Managing Headhunters

Twenty or thirty years ago, ‘cradle to grave’ employment was the norm.  My father worked for the same company all his life.  And, even twenty years ago, my first employer as a graduate trainee fully expected me to work for them until I retired.

This was either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it:  on the one hand, it made the world of work a safer place, with more job security and less fear of the axe falling.  On the other hand, if you made the wrong choice of employer, it was far harder to change jobs in mid-career as there was a stigma of disloyalty attached to people who changed jobs.  So, for many people, their work life became a slow conveyor belt of excruciating boredom, counting the years and days till retirement (the ‘Reginald Perrin syndrome’).

20 years later, the US model of ‘selfish capitalism’ reigns. Companies hire and fire along with the economic cycles.  Employers regularly downsize in recessions and then go on hiring sprees in boom times.  And, since they no longer trust their employers to look after them, employees now happily switch jobs if they are even slightly bored; or desert to competitors for a slightly better offer.

The old paternalistic loyalties of cradle to grave employment have long gone.

As a result, over the last 30 years, a whole new industry has blossomed – ie. headhunting.

In the past, companies mainly focused on graduate hiring, on the basis that, once they had hired someone, they tended to stay put over the long term.   In the UK, they spent vast amounts of money on the University ‘Milk Round’ –  where companies had teams who spent several months visiting all the top Universities once a year to identify the best graduate recruits.

These days, companies have to hire continually at all levels to fill the gaps created by employees jumping ship or, quite often,  by their own ‘downsizing’ exercises during the previous economic cycle.

To service this requirement, the Recruitment industry has evolved to help employers hire at all levels.

I say ‘to help employers’ deliberately as, despite appearances, recruitment consultants are NOT there to help employees find employers.  The hiring company is always the headhunter’s client – not the candidate.

Why is that?   Quite simply, because “he who pays the piper calls the tunes”.

The UK employment agencies act 1973 states that employment agencies  “shall not demand or directly or indirectly receive from any person any fee for finding him employment or for seeking to find him employment“.

The only exceptions are for actors, models and professional sportsmen.  They may sign up to agents who represent them in the marketplace, find them interesting jobs, and negotiate their contracts.  In return, the agents charge a set percentage of their wages.  So, in this case, the actors, models and sportspeople are clearly the agent’s client.

For some reason, the government decided that professional business people might get taken advantage of by headhunters – whereas sportspeople and actors have the brains to look after themselves.  Go figure?!..

In an ideal world, you would find yourself an ‘agent’ who would work on your behalf, finding you interesting jobs which develop your career, representing you to prospective employers, and carrying out salary negotiations on your behalf in the same way that acting agents do for their artists.  And all for a small percentage of your annual salary.  Unfortunately, in the UK at least, The Employment Agencies Act rules this out.

So, during the course of your career, you (the job-seeker) are going to have to deal with three types of Headhunters, probably in this order:

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