by Sharon Florentine

9 rules for working with headhunters and IT recruiters

Nov 09, 2018
CareersIT Jobs

Recruiters, executive search firms and employment agencies are all valuable tools in your job search arsenal. Here are nine tips for making the most of your relationship with them.

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Credit: Thinkstock

There’s a common misconception about working with headhunters, recruiters, and employment agencies: while it’s true that IT recruiters can be valuable matchmakers, connecting talented technology professionals with companies in need of their skills and experience, these firms work for employers, not for you. And they are merely channels through which you may secure an employment opportunity, says Ford R. Myers, career coach, speaker and author of “Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring.”

First, it’s helpful to understand the difference among recruiting professionals, Myers explains.Placement agencies that charge a fee should be avoided completely, he says. Contingency-fee recruiters are paid a percentage of the candidate’s salary — but only if they actually place a new employee. Proceed with extreme caution if using a contingency recruiter; they’re out to make a placement, any placement, regardless of fit, he says. Retained executive search firms are the classic ‘headhunters,’ who are granted an exclusive right to conduct a search on behalf of their client company and are paid a consulting fee even if the search is unsuccessful.

Following some important guidelines will help you get the most out of working with recruiters.

Be selective, but open to new opportunities

Be careful and selective in choosing which recruiters you want to work with, and politely decline to work with those who don’t appeal to you or are inappropriate for your situation, Myers says.

“Before you agree to work with a firm or an individual recruiter, interview them and ask for recommendations. Are they reputable? Respectable?” Myers advises.

One of the best ways to find a reputable, respectable recruiter or search firm is through networking and personal connections, much the same way you look for open job roles, he says.

“Ask your friends, family members, even colleagues who they worked with successfully. People are going to talk about their bad experiences first and foremost, so you’ll more easily know whom to avoid,” Myers says.

Take the call

Sometimes, though, recruiters are the ones making the initial contact, says Shravan Goli, chief product officer and head of consumer revenue at online training platform Coursera and former president of, and you should always pick up that call.

“Fundamentally, recruiters just want a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ on the initial outreach, so they can put a slate of candidates together quickly,” Goli says. “For candidates, it’s always a good practice to respond to the initial outreach. If the recruiter doesn’t recognize a ‘no’ or sends a job that doesn’t match your passions and interest, then technology professionals can always block them,” he says.

Be honest

Make sure you’re honest with your recruiter about your job objectives, past compensation, desired salary, geographical preferences and other details. When you’re working with internal recruiting and HR professionals, though, you can hold some of this detail back, Myers says.

“With external recruiters, they’re motivated not just to find you a well-suited position, but to land you a higher paycheck — they receive their commission based on that amount. With internal professionals, they’re motivated to save their business money by getting you to take the job at a lower salary,” Myers says.

Never pay for anything

Never pay any sort of “registration fee” or any other money for anything in the whole recruiting process! All the search firm’s fees should be paid by the employer.

Ask the right questions

When interviewing, make sure that the job is exactly what the recruiter described. Confirm (and re-confirm, if necessary) the salient job details, responsibilities and compensation. You don’t want to be blindsided on your first days and weeks at a new job with responsibilities and duties you weren’t prepared for, Myers says.

You should be asking questions not just about the role, benefits, perks and salary, but dig a bit deeper to fully understand the context around why the role is available, the health of the hiring company and other salient information. Some of the questions you should be asking include:

  • Why me? Finding out why a particular recruiter chose to contact you can help you better understand your chances at landing that role, too, says Joseph Roualdes, formerly corporate communications group manager, LinkedIn Talent Solutions, and now head of communications and social media, OpenGov. “Asking why that recruiter contacted you gives you greater insight into why he or she thinks you’re a great fit for the company, and asking how they found you helps you understand the amount of effort they put into finding the best person for the job — not just a person for the job,” he says.
  • Where did you find me? The answer to this question will provide insight on what’s working in your job search. Did they find you through LinkedIn? Was it a referral? “This can be interesting information. It could tell you if your resume/profile is working, or who to thank for the referral, which might lead to further networking,” says Penny Locey, vice president, Keystone Associates.
  • How many people have you placed with this company? This question is designed to give insight into the relationship between the recruiter and the hiring organization. Let’s face it: Most people use recruiters because they think their relationship with a given company gives them a better chance of landing an interview, so finding out whether this particular recruiter can get you an edge is critical. “It’s very important to understand the relationship between the recruiter and the hiring organization,” says Goli. “Tech professionals should always ask if the recruiter has worked on behalf of the company in the past and if they had success placing a candidate. If they have worked with the company in the past, the recruiter will be better informed about the culture and the interview process,” says Goli.
  • Why is the company hiring? Why is the position available? Knowing why the company is putting someone on the payroll can help you better craft your resume and help direct your interview preparation. It can also tell you valuable information about the health of the company, the management style and the prospects for career growth. Is this a new or existing position? What happened to the former person in the role? What is the general turnover rate in this department? In the company as a whole? What are the opportunities for advancement if I succeed in this role? The answers to these questions will help you better formulate a strategy that will get you hired.

