On Dealing with Head Hunters

some cautionary tales

The Problem

The fundamental problem when dealing with recruiters is that while your interests and their interests are related, they aren't identical.

It is somewhat like dealing with real estate agents, except that instead of brokering your house, they are brokering your body. And your body is worth more than a house. Real estate agents usually work on a 6% commission. If they sell a house for $300K, they get $18K. Recruiters commissions vary widely, but 30% to 50% of first year's salary isn't unusual. If they place a candidate in a job at $100K/year, they get $30K to $50K. So things can get very intense.


The recruiter's task is to get you to accept a job. That's what they get paid for. From one point of view, the best way to do this is to have a job that you want. But regardless of what jobs they have, and what candidates they have, in the end, they have to get a candidate to sign an offer letter. So all things being equal, the most successful recruiters tend to be those who are good at manipulating people. This manipulation can take many forms, and may be subtle or clumsy.


I was working at a company that needed to hire a programmer. We posted a job description to Usenet (ne.jobs or some such) and within a few days a recruiter called me.

I knew this recruiter: she had gotten me a job a few years previously. I liked her; I respected her; I didn't feel like she had ever jerked me around.

She had a candidate for the job. I told her that I would be happy to consider the candidate, but that my company had a policy of not paying recruiter fees, so I didn't see how she was going to get paid. She was entirely unconcerned about this.

We interviewed the candidate; he was promising; the hiring manager was considering making an offer. The recruiter still didn't have a contract with the company. She called the hiring manager and had a long discussion—not about contracts and fees, but about the company. She learned a whole lot about us. A few days later, she called to say that the candidate had taken a different job.

As soon as she told me this, I understood the game. She took the information she got from the hiring manager and used it to steer the candidate to the other company—doubtless one with which she had a contract. She was willing to submit the candidate to our company without a contract, in the hopes that she would get one, and was confident that she could reel him back in if she didn't.

She's good at what she does: I'm sure the candidate thinks that he made the right decision. In fact, the decision was made for him by the recruiter, based on which company was willing to pay her fee.


Many recruiters are less subtle. I had one or two phone interviews with a recruiter in 1990, when I was looking for a job. It didn't lead to any interviews, and I ended up taking a job through a different recruiter.

The first recruiter called me at my new job about 18 months later. As it happened, I was looking again, so I talked to him. He opened the discussion by reproaching me: "Hey boy! You got a job without talking to me." I had several more phone discussion with him over a few days. I kept trying to tell him about my skills and interests; he wasn't listening. Much of the discussion had the tenor of an argument; finally it dawned on me that his first priority was to get control of the relationship. After that I stopped dealing with him.

Taking up time

Some recruiters try to get control simply by taking your time. I've had recruiters call me and insist on interviewing me before they would talk to me about any of their job openings. Now, this isn't wildly unreasonable. Part of their service to their clients (the hiring firms) is to screen candidates. And the recruiter certainly doesn't want to tell me about openings at companies X, Y and Z, and then have me go apply directly to those companies.

On the other hand, I've only got so many hours in the day. If I commit some of those hours to interviewing with one recruiter, then I can't use those hours to interview with other recruiters, or to search for jobs on my own. I can only spend so much time on a job search; I can only go on so many interviews. The more of my time that a recruiter can take up, the more likely it is that the job I take will be one of his.

Strafing run

I've also seen recruiters use this tactic to get control on the hiring side. At one company, we used to get calls from a local recruiting firm. They had what I think of as a strafing run strategy: come in fast and low, and try to place a candidate while everyone is still stunned.

Usually, I hung up on them, but one day I wasn't too busy, and we were hiring, so I talked to them. They wanted me to take half a day, drive into the city, and interview a bunch of candidates, sight unseen—or more specifically—resume unseen. I wanted to see resumes first. They wouldn't FAX me resumes unless I first agreed to interview the candidates. We argued on the phone for about an hour.

I eventually figured out why they were being so obstinate on this point. It was all about control. More than recruiters, they were high-pressure phone salesmen. Their task was to call hiring managers and browbeat them into agreeing to interview candidates. If I spend a half day interviewing their candidates, then that is a half day that I don't spend interviewing other candidates. The more of my time they can take up, the more likely it is that I will end up hiring one of their candidates.

The problem with letting me see the resumes first is that it puts control back in my hands. I can read the resumes, and then I decide whether or not to interview the candidates. We finally compromised. I agreed to interview two candidates at my office, and they faxed me the resumes, with an understanding that I could cancel the interviews after I saw the resumes.

