Working with Headhunters in a Job Change

Martin Yate By Martin Yate April 18, 2017
Working with Headhunters in a Job Change

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.  

How can I trust and work with headhunters? My experience with them in HR has never been very positive. But now I am looking to make a job change and I see they are running the searches for positions I am interested in. What's your advice on working with them to pursue these opportunities?


Having worked both sides of the fence, I understand your concerns. The conflicts usually arise with HR because headhunters are paid to quickly close deals. So, naturally, they want to work only with the decision-maker—typically the hiring manager—to get nuanced feedback. If you are the company's recruiter, this can be offensive.

But now you are in a different role—you are considering a job change and need to work with a headhunter as a job seeker. If you work cooperatively with the headhunter, this will improve his or her productivity and help him or her guide you through the selection process.

Do's and Don'ts with Headhunters

The headhunter's customer is the company; headhunters don't find jobs for people, they find people for the jobs the company needs to fill.

  • Don't "challenge" a headhunter to help you.
  • But do reach out to almost every headhunter who works in your area of expertise. The more reputable recruiters you get your resume in front of, the more opportunities you will hear about (see below for tips on finding qualified headhunters).

If a recruiter is interested in representing you, you'll need a properly focused resume, and you must be objective and honest. Do not overstate your job duties, accomplishments or education. If there are employment gaps, explain them. Keep the headhunter informed about all changes in your status: salary, promotions, layoffs, etc.

  • Do find out what the headhunter expects of you in the relationship, and explain what you expect (for example, "Don't present me to a company without my OK"). Find commitments you both can live with, and stick with them. If you are caught in an untruth or break any of those commitments, expect to be dropped for putting the headhunter's reputation at risk.
  • Don't consider yourself an employment expert. Your main expertise is on the hiring side of the desk, while the headhunter has the marketing and sales skills involved in getting you an offer. You get a job for yourself every three or four years while these people do it for a living. --Do ask for the headhunter's input and listen to his or her advice.
  • Don't tell the headhunter about the companies with which you are already communicating. If the executive recruiter asks about this, say that your job search is confidential, but that you will say if you are already in communication with a company the recruiter wants to introduce you to.

Headhunters should follow up on every opening they learn about, so in a worst-case scenario, sharing your job leads could result in the headhunter lobbying for someone else for that position.

Headhunter Competence

There are good and not-so-good people in every profession, so how do you find the best ones to work with? Involvement in professional associations is always a good sign, as it demonstrates commitment and an enhanced level of competence. The premier professional association that high-end contingency search firms (only paid on successful completion)—as well as some retained search firms—belong to is the National Association of Personnel Services (NAPS). 

True executive recruiters and headhunters work for retained search firms (in which they are paid a percentage of their fee upfront), and the Association of Executive Search Consultants is the premier association for this group. Typically, only executives and very hard-to-find individual contributors are sought for their clients by retained search companies. By definition of their responsibilities, most retained headhunters are extremely competent.

Accreditations demonstrate commitment and experience. The most widely recognized is the Certified Personnel Consultant (CPC) designation, awarded by NAPS. The CPC designation typically represents seven-plus years of experience, signifying commitment, competence, reputation and connections. Full disclosure: I hold the only honorary CPC accreditation, awarded in recognition of my contributions to career management.

Headhunters who are connected to networks will almost always have a greater range of opportunities; for example, an independent headhunter network like NPA has hundreds of member companies around the world. Another excellent resource is

Headhunters and Your Job Search

Headhunters and executive recruiters have primary loyalty to their clients, and none hold a monopoly on all the suitable opportunities for you. Consequently, it's a numbers game: The more reputable recruiters you get your resume seen by, the more opportunities you will hear about. 

Have a question for Martin? E-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. We look forward to hearing from you! 

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