In addition, you should ask any or all of the following before you agree to let an IT recruiter present you to a potential employer:

  • Tell me about the companies and roles you’ve suggested to me. What makes them compelling opportunities?
  • How did you come into contact with this company?
  • What’s the hiring timeline?
  • What can you tell me about the team and manager I would be working with?
  • What are the most important deliverables within the first six months?
  • What can I expect in the interview process?

Demand respect and communication

Remember that you are the source of the recruiter’s income, even if You are entitled to courtesy and respect, as well as honest and prompt answers to your questions. Be persistent but remember, too, that you’re not the recruiter’s only client, Myers says.

It is a common misconception is that, when recruiters get new job orders, they first look through the resumes they already have in their system in an attempt to fill that role — not true, Myers says. This underscores the importance of staying in regular contact.

“When you call a recruiter, they don’t care about you unless they happen to have an open job order that fits your qualifications exactly, that happens to be sitting on their desk right in front of them. If you get lucky and call or e-mail at exactly the right time and all the stars align, they’ll be really happy to hear from you because you’ve given them a great opportunity to get a commission. If not, don’t take it personally. I recommend my clients call their recruiters and search firms every two weeks to maintain contact,” he says.

Play the field

Do not sign any contract or make any agreement that obligates you to work exclusively with one search agency, as that will diminish the power you have over your own job search.

“Never, ever sign an exclusive arrangement with anyone. Sometimes I hear of firms and recruiters who demand that job seekers sign an exclusivity arrangement. That’s not acceptable. Many times, the fine print will say, ‘If you leave that job within a certain amount of time, you’re on to hook to pay us our fee,’ and you don’t want to be responsible for that,” he says.

Maintain control

Myers recommends you assume the same supervisory role with recruiters that you take with employees. “When working with any type of executive search firm or recruiter, you must maintain control of them and their activities. Even though the search firm is not working for you, I tell my clients to supervise the work of recruiters as though they were managing a group of employees,” says Myers.

Make sure you’re keeping abreast of who’s sending your resume to potential employers and where those resumes are going; often, companies will disqualify candidates whose resume is received from more than one source to avoid getting in the middle of a turf war between recruiters, Michael Spiro, director of recruiting, NE Ohio region for Experis Finance, wrote in a blog post.

Ask that your resume and other information not be forwarded to any prospective employer without your prior approval. Again, you need to maintain control over your job search efforts, and you also don’t want to duplicate efforts, Myers says. “While it doesn’t sound like a big deal, fielding resumes from the same candidate through a variety of sources could jeopardize your ability to land a role at that company, and it makes you seem disorganized and lacking in attention to detail,” Myers says.

In addition, you want to besure that the recruiter does not edit your resume or any other documents without your permission. Again, this is key to maintaining control and responsibility for your own job search and career path, says Myers. If you feel your resume could use some tweaking, you should consider working with a career coach or a professional resume writer – don’t just let the recruiter have a go at edits and changes, he says.

Another thing you don’t want to rely on the recruiter for is salary negotiation. You must either conduct the negotiations yourself, or at least be actively involved in the negotiation process, Myers says.

While recruiters and headhunters can play a valuable role in any job search, Myers advises focusing only a small percentage of your job-search energies here.

“The only person who’s going to get you a job, and who’s truly going to care about your long-term job success is you. Recruiters are only one tool in the job search arsenal to help you find and land a job, along with research, direct applications and professional networking. I tell clients that 95 percent of their search time and effort should be in networking, and the other 5 percent should be ‘everything else,’ into which recruiters fall. I can’t emphasize the point enough: don’t rely solely on recruiters to land you a job,” Myers says.