At least a few times a month, I’ll be talking with someone who has a very specific plan for how he or she is going to find a new job:

“I’m going to spruce up my resume and then call a headhunter or two.”

And that’s it: Update resume and then call a headhunter. Get him on the case and then sit back and wait for the phone to start ringing, right?

Sure, if you have all kinds of time and patience that may be a perfect strategy. However, most professionals—when stepping out and looking for a new role—are hoping to land that next gig as fast as humanly possible, especially if they’re unemployed or under-employed.

Given this, it’s important to weave multiple tactics into your overall strategy (e.g., reaching out to people at companies of interest, applying directly for roles of interest, and crafting a short list of “dream companies” to keep on your radar). And if you’re planning to include headhunters (a.k.a., agency recruiters) in the mix, it’s critical that you understand clearly how they work.


1. They Aren’t Your Personal Talent Agents

This is probably the most common misunderstanding people have. They think they can call one up and then just relax until he or she comes back with a perfect opening.

But that’s not how most of them work. If they did, guess what? They’d be called talent agents, and you’d pay them to find you that next job.

Recruiting agencies most often represent the companies doing the hiring. Their job is to uncover talent (for specific open positions) and introduce said talent to the point person at an organization who has engaged their services. When they find a great match, the person’s hired and the recruiter earns a commission (typically 15 to 30% of the candidate’s first year’s salary).

What This Means for You

If you’re considering using a recruiter, be sure and find a person or agency that specializes in placing people within your industry or job function. This will help ensure that their available positions align with your interests and skills.

2. The Bad Ones Will Frustrate You, The Good Ones Are Gold

I’ve never talked with anyone who grew up with the childhood dream to become a recruiter. We all seem to enter this field for various reasons—some quite noble (“I just really want to help make a genuine difference in people’s lives”) and some, not so much (“I hear you can make tons of money”).

So just like any other field, you’ll find a mixed bag of talent. Some are brilliant, responsive, and incredibly well connected with the very companies you’re dying to work for. Others? Looking for a quick buck (which typically turns off both the corporate client and the job seeker pretty quickly). And everything in between.

What This Means for You

Be sure and spend time on the front end researching recruiters in your field of expertise and desired city. Ask people with similar backgrounds if they have recommendations. Lining up with the best in the business can serve you very well. Lining up with the duds? Well, that could leave you frustrated—and potentially worse off than if you’d just gone it alone.

3. They Aren’t Paid to Write or Rewrite Your Resume

There’s a reason that professional resume writers, resume writing books, and resume writing courses exist: So you can have a great one to hand out to potential employers and to the headhunters you elect to work with. In other words, it’s not the job of an agency recruiter to overhaul your materials. That’s your responsibility. And there are plenty of available resources to help you (for example, this article on 41 best resume templates).

Certainly, they’ll counsel you on how to reshape your credentials to make you a more appealing candidate for the types of roles for which they plan to submit you. That’s in their best interest to do so because, again, they make money if they successfully match you up to a position their client’s working to fill.

However, agency recruiters are typically compensated only when they are closing deals. Thus, they need to spend a majority of their work hours moving candidates through the interview process with their clients, not revising your materials.

What This Means for You

When you engage the services of a headhunter, ask if he or she has any specific input or advice on how you might tweak your resume to be more appealing to their clients’ opening. And then go make those changes. The more obvious your resume is to the reviewer, the better the odds you’ll land an interview.


4. They’re Looking for a Partnership with You

If you’re serious about using a headhunter, you should enter the relationship with the expectation—and commitment—that this is to be a partnership. If you’re a good fit for that agency’s client base, you’re helping them by having strong, relevant credentials that their customers seek. And they’re helping you because they will likely have established relationships with the very people you’re trying to influence.

What This Means for You

If you’ve found someone who’s good and relevant-to-your-field, don’t take that for granted, and also don’t treat it haphazardly. If you expect prompt follow-up and honesty, you need to provide both in return. If you expect them to value your expertise, you need to value theirs as well. Also, if you’re having second thoughts about an opportunity presented, you should alert the recruiter early on so that no one wastes a whole bunch of time on the road to nowhere.


While I’m a big believer that you are your own best recruiter and advocate, I also know firsthand (from 13+ years of recruiting) how valuable strong relationships with headhunters can be—both through an immediate job search and through your entire career.

Pick well, expect a mutual relationship, and keep plugging away at it on your own in tandem.


Photo of two people speaking courtesy of Guerilla/Getty Images.