During a recent business trip to Hong Kong, I found myself in a café, sitting one table over from a headhunter and a sharp looking woman who was hoping to land a job in the fashion industry.
Eavesdropping isn’t an activity I endorse, but as a career coach who helps people find their purpose and land great job offers, some temptations are just too great. I’m like a moth to a flame when surrounded by job talk…It refuses to be ignored.
Over the course of an hour, I listened to the candidate talk about her experience, while the headhunter chimed in with feedback on how to stand out for a job with one of her high-end fashion clients. The candidate talked about her interests and how she believed they could be useful. She spoke with enthusiasm over the abundance of opportunities, yet I noticed that the headhunter kept shrinking her world down to this one particular client.
It was in that moment that it struck me: headhunters are an incredible additional career resource, but their advice can be horrible for your job hunt as a whole.
Bear with me here.
Headhunters have a portfolio of clients — companies with active job openings — and they get paid to fill them with the right candidate. It feels great to work with headhunters because they’re trying to help you get a job, but you must remember that they’re in your life for one reason that has nothing to do with your career satisfaction: Keeping their clients happy.
I don’t think headhunters are malicious in any way; in fact, I adore headhunters and advise my clients to use them as a resource to supplement their job hunting. After all, a wider net catches more fish, and abundance is key when you’re trying to land your next great position. Headhunters have an inside view of the industry and they know about jobs that aren’t posted publicly, so if they are trying to fill your dream position and you’re a perfect candidate, it’s career nirvana.
However, there are a few reasons to be very wary of taking their advice too much to heart:
1. It’s all about them. While headhunters are a beautiful resource for excellent candidates to get job offers, the reality of the matter is that their priority numero uno is getting paid. While this does mean it’s all about getting the right fit for their client, it simultaneously means they don’t care about you if you’re not a fit. They have a job to do and it’s just effective time management. While it’s great to follow up and let them know you exist, know that you’ll only be top of mind for them when a client is asking for a candidate that fits your bill. Believe me when I tell you, they want to get paid…And they get paid well. In 2014, the average headhunter fees were a record high of 21.5% of the candidate’s first year salary!
2. It’s all about their client. During the café meeting, I heard the headhunter give the job seeker some advice that was completely unaligned with her stated goals. She clearly wanted to chart a less traditional course in the fashion world, but the headhunter kept instructing her in how she could be more appealing to his client — a traditional, top-heavy corporation. The person paying the headhunter is the client, not the job hunter, so naturally he needs to answer to the hand that feeds him.
That doesn’t mean you should let your own interests become collateral damage, however. Any time you enter into a relationship with a recruiter, remember to honor yourself and rely on these job hunting stallions with caution, knowing that their insight is to be taken in the context of their clients’ needs – not yours.
3. You could make less money. In a smaller company, where the total dollar amount for a position is it a single line item, the recruiter’s commission could end up cutting into your bottom line. On the other hand, some companies have separate budgets for hiring and salaries, in which case the employee’s salary is not impacted. However, I’ve seen that certain headhunter- recruited employees get fewer raises than their non-recruited counterparts, which can leave the impression that the recruiter’s fee on the front end makes the new employee take the hit on the back end.
In any event, headhunters are notorious for withholding the position’s true salary range. My advice: stay open, and play hardball when an offer comes in. The moment you’ve made it through the headhunter and into the company, with an offer in your hands, you have leverage. Don’t get awkward and talk money before then – headhunters report that addressing salary in the first meeting is looked down upon 80% of the time.
You wouldn’t propose marriage on a first date, would you? Talking money is that cringe worthy at this stage.
4. You’ll feel like there’s a personal connection…but there’s not. Chances are high that the recruiter you’re meeting with barely knows anything about you. Studies show that recruiters spend only six seconds reviewing your resume before deciding whether you’re a good fit. In that time, they’re simply playing keyword Tetris, making sure the words on your resume match the job description.
Job hunting shouldn’t be a solo endeavor, and occasionally I refer clients to headhunters when I believe there will be an authentic, mutually beneficial match. In general, when I advise my clients to bring other people into their job hunt, I’m talking about networking. That is the best way to attract the kind of people who are really going to look out for your interests, not just their own.
What upset me that day in the restaurant was about more than my wariness about headhunters… As the recruiter whittled down the woman’s real career goals, he was simultaneously hardwiring the idea of scarcity – that she couldn’t have what she really wanted – into her psyche. The recruiter would walk away with a lofty commission and she would walk away with a job that didn’t inspire her.
…And while one career misstep isn’t the end of the world, allowing someone else to tell you who you should be sets a dangerous precedent for the future.
We can’t eliminate these distractions, but if you have the courage to truly honor and pursue your authentic career, they will fall like dominos as you pass by…And when they do, you’ll realize that the road you were meant to walk has been there all along.