Sep 13

Q/A: Headhunters and Third Party Recruiting Firms

Recently a student contacted us with a question about a “headhunter” or recruiter who reached out. Here’s our advice if this happens to you.

Question: I was recently contacted by a headhunter for data related positions in the Cleveland area where I am looking to work.  I’m hesitant to trust working with him as he had a very used car salesman-like approach, and I feel like I would be put at a disadvantage applying through a headhunter given that the employer would have to pay a fee in order to hire me through a headhunter. He did not mention having any special connections, so to me this seems like its not a good option for me. I wanted to check with you to see if you agree with my thinking on this.

Answer: First there’s a difference between a “headhunter” and a “third party recruiting firm” (TPRF). It’s pretty common lingo for someone to refer to both as a “headhunter,” but TPRFs are usually legitimate sources of viable opportunities. Companies and organizations do not always have the manpower to conduct their own hiring processes, and may contract with a TPRF to source candidates and to conduct initial screening interviews. They’ve often already paid up front for these services, and if you were to engage the company outside of this TPRF they may end up having to pay the fee anyway depending on how the contract is set up. Some companies in those cases won’t talk to you outside of that process, so you might not ever learn of those opportunities otherwise. It’s just the process they are using, and again it’s usually when they don’t have the human resources team to put in the grunt work (or the capacity to search for a specialized skill, such as working with data). Consider TPRF opportunities as one option within a diversified job search approach. Don’t ignore them, as you’ll miss out on opportunities, but don’t put all your eggs in the TPRF basket.

“Headhunters” on the other hand are individuals or firms that try to collect good candidates and then sell them to companies for opportunities they might have posted. This can in fact be shady, and that’s why they differentiate from TPRFs where companies have specifically requested the services ahead of time.

Additional Notes

  • You the job seeker should never have to pay a TPRF for their services. The hiring companies pay the fee, as you mention. If anyone asks you for money as the applicant, that’s a big red flag and you should move on.
  • If a TPRF believes you are a good candidate for a job they’re trying to fill, they will go out of their way to help you prepare for success in the interview process. It’s in their best interest for you to succeed, since that’s how they get paid (and also if you work out then they’re more likely to get additional contracts in the future). However, remember that you are not their client (the company is). Therefore, there are times when they might drop communications with you completely. As frustrating as that is, try not to take it personally. Continue to follow up periodically with them in a tactful and professional way, and hopefully they will give you the professional courtesy of confirming you aren’t being considered for a particular opportunity anymore. In most cases, though, they’ll just put their time into the people who are still being considered, but the savvy ones will keep their positive relationship with you in case other jobs come through where you would be a good fit.
  • If a recruiter reaches out to you for a job you’re not interested in, politely indicate that this particular opportunity does not align with your current career goals, but that you would be interested in positions that fit [insert your criteria here]. They might have other opportunities you’re not aware of.
  • Understand that sometimes the TPRF cannot tell you explicitly what company a particular opportunity is for until you actually apply and make it through an initial screening. This sounds crazy, but sometimes it’s to keep you from going around them in the event the company would be willing to hire you directly to avoid the fee, and sometimes other kinds of privacy issues are involved. Remember that you might not be able to find the opportunity on your own without the TPRF, so if the work of the job itself appeals to you and “large healthcare corporation in Cleveland” or whatever generic description they provide sounds interesting, you can always apply and decide later that the actual organization itself is not a good fit if that ends up being the case.
  • Try not to be too put off by the used salesman shtick, but do use it as one data point in the overall relationship you would have with the recruiter. They’re in a “sales” field of sorts, though, so that can attract a stereotypical type of sales personality. If you don’t feel like it will be a positive relationship, and enough red flags pop up that you’re not comfortable engaging them in the process, then definitely don’t feel like you have to work with them. Also, keep your eyes and ears open for any kind of fine print obligations to make sure you don’t get stuck doing something, and also any kind of confidentiality agreements where you agree not to go separately to a company once they’ve disclosed the name of the organization.

Use your judgement, but don’t rule them out without getting all the info. Good luck, and happy “hunting”!


Have you encountered TPRFs before? Please share your experiences in the comments below.