Managing Your Career

A Plethora of Headhunters

By David G. Jensen | September 1, 2010

If you are like most people, you get a couple of recruiting calls a month. (If you're a Ph.D. Toxicologist or Biochemical Engineer, let's just say the calls come a bit more often - two or three a week means things are slow.) For some, it can be a very important conversation. For others, it's just a nuisance call. As one fellow told me last week, "There sure seem to be a lot of recruiters out there. I thought we were supposed to be in a recession."

No matter what the economic climate, the recruitment process goes on. Employers will always have critical hire situations, staff departures that need to be filled, or newly created jobs to support a product launch. While a lot of entry-level recruiting has gone away due to the Internet and a slowing economy, there are still hundreds of recruiters working in the biotech and pharmaceuticals industries. They are vital for their employer clients who are filling assignments at mid-level and in the executive suite.

My goal in this issue's "Managing Your Career" is to make sure you know how to maximize your relationship with your recruiter contacts, because it just may be a critical piece of your next career move.

Getting the Call

As you probably know, most recruiter calls are brief "Who do you know?" conversations, with the recruiter introducing himself or herself and then asking for a moment of your time. Often it's not something that is in your direct area of expertise - or perhaps it is at a different level than would interest you - so there's a real temptation to get off the line as quickly as possible.

And that's where the first, and most frequent, mistake is made. Why not offer a brief suggestion, something that takes 60-90 seconds out of your day? Giving the caller some information can optimize the chances that you'll hear back from her when you do need to know about a job opportunity. And a proper response to the call hardly takes any more time than giving her the buzz off.

In today's world with Google and LinkedIn, an e-mail address and phone number of a contact isn't necessary - while it's always appreciated when you have it, don't hesitate to simply pass along some unfiltered information. Especially important is the "unfiltered" nature of your contact information . . . the recruiter doesn't want you to be thinking, "Would this friend be interested in moving to Des Moines?"

Another option is to ask the recruiter to call you at a later time so that you can put together a few suggestions. In this case, dig up the actual contact information of your contacts, and don't forget to get the caller's contact information as well before you get off the phone.

Some people believe it is unethical to pass along a contact number for a coworker. If that's how you feel, simply avoid company employees. Most contacts, however, are simply sources to help recruiters get closer to what they are looking for, and you're not sabotaging your team just because someone other than you may have good ideas for the recruiter. Besides, do you want your colleagues to screen you out of a recruiter's network if it is an interesting job in your area of expertise?

Questions To Build a Better Relationship

There are certain issues that consistently come up for those getting a headhunting call. One of these is confidentiality. Many people express concern that the recruiter is going to go out and use their name in some way: "Bill over in Process Development suggested that I give you a call." First off, this is rare, because recruiters know that people don't want their names brought up for anonymous recommendations. But you can certainly prevent that from occurring by asking the recruiter to keep your name out of the call.

Also, some people express concern that, because they don't know this caller, anything can happen. This is a tough one; I agree that you shouldn't spend a lot of time with someone who doesn't sound professional. But you can ask a question or two of your caller and find out more about their status.

Asking, "Are you the company's sole source on this position?" makes sense. Here, you are simply inquiring as to the nature of the caller's relationship with the employer. If they are one of a pack of "recruiters" who pick up a Sunday Star-Ledger and start making calls on Monday morning for an advertised job, you may be able to avoid wasting your time. (Yes, newbie recruiters sometimes do such things.)

Questions about whether the search firm is a contingency or a retained company can be interesting. I've worked for both, and there are good people on either side of that divide. I've discovered, however, that the retained recruiter can be a much more valuable resource for the employer and the candidate.

A contingency firm is engaged only on a speculative basis, even when they are the sole source for the position. Like a bounty hunter, that recruiter is rewarded only when you say, "I'll take that job." On the other hand, a company that has been engaged on a retained search is brought on board to help a firm identify the need, write the job description, and even interview internal candidates. When saying "yes" or "no" to the job offer doesn't impact the recruiter's ability to make her mortgage payment, you can rely on her advice throughout the process.

For someone who's moving aggressively into the job market, finding a way to be more visible may help in bringing opportunities to the table. It's odd, but reaching out and contacting a slew of recruiters isn't really the way to go about it. That's because headhunters tend to trust their own research more than they do an unsolicited e-mail.

Because of this phenomenon, you'll want to reach out by phone or e-mail only to those recruiters with whom you already have a relationship. Just let them know you are considering a move, and then indicate your availability for any name-gathering they require on other searches. An offer of "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" is sometimes referred to as "the law of reciprocity," and recruiters know it well.

Reciprocity means an exchange of influence. You'll help that person anytime you can, and in exchange you'd like to hear about any lead the recruiter may dig up concerning who's hiring in your field of expertise. That's an easy promise for a recruiter to keep, and they trade on this basis all the time.

Now all that's left is for you to ensure you are visible to recruiters with whom you have no relationship. (Calling them does little, as I mentioned above). I'd strongly recommend that you be properly presented on, as recruiters use this as a first-line tool to identify prospects. Start an immediate and aggressive LinkedIn invitation policy . . . it's easy to double or triple your LinkedIn contact network in two or three weeks' time. But most importantly, ensure that you have your work life displayed as completely as possible.

A complete profile shows all the employer names (recruiters use the advanced search option, looking for certain employers in the current or previous employer fields). It also lists job responsibilities and technical terms that are used as search terms. In short, ensure you optimize everything you can
in order to be "found" by those headhunting in your field of expertise.

Being "Represented" by a Recruiter

Some contingency recruiters will suggest they represent you in an approach to an employer. That's really a miscommunication . . . a client is the party that pays the bills. And in the case of professional recruitment, it is the employer who is paying. Thus, there is no "representation" of candidates for jobs. The law - and the recruiter's actions - always favors the employer.

It's clear that having a good relationship with a few recruiters is a great thing for a person's career development. Even so, I would still recommend that you take the reins. My final recommendation for optimizing your success with headhunters is that when presenting your credentials to the firm, you do so with this requirement: "Any communication with an employer about my background must be done with my prior consent." In that way, you'll be in control of who sees your rsum or CV. And there is no one more qualified to steer your job search than you!

David G. Jensen is Managing Director of Kincannon & Reed Executive Search (, a leading retained search firm in the biosciences. You can reach Dave at (928) 274-2266 or via

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