How to Manage Headhunters

You can download a summary overview on How to Manage Headhunters here.  For those with longer attention spans, there is more detail in the pages below.
There are three categories of headhunters in the UK: Search, Selection and Agency (or Contingency).
In the past, each category operated with a different methodology. These days, some of those distinctions are breaking down. Technology has reduced barriers to entry for Agency recruiters to conduct active searches. Almost anyone can run a cheap and effective Selection campaign via LinkedIn or e-FinancialCareers. And increasing numbers of Search firms will accept un-retained ‘exclusive contingency’ mandates to help make ends meet.
So distinguishing between the different types of headhunters is becoming increasingly difficult. Even so, it is important for job hunters to understand how they differ in order to manage them properly.
In an ideal world, people looking for jobs would find themselves a headhunter who would work actively on their behalf, finding them interesting jobs which develop their careers, representing them to prospective employers in the same way that acting and literary agents do for their artists. Unfortunately, in the UK at least, The Employment Agencies Act rules this out.
Some Employment Law
The UK Employment Agencies Act 1973 states that employment agencies “shall not demand, or directly or indirectly receive from any person, any fee for finding him employment or for seeking to find him employment“.
The only exceptions are for actors, models and professional sportsmen. They may sign up to agents who represent them in the marketplace and, in return, the agents charge a set percentage of their wages.
Headhunters differ from Agents in that they must always be paid by the hiring company – not by the job seeker.
The consequences of this are far reaching to job seekers:
  • On the basis of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tunes’ it means that all headhunters work on behalf of the hiring company;
  •  Even when headhunters appear to be representing you (eg. when Agencies actively market you to the market), you are not the client. The hiring company is the real client, as they are paying the bill;
  • It also illegal for headhunters to ask job seekers for exclusivity of representation. In practical terms, this means it is not worth any headhunter’s while to invest extensive effort in marketing candidates to the market since at any moment the job seeker they represent could find a job through another channel: another recruiter or a direct contact, etc;
  • Agencies in particular tend to focus on quick wins: if they cannot place you quickly, they will quickly lose interest and move on to the next candidate;
  • You cannot and should not rely on headhunters as your main method of looking for a job.
Nevertheless, during the course of your career, you (the job-seeker) are going to have to deal with three types of Headhunters, probably in this order:
Agency Recruiters,
Selection Firms; and
Executive Search Headhunters.