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How to Use Executive Search Firms

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Executive recruiters are frequently referred to as "headhunters" or "body snatchers." I guess a fair definition of an executive search firm would be: "Any organization which is engaged in the business of seeking out, identifying, appraising, and recommending potential executives for their corporate clients." The client could also be other than a profit-making corporation, such as an association or a government agency. The executive search firm is compensated solely by the corporation, not the individual. In many instances the executive search firm is paid a retainer by the client though frequently they will search out candidates on an exclusive contingency basis. It all depends on the relationship between the executive search firm and the client. If there is a long and active association between the search firm and the client, then the search firm will not be as concerned about being sent out on a "wild goose chase" and not getting paid. While some executive search firms work solely on an hourly rate, most receive a percentage of the yearly compensation. The range in the industry is usually between 25 and 30 percent, though there are exceptions when the percentage will be higher for a particularly difficult assignment.

Each executive search firm has its own policy as to what its minimum salary level is when it undertakes a search assignment. Typically, the minimum salary is around $25,000 a year. There are frequently exceptions to that minimum, depending what else the search firm is working on for the client. If a client has a search firm working on filling a couple of top management positions at $75,000, and then requests the firm to locate an engineer for $20,000, you can be sure that common sense and good judgment will prevail.

There are literally thousands of executive search firms across the U.S., and each one has its own specialty and method of operation. Most executive search firms service all job functions in all industries. This not only creates more variety in its daily routine, but enables a search firm to service every department within the client company. The only basic criterion is that the position is high enough up the corporate ladder to warrant the minimum salary level for which it will accept a search assignment.

Some executive search firms specialize in one or two industries, while others specialize in particular job categories such as accountants, lawyers, engineers, salesmen.

When looking for executive search firms to send your resume to, try to remember that they are concerned with filling job openings for their client companies. The executive recruiter is not interested in trying to find you a job. He only makes money on your resume when it just happens to fit one of his search assignments. Unlike other professions, most of the time the executive recruiter does not want to talk to you. He cannot charge you for his time so he typically would just send it out as soon you mailed in your resume without any personal contact. If he wants you he will call you!

Individuals frequently call up executive search firms to make an appointment for a personal interview, and then are disappointed when the well-trained receptionist will not accommodate them. If executive search firms saw everyone who requested an interview, then they just could not function. Also, unless your credentials are outstanding, do not expect any more from the executive search firm than a polite form letter indicating that they will keep your resume on file for the future.

When a company hires an executive search firm, they usually set their standards a notch higher than if they looked on their own. Companies feel, and rightfully so, that if they are going to pay a substantial fee to an executive search firm, then they want to hire the best candidates available. Employers feel that they could easily hire the average job seeker on their own. They expect the recruiters to do just that -- recruit! That means going out and returning with the ideal candidate who was not in the job market and who never would have responded to a newspaper ad. You might say that the "headhunter" is really looking for whoever is not looking for him!

The executive recruiter's role is to contact a theoretically happy employee of a rival company, and try to get him frustrated. If he appears satisfied, the recruiter has to make him suddenly dissatisfied by creating a picture of a much better opportunity.

Common Game

One of the most common "games" that executive "headhunted" play is one where they call an executive and ask him if he might recommend someone for a very important search assignment the recruiter is trying to fill. (When they put food on the table, all jobs have a tendency to become "very important.") The recruiter continues to infer that, since the executive is eminently qualified, he would be a good individual to recommend some candidates. After a few minutes of such a standard conversation, it should become apparent to the executive that the recruiter is really trying to recruit him. What the recruiter is really hoping when he asks, "Can you recommend anyone?" is that the voice on the other end will answer "Yes-me!"

I suppose this is a rather blunt way of putting it, but individuals who are so anxious to find out who and where the executive recruiters are could more wisely spend their time searching out potential employers and then contacting them directly! When your telephone rings at the office, and the voice at the other end of the line identifies himself as an executive recruiter, he might say something like this: "John Doe? My name is Bruce Moses, and I am an executive recruiter with a firm called Pro-Search, here in Chicago. The reason I am calling is that you were mentioned, in confidence, as perhaps having the background for which I am looking for one of our corporate clients. Can you speak freely?" After you return to earth from being up in cloud nine, there are some very specific things you should do:

1. Determine if you really can speak freely. Do not be so anxious as to risk someone overhearing your conversation. If you determine that you cannot speak freely,then get his telephone number and call him back later, or arrange to talk to him in the evening.

2. If you can speak freely, confirm that the recruiter is really who he says he is. Take his number, and call him back. Also, before calling him back, confirm his identity with the Yellow Pages or telephone operator. This is just a minor precaution, that maybe one candidate in fifty actually bothers with. The recruiter will ask you a lot of personal information on the phone, so by all means know he really is who he represents to be.

