Can You Trust Your Headhunter?


Trusting someone with your hiring requirements or with your resume can be nerve-wracking. As an ex-headhunter I've seen many different styles of headhunting, some very ethical, some utterly not so.

Headhunters often get bad press and I completely understand why. In my junior years as a researcher in the headhunting trenches, I saw some pretty shocking methods of working. One firm encouraged us to do whatever was necessary to get the information required: I witnessed bosses demand that researchers spin off lies such as: "I'm his girlfriend and organising a surprise birthday party for him, so I need a list of all his team members...."; I've been encouraged to make up fictitious positions in order to entice people to give me their resumes and had to listen to the most appalling statement, the day after the 9-11 attacks, made by one manager to the traumatised research team: "Well you can stay away from the phones today, but by tomorrow you all need to get online to New York again as there'll be a lot of empty seats to fill." Ethics? What were they? All that mattered in that world was getting the names, getting the business and closing the deal. Profit was king. As in many arenas of business, headhunting is certainly not always a pretty picture. Fortunately, not all companies work that way and the short spells spent on the dark side, did teach me a lot about integrity and what kind of work ethics are sustainable in the long term.

Having survived some serious corporate toxicity, while moving from one firm to another, during the initial interview I was crystal clear. "I need to tell you," I said "before you hire me, that I will not be using a false name, making up fictitious positions, or pretending that I work for another company. If that's the kind of person you are looking for then just don't hire me. I want to use my own name and be truthful about who I work for". They did hire me and I had a wonderful and successful career with them in which we were able to deliver high quality work to our clients, professionally and with integrity.

What I loved about headhunting in my market (commodity trading) was that it was a mix of being a private detective, psychologist and intrepid explorer. Very often I felt like Indiana Jones, searching for the Lost Ark in the jungle of international trading. To do it well, and with integrity you had to earn people's trust, keep their secrets, know your market and deliver, all while keeping your head and staying calm. The reason I left such a fun and challenging job? At the end of the day I realised that although I loved the dynamism, I was even more interested in using my skills to discover what truly mattered to the individuals I was working with. Often they would share a great deal of personal information with me and we'd have a real heartfelt conversation, but at the end of the day I was unable to help them with their hopes and dreams, as my priority was to find the most successful and appropriate candidates and to show them them why it was worth their while to walk away from a company where they were thriving, in order to join a competitor.

Enough about my story and back to the point:

First, let's briefly clarify what a headhunter is, as so often I hear people misusing the term and confusing headhunters with recruitment agencies. There is a glaring difference between what recruitment agencies and headhunters actually do.

A professional headhunter/executive search individual works with a handful of clients on a handful of positions. Their clients will pay them a hefty upfront fee, to retain their services and to ensure that they are focusing purely on their hiring needs. A headhunter will be working on one, maximum 2 positions at any one time. Very often they are not even dealing with CVs as the position is not public, therefore no-one is "applying", and they are speaking with individuals who are not looking for a new job. The headhunter is going out and researching the market for the exact type of individual that the client is looking for. Upon delivery, the day the candidate starts, the headhunter is due a large percentage of the candidates salary. In my day this was 25-35% of the total yearly salary, bonus and package. A headhunter will regularly place less than 10 candidates and have an extremely successful year. They will always be specialised. They less likely to help someone who is out of work or actively looking for a job.

A recruitment agent is working with a high volume of candidates. They mainly work with candidates who are actively looking for a new job. They do not work exclusively on one job search, often advertise positions in order to collect CVs and may be one of many agents also serving the same client. On hearing that a client is looking to fill a certain position they may speculatively send CVs to them regardless of whether they have had an in-depth discussion or even if there is an open position or not in the hope that the CV might "stick" and they can ask for a commission. They do not have time to offer detailed customer service as the volume of work that they are doing is so high. They are paid by their clients upon delivery of a candidate, and rarely upfront. Agencies will often be paid a very small percentage of the candidate's salary thus they need to place a high volume of candidates quickly, in order to make a profit. An agency may or may not be specialised. They are more likely to help someone who is out of work or actively looking for a job.

In a nutshell. Headhunters are...hunters and recruitment agents are gatherers.

Below are several criteria that will help you understand if your headhunter is trustworthy and worth their salt:

For clients: Headhunting is a focused skill. A headhunter cannot be all things to all people. Your headhunter needs to be clear about what they can and cannot do. If, during your preliminary meeting they are quick to tell you they can help you fill a position without spending a good amount of time to discuss the requirements of the role, beware. They may be more interested in getting paid a retainer than helping you out. If they tell you that they cover all markets and positions, be very sceptical. They should be clear about what their strengths are upfront. If you ask them to hunt in a market that is outside their normal scope of work, a trustworthy headhunter may tell you that although it is not their speciality they are willing to give it their best shot. They will be clear on how they plan to go about that and why they are confident they can help you. Alternatively they may tell you flat out that that's not their area of expertise and even point you in the direction of another headhunter that they believe can do the job for you.
For candidates: From the very start, the headhunter that calls you will be clear about who they are, which headhunting firm they work for and why they are contacting you. They will not be evasive. They will tell you if they can share information about their client or not. They will be clear if they are actually headhunting you or simply gathering information for potential future roles. They will be clear that their role is not to find you a job - it is to know their market in order to help their clients find the right people to fill a particular position. They will tell you if they have submitted your CV, resume or bio to a potential client.

