Agency Recruitment

Agency Headhunters

Agency Headhunters are the type of headhunters who try to find candidates jobs. They are also sometimes known as Recruiters or Contingency Recruiters. They get the name ‘contingency’ because they get paid only when a candidate whom they represent has been hired; so their fees are contingent on a successful hire.  Whereas Executive Search firms and Selection Firms tend to get paid a fee (or retainer) irrespective of the outcome.

Agency headhunters work in one of two ways:

1) Candidate-driven:

They meet you and decide you are a potentially strong candidate whom they can ‘sell’; ie. they think they may be able to find a company that wants to hire you. So they put their thinking hats on, and come up with a list of  firms that might be looking to hire someone with your background or skill set.

2) Company-driven:

Most companies these days try centrally to manage their overall relationships with headhunters, otherwise they can find themselves dealing with literally hundreds of different agencies, each with different terms and conditions, working with different line managers. So the HR team comes up with a PSL or Preferred Supplier List of companies that all work to a standard contract, and which tend to be given specific ‘mandates’ to fill job vacancies.  When a vacancy arises, they will often do an  ‘Agency Briefing’, where they get three or four of their  agencies into a room at the same time to brief them on the job vacancy (or ‘opportunity’ in agency-speak). Or they do the equivalent briefing by e-mail or telephone. The agencies all then race to see who can get their candidate past the finishing post first as only the agency which introduces the successful candidate gets a fee.

So, in this situation, the agency either trawls through its database to see which candidates they have recently met who might fit the bill. Or they might advertise to attract some fresh candidates. Or do a quick trawl though online CV Message boards like Monster or e-Financial News. Or check out professional networking sites like LinkedIn.

This is where the distinction between Agency headhunting and Search headhunting becomes a bit blurred, as the more capable Agency headhunters will proactively try to source candidates by doing a rudimentary search for new candidates, rather than relying on candidates to come to them.

Agency headhunters also discover which companies might be in the market to hire by checking out job adverts already online. The idea is that they then call the hiring company and say: “I saw your recent advert for a job vacancy: would you be interested in seeing any candidates from me as well?”. Or, when they meet you to interview you for a potential job, they might innocently ask you “who else have you been interviewing with?” under the guise of avoiding making any introductions to those companies.  In fact, what actually happens is, the moment you leave their offices, they get on the phone to the companies you have been interviewing with, and say “I understand you have recently been candidates for xyz role, can I show you some more interesting candidates on a no hire-no fee basis?”.


 So, let’s assume you either contacted an Agency headhunter yourself, or they have contacted you about a particular job that they have been mandated with.

Obviously, if they want to talk about a specific job they have in mind, they will simply put you forward for it and that’s that.  But usually they might want to introduce you to several prospective employers at the same time.

The better agencies will agree with you in advance a list of companies that they will contact on your behalf. They then either send out e-mails with your CV attached or call their contacts directly to see if they would like to meet you.  If there is any interest, they manage the interview process and, hopefully, you get a job at the end of it.

The less good agencies simply ‘blast e-mail’ your CV to a mailing list of potential hirers in the hope that one of them might bite.  Or call a very broad list of contacts with a similar hope. This is not a great idea, as it is difficult for you to control who has seen your CV.  And it can also lead to embarrassment if, for example, you are already in a job and your boss gets to hears about it through one of her mates who has just been contacted about you.

So it’s a good idea to request that the headhunter informs you in advance of any companies they will be contacting on your behalf, so you can keep a list of who has been contacted by whom, and stop them from contacting anyone you don’t want them to.

In a sense, agency headhunter are brokers of people, not dissimilar to estate agents or stock brokers. These both take a commodity (a nice house or a good stock) and try to sell it to a potential buyer.  It’s important to remember that, in a recruitment context, the candidate (you) is the commodity that is being sold.  Although it may feel like it, you are not the headhunter’s client.  The person paying the bills – the hiring company – is the real client, and it’s important to bear this in mind when dealing with any type of headhunter.

A good headhunter will try to balance your interests against the interests of the hiring company.   A mediocre headhunter will think only about the interests of the hiring company, and probably over-sell the job to you. A bad headhunter won’t care about either of you – they just want to complete the sale, collect their fee and move on.  Since agency headhunters have a  very large potential client set, they can afford to ‘churn and burn’ in the interested of making a short-term profit.  In fact, this behaviour is often the rational response to the way in which companies manage their relationships with agency headhunters, which can be very one-sided, with highly commoditised fees.  Companies tend to end up with the headhunters they deserve.

A good headhunter will also not expend too much effort trying to find you a job.  Agency headhunting is a volume business: the aim is to transact – to complete a hire, collect a fee, then move on to the next deal.  If the headhunter cannot sell you fairly easily, they need to move on fairly quickly to the next candidate. After all, they could spend a solid month diligently looking on your behalf for a job, only to find one through another headhunter, or though one of your own contacts, which means they get no fee. So that’s a month’s hard work down the drain for no money.  A stock broker who spent a whole month trying to sell one stock with no takers would soon get fired; she needs to focus her efforts on the stocks that sell. Agency headhunters have to operate the same way – if they cannot find you a job within a couple of weeks, the likelihood is that, no matter what they tell you, they have out your CV on the back burner and have moved on to other candidates.  Annoyingly, they probably won’t tell you this partly because they want to ‘keep you warm’ just in case they happen to find a client looking for someone like you; and partly because candidates tend to get a bit stroppy when told they are a difficulty sell, so it’s just easier not to have that conversation.


So the key message in working with agency headhunters is: ‘caveat emptor’ or ‘buyer beware’.  Do not put your blind faith in them.   If possible, get a second opinion on any job or company they want to introduce you to.  Do not expect them to work tirelessly on your behalf.  Contact one or two Agencies at a time, give them a couple of weeks to arrange interviews and, if nothing happens, forget about them and move on to another couple.  Make sure you ask them to let you know who they plan to contact on your behalf and keep a record of this – there is no point getting two headhunters to introduce you to the same company as they will then simply get into a fight about who ‘owns’ you as a candidate.

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