So they faxed me the resumes, and I didn't see any obvious reasons to cancel the interviews, and the candidates appeared, and I interviewed them, and they were both entirely unsuitable. Not incompetent, just not at all a good match in terms of experience or interests.

By turning my usual decision point for interviewing a candidate from an ACK to a NAK they got me to interview two candidates that I might otherwise have passed over.

And this isn't just my judgment. Both candidates agreed with me that our jobs were not a good fit for them. I advised both candidates against working with that recruiting firm. I never heard from the recruiter again.

Binding Contracts

One of my managers related an extreme example of a recruiter trying to keep control over the relationship. A recruiter called her and wanted her to sign a 3-month contract agreeing not to take any job except through him. His rational was that if he got a commitment from her—an exclusive—then he could invest his time in a sustained, directed job search for her.

Now, there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with this.

But I think that 3 months is a very long time, especially if I am

I would never sign such a contract unless I was very sure that the recruiter actually had a job that I wanted. And if I knew that, well why not just call the company directly...

Unhappy campers

Another situation where you will see manipulation is if you take a job and then find you are unhappy in it. Recruiters' contracts usually provide for a refund of the fee to the hiring firm if the employee leaves within some period of time—typically 6 months. So the recruiter will do whatever they can to keep you parked where they placed you for 6 months. After that they don't care.


Recruiters lie to you. They lie when it is convenient; more specifically, they lie when the truth might get between them and their fee.

We once interviewed a candidate, but decided not to make an offer, because she seemed depressed. I called the recruiter and explained our concerns.

Next day, the candidate called me directly and asked why she didn't get an offer. She said that the recruiter had told her that we rejected her because she lacked some specific technical skill.

I sighed, and told her than we rejected her because she seemed depressed. She protested that her friends had told her that she seemed less depressed now then she used to. So we called it right.

The recruiter lied to the candidate because the truth was inconvenient. When a company rejects a candidate, the recruiter wants the candidate to immediately start pursuing the next job opportunity. The way to get the candidate to do this is to tell them that they were rejected for some simple, inoffensive, and—most importantly—incontestable reason. Lack of a specific skill is a favorite choice.

The recruiter doesn't want the candidate to

The recruiter wants the candidate to accept the rejection as a fact and move on.

So they lie. I'm sure they lie in other contexts as well; this is just one that I have direct experience with.

Make Money Fast

If you watch late-night TV, or get email, you see them

One thing that most of these pitches have in common—one thing that absolutely identifies them as scams—is a claim that you can make money with little or no work.

You can get essentially the same thing from recruiters. A recruiter called me a few years ago. I talked to him for a while. What I wanted to hear about was the jobs he had. What he wanted to talk about was his process. How he was going to interview me, and select jobs for me, and send me on interviews, and I could just sit back and wait for a job I liked, and he was going to take care everything for me.

And I'm sure he would have. The more things I let him do, the more I rely on him, the more control he gets over the whole process. The better his chances that he'll be able to maneuver me into one of his jobs and collect his fee, regardless of whether that is really the best job for me.

And if I let him do that, then shame on me, because it is my job, and my career, and in the end, the only person who can protect my own interests is me.

As a hiring manager, I've had a long-standing prejudice that people who come through recruiters are self-selected for not taking responsibility for their own job search. This isn't entirely fair: after all, sometimes a recruiter has a job that you really do want.

At one company, I looked at hundreds and hundreds of resumes, interviewed scores of candidates, and finally hired about a dozen. Of the ones that we hired, no more than one or two came through recruiters. The rest all responded on their own initiative to ads that we ran or to job postings on our web site.

Commodity skills

Recruiters function at different levels. Some of them do careful, directed searches. They

But many recruiters are just herding bodies around. More specifically, they are brokering commodity skills.

One tip off is when they know the job requirements, but don't know what the job is. They don't know, and they don't care: they are just matching the skills that you have with the skills that the employer needs. C/C++, SQL, Unix, Java, etc, etc.

There used to be a big recruiting firm in the Boston area called Source Engineering that actually used a database for this. I interviewed there many years ago. They inventory your skills, enter them into the database and see what jobs pop out. Once I figured this out, I stopped dealing with them. But I'm still in their database, and I still get computer-generated letters from them occasionally telling me that I am qualified for a current opening.

Another sign that a recruiter is dealing in commodity skills is a request to drop your best material from your resume because their clients aren't interested in it.

I knew a programmer who did graduate work in algorithm development. He talked to a recruiter once who told him that there wasn't much call for those algothingies.

