At some point in your career—probably sooner rather than later—you will be dealing with recruiters (a/k/a headhunters). You may be looking for a new position for yourself (actively or passively), or you may be hiring and looking for recruiting help. In some cases you may be doing both at the same time. In any event you'll find a basic knowledge of recruiters valuable as you manage your career.
The first thing to note is that recruiters come in different flavors. Some work on retainer only--they take money (retainers) from clients to fill specific positions. This means their commitment and loyalty are to the client and not the candidate. In effect, they care less about which candidate is hired than about making sure he or she is the best person for the job. They also realize, however, that a candidate spurned by one client for one position could become the lead candidate for another search assignment for another client.
Typically firms working on retainer recruit from a target list of competitors and assemble a "short list" of prospective candidates who are interested, affordable, and (if relevant) relocatable. Each candidate has been evaluated on the basis of such criteria as industry/market knowledge, leadership skills, and record of performance. This short list may be as few as three candidates or as many as six. The client then interviews these recommended candidates over a week or two period and selects the one who best fits the position requirements and company culture. In many cases interviewing takes place linearly–as candidates are evaluated and recommended by the search firm–and not in one intense, multi-candidate time frame.
Other recruiters work on a contingency basis–they get paid only if they are successful placing a candidate. The better contingency recruiters take time to understand a client's needs and a candidate's match for a position, then bring the two parties together. They may present one candidate only...or they may present several. In many cases the client is also interviewing candidates from other sources–other recruiters, the client's internal network and HR department, referrals, and job boards. If the recruiter loses out to one of these internal candidates, he or she loses the placement fee. The incentive therefore is to get their candidate placed.
A basic difference between retainer and contingency recruiters then is that the former always represents the client; the latter often represents the candidate. This is especially true when a contingency recruiter is actively and aggressively marketing a candidate to multiple clients simultaneously (a successful but unhappy stock broker, for example, or someone relocating for personal reasons).
An exception to this generalization is where a contingency recruiter secures an exclusive (but still contingency) contract to fill a position, i.e., that recruiter is the only recruiter working on the position. In this situation the recruiter may act like a retained recruiter—presenting the position as his or hers and offering several candidates to the client—even if the client also may be generating candidates from its own network. The placement fee is still contingent on hiring, however.
Another difference among recruiters is that some are generalists (they work in many industry sectors and functional areas) while others are specialists (they work in one or a small number of industry sectors or functional areas). By devoting his or her practice to a sector as specific as toys or semiconductor manufacturing, the specialist brings industry knowledge and contacts to each search...but at the price of vulnerability should that sector experience a downturn. The generalist, on the other hand, while being better protected during times of economic uncertainty, runs the risk of losing searches to other recruiters with a deeper database and a fundamental understanding of the players and practices in that industry.
Recruiters also may specialize by functional role—sales, technology, finance, etc. A sales specialist may work in many industry sectors and at different levels of sales management. By focusing on sales positions, these recruiters bring a different sort of expertise to search assignments, for example, an understanding of the "sales mentality" and knowledge of commission-based compensation plans.
Executive recruiters who do retained work tend to be better paid and more knowledgeable than do those who do mostly contingency recruiting. They also typically work on positions that pay more than $150,000 per year. At the highest levels, retainer recruiters and their firms may do only C-level searches on a national basis–those high-visibility searches for Fortune 500s.
Resumes, of course, are critical to both types of recruiters. Searches typically begin with a resume database search for "low-hanging fruit," both those in the firm’s own database and in subscription databases such as Monster, Ladders, 6FigureJobs, Execunet, and others. In addition, many firms have a process that allows applicants to manually enter their resumes into the company’s applicant tracking system through the company web site.
What does this mean to you and your career? A few guidelines:
Like other relationships you develop in the workplace, those with recruiters need care and feeding. Make it part of your job, do it often...or potentially find yourself with no place to turn when you most need help with your career.