What To Do When the Headhunter Calls ("Quick! Under the Desk!")

Last Updated Sep 7, 2010 2:11 PM EDT

Everyone seems to have a favorite cold remedy, chili recipe, or sure-fire method for getting lipstick stains off shirt collars. Similarly, there has been a spate of highly assertive articles in recent years on the subject of fielding calls from executive recruiters, with special emphasis on that critical first interface. Kindly accept this as my modest contribution to the genre.

Here is what I believe you should consider:

Decide whether or not you can talk. If it isn't a good time -- or you don't have complete privacy -- make other arrangements. Too simple, right? And yet you'd be surprised how many people try to communicate in "code" or innuendo. Don't attempt a cloak-and-dagger conversation if the walls might have ears or your admin has her phone on mute.

Be sure the recruiter has the right person on the line. Did she call you on purpose, or is she just trolling for warm bodies? Does she roughly know what you do for a living and how to pronounce your name? Ask where she heard about you...but don't have a fit if she can't or won't say. See if you can figure out whether it's a fishing expedition or a case of her very specifically targeting your background and skills. If all she wants is information, tell her to call 411.

Ask whether the recruiter is retained, contingency or in-house. Trust me, it makes a huge difference. Are you still fuzzy about these categories? Retained consultants have already been hired -- and paid -- by their corporate clients to research, prospect, engage and assess talent for a particular role. They have an exclusive relationship with the company relative to each search assignment.

Contingency recruiters get paid like real estate agents -- only when they close a deal. As a result, they tend to be sell sell sell all the way. Tell me if this sounds familiar: "Roberta? This is Duane Jurkinov at Acme Management Recruiting. Have I got a opportunity for you!" Need I say more?

In-house recruiters work for the "client" as captive employees. They have a job to do and an internal constituency to satisfy. Some are terrific, but only a few are truly influential. (More on the importance of these distinctions and their meanings in a future column.)

You'll want the recruiter to understand that you're not looking. (Unless you're out of work, of course.) You can accomplish this by saying, "Are you under the impression that I'm currently 'looking' or 'on the market'? Because I'm not." Don't overdo it, though. Just mention it and move on.

Get the company name and position title. This exchange is not intended to be all give and no take. Provide information, certainly, but expect to receive a proportional amount of data in return. In some instances, you may be told that it's a confidential search. No problem, you say, because you won't discuss it with anyone...just like he may not mention you to anyone without your permission. Bottom line: Tell him he can check you out on LinkedIn until the next millennium, but if he wants you to share a resume and provide details on your comp, he'd better cough up a name.

Find out how long the job's been open and why. Where did the last person go? (Promoted? Left the company? Doesn't know yet that he's being replaced? What?) To whom does the position report? Who is that person's boss? If it's a newly-created role, have the recruiter explain the mission. If it's an existing job, ask him to tell you what needs to be improved.

Be clear and precise about your compensation when asked. Only when asked. No lumping - break it down for her: how much base, how much bonus, how much stock and other extras. Don't be coy...and don't lie. Incidentally, the recruiter doesn't want to hear your opinion of what you should be making. Do mention, however, if you have a review coming up or anticipate an increase within the next few months for some other reason.

Have a credible answer ready for the following question: "What would an opportunity need to include -- or exclude, for that matter -- to be irresistible?" Be transparent and sincere about what's important to you in evaluating any career change.
Offer to send your resume after you see the job spec. Obtain an unequivocal promise that the recruiter will never show it to anyone (ever) unless you give him explicit permission to do so.

Don't play games or waste anyone's time. Like your Mom used to say: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." Act professional and not like a 14 year-old at a school dance. Chillaxify yourself. It's just a conversation, not a lifelong commitment.

Finally, please remember that headhunters -- like lecherous old men -- need love, too. (Occasionally it's an overlapping demographic.) The quickest way to ingratiate yourself to a recruiter when he calls is to say the magic words: "Hold on a second. I need to close my door."

  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.