Home Money How to Work (or Not Work) with Executive Recruiters

How to Work (or Not Work) with Executive Recruiters

by Louis J. Wasser

One of the most maddening aspects of any professional enterprise is to have to deal with gatekeepers. I once worked for an organization that, as part of its sales training, drilled its salesmen in the art of getting on the good side of the CEO’s secretary. I also knew an actor who complained bitterly about one director’s perfunctory audition technique for a play he was casting. For one particular role, the director wanted a male actor no shorter than five feet, eight inches. Instead of relying on the customary information on the actors’ resumes or headshots, he placed a conspicuous black mark 68 inches from the floor on the door jamb at the entrance to stage right. If a hopeful actor passed through the door and didn’t measure up to the mark, the director didn’t give two hoots about his experience or reputation. He’d simply say “can’t use you… next!”

If you’re just now dusting off your résumé and getting ready to interview for jobs, you’ll invariably run across one of the most frustrating of worker bees in anyone’s job campaign — the executive recruiter. If you luck out, an executive recruiter might prove of some help to you. More often than not though, you’ll suffer the fate of the auditioning actor who’s just a quarter inch shorter than the black mark on that stage-entrance door jamb.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, you’re likely to find an increase in the number of executive recruiters. This is because, even though the US employment picture is improving, it’s still a buyer’s market out there. Employers have the luxury of having a generous choice of candidates for any one position. Instead of having to comb through each and every choice, they’ll hire an executive recruiter to help them through the résumé onslaught. How this factory process translates to any one job candidate is “stand in line — and, don’t get your hopes up.”

Be more aggressive and creative in your job search, and use recruiters as little as you can…

What’s important to realize is that executive recruiters come in two colors, the contingency recruiter and the recruiter on retainer. You can spot the tactics and techniques of the former a mile away. They’re obsessive collectors of résumés, sort of like an HR department on steroids. They’re paid a hit fee only if they find a candidate, so they have to move fast and furiously. You know you’re dealing with a contingency recruiter when they seem to care less about your accomplishments or background, and they show a very superficial take on what the employer does or what she wants in a candidate. When you’re on the phone with them, they reveal an interview technique like that of a guard in a prisoner-of-war camp — it’s all about name, rank and serial number. “And after that, you worked for ABC employer from such and such date to such and such date?” Once in a great while, the contingency recruiter will ask a probing or insightful question. But don’t hold your breath.

Recruiters on retainer, on the other hand, work in a less frenetic and more deceptively personal way. They’re paid to conduct a candidate search… period! They don’t work on commission. They might even register fascination with your accomplishments, and say that yours are just the sort of employee “assets” their client is looking for. While they might come off as a much more pleasant crew than contingency recruiters, don’t slow down your job campaign just because one of them stroked you and told you that you’re on the short list. The more likely scenario is that an executive recruiter who pumps you up with hope is trying to keep your interest — while the true number one candidate is trying to decide whether to accept the offer the employer just made to him or her.

There are several things you can do to offset the demeaning and deceptive tactics of an executive recruiter. The first thing is to realize that any recruiter — whether contingency or on retainer — works for their client (the employer), not for you. If you lack a certain advertised requirement for the job, but can point to a stellar achievement in your background that could easily compensate for that advertised requirement, don’t expect a recruiter to go to bat for you. What he or she is looking for is as close a fit as possible for the client on paper. If they come up with too many exceptions, they run the risk of being trashed by their client for a more compliant recruiter.

The second thing you can do is to be more aggressive and creative in your job search, and use recruiters as little as you can. When you do use them, try to adopt the mental set that they’re your worker bees, rather than gatekeepers to whom you have to sell yourself.

And, finally, if you must deal with an executive recruiter, and find yourself anywhere but number one on his short list for a particular job, wait a while. Then contact the employer directly later in the game. Tell the employer you’re a consultant, and that you notice he or she has been advertising a while for a particular job. You can then present yourself as someone he or she can work for in that capacity on a short-term basis until she fills the position.

If you can manage to catch the employer’s attention, even if you don’t land a short-term consulting gig, you’ve a great shot at a more professional and honest reception than you’d receive with the employer’s executive recruiter. It’s the difference between trying to line yourself up to the height marker at the door jamb, and holding a rewarding conversation about the value you offer. And who knows — the employer might like your short-term work so much that he’ll hire you down the road on a full-time basis.

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