Recruiters: Friends, Foes, or Wastes of Time?
February 22, 2016

In the dance that is the modern job search, you will likely hear from recruiters selling the next great move for your career. Many will promise while few will deliver, which often frustrates job seekers. However, the best recruiters have the potential to fast track your climb, not only with one opportunity, but for many rungs on the ladder. This is a post about distinguishing the good recruiters from the bad, understanding the value proposition of headhunters, and working with the strongest agents to negotiate with strength in the quest for your dream job.

Executive and Technical Recruiting 

The recruiting industry is like any other where middlemen bring sellers and buyers together. Most people who are not entrepreneurs sell their time for money on the labor market to make a living. Companies buy that time for short and long term employment. Locking into a long term or full time engagement is a way for firms to buy hours in bulk, essentially locking somebody in at a lower hourly rate than if they were to freelance on short term projects.

Good help is difficult to find, and the best are hard to retain. The entire premise of the recruiting industry is to do just that – to find and retain employees on behalf of clients. In this sense, recruiters are a type of broker. They find buyers and sellers of time and match them together. It’s not much different than what you see in the real estate and stock markets.

Companies tend to focus on what they do best, and outsource or partner wherever else they can. The work of finding good employees is often contracted out to third party recruiters, also known as headhunters. On LinkedIn alone, there are over 1 million profiles of recruiters based in the US alone, which offers some scope of the challenge behind sourcing great workers in today’s economy. This is a good arrangement for the hiring company, who can retain recruiters as independent contractors and avoid paying health insurance and other benefits. Recruiters may work as independents (on their own), or as part of an agency – I find this to be similar to how the real estate world is organized – with a mix of smaller independents for local or specialized jobs, and big agencies to take care of larger searches and institutional clients.

As for compensation, recruiters bring home the bacon when they place a new hire. Agencies and individuals might charge a retainer or subscription fee to clients, but the main way they make money is to have placements sign job offers. The new employee must usually work for a minimum period of time before the client company is obligated to pay a recruiting fee. More conversions bring in more dollars for an enterprising recruiter. There’s a reason why so many companies offer attractive referral fees to their employees. These payouts can sometimes exceed $5,000 – and it’s worth a whole lot more than five grand for a company to find the right candidate for a skilled or senior position. In fact, headhunters are compensated anywhere from 10% to 50% of the newly placed hire’s starting salary, with higher rates going to more senior executives and top performers.

How are recruiters thinking?

-Skills pay the bills-

As I mentioned above, the labor market is similar to the real estate or stock markets, where brokers add value by matching buyers and sellers who would not easily find each other. This evokes an important insight about headhunters, employees, and labor in general. Recruiters play a role in which they are forced to look at skilled employees as commodities. In they eyes of a headhunter, you are viewed as a potential fit for somebody else’s needs. Whether you are a data scientist or a salesman, your skills and track record are analyzed in the context of potential value to an employer. It’s similar to jewelry, in that one diamond may have a higher karat value than another, but they are still handicapped and compared in the context of other diamonds. At the end of the day a diamond is a commodity, regardless of how rare and valuable one particular piece is.

Keep this in mind, that regardless of the qualities, aspirations, and complexities you carry, recruiters are conditioned to reduce you to a set of skills and quantity of job experience. To flip your thinking from an employee to headhunter mindset, go onto Upwork, a hub for freelancers, and start comparing. You can find anyone from purebred management consultants to data clerks, and they can easily be compared to one another on the basis of asking wage, project experience, bio, and work history.

Whether you like it or not, this is a game where people are judged, valued, and bought for their relationships and abilities. To play it well, you can [optimize your resume], [LinkedIn profile], and a [personal website] to increase your access to opportunities. Fortunately, not everybody views other humans as tools, and there are great managers/recruiters out there. However, it does not change the fact that even the nicest guy in the world will not get hired on as a senior software developer. Jobs are married with requisite skills. I would strongly advise diversifying your income and not thinking strictly like an employee. Employment doesn’t have to be your end goal (I strongly recommend thinking like an owner, not just a worker), but so long as you rely on the means of a job, you can maximize your time and income by remaining cognizant of your value to others.

