Igot an e-mail from a close friend, introducing a cousin who had recently been made redundant. I wrote back asking for a résumé to review. The response (e-mail, not text) from the prospective candidate went, and I quote, “thx 4 yr mssg, will snd CV sson. Am alrdy in touch w yr collg." During our subsequent call, which he conducted in a noisy restaurant, he refused to share his compensation details, was bitter that we had no jobs to immediately show him, and wondered what the point was in engaging with a so-called reputed placement agency. Deep breaths.

In any case, why would senior professionals even use a headhunter? Well, to start with, these predatory stalkers of scalps are usually experienced professionals, with an informed view on the employment market, industry trends and compensation norms. While many jobs do indeed get filled directly, companies will often use a search firm to ensure that they are able to consider the best candidates in the market, rather than just the most easily available ones. Prospective candidates get to see real opportunities that are outside of their network, or roles that they have no visibility to. More importantly, candidates are able to explore an opportunity or navigate a change, with some degree of confidentiality and have the benefit of an informed third-party perspective—for free.

Who to target and how

Of course, there are a bewildering array of recruitment, human resources (HR), search, research, manpower, selection placement firms and “agencies" and job portals that work various ends of the spectrum, engaging with clients and candidates in different ways and often in specific industry segments. Firms that work the top end of the market are often executive search firms which are retained to search for suitable professionals for executive (read C-suite) roles. Research who fits your situation best, how they work, and how they are perceived in the market. Whatever your need, remember that no reputed recruitment firm will charge candidates. Headhunters work on behalf of companies to fill a post, they are not employment or placement agents. While they try for mutually beneficial best fits, they find people for jobs, not jobs for people—it’s important to remember that their obligation is to advise the client company, not individual job seekers.

What are the rules of engagement in this jungle?

In the know: Honesty and a ‘no-surprises’ policy work best with consultants scouting

Tempting as it is to vent about your nasty boss, this may not be the best time to do so. It’s a good idea to have the consultant review the CV upfront, so that the interaction is less about sharing facts and oriented more towards advice and job opportunities. Some groundwork about target industries or companies is a good starting point—the consultant is not obliged to think up options for you. Ideally, the conversation should be fairly tightly structured around background and achievements, target industries or roles and compensation expectations and any significant caveats—usually about relocation. A quick note summarizing the meeting and agreed actions is a useful way of staying on the radar and taking conversations forward.

If the headhunter rings unsolicited, this usually means that they have researched you, or been provided your reference, in relation to a specific opportunity they are working on. Even if you are not seeking a change, you would be well advised to hear them out—a quick, no-strings chat is usually enough to ascertain if a role is of interest. Schedule a convenient time to talk privately, ask clarificatory questions before you decide to take the conversation further. Appreciate that some searches are confidential, so you may not immediately have access to the company name. Do ask for the credentials of the search firm itself, the kind of roles they work on, the nature of engagement with the client company—is it retained, contingent, exclusive, long term? Verify—ask for an email or a number to call back on, when convenient. If there is comfort, by all means share some base data, and ask to engage with the lead consultant. Either way, do revert—with interest, or lack of it. Even if the role is of little interest, you may want to use the opportunity to broadly define what may indeed be of interest in the future. Often consultants will ask for references for other suitable candidates (and in fact may have called in as a result of such a reference) Go ahead by all means if there is comfort with the caller.

Use these

If the conversation does progress, and a consultant shortlists you for a role, there are some ground rules to be followed. Be aware of your rights (for example, confidentiality with respect to your interest in exploring a role) and state your expectations. Client companies pay hefty fees for the advice of consultants, and take their inputs quite seriously. Many headhunters are closely involved with company HR strategy and are privy to in-depth knowledge about the company, role and internal dynamics. Ask for interviewing tips, résumé reviews, explore client quirks—how else will you ever know that a particular retail baron never hires someone who shows up in a business suit for the interview? Ask for details of the role and compensation. Ask about the hiring process. Ask about the hiring manager. Ask about the previous incumbent. While you must do your own homework, it would be foolish not to tap this very knowledgeable resource—ask as many clarificatory questions as you can think of at the appropriate stages of the process.

...but don’t abuse them

As always, go easy on the warpaint. Honesty and a “no-surprises" policy works best, and transparency to the consultant about gaps in employment, significant career events, actual compensation details will ensure that the consultant can think through how to best represent your candidature, warts and all, rather than being caught unawares at a more advanced stage. Do ask about the competencies required for the role and work with the consultant in building your pitch. Upfront clarity about issues such as relocation, compensation details and expectations help the process move smoothly.

Should you be seen to be engaging with a headhunter? You probably want to be relatively discreet and conduct meetings in the search firm’s offices. If outside, in case private meeting rooms are unavailable, a quiet corner in a coffee shop is usually discreet enough. Although one candidate (in banking, of course) insisted on meeting at the front table of a restaurant frequented by his boss—he wanted to demonstrate that he had “market value".

Respect the process and the players—including the consultant. If you have an offer and are getting cold feet—and you sometimes will, do highlight this. It’s eventually your decision on whether to move, but it does give the consultant an opportunity to address issues, or the company an opportunity to develop a plan B well in time. Keep the communication professional and open. Appreciate that occasionally companies will go slow on a role—or more on an internal/alternative candidate—and consultants may not have much to report. Do insist that the consultant to keep you informed regardless.

Sometimes, the company will choose someone else. It’s usually not personal—accept the decision with dignity and try not to shoot the messenger. We recently had a finalist candidate writing a two-page diatribe to the client because he was not finally chosen for the role, alluding to misrepresentation by the consultant, among other gripes. As it turned out, the offered candidate declined the job, but the client absolutely refused to consider this candidate, citing immaturity and an inability to manage adverse news. A note to the client thanking them for considering you may be a good closing—and relationship-building—note.

Keep in touch

Do stay on the radar, whether or not you get placed. If you did, this is whom you go to resolve teething problems, or help you navigate the new company. Don’t hesitate to provide feedback on the job, or indeed the search process. Otherwise, e-mail is usually a non-obtrusive way of keeping in touch. Let consultants know if your circumstances and contacts change, share your latest achievements. If you are comfortable being a source for other candidate references, let them know. Simple courtesies like a thank-you note to consultants, HR folks, referees, assistants involved in the process are always appreciated and remembered.

While consultants do primarily work on behalf of clients to find the best person for the job, this does not mean that a consultant does not have your interests in mind. A good consultant, particularly those with a reputation for repeat business, will always ensure that the opportunity significantly enhances your career. Eventually, successful candidates are the headhunter’s best endorsements.

As for my friend’s PIA cousin: I said I would BRB, but think he may well B4got10 ASAP.

B4N!

Sonal Agrawal is managing partner,Accord India, an executive search firm.

Write to Sonal at careercoach@livemint.com

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