A headhunter will give you timely and honest feedback. For both candidates and clients, there is nothing worse that not hearing any news and wondering what on earth is happening. Agencies deal with hundreds of CVs and many clients at a time, which is often their excuse for no feedback at all (still a poor one, as it only takes a copy paste to update someone). A headhunter has no such excuse, they are dealing with exclusive hiring mandates and a manageable number of candidates. They are offering a highly personalised service and therefore should be giving both clients and candidates regular status updates, most certainly you if you have made contact to ask what is happening. If not, they have either taken on more work than they can handle, are disorganised, lazy or do not care about the needs of their clients or the feelings of their candidates.
A professional headhunter will stay in touch. If you ask for an update they will keep you informed. If they are still waiting for news from either candidate or client they will tell you, that they have no news yet. If you are a candidate and a client has rejected your profile, the professional headhunter will relay this information to you. They will not keep you hanging for no good reason.

Timing and Delivery
A professional headhunter will not promise you what they cannot deliver. They will explain the step by step process of finding the person you are looking for and will work on an agreed and realistic time frame in which they will deliver the information you need in order to select your candidate. They will tell you what they can achieve for you in that given time frame, and what will happen if they do not. They will honour their deadline and if for some reason they cannot, they will tell you in advance what the roadblocks are and what they plan to do to get past them. If they cannot guarantee certain results they will tell you that at the beginning, not after they have failed to deliver. There will be check in calls and meetings agreed upon in order to make sure that both client and headhunter are aligned on the process.

A professional headhunter will not work for free and rarely will they work solely upon successful delivery of a candidate. Their time is valuable and they need to know that their clients are serious. They will not work on non-exclusive assignments, apart from some very rare exceptions and only for a good reason. There's nothing more tacky than several headhunters all contacting the same people for the same position. It leads to unprofessional shoddy work, a tonne of repetition and wastes everyone's time. It makes everybody including the client look desperate. A professional headhunter will focus on the job for an agreed time for an agreed upon retainer and final placement fee. If a client is not willing to pay a headhunter anything upfront for the work that they do and wants a success only based payment, this shows lack of trust or inability to pay, on the part of the client and is hardly a foundation for a strong partnership.

For clients: A professional headhunter will be listening deeply at all times to what your requirements are. From your first meeting, right through to the end of the hiring process, they will be paying attention to your desires. They will not simply be rattling off everything that they can do for you or showing off about their market knowledge in an attempt to make themselves look good They will not be trying to educate you. They will ask you questions to clarify any uncertainty and to understand even more deeply the level of your needs. They will be honest with you about how realistic they believe it is to find what you want in your given time frame. If they feel you are looking for a needle in a haystack, they will tell you so.
For candidates. Your headhunter will be listening deeply to what you are telling them about yourself. Once they have the information they need and even if you do not have the ideal profile, for the position they are looking for, they will take the time to listen to your point of view and answer any questions you may have. They will not simply put the phone down in order to call their next potential candidate, they will listen to your point of view and thoughts and respect your opinion. They will make a note of what you have told them, so that next time they speak to you they know who you are and what you have discussed. They know that just because you may not be a fit today, you may be the perfect candidate for one of their clients in the future, or may even become a client yourself.

For clients: A professional headhunter will keep your information completely confidential. They will not disclose your name to anyone without your prior agreement. If at any stage they feel the need to disclose information they will speak with you first. They will not share your hiring situation with the competition, even if the information you give them is valuable and could make them look ahead of the game. They will respect your privacy.
For candidates: I've had "so-called" headhunters telling me about my own team members, "Last year when I spoke to your colleague X he told me that he was looking to leave the company, how is he doing now?". This is a huge red flag. If this headhunter is sharing information like this so freely, it's quite likely that they will not hold back when it comes to sharing your secrets. Nevertheless, don't forget that a headhunter's job is to find out about the market, so it is natural for them to ask questions, however, they should never make you feel that you are obliged to answer any questions you are uncomfortable with or manipulate you into giving information. They should agree with you on what they will do with the information you are giving them. You have the power to tell them what you want to have on or off the record. They should not be forcing you to provide them with a CV if you are not ready. You do not have to give them any information you do not want to, however bear in mind that you do want your a employer to know what you are capable of, so share accordingly in a way that feels comfortable. You cannot withheld all the information and expect to get a meeting with a prospective client. Your headhunter will also be clear about what information about their client they can and cannot share with you.

Finally, it almost goes without saying, but I'll put it down for good housekeeping: if a headhunter has a contract with you, respects you and wants to keep working with you as a client, although the whole firm may not be off-limits to them (unless stipulated in your contract), they will certainly not be poaching your team members.

At the end of the day, your headhunter is a human being. They are fallible. Perhaps they are great at communication and identifying the perfect candidate, but a bit slow on delivery. Perhaps they are so focused on finding the perfect candidate and delivering on time, that they have forgotten to update you. They are not perfect. They are going to make mistakes just as you are - so, as in any relationship, decide what matters most, cut them some slack when you need to and do your best to work with them. You'll know soon enough if they're on your side or not.

How do you know if you can trust your headhunter?
What do you think about headhunters?

I'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions. Feel free to comment below. If you wish to contact me directly you can reach me at or via my website