-Time is money-

Employee search is a balance of quantity and quality. On one side, a headhunter gets paid for the number of employees they place. It’s a simple formula – discover potential hires, pitch them with an opportunity, hand them off to the client for interviews, pass go and collect $200 when hired. On the other hand, satisfied clients become repeat customers, and as any a marketer will tell you, hot leads beat sourcing new business from scratch eight days a week. Therefore, recruiters weigh the concern of passing along mediocre matches to clients. Each time the retaining company has a bad experience, it’s another strike against a recruiter, and a diminished chance that they will be called back to help on next opening.

Recruiters are keenly aware of this, and they can be as quick to drop interest in a candidate as they can be to initiate. This explains why so many people receive initial messages from headhunters requesting to connect on LinkedIn, and never hear from the recruiter again. Many will simply look at the profile once they are connected, and if it’s not an exact fit, then they will be on their way. However, those candidates who are deemed a good fit will often receive multiple messages.

In this light, recruiters are inclined to find the right person as quickly as possible, since they are payed for results. This is efficient in one sense, as only the consistently producing headhunters will be able to stay in the profession long-term since pay is tied to output. Internal recruiters at companies often need to hit numbers as well, but the more secure salary package they receive allows them to act a bit more deliberately in the process from what I have seen.

I work for the client-

Many people get it in their head that recruiters somehow work for them. This is not the case, even if you did get placed into a job that adds value to your life as a product of their doings. Remembering this will not only temper your expectations of headhunters, but it will also put you at an advantage to flip encounters with them in your favor. First off, a recruiter does not have the final say on whether you get to interview. If they have an outstanding track record, then they may have some pull or persuasion, but this is generally not the case – especially for junior and middle level positions.

Additionally, the recruiter is judging based on expectations provided by the hiring company. While you may be able to win them over personally, in the end they are acting as a proxy for the firm that needs a hire, and will put that company’s tastes before their own. I’ve had a conversation with recruiter who deemed me a great fit for an opening, but regretted to inform me that I didn’t go to one of the eight Ivy League schools that the manager required. In the end, the needs of the employer drive the conversation.

In summation, most searches rely on very little creativity. You as a potential candidate are searched for based on a few salient pieces of information. These include your current firm, project history, years of experience, school and GPA, and industry you are in. This formulaic search process is both good and bad: good in that it is predictable, bad in that there is little flexibility for consideration for many openings. If perhaps you don’t have 3-5 years of investment banking experience, then you won’t be considered for hypothetical job Z, even if you learned all of the necessary skills for the role in your four years as a finance manager. This seems like a needless limiting of the candidate pool, but it can be an efficient way for a recruiter to focus recruiting efforts and limit risk, even if the process is uninspired.

There’s an old saying in business that “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. This captured the idea of fear over uncertainty in the corporate world, as purchasing agents were inclined to buy IBM because of its ubiquitous branding as a safe and reliable choice of technology, even if other machines were out on the market with better performance and lower cost. Recruiters will choose IBM by sticking to the script and the articulated needs of the employer, and not read between the lines.

What This All Means

As mentioned above, recruiters are shopping for a skill set based on their client’s tastes, and are extremely time conscious. To maximize your chance of attracting the right attention, you can take initiative to increase the right kind of recruiting attention. While there are plenty of poor recruiting experiences out there to read about, the truth is that the right recruiters can and will facilitate your next move, even if they are acting in somebody else’s best interest. By asking the right questions, setting up online profiles properly, and managing expectations, you can increase your odds of being seen by the right people holding a key to the right door. Below are a few ways to manage this process and achieve better results.

Before anything else, you need to have a clear conception of what you do, how to spin that in the best light possible, and some idea of the direction you’d like to head in. Defining the problem is a large part of the battle. If you are an IT consultant who wants to move into project management, then your profiles and pitches are going to look different than an IT consultant who wants to transition into software development. The context of your experience will be shaded differently to accent certain things about you.

Optimizing your online profiles for employment search is an important step towards attracting the right sets of eyes. By tightening up your work experience, you’ll accomplish two things: (1) do a better job of attracting the right recruiters for your intended career path, and (2) filtering out more of the irrelevant spam messages and opportunities that don’t line up with your aspirations. LinkedIn is the first site that most recruiters look at and search through. You can clean up your profile with a few simple steps, and take it as far as you’d like.

