Turning the tables on headhunters

Saturday Apr 1st 2000 by Steve Ulfelder
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It's worth your while to stop slamming down the phone when a technical recruiter calls. Learn more about how they work and how they can help you, even if you're not looking for a job.

Ask all the right questions
So you take a recruiter's call. All clear on the cubicle front; your neighbors are in a meeting. And you're itchy. So you decide to talk. Here are some questions experts suggest you ask to determine how solid the recruiter (and his or her organization) are:

Are you salaried, or do you work on commission? Experts say there are plenty of outstanding recruiters who work on commission. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that if a headhunter doesn't get paid until you get placed, he or she faces additional pressure--and may be more inclined to guide you toward a job that doesn't suit you. Will you tell me about every position you send my resume for?"Watch out for resume blasters," Hines advises. Some recruiting firms actually refuse to divulge where your resume is going. It's fair to wonder whose best interests they have in mind.

What client organizations have you worked with recently?This is simple: You can judge a recruitment firm by the company it keeps.

Do you specialize in IT placement?There are plenty of top recruiters that don't. However, some experts think specialization is a must. "They can't be a one-stop shop today unless they're huge," says John Putzier, president of HR consultancy FirStep.

May I speak to some recent IT pros you've placed?"If you're reputable, you shouldn't have any trouble finding someone to vouch for you," Hines says.
--Steve Ulfelder
"One overlooked benefit of recruiter call is the reality check. Find out where you stand in the marketplace. Are your peers at other companies getting bonuses, sabbaticals, stock? Ask the headhunter. "
Everybody's got a headhunter story.

Frank Dreher used to work for a big New Jersey defense contractor (since merged to death). "I was sniffing around," says the veteran IT pro, who's now an electrical engineer at Quad Systems Corp. in Willow Grove, Pa., "when I was approached by this fellow. I shot off my resumi, and he sent it out to some firms."

A few days passed. Dreher's manager called him in for a friendly chit-chat. Asked how are things going, are you happy, what projects would you like to work on, etc. "I got to pick a really interesting new project, and my subsequent paychecks had a little more meat."

Punchline, which you've probably guessed: The headhunter had sent Dreher's resume to his employer. "I told him he did me a favor, and that I didn't need a new job anymore."

And then there was the guy who got an interview at a startup through a headhunter. The startup loved him, but he didn't think the company had a future, so he passed. The incensed headhunter called the president of the guy's company. Whispered that the guy was interviewing around. So the guy got canned and had no idea why. "It was only when we settled on a severance package," says the guy--who also asked to be anonymous--"that the president tripped up and let it be known that the headhunter" had dimed him out.

Yup, everybody's got a headhunter story. And very few of them flatter headhunters. Which is odd, because when you get down to it, recruiters are your ally. Their job is to get you a job. In most cases, they don't get paid unless they do so. But many IT professionals view recruiters as parasites or irritants. It's worth your while to stop slamming down the phone when a technical recruiter calls, learn more about how they work--and figure out how to get the most out of them.

Tricks of the trade

Say you get a cold call from a headhunter. Maybe you're in a great mood. Maybe you're feeling itchy. For whatever reason, you're willing to listen. Moreover, you're flattered. Admit it: It's nice to be recruited.

But that good feeling doesn't last long. The recruiter describes a juicy opening and then crushes your ego by saying, "I wonder if you have any co-workers who might be interested in this position?" Co-workers? What are you, chopped liver?

Well, puff your ego back up: It's really you the recruiter wants. "They're waiting for you to say, 'Hey, I might be interested in that job myself,'" says John Putzier, president of FirStep Inc., a human resources consultancy in Prospect, Pa.

The misdirection play is part of the delicate, often silly, negotiation dance. Here's the thing to remember: If you express interest in the position, your value may drop. You're no longer a "passive job-seeker," in the recruiter's lingo.

So if a recruiter describes a job and you're interested, you can maximize your value by playing hard to get. "Don't say, 'Thank God you called! I hate my job!'" Putzier says. Tell the recruiter you may know somebody; you'll ask around and call back. Be sure to get a salary range. If you do call back, tell the headhunter you'd like to hear more about the position yourself--but you're only interested in the very high end of that salary range, of course.

What's in it for you

So how do you squeeze the most horsepower out of your first contact with a recruiter?

First, if you're looking--or thinking about looking--you should know what you're looking for, says Dan Hines, a technical search manager at recruiting firm Pencom Systems Inc. in Reston, Va. Do you want more money? A chance to work with a specific technology, or in a certain geographic area? More responsibility? "If you can convey that to a recruiter, it'll help," Hines says. "Have a solid understanding of what it would take for [you] to move on."

Ask all the right questions
So you take a recruiter's call. All clear on the cubicle front; your neighbors are in a meeting. And you're itchy. So you decide to talk. Here are some questions experts suggest you ask to determine how solid the recruiter (and his or her organization) are:

Are you salaried, or do you work on commission? Experts say there are plenty of outstanding recruiters who work on commission. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that if a headhunter doesn't get paid until you get placed, he or she faces additional pressure--and may be more inclined to guide you toward a job that doesn't suit you.

Will you tell me about every position you send my resume for? "Watch out for resume blasters," Hines advises. Some recruiting firms actually refuse to divulge where your resume is going. It's fair to wonder whose best interests they have in mind.