I have a friend in California who has a PhD in linear systems theory. He talked to a recruiter once who told him that he should drop his linear systems work from his resume, because companies weren't interested in it. What he meant, of course, was that his clients weren't interested in it, and what that meant was that my friend shouldn't be working with that recruiter.

Another warning flag is a request to break your skill set down by job. That kind of detail is appropriate if you are working as a consultant, but not for full time work. For a permanent position, the employer should be more concerned with overall abilities and job fit than with your skills inventory.

Turning the Tables

In the late '80s, I worked for a startup. In the end, it went the way of most startups: it folded. As the company was collapsing, the headhunters closed in and started picking off the management.

My manager got a cold call from a one. The recruiter started right in as if he knew him, saying, "All right! We've got a lot of work to do. We're going to find you a job. We'll get started right away and..."

My manager cut him off and said, "You are talking about working closely with me for at least 6 months on something of vital importance to me. Before I decide to do that, I want to know something about you. Give me the names of three people who you have placed that I can call who can tell me what it is like to work with you."

There was a long, stunned silence, and finally, "...oooooooOOOOOOOO IT'S JUST NOT WORTH IT! <SLAM>".

Getting stroked

For many people, looking for a job is difficult and frightening. For engineers, it tends to be a lot of fun. You have all these companies and recruiters chasing after you, telling you how great you are, and listening intently while you discuss your best hacks. You get stroked a lot.

Just be careful not to get seduced by it. Remember, as soon as you accept the job

Also keep in mind that recruiters know this, and won't hesitate to use it as a tool to pacify and control you during the process

Reference checks

Sometimes recruiters ask for your references up front. If you ask them why, they explain that they screen candidates for their clients: that is part of the service they provide. This is possible, but unlikely, and if it is true, you shouldn't work with them anyway.

First of all, it is improper. The time to check references is immediately before signing an offer letter.

More importantly, references should be checked by the hiring manager. After all, he's the one who is going to have to work with the candidate. If the recruiter's story is true, then his clients are companies who delegate reference checks to some recruiter, who—remember—gets paid when they hire his candidates. Does this sound smart? Do these sound like people that you want to work for?

But the fact is, he isn't going to check your references. He wants your references because your references are people that you have worked for. Your references are managers. Hiring managers. He is going to call them up and try to place his candidates with them.

Remember, every recruiter is always working both sides of the street. He is

I was talking to a recruiter once, and he mentioned some company, and I said that I was already talking to people at that company, and that they had told me that there wasn't a good fit with my skills. He angrily demanded to know who had told me that. I was taken aback, but stood my ground that I was talking to that company directly, and wasn't going to discuss it with him. Later, it occurred to me that his anger was a ruse. He was hoping to buffalo me into giving him a name—any name—that he could call at that company.

Information Brokers

Nominally, recruiters are information brokers. They do the hard, substantive work of

Information is valuable, and if the recruiter's information leads to a hire, they get paid for their efforts.

As mentioned above, the fees are pretty steep, currently ranging from perhaps $20K to $60K, depending on the position and salary. At those rates, a recruiter only has to place a handful of candidates each year to make a living. If they can place as many as one per month, they can make a bundle.


But this leads to another way to think about what recruiters do. Some recruiters don't actually bring anything of value to the table. Instead, they spend their time trying to get between a candidate and a job, so that they can collect a fee. When the job market heats up, these people come out of the woodwork. Anybody can call themselves a recruiter, pick up the phone, and start dialing.

I was sitting at work one day when a recruiter cold-called the programmer in the next cubicle. Not only did the recruiter not know the programmer, he didn't even know the programmer's name. The recruiter was apparently dialing numbers at random and asking whoever answered if they wanted a software position at some west-coast firm. Remember, he only has to place one every few months...

I had a recruiter call me once and pitch some company to me. She mentioned that she would try to "get her foot in the door" at the hiring firm. As it happened, I had seen this company's full-page ad in the Sunday paper just a few days earlier, and decided that I wasn't interested in working for them. Furthermore, the ad specified, "Principals Only".

So the fact is, she had nothing. She had no client. She had no candidate. She was calling me on one end, and the company on the other, and hoping to be in the middle if an offer was made.


So the overall message is that you can work with recruiters, but


Hey boy!
As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.
After that they don't care
Dice used to run a slimy ad featuring a tech worker talking about how he got a job through Dice, and concluding that in 6 months, he might "roll the dice again".
job postings on our web site
This was back in the mid-1990's, when doing a web search still took some imagination and initiative.
Source Engineering
I think they are still around under a different name.
Principals Only
in other words, no recruiters

Steven W. McDougall / resume / swmcd@world.std.com / 2003 Oct 02