The Job-Hunting Iron Curtain: What You Need to Know to Make It Past the Recruiter


After a successful annual review, Amethyst Polk, 30, was feeling confident about her job as a NASA project analyst. Her boss praised her performance, assuring her that, despite the organization’s recent budget cuts, her position was secure.

So Polk was floored when—just a few months after her review—she was suddenly laid off in another round of furloughs.

Since she knew that her chances of finding another job were best if she acted quickly, Polk hit the pavement.

“I tried all of the usual tactics to find a job—,, job fairs—but none of my interviews were leading to offers,” Polk says. “I knew that recruiters frequently relied on LinkedIn, so I beefed up my account, adding photos, work samples and direct contact information. And almost immediately, I began getting calls.”

But Polk didn’t have any experience working with recruiters—and soon discovered there was a learning curve.

Like many people, she was under the impression that a recruiter’s role was to help her land a job. “I thought of a recruiter in terms of a baseball or football scout who fights for you and finds you a professional team to play on,” she explains.

But the truth is that a headhunter works for an employer—not on behalf of the job seeker—and if you don’t understand that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

“The recruiter’s aim is to successfully fill a position, and in the cold light of day, you are just another step in that process,” says headhunter Jim Giammatteo, author of the “No Mistakes” career series about perfecting your résumé and interview skills.

Thanks to her initial naiveté, Polk made a series of mistakes. “For one, I wish I’d said thank you more,” she says. “I always sent thank-you notes to interviewers, but often neglected such niceties with my recruiter.”

Fortunately, Polk did eventually figure out the right way to work with recruiters—and was able to land a new job as a result. (More on that later.)

So to shed some light on the process, we asked Giammatteo and Caroline McClure, C.E.O. of ScoutRock, an organization that helps companies improve executive recruiting and talent management, to give us the scoop on how recruiters operate— and steps you can take to maximize your chances of finding that next great gig with help from a headhunter.

Let’s start with the basics. First, know that there are two types of recruiters—contingency and retained—and they each take a different approach to headhunting.

Contingency recruiters only receive a fee if they successfully place someone in the job. There may be several contingency recruiters working on the same search, and firms generally use them for low-level openings.

Retained recruiters, on the other hand, are hired exclusively by an organization to fill senior roles, and they are paid no matter what—typically one third of the position’s first-year compensation. “Think of it like a lawsuit where you pay the attorney whether or not you win the case,” explains McClure.

You can usually figure out which type of recruiter you’re dealing with by doing a quick online search to see if the position they’re recruiting for is being advertised anywhere else. If so, it’s probably not managed by a retained firm.

While there are pros and cons to working with each type, the retained model is generally preferable. “Good retained recruiters spend a lot of time getting to know a candidate’s leadership style and capabilities, and assessing whether they’re a good fit in terms of skill set and personality,” McClure says. “Good ones also thoroughly understand the culture and needs of the hiring company.”

Contingency recruiters don’t delve nearly as deep. “They will quickly check your résumé, but because multiple recruiters might be working on a single search, it’s all about getting your candidate in and hired first so that you get the fee,” McClure says. At the same time, since they represent so many clients, contingency recruiters are usually in the loop about a greater number of openings than retained headhunters.

But a word to the wise: “If you’re already gainfully employed and just want to explore your options, be careful about sending your résumé to a contingency firm,” McClure advises. “They may distribute it without checking with you first.” Translation: It may land in the hands of someone who you’d prefer didn’t know you were looking. Recruiter Meet-and-Greet: What Can You Expect?

Here’s a typical scenario: Out of the blue, you get an email or phone call from a headhunter, who may have found you via a recommendation from a shared connection or through LinkedIn. They’ll briefly describe a job and ask if you’d like to learn more about it.

If you’re interested you’ll plan a second time to talk through the position as well as your background. As long as everything jibes, a contingency recruiter will then send your résumé along to their client and set up an interview if the hiring company approves it—which is exactly how it played out for Polk.

About six months after her layoff, a contingency recruiter for the Red Cross contacted Polk about placing her in a position with the company. Just a week after her interview with the hiring manager, Polk landed a job as their senior communications associate.

Polk believes she was hired so quickly because she fit the job description perfectly—and was therefore the ideal candidate for a contingency recruiter. And it didn’t hurt that she’d spent the last few months learning the right way to interact with recruiters, remembering to say thank you more often, consistently offering leads from her network if a position wasn’t up her alley, and never forgetting to stay in touch.

