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When Should You Work With a Recruiter?

When it comes to working with search firms, "when and if" are just as important as "how."

Retained search firms are appropriate vehicles for candidates seeking a "career lateral" - a position whose responsibilities and pay are similar to the job they currently have, says Ann S. Boland, an executive recruiter in the Washington, D.C., area. However, if you've previously performed the role but aren't doing so currently, or if you performed the role only within a different industry or segment, Boland advises approaching target employers on your own rather than through a headhunter. The reason? She answers bluntly on her Web site:

"When companies retain or engage a recruiter, they want someone who 'is there and doing that' (or was very recently). In most cases, recruiters must find a candidate who is currently performing successfully in virtually the same role for another employer."

On the other hand, when a recruiter's fee isn't involved, employers might be open to hiring a candidate who meets some - but not all - of their stated criteria.

The Three Bullets: Experience First

Boland's boiled down retained-search clients' common requirements into a document called The Three Magic Bullets. She explained its themes while addressing a career event organized in Washington by the CFA Institute.

If you try to get a job through a recruiter without having all three of her bullets, you'll be wasting both your time and the recruiter's, Boland says. In her formulation, a presentable candidate's experience and compensation must precisely match the job opening in question, and the candidate must show a stable work history, defined as a minimum two-year tenure in every past job.

How close a match does experience have to be? Apparently, too close to slip your pinky finger between any gaps. Functional expertise, industry experience, and specified qualifications each must match "exactly" with the target job, Boland says. "We've seen specs this tight: chief investment officer who managed growth of a portfolio from $2.5 billion to $3.0 billion, plus has 10 to 15 years experience in the retirement services division of a global mutual fund firm," Boland told the CFA group. "This is why recruiters don't return your call."

As for qualifications: Beyond specifying particular academic degrees and professional certifications, clients typically demand candidates have strong existing relationships with certain defined customer or prospect groups.

Candidates will face resistance if their current or recent compensation history deviates from the target by more than 10 percent in either direction, Boland says.


The third magic bullet, having a stable work history, rules out any candidate who's held their present role for less than two years or who left any previous job after less than two years. (If you left after a short time to follow a manager to a new job, it's important to say so on your resume. That fact can offset any hesitation over stability.)

Why would anyone want to make a lateral move, switching employers for a similar job at only a modest pay boost? Usually because the new employer is viewed as offering better prospects for career growth. In those cases, working with retained recruiters may make sense, according to Boland.

On the other hand, "If you want a company to bet on your ability to move to the next level, stay where you are a known quantity, or apply directly. Few companies are willing to subsidize a candidate's career progression by hiring them for a position that is a 'stretch' job," she says.

AUTHORJon Jacobs Insider Comment
  • pn
    19 June 2008

    I am yet to find a good headhunter who can work with me. May be, I will call you and see if you can get me a position in quntitative analysis, equity analysis or asset management

  • Na
    5 June 2008

    95% may not be accurate. In my experience it is more like 98% are unprofessional. Granted, the behavior and unpeasant experience I have had working with recruiters may be attributed to the companies the recruiters have to work with and the marketplace.

    I am looking for a positon in the financial services industry in legal and compliance or internal audit. If you cover these areas I would like to talk with you.

  • Pe
    Peter G. Milazzo
    4 June 2008

    I have been a "head hunter" for 31 years, and have directed my own firm, Milazzo Associates Inc., since 1985. I take umbrage, at the name,"scumbags", used by one of your subscibers.
    My son joined the organization 10 years ago, and I still maintain the same recruiters for over 20 years. We are small in comparison to many recruitment firms, and cater to the "financial community".
    We have built fine relationships through out our tenure, with applicants and accounts.Our applicants have become our "blood line", as they are the main source of referrals. We rarely advertise, due to the wonderful network of "Satisfied" candidates we have worked with and for, over the years.
    Obviously, this "subscriber" has had bad experiences, but I doubt the percentage of bad recruitment firms is 95%, as stated.

    Sincerely, Peter G. Milazzo
    President Milazzo Associates Inc.

  • he
    headhunters suck
    27 May 2008

    I've been in the industry 10 years. I do not think I've ever had a good experience with a headhunter. It's completely true that it's not worth pursuing a headhunter because if they have an interest, at all, they will hound you and try to sell you on anything, even if it's the worst step for you. Especially, if it's a contingency search, and not a retained search, supposedly "better" names like Solomon Page will be just as unpleasant to deal with as the more bucket shop headhunters who are newer in the business.

    95% are pretty much scumbags for whom a relationship with job candidates is one-way. Don't think that providing info for them will win you any goodwill.

  • St
    Still looking
    22 May 2008

    Very interesting. Explains why my resume doesn't get more responses for jobs that I was pretty dead-on for. Also goes to show that spending any significant amount of time pursuing head hunters is a waste of time.

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