He should not be offended by your confirming his identity. If he is, then immediately end the conversation, and consider yourself lucky that you did not disclose any information....

3. Ask the voice at the other end of the line what exactly he is looking for, where the position is located, and what is the salary range. You may save both of you a lot of time by asking the recruiter a few preliminary questions. Why let him question you for an hour, only to find out that the job pays less than you are currently earning, and is located in some area you would not consider in a million years? That is, unless you desperately need a job.

Mutual Interest

If, after talking, there is mutual interest, then the recruiter will either request a resume or indicate that he will soon be back to you, or both.

If you do decide to submit a resume, keep in mind the position for which you are being considered. Do not mail in a resume that is aimed at something entirely different. If you are going to consider what the executive "headhunter" has to offer, then do it right and prepare a new resume just for him,if necessary.

Sending an outdated resume to the recruiter, or showing up for an interview with one, is just using poor judgment. Unfortunately, I have received resumes from candidates I have recruited with the most recent experience written in longhand and the rest typewritten. What that candidate has done, without realizing it, is diminish the most recent few years of experience. A reader will tend to skim quickly over the longhand and go directly into the typewritten portion. At least the above candidates filled in their most recent experience. Many candidates have shown up for interviews with just an outdated resume. An outdated resume which leaves out, for example, the last three or four years entirely and is really much worse than no resume at all! Here you have downplayed what should be your most valuable three or four years of job experience. You may have good intentions of explaining your omitted few years verbally to the interviewer, but he will probably just forget, or if he takes some notes not get everything.

It would be better either to wait to submit your resume, or to arrive with no resume and then prepare it later just for that employer. If there was not much time between the initial contact and the actual interview, then any interviewer should empathize with that situation.

Keep in mind that you will probably be one of many candidates under consideration. If a "headhunter" tells you that you are the only one they are talking to , then that is a red flag for you to end the conversation. Executive recruiters do not consider just one candidate at a time for their client. I have had search assignments where I actually talked to hundreds of candidates.

If the recruiter indicates that he is going to recommend three to five candidates, which is fairly common, try to have yourself scheduled either last, or close to it. The theory here is that when it comes time for the final decision, you will be the most easily remembered especially if the interviewing process really drags out.

Frequently, a recruiter or employment counselor may schedule one or two weak candidates in the beginning, just to make the best ones appear even better. Try to get the best position. If the recruiter absolutely insists that you lead off the pack, then I would say your chances are quite slim of ever receiving an offer. You are the "loss leader." You can bet that this "headhunter" has the "heavy-hitters" following you.

Real Target

Be leery of the "headhunter" who says he is interested in you, but proceeds to ask questions about your employer's table of organization and who else does what. You may have been the easiest person for him to get hold of, and all he really is doing is "casing the joint" for his real target. Unfortunately, "fishing expeditions" on the part of both the candidate and the executive recruiter are more common than I would like to admit.

If there is an obvious mismatch determined by both the candidate and the recruiter, the recruiter will invariably ask you who else you know who might fit what he is looking for. Under no circumstances should you ever recommend fellow employees unless they are close friends who have taken you into their confidence concerning their own job search or there is someone in the company who you would like to see working somewhere else.

An example might be a rival executive with whom you are competing for a promotion, or a boss who is "a real pain."

If you ever recommend anyone else who works for the same employer, make absolutely sure that you confirm with the recruiter that he is sworn to secrecy as to where he received his lead. When you think about it, it is really disloyal for an employee to recommend another employee to an executive recruiter. After all, his employer is putting bread on his table, so he should not give out names just to impress the "executive headhunter."

Incidentally, the "headhunter" may be quite pleased to receive the names, but he is certainly not going to be favorably impressed with you. You have demonstrated a disloyalty to your employer which could be a strike against you for future consideration.

Recommending to a recruiter candidates, who are employed with other companies, is fine and is not a bad way to make a friend of the executive recruiter. You do him an ethical favor, and he just might remember you the next time he has an appropriate opening.

Occasionally, an executive recruiter will call up an executive on the premise that he is recruiting him. What the recruiter really wants is for the executive he called to hire his search firm to recruit additional employees for the executive's company. This is usually done when an executive recruiter gets wind of an opening at a particular company but does not have any friends or connections employed there. By going through the motions of recruiting the boss of the vacant position, the recruiter will very smoothly let the boss know that he himself is too heavy for any such search assignment.

The recruiter might then casually mention that he has come up with a couple of outstanding candidates for the (mythical) out of town search assignment, but they want to remain local. Before you know it, the recruiter has himself a search assignment, and the boss is probably thinking to himself, "Boy, what a coincidence!"
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