How Do Headhunters Work?

Most job seekers fundamentally misunderstand the role of professional headhunters (also known as recruiters) and as a result, they miss out on countless job opportunities.

In this article, I am going to explain exactly how headhunters work and how you can find them, because they are a vital part of the job search for anyone at the manager level and above.

That’s because headhunters are paid by companies to fill vacant positions they do not want to advertise and therefore, in many cases, you’ll never have access to those jobs unless you find the right headhunters.

How do headhunters work?

The process always starts with the employer. A manager or HR professional writes a description of the type of candidate being sought. They usually include both hard and soft skills and generally describe the type of personality who will fit into their organization.

The headhunter then sets about finding an exact match. I underlined the phrase “exact match” because it’s probably the most important thing you need to understand about headhunters. They have been hired to streamline the hiring process, not complicate it. Therefore, they are interested only in candidates who exactly match the criteria they have been given.

Rejection isn’t personal

If you do not match those criteria, you won’t get a call no matter how wonderful your background is. It’s not personal -– it’s just that the headhunter needs to find exactly what he or she was asked to find in order to a) make money and b) get repeat business.

The company HR person could fill this job herself but she has hired a headhunter because she doesn’t have time. What she expects from that headhunter is that the only resumes she sees will be of highly qualified candidates who meet the criteria she set out in her job specification. She does not want to see creative options. She doesn’t want to hear the headhunter say: “I know this guy doesn’t have the experience you asked for, but he seems interesting.” She wants to see a small group of perfectly qualified candidates.

Therefore, you probably won’t hear back from most of the headhunters you contact. Don’t take this personally. It’s not a reflection on your skills or your background. It simply means that you are not a fit for the positions they are currently working on.

The second important thing to understand about headhunters is that they work for the company, not for you. Fees vary but they generally make 20-30% of your annual salary if they find you a job. This means that the headhunter’s loyalty is to the company. They have no interest in helping you -– they are solely focused on the needs of their client.

Third, because their fees are based entirely on making successful placements, they don’t have the luxury of spending time on things that don’t have a strong chance of paying off. Each headhunter is working on only a limited number of searches at any one time, and most will not pay attention to your resume if you are not an exact match with positions they are seeking to fill.

All this means that you need to view headhunters as useful connections rather than as people who are there to help you find your next job.

When headhunters can help, and when they can’t

Because they are so focused on finding an exact match, headhunters are generally no help to those looking to make a career change.

And if you are new to the job market, headhunters are also not the best resource for you. Most employers don’t use them to fill junior positions; therefore, you’ll be wasting time contacting them.

But if you know what you want to do, and are well qualified to do it, headhunters will be a crucial part of your search strategy.

Should you work with just one headhunter?

No! This is possibly the most common misperception that hurts job seekers, but working with just one headhunter is about as useful as sending out only one resume throughout your whole job search and hoping you get that one job.

You must understand that each headhunter will be filling only a few vacancies at any one time, and most of those vacancies won’t be suitable for you. This means that you need to be in touch with as many headhunters as you can find because you never know which one has the perfect job for you. And you need to stay in touch over time, because they may not have the perfect job now, but it could land on their desk three months from now.

The importance of targeting

Most headhunters specialize and they will ignore your resume if you are not a match for the type of search they frequently conduct.

Therefore, you should research them carefully and send your resume only to those who usually hire for positions that would suit you.

I can’t stress this enough. Nothing annoys headhunters more than being spammed by people who haven’t taken the time to understand what they do. If a headhunter hires only entertainment executives in New York and LA, and you are a construction project manager in Alaska, you will not endear yourself by cluttering up her email.

This means that you have to focus on headhunters who frequently fill positions that match your experience, and you have to send them an absolutely great resume and cover letter that show exactly why you are a good match for their clients. By focusing on quality instead of quantity, you will dramatically increase your chances of a favorable outcome.

In my next article, I’ll show you how to find the right headhunters for you. If you’d like to be notified when it’s posted, just drop your email address here and we’ll shoot you a note once it’s up.

The power of working with headhunters

Provided you target headhunters correctly and find as many suitable firms as possible, they will greatly improve your chances of finding your next job. In addition, building good relationships with headhunters can bring dividends for years to come as they will stay in touch over the years and let you know about suitable vacancies as your career develops. Simply put, if you work at the manager level or above, you can’t afford not to work with them.

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