(1) Use clear start and end dates in your positions. This will establish how well you meet experience requirements for openings, and relieve you of messages for jobs that you over or under-qualify for.

(2) Make sure that you are using a well understood job description, and be specific in the right ways. For instance. if you are a loan officer, make that clear in your description. Calling yourself an Underwriting Manager will throw people off if the more common name for the job is “Loan Officer”. You won’t come up in LinkedIn or Google searches. This actually throws people off, and might get you more pings for jobs like “Insurance Underwriter”, or some other position.

(3) Upload a high quality photo. See What Research Says About The Best LinkedIn Profile Photo. According to this post, dressing professionally signaled competence to others more than any other individual factor measured. The picture should capture you with a confident smile and good posture, from either the waist or the shoulders up. Recommended background colors are neutral or bright. Superficial, yes – but first impressions matter and can help to ensure you are getting the right kind of attention. These are simply tips for attracting more job opportunities, but I can’t advocate against being yourself. If you aren’t seeking a white collar environment, then keep true to your look – because dressing up in a suit will attract more corporate attention. However, things like the smile, the posture, and the quality of the photo are near universal signals of trustworthiness and confidence, whether your look is suit and tie or MC Hammer pants.

Don’t do this and you’ll be fine!

(4) List experience from your last five years of work. Anything farther back than that which is not relevant to where you’d like to head next is optional, and potentially a hindrance to your goals. For instance, let’s say that Bob HATES enterprise technology sales, and never wants to go back to that career. I’d recommend axing his four years at HP as a data storage account executive in the early 2000s. If Bob wants to move into the music industry, he is better served by pruning old and irrelevant past experiences for the sake of highlighting more recent work that is inline with his goal, like volunteering for a small record label, or playing in a band outside of his day job. Leaving things in your profile that are more recent than five years ago can help to show that you have a solid employment history. This is probably more important than removing things that are irrelevant. If it’s more than five years though, or you have enough in those five years to show that you have been progressing in your career, then you are probably good to cut the fat out.

Negative space is valuable in an online profile as fewer items allow the ones present to shine. That is leverage which can work for or against you. If you have only a few things on your profile and they are poorly laid out, then you will more likely be overlooked out for top caliber opportunities. However, if your profile is a laundry list of everything you’ve ever done in your life, your directional narrative about where you want to go may be clouded by too many disparate experiences. Remember, that you can always switch things in and out of your profile as your aspirations change. For instance, I highlighted some of the policy work that I had done in college under a professor when I wanted an internship in my Governor’s office. Removing some of the other clutter helped to show that I was focused on governance and politics as my next step.

A final case for removing extraneous experiences is that your past experience will show up in a recruiter’s LinkedIn search. This means that even if you were an electrical engineer ten years ago and are now a manager in the software industry, you will still come up in some recruiters’ searches for electrical engineers, and will get messages from those who don’t take the time to look at your profile more closely. There are some items that are automatic selling points and should come off of a profile or resume in very few circumstances (like working in the White House, or being an investment banker at Goldman Sachs). These signal a great deal of competence no matter which direction you intend to take your career in. It’s not going to count against you if you worked under Mario Batali as a chef, or were on the 2004 Olympic Archery team — even if you are trying to become a political strategist in Washington.

(5) If you are sensitive to location, then make sure your current position reflects where you reside currently. Even after doing this, you will likely still receive messages about openings that are located elsewhere in the country or world. I routinely receive InMail (LinkedIn personal email) for opportunities in another city almost 2,000 miles away from me, with little interest of moving there. Still, you can mitigate this hassle, if not eliminate it altogether.

On top of a LinkedIn profile, I also suggest setting up a personal website that allows you to both express professional goals, but with a personal touch. Websites are easy to assemble today with cheap hosting and click only installation/formatting. You can also use sites like Weebly or Blogspot to create a personal site at no cost. The catch is that you generally do not own the content that you post on them. I have the ability or the authority to tell you how to craft a personal website, because it is just that, personal. This is your space to include as much or as little about yourself as you’d like. I bring it up because it has a lot more flexibility than a LinkedIn profile, and can stand out to recruiters and hiring managers.

