Why Contacting Recruiters Is a Waste of Your Time

It’s a scene that’s played out all too often these days: You’re looking for a job and you’ve read or heard that you should contact executive-search firms. After all, they recruit people for jobs, and you’re looking for a job.

You send a well-worded letter or leave a polite voice mail for the recruiter, and wait. The lack of response leads to tormenting questions like, “Why don’t they call?” “What’s wrong with me?” or “But everybody tells me I’ve got great experience.” You feel somewhat like a debutante waiting by the phone. Certainly, the frustration is just as toxic.

Your dilemma could have been avoided by having a better understanding of what a search firm does and its relationship with clients. Recruiters are paid by a company or organization — the client — to find someone to fill a specific position.

Executive-search firms exist only to identify candidates for particular openings. These openings may require skills that are rare and hard to find, or the assignment has other difficulties associated with it. Otherwise, the client would have filled the job on its own and saved the fee. A search assignment is sometimes akin to finding a needle in a haystack, but that’s usually why the client hired the recruiter in the first place.

In short, headhunters search for people, and you are searching for a job. The distinction is subtle, but absolute.

Don’t Expect Much

Before calling a recruiter or doing a mass mailing to search firms, ask yourself: “What do you expect a search firm to do for you?” The best advice is to keep your expectations modest.

Applicants who get recruiters to take their calls will usually find them to be polite, even affable and encouraging. Caution. Don’t invest much time or emotion in the relationship because it probably won’t go anywhere. The reason is simple. Executive-search firms are not in the business of finding you a job. That’s the painful reality. Unless you have retained the firm on your own behalf, you’re not a fee-paying client and the consultant has no incentive, short of goodwill, to assist you. (Incidentally, most search firms will not represent individuals searching for a position.)

If a recruiter believes your resume may fit a current or future search, you’ll be contacted quickly or receive a note saying that your resume will be kept on file. On the other hand, if the firm doesn’t see a potential fit or seldom does searches in your field, you won’t hear anything because your resume will be in the circular file.

Some search firms actively discourage job seekers from contacting recruiters. Larger or national firms often try to steer job seekers to register online with the firm’s database. Building large candidate databases in this way may make subsequent searches easier, but it’s not very satisfying to someone seeking a job now.

The Road Less Traveled

Whether you reach an actual person or not, you won’t gain much by traveling down this road. Unless a search firm does highly specialized searches in your area of expertise, the odds aren’t good that a recruiter will ever fill a job that matches your skills. Industry experts report that the chances are less than 2% that you’ll get a face-to-face interview, let alone a job offer, by making unsolicited contact with a search firm. Clearly, this strategy has remarkably low odds.

Persistence is an important component of any search. Using it on a search firm could be a misallocation of your personal resources. For example, you might be an exceptional controller, but if none of the recruiter’s clients are searching for controllers, the recruiter can’t invent an opening for you. Said another way, if the fishmonger has only haddock and you want salmon, no amount of pleading can get him to change haddock into salmon.

But don’t headhunters know about unadvertised jobs that never appear in newspapers or on the Internet? The answer is no. They may hear about opportunities with companies that aren’t clients, but they’re usually focused on specific assignments and have surprisingly little insight about the broader market. It’s a mistake to think that headhunters have privileged access to job-market information. The truth is that anyone engaged in a serious job search will quickly know about more job openings than most recruiters.

If you must, send that letter or make that call (there is that 2% chance), but keep your expectations realistic. There are better ways to spend your search time.

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