Turning the tables on headhunters

It's worth your while to stop slamming down the phone when a technical recruiter calls. Learn more about how they work and how they can help you, even if you're not looking for a job.
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Ask all the right questions
So you take a recruiter's call. All clear on the cubicle front; your neighbors are in a meeting. And you're itchy. So you decide to talk. Here are some questions experts suggest you ask to determine how solid the recruiter (and his or her organization) are:

Are you salaried, or do you work on commission? Experts say there are plenty of outstanding recruiters who work on commission. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that if a headhunter doesn't get paid until you get placed, he or she faces additional pressure--and may be more inclined to guide you toward a job that doesn't suit you. Will you tell me about every position you send my resume for?"Watch out for resume blasters," Hines advises. Some recruiting firms actually refuse to divulge where your resume is going. It's fair to wonder whose best interests they have in mind.

What client organizations have you worked with recently?This is simple: You can judge a recruitment firm by the company it keeps.

Do you specialize in IT placement?There are plenty of top recruiters that don't. However, some experts think specialization is a must. "They can't be a one-stop shop today unless they're huge," says John Putzier, president of HR consultancy FirStep.

May I speak to some recent IT pros you've placed?"If you're reputable, you shouldn't have any trouble finding someone to vouch for you," Hines says.
--Steve Ulfelder
"One overlooked benefit of recruiter call is the reality check. Find out where you stand in the marketplace. Are your peers at other companies getting bonuses, sabbaticals, stock? Ask the headhunter. "
Everybody's got a headhunter story.

Frank Dreher used to work for a big New Jersey defense contractor (since merged to death). "I was sniffing around," says the veteran IT pro, who's now an electrical engineer at Quad Systems Corp. in Willow Grove, Pa., "when I was approached by this fellow. I shot off my resumi, and he sent it out to some firms."

A few days passed. Dreher's manager called him in for a friendly chit-chat. Asked how are things going, are you happy, what projects would you like to work on, etc. "I got to pick a really interesting new project, and my subsequent paychecks had a little more meat."

Punchline, which you've probably guessed: The headhunter had sent Dreher's resume to his employer. "I told him he did me a favor, and that I didn't need a new job anymore."

And then there was the guy who got an interview at a startup through a headhunter. The startup loved him, but he didn't think the company had a future, so he passed. The incensed headhunter called the president of the guy's company. Whispered that the guy was interviewing around. So the guy got canned and had no idea why. "It was only when we settled on a severance package," says the guy--who also asked to be anonymous--"that the president tripped up and let it be known that the headhunter" had dimed him out.

Yup, everybody's got a headhunter story. And very few of them flatter headhunters. Which is odd, because when you get down to it, recruiters are your ally. Their job is to get you a job. In most cases, they don't get paid unless they do so. But many IT professionals view recruiters as parasites or irritants. It's worth your while to stop slamming down the phone when a technical recruiter calls, learn more about how they work--and figure out how to get the most out of them.

Tricks of the trade

Say you get a cold call from a headhunter. Maybe you're in a great mood. Maybe you're feeling itchy. For whatever reason, you're willing to listen. Moreover, you're flattered. Admit it: It's nice to be recruited.

But that good feeling doesn't last long. The recruiter describes a juicy opening and then crushes your ego by saying, "I wonder if you have any co-workers who might be interested in this position?" Co-workers? What are you, chopped liver?

Well, puff your ego back up: It's really you the recruiter wants. "They're waiting for you to say, 'Hey, I might be interested in that job myself,'" says John Putzier, president of FirStep Inc., a human resources consultancy in Prospect, Pa.

The misdirection play is part of the delicate, often silly, negotiation dance. Here's the thing to remember: If you express interest in the position, your value may drop. You're no longer a "passive job-seeker," in the recruiter's lingo.

So if a recruiter describes a job and you're interested, you can maximize your value by playing hard to get. "Don't say, 'Thank God you called! I hate my job!'" Putzier says. Tell the recruiter you may know somebody; you'll ask around and call back. Be sure to get a salary range. If you do call back, tell the headhunter you'd like to hear more about the position yourself--but you're only interested in the very high end of that salary range, of course.

What's in it for you

So how do you squeeze the most horsepower out of your first contact with a recruiter?

First, if you're looking--or thinking about looking--you should know what you're looking for, says Dan Hines, a technical search manager at recruiting firm Pencom Systems Inc. in Reston, Va. Do you want more money? A chance to work with a specific technology, or in a certain geographic area? More responsibility? "If you can convey that to a recruiter, it'll help," Hines says. "Have a solid understanding of what it would take for [you] to move on."


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