Careers advice: How to deal with headhunters and recruitment agencies

26 October 2020

Headhunters and recruitment agencies are now an established and integral part of the job market in most sectors and countries. Given the current uncertainties in the employment market, it may be a good time to begin to build your connections or refresh those that you have.

These include:

  • Executive search firms (or ‘Headhunters’) who typically focus on £100,000+ jobs and who proactively approach candidates
  • Mid-range recruitment consultancies for junior to mid-management jobs, who often focus on specific sectors
  • Mass market high street or online agencies focusing on the £15,000 to £40,000 market (Reed, Indeed etc)
  • Contractor and temporary staff agencies.

Being headhunted by an executive search consultant puts you in a strong position as a candidate. Their wide pool of high quality talent and wealth of industry knowledge often make them the first port of call for companies looking to fill coveted roles.

Their market knowledge can be a real boost, whether it’s giving you a realistic appraisal of the current job market, helping you tailor your CV to a specific employer, or coaching you for an interview.

If you are hoping to be headhunted, how do headhunters find you?

  • Become a recognised industry expert. Becoming an active voice in your specialist industry is a quick way to gain recognition for your knowledge and expertise. Writing and publishing blog posts and articles, volunteering to speak at events, attending conferences – virtual ones are still happening - and being quoted in publications are all good ways to get noticed by an executive search consultant.
  • Collect recommendations and testimonials. Word of mouth is a powerful tool and if you’re good at what you do, plenty of people will be willing to vouch for you. Try adding testimonials and endorsements to your LinkedIn profile or getting colleagues or former colleagues to recommend you. Adding metrics on your own website, blog or online CV are also good ways to quantify your work experience and get headhunted for a job.
  • Start networking consistently. It’s often about who you know as well as what you know. Networking continues to be one of the most powerful tools for the opportunity generation. Aside from helping you to build a strong network of like-minded industry professionals and contemporaries, it also provides a platform for you to demonstrate your knowledge, enthusiasm and the power of your personality. You can start to cultivate your own personal brand, which is a powerful selling tool within itself and can make you far more attractive to executive search consultants looking for quality talent.

If you are at an earlier stage in your career you will be more likely to engage with recruitment agencies.

It’s important to remember, though, that agencies work for the employer, not the job seeker. Their role is to fit the person to the job, not to help you find the perfect role, gain promotion or develop your career.

They are not career consultants (don’t forget that as a student or member of our alumni community, you can access free, professional careers advice at WBS). In fact, an agency’s ideal candidate is one who is already doing an identical job elsewhere. They are unlikely to welcome anyone wanting to switch sectors or career paths, those returning to work after a break, or anyone aiming for a non-standard working pattern.

The success of an agency depends on persuading job seekers to apply for and accept the jobs they have on their books, as well as sourcing CVs for their database.

So, make sure that the agency is the right one for the level of job you are seeking in your particular sector. Ask for personal recommendations from trusted colleagues and contacts of named consultants as well as firms (use your professional networks). Seek out those agencies with a large number of relevant jobs by seeing who is advertising on industry websites and specialist job sites.

You can search for relevant UK agencies by sector and geography at Agency Central, by country and sector at Going Global (free alumni access here) and for executive search firms at Business Grapevine.

Once you find relevant agencies, arrange a face-to-face or telephone meeting to discuss your career plans, the current job market and to assess the kind of clients they work with. Beware of any agency that is reluctant to spend time doing this (it means you’re probably not the kind of candidate they can place easily). Be really clear with them about the kind of roles you are seeking.

Never send out your CV without knowing which employers it is being circulated to. The agency should seek your permission to forward your CV for a specific vacancy and allow you the opportunity to tailor it - you don’t want your CV going to multiple destinations or from multiple agencies for the same role as employers often put roles in the hands of more than one agency.

If you don’t already have contacts in the firm, use the WBS alumni network – most people are happy to have a quick chat with fellow alumni applying for a role at their company.

Finally, don’t forget that the agency is the gatekeeper to many jobs some of which you may never see on the open market by job searching. You need to impress them if they are to put you forward as a top candidate. After all, you want to be their most desired candidate and one they keep front of mind for any role they handle.