Polk’s experience may be indicative of contingency-recruitment success stories, but the process of working with a retained recruiter is a bit more involved, McClure says.

If you’re contacted by a retained recruiter, you’ll likely first complete an in-depth interview, either in person or via Skype. If that goes well, the recruiter will present you—and a slate of other options—to a client, along with an extensive written report describing each candidate and a ranking of the top contenders. Next, they’ll facilitate meetings between the candidate and client.

While working with a retained recruiter is much more intense—which is why these headhunters are often reserved for executive-level searches—the likelihood of landing a position with one is also much greater, since they typically have a considerable amount of clout with the employer. So much so that, in some cases, retained recruiters may be able to push for their favorite candidates if a client doesn’t initially want to meet with them.

“If I’ve done due diligence and still believe someone is the best match, I’ll urge them to reconsider,” Giammatteo says. “I’ve also convinced clients not to hire people if I thought they weren’t right for the job.”

How’s that for a compelling case for learning the right way to impress your recruiter? How to Rock the Recruiter Interview

Too many people downplay the significance of interviewing with a recruiter—hey, they’re just getting to know you a little better, right? But it’s crucial to sell yourself the same way you would if you were meeting with the hiring company.

“Most people don’t realize that they have to convince the recruiter they’re qualified for a job,” Giammatteo says. Even though the recruiter likely approached you first, make them excited about you by being proactive. Ask thoughtful questions about the company and the position, and relay reasons why you’re a terrific candidate.

“The recruiter interview is at least as important as the one with the hiring company,” McClure says. “Bomb it and there’s no way the company will consider you.”

There are two big differences between meeting with a recruiter and a hiring manager, and tailoring your responses accordingly will give you an edge. Number one: A conversation with a recruiter will focus on your personality and career accomplishments, whereas a hiring manager is more likely to get into the nitty-gritty about job functions.

“A recruiter will have a grasp of basic business operations and position requirements, but avoid using technical jargon,” Giammatteo says. “You won’t further your cause.”

Headhunters are most interested in learning about your past achievements, so explain in layman’s terms how you were able to, for example, increase ROI by 30% more than anyone else on your team.

Secondly, recruiters are adept at assessing people and identifying quality candidates, while hiring managers may not possess the same evaluation skills. “A recruiter conducts hundreds of interviews during the year, and knows how to figure out if someone is qualified,” says McClure, adding that this puts more pressure on you to communicate why you’re the perfect fit.

It’s also important to be completely honest with a recruiter. If you were out of work for six months in between jobs, don’t try to cover it up or fudge the dates on your résumé. “Recruiters have an excellent network, and they will uncover the truth about your background—from how well you got along with other people to whether you really doubled sales like you claimed,” Giammatteo says.

And don’t forget the cardinal rule of productive recruiter relationships: Stay on their radar—even if you lose interest in the particular opportunity you’re discussing, or if they contact you down the line when you’re no longer actively seeking employment.

You want to be one of the candidates that they think of first and foremost when an appropriate job opening pops up, and you can accomplish that by taking every opportunity available to stay top-of-mind—be it forwarding a relevant article or just dropping them a line once a year to ask how it’s going.

Recruiter Red Flags: How to Handle a Bad Match

Just like real estate brokers and car salesmen, some recruiters are fantastic—and others, well, maybe not so much.

“The downside of working with a bad recruiter is that they might not represent you well to the client,” McClure says. “Plus, if they don’t take the time to understand both the position requirements and your skill set, then they might not give you the right kind of feedback about what the hiring company is looking for.”

Some tip-offs that you’re paired with a bad apple: They ask for a fee (a candidate should never pay a recruiter), commit a breach of confidence (for example, emailing you at work if you’ve told them not to), or edit your materials without your permission.

Unfortunately, because a retained recruiter is your sole portal to a particular hiring company, there’s not much you can do if you’re paired with an unprofessional one. If you send your résumé to the hiring manager, she’ll just pass it along to the recruiter.

But if you’re working with a contingency recruiter with whom you’re unhappy, try circumventing the headhunter. If you can find out who the hiring manager is, reach out to that contact via LinkedIn to submit your information.

“If they hire you directly, they don’t have to pay a recruiting fee, so they’ll probably be open to that approach,” McClure says. “Above all, trust your gut.”

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