm.

Over time, the company changed. New senior level managers replaced the people who had hired me. New procedures were established. New priorities were set. Our new owners expected a lot more to drop to the bottom line with a lot less spending and a lot less staff. Kraft was still a great company with great products and staffed by great people—it just wasn’t the same company that I had signed on to. Now when the recruiting calls came in, I listened and spent a long time talking. I even took some interviews and was offered a promotion with another firm before deciding to strike out on my own in an entrepreneurial venture. It certainly would have been nice if I had been staked with that six-month severance package when I finally took my leave.

Today, I still see a lot of junior-level employees making the same early mistakes I did. When I’m recruiting to fill a CMO or Vice President of Marketing role, I never have trouble getting senior executives to take my calls. Getting an Associate Brand Manager to hear about a new opportunity that will improve his income, career and future prospects, however, can sometimes be like pulling teeth via cell phone. As employees move up within organizations, the funnel for talent narrows considerably. At some point there are just a lot more people looking to move to the next level than there are next-level opportunities available. It’s best to establish a relationship with a trusted recruiter before you get there.

Part of the problem with establishing that relationship with a recruiter is that there are far too many nitwits in this business. Many of my compatriots are like pushy used-car salesmen who view you as a 1996 Cutlass Ciera and see their primary role as moving you from one owner to another one. It’s not supposed to work that way.

The best recruiters work for companies to bring them top talent that would otherwise be unavailable. The best employees generally aren’t sitting in their mom’s basement scanning the want ads or sending out resumes to every listing on the Monster board. Usually recruiters are targeting “passive candidates,” i.e. employees that aren’t actively looking for a new position but might consider a new opportunity if it can improve their career in terms of responsibility, exposure, money or a variety of other factors. My best candidates are usually too busy doing a good job somewhere else to have the time necessary to take on a full job search.

That said, a good recruiter must be respectful of your time. We also are very cognizant of the fact that you may be working in an open environment where others can overhear your conversations. If you’d like to hear more but can’t talk freely, just say so. Offer a better time to talk and a cell phone number or an email address where you can make other arrangements. We often talk to candidates at their convenience in the early morning, over lunch, evenings or on weekends. Your time is at a premium and your recruiter should respect that.

By the way, our fees are paid by the company that hires us. If anyone claiming to be a recruiter asks for a fee to help you find a job or get an interview, they aren’t really a recruiter at all. Run; do not walk, in the opposite direction.

Most recruiters are very specialized in what they do, often by industry, function or geography. If a recruiter calls with an opportunity that is completely uninteresting to you, tell them why. Putting you on their personal “do not call list” will save you both a lot of time if there isn’t a match.

If you’re happy where you are (and good for you if that’s the case), tell him what might pique your interest in the future. Supposedly, Lou Holtz had written into every one of his coaching contracts that if Notre Dame ever offered him its head coaching position, then the contract would be null and void, leaving him free to go to the Fighting Irish. What is your Notre Dame? Is it a specific company, industry, geography or title? Let your recruiter know what your hot buttons are. I love it when I can call a candidate with an opportunity that I know in advance is something that will interest him.

At the risk of once again breaking the Recruiter’s Code, sometimes it makes sense to work with more than one recruiter. Picture an industry with only three major employers: Company A, Company B and Company C. If you work at company A, it would be unethical for any recruiter working for Company A to introduce you to any other company. So if a recruiter works for Company A and Company B, he’d only be able to recruit employees from Company C. If you want to work with Company C or Company B, you’d need to find a recruiter that works for those companies but not with yours. More likely, they’ll find you. If this is the case, just be honest with all parties involved. Most recruiters work for multiple companies and it is best to know of any conflicts upfront. In any case, no recruiter should send your credentials to any company without your express permission beforehand.

Expect that sometimes your recruiter cannot give you all of the information that you want, sometimes not even the name of the company that he’s working for. There are legitimate reasons for this. Some searches are conducted on a confidential basis for competitive reasons. Sometimes we’re just looking to fill a position before the incumbent is replaced. In any case, be patient. Once there is enough of a match to get an interview, all of your questions will be answered and you’ll be free to ask anything you want once you’re in front of the hiring manager.

Finally, when you find a recruiter that you like, feel free to send them regular updates on your career. If you get promoted, take on new responsibilities, or even change jobs keep your recruiter posted. The more that he knows about you, the better he’ll be able to work on your behalf when the time comes.

It can be a pain constantly fielding calls from recruiters, especially if you’re in a hot industry where demand is high. Even if you’re not in the marketplace now, take some time to determine which recruiter(s) you might be able to work with if your situation ever changes. You never know when that phone call could come in with the opportunity that changes your career and your life.

Keith Liscio is the president of Patrickson-Hirsch Associates, an Executive Search firm specializing in the placement of marketing executives at consumer-focused organizations.

What to Do When Headhunters Call