In addition to polishing your personal profile, you can improve your interactions with recruiters in a few other ways. One easy thing to do is check out job boards online and get an idea of what job descriptions for the role you’re interested in look like. Additionally, find out what that role is called, and if there are multiple names for it. Social Media Marketer can mean different things to different people. What are those things, and which do you want to be? Are you interested in content strategy, branding, sales, or some other aspect of the industry? You can also reach out to HR at various hiring companies to get an accurate picture of what managers are valuing. This is a great move, because you may thing that you need to be a Microsoft Excel guru to get the job, when managers really care about your knowledge of the industry or ability to manage relationships.

Once you have a clear description of the role you seek, cycle that information right back into your online profiles. This will make it seem like you are the perfect match the recruiter has come across, since you’ve addressed all of the common needs for the role. In fact, all you did was a bit of research. Remember, headhunters aren’t going for creativity, they are trying to appease their client, and will follow instructions very literally in their search. Take advantage of this by learning the job description template, and having a response for each concern woven into a succinct profile.

How people view recruiters often depends on the amount of leverage they currently have. Those with plenty of opportunities might see headhunters as people who try to monopolize their time, while those with few moves on the chess board may look at opportunities presented by recruiters in a positive light. Regardless of your views, you can adapt your strategy to best fit your needs, rather than accepting the same results (too much or too little contact with recruiters).

If it’s more attention you seek, and you want to be looped in on future opportunities, start reverse engineering the recuiting process. Instead of thinking about how to get recruiters to contact you, contact them. I’ve adapted this email template from interactions that I’ve had with headhunters and it seems to get a very positive response:

Hi    Insert Name   ,

I wanted to reach out as someone with an interested in the    Insert Industry    field. I noticed that you have experience recruiting for    Type Of Role   , which is exactly where I want to take my career next. An introduction never hurts, and hopefully we can keep in touch. As you come across openings, please feel free to keep me in mind, as I might be a great fit for the position, or able to refer you to somebody who is.



The beauty of this email is that you will likely get connected even if you don’t fit the exact profile they are looking for. Saying that you have contacts in the industry that you can refer is a great way to perk a headhunter’s ears up. It’s the possibility of a free referral, and all they have to do is put you on their distributions. This should get you access to more openings, some of which will never be advertised through job boards or company websites. Monitor how useful the leads are. If any are consistently duds, then remove your connection.

As far as locating recruiters, find them the same way they’d find you. Go on LinkedIn and search for “Recruiter [Industry]”. That blank could be filled with “life sciences”, “hedge fund”, “Education”, or any other field out there. If overwhelmed by results, narrow them down by getting more specific. Keep in mind that executive search is for senior and specialized positions. Executive recruiters may have non-executive openings to fill, so don’t be intimidated by the title.

When your dilemma is too many messages from headhunters, it’s time to start cleaning house. For one, you can adjust your LinkedIn privacy settings to only allow connections to view your profile. The downside is that there may be other non-recruiters that you still want to be able to view you, but this is the trade off. You can also begin setting up spam rules for emails that you receive from the most persistent searchers. Eliminating the few largest contributors to the problem will most likely relieve most of the annoyances — this has been my experience. The final step is to remove any of those connections from your LinkedIn profile. Here are the steps, straight from the LinkedIn help center:

Go to your Connections page, click the Settings icon on the right, then click the Refresh link next to LinkedIn. Move your cursor over My Network at the top of your homepage and select Connections

Doing these few simple steps will help you to keep a lower recruiting profile and achieve a bit more headspace.

In Closing

To wrap up, remember that recruiters use systems to find candidates, and you can use knowledge of it to your advantage. I stand by the notion that great recruiters have access to coveted and walled off opportunities — when you find out who these players are, it’s worth it to court them. They often have experience in the business, and key relationships with the true decision makers at great firms. Unlike the order takers who shun creativity in their searches, these heavy hitters have the authority and experience to locate and make unconventional calls that work out for clients. Bad and spammy recruiters who add zero value should be eliminated from your circle of communication as soon as they are spotted, but even the largest cynics should realize that good recruiters add value. If nothing else, they can bluntly let you know what you need to work on in order to be considered in a way that corporate HR can’t and won’t. Good luck, and please leave any questions and concerns about your job search in the comments.

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