What client organizations have you worked with recently? This is simple: You can judge a recruitment firm by the company it keeps.

Do you specialize in IT placement? There are plenty of top recruiters that don't. However, some experts think specialization is a must. "They can't be a one-stop shop today unless they're huge," says John Putzier, president of HR consultancy FirStep.

May I speak to some recent IT pros you've placed? "If you're reputable, you shouldn't have any trouble finding someone to vouch for you," Hines says.
--Steve Ulfelder
Here's another thing to remember about that first talk with a recruiter. Even if it's a cold call, it is after all a discussion with a fellow professional. Many IT pros assume that when they're contacted, they hold all the cards--and can thus afford to be high-handed, abrasive, or unprofessional. Fran Quitell is an IT career expert, recruiter and founder of San Francisco-based Pre-ipojobs.com. When asked about the number one mistake IT pros make when they're called by a recruiter, she says: "They hang up."

That's a mistake whether you're looking for a job or not, experts say. If you're not looking now, you will be someday--and the person you just blew off on the phone may be in a position to kill your chances. "The market can turn very quickly," Quitell says. "It's only been five years since the downsizing of the mid-'90s."

And if you are looking, it's even more important to treat the discussion as a chance to present yourself as a professional.

Another common error: pie-in-the-sky demands. "If someone making $60,000 wants $100,000 [in their next position], I'm not going to take that person seriously," says Hines, adding that these days a 10% to 20% raise is more like it. Other requests are equally outrageous, Hines says. He's heard people demand to work from home four days a week or commute no more than 10 minutes.

Whether you're job-hunting or not, experts say one overlooked benefit of a recruiter call is the reality check. A few quick questions can help you figure out where you stand in the marketplace. Are your peers at other companies getting bonuses, sabbaticals, stock? Ask the headhunter. Of course, you can't believe everything they tell you, experts (including recruiters) agree--but you can file the information away.

And while you're using the phone call to your advantage, you might as well soak up some free career advice. Quittel says, "Ask, 'What is it about my background that made you call me?' Also, 'If you were me, what skills would you get under your belt in the next two years?' You want the recruiter to map out your career plan."

Honesty--still the best policy

"Face it, resume puffery is rampant," Putzier says. He advises IT pros to be honest when selling themselves. Quittel agrees. "If you trivialize the recruiter, if you're not honest, you won't have a good relationship," she says.

Take that call! Experts agree that trust is vital when working with a headhunter. Here are some recruiting firms whose long histories and strong reputations make them a good bet:

Korn/Ferry International.
This universally respected search firm, headquartered in Los Angeles, serves all professions. But its Advanced Technology arm focuses on IT.

Pencom Systems Inc.
Based in New York and with offices everywhere, Pencom specializes in technology recruiting. Its recruiters work on salary, not commission.

RHI Consulting.
The technology branch of Menlo Park, CA-based Robert Half International Inc., specializes in placing consultants rather than permanent employees. If you've ever had the itch to go freelance, RHI is highly regarded.
Here's the funny thing, though: Sometimes, even being honest doesn't get you anywhere.

Exhibit A: Brent Ozar, who's now a Web developer at Telman Decision Information in Houston. A while back, when he worked elsewhere, Ozar e-mailed his resume to a Memphis recruiter, "making sure to be totally honest about my qualifications. I didn't want to bite off too much, and I wanted a position where I could learn Web technologies from someone else."

Two days later, the headhunter called with what he swore was the perfect position. Ozar went for the interview, only to find out immediately he was "way underqualified." He explained this to the headhunter, who nodded sympathetically. And then proceeded to send him on four more interviews for jobs that were way out of his reach.

Moral of this story: "I'm sure there are IT folks out there who'd be happy to have an overachieving headhunter," Ozar says. "But these days, with so many IT jobs open, it's a pain in the butt. If we wanted a hundred interviews, we'd go through the Help Wanted ads!"

Overselling is a common theme in headhunter horror stories. The best way to head off the problem, experts say, is to make sure you're working with a decent recruiter in the first place. Any reputable recruiter will be happy to tell you his or her name, organization and client company.

And the better recruiters will be able to speak the language you use every day. Ask some reasonably involved questions about the position. The headhunter won't know as much as you do, of course, but ought to display better-than-average knowledge of key phrases and technologies. Recruiters who don't know the jargon are lazy, spread too thin or not sufficiently briefed by the client company. You don't want such a person to be your advocate.

A mile in my moccasins

Recruiters are painfully aware of their reputation--and the reason it exists. "I've seen recruiters who'll do anything to make a commission," says Pencom's Hale. "Anything from spinning to outright lying." What would he like IT pros to know about recruiters? "That we don't work that way. We're not all bad guys."

In the interest of equal time, the last story goes to recruiter/entrepreneur Quittel. "I was working on a search for Oracle," she recalls. "They were looking for a certain expertise. I found the perfect person at Dataquest [Inc., a market research firm since acquired by Stamford, CT-based Gartner Group Inc.]. "I knew he'd be underpaid as an analyst," she says, savoring the thrill of the hunt. "I called and said, 'I'm gonna change your life.' And that's exactly what I did."//

Steve Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southboro, Mass. He can be reached via email at ulfelder@earthlink.net.

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