The #1 Mistake People Make About Recruiters

“Where can you place me?”

I get this question – or some variation on it – at least once a week. Usually more. And I would love nothing more than to tell prospective clients that I will shop them around and find a fabulous employer who wants to hire them. That would be the best gig ever: You pay me and I work my matchmaking magic to find you your dream job!

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. Not with career coaches, and not with recruiters. Or Headhunters, Staffing Agencies, Search Firms, or whatever else you want to call them. The only person who can find you a job is you. Enlisting the help of a pro can be a huge asset to you in your job search, but you cannot rely on a recruiter to find you your next job. Which is the #1 mistake people make about recruiters:

Recruiters do not find jobs for people.

They find people for jobs.

Still, you’re looking for a recruiter to help you with your search. I don’t blame you! It’s a great idea to tap into all available resources. But how do you find a good one? What types of recruiters are there? Should you work with one recruiter or several? And the big one that comes up all the time: Should you ever pay someone to place you in a job?


All excellent questions!

I’m going to start by covering the people you’ll meet and how they earn their living. It’s good to know the landscape before you start trying to navigate it. Then I’ll cover the basics of how you can work with recruiters effectively to bolster your search efforts.

The People You’ll Meet

  • Recruiters can be internal or external to an organization. A recruiter’s primary purpose is to respond to the business needs and find candidates to fill positions. They often lead the entire process and partner with the hiring manager and potential candidates every step of the way.
  • Headhunters are virtually synonymous with recruiters, though they’re pretty much always external to an organization. They are typically only used to find senior & executive level candidates. The name really says it all: why would anyone need a headhunter to find a marketing assistant? There’s no need to hunt for one of those. An SVP of Marketing for a global digital media company? That might actually require a dedicated resource to hunt down the right talent.
  • Staffing Agencies & Search Firms are companies dedicated to managing the hiring needs of other organizations. They can be huge, international corporations or tiny, local boutique firms. Most of the folks at staffing agencies work a “full desk,” meaning that they call on employers to sell their services and source candidates for those employers.

How They’re Getting Paid

There are only a few ways recruiters get paid:

  • Contingent Search is the most common compensation structure. It means that the recruiter’s pay is contingent upon finding great candidates and actually making a hire. This leads to fierce competition and multiple agencies vying to fill the same position. You may have noticed duplicate postings on job boards – this is why. It can also result in you, the candidate feeling rushed, or like your recruiter has no clue what he’s talking about. Not always, but it does happen.
  • Retained Search is Contingent Search’s mellow older cousin. We run into this most often at the executive level, when a company retains a recruiter to fill a particular role, giving that recruiter the exclusive right to do so. This is a result of an individual or an agency having a proven, industry-specific ability to find top-notch talent. These recruiters have very strong relationships with their corporate clients and are truly in the business of consultative sales.
  • Contracted is the least common, but on occasion, companies will “rent a recruiter” to work for them on an hourly basis.

With both retained & contingent search, the recruiter’s commission will usually be anywhere from 10% – 40% of the candidate’s first year salary. (Yes, it’s a big range.) The employer pays this commission directly to the recruiter, without involving the candidate in the transaction. If you want to read more about this process, Wikipedia and Undercover Recruiter have pretty solid explanations.

How They’re NOT Getting Paid

Under no circumstances do recruiters get paid by candidates to place them in jobs. Never. This is not a legitimate business model and you should never, ever give someone money to find a job for you. If you’ve been job-searching for a while, you’ve probably run into businesses that make grandiose claims of what they can do for you… usually for thousands of dollars. It’s absolutely a scam and not how the industry works. If you encounter a recruiter or agency who asks you for money directly, run screaming in the other direction. And leave a pile of worms in their mailbox.

Should You Work With a Recruiter?

Absolutely! Why not? You literally have nothing to lose. Except hope. If you pin all yours to a recruiter and expect him to manage your search for you. But if you understand this industry and have realistic expectations, recruiters are one more tool in your tool-kit. And that’s a good thing.

Working Effectively With a Recruiter (i.e. Having Realistic Expectations)

Once you understand the basics of the recruiting business, it’s easy to see where you fit in as a candidate:

You’re not the one hiring and paying the recruiter. The employer is. They are the client. As the candidate, you are the product that’s being sold.

I know, I know that’s really harsh. But if you find a great recruiter, you won’t feel like a commodity. A great recruiter will do her best to build a relationship with you, advocate for you, and coach you through the hiring process. It will feel seamless. Like you’ve found your new BFF and business partner. On the flip side, a crappy recruiter who treats job seekers poorly isn’t going to be in business for very long. But you’ll still run into them in your journey. Sadly.

No matter how wonderful your recruiter is, remember that her job is to fill the open requisition for her client – the employer – by finding the best candidate for the job. There’s no such thing as a recruiter that you can hire to find a job for you. The relationship only flows in one direction.

How the Heck to Find a Recruiter

Google. LinkedIn. Your friends. Your colleagues. Your friendly neighborhood Career Coach. These are all great jumping off points for finding recruiters. Once you’ve got the name and contact information, your next step is quite revolutionary in 2014: Pick up the damn phone and call them! Introduce yourself and ask if you’re the type of candidate they would be interested in getting to know. Set up a meeting.

Yes, you might get the brush off. If that happens, rinse, repeat, and move on to the next person. It’s totally fine to reach out to multiple people in the industry. Remember you’re dealing with professionals who are trying to provide a product for their clients. If you don’t fit that product profile, they’re not going to be that motivated to spend a lot of time with you.

Do NOT take this personally. It’s business. It’s sales.

Alternately, if you can connect with one who is confident that you’re a great fit for his client, or who has an open requisition that’s a great match for your skillset, you’ve hit the jackpot! Run with it!

What You Can Do Right Now!

If you want to work effectively with recruiters, I highly recommend you start reading blogs and following key influencers on social media. My personal favorite at the moment is Stacy Zapar. There are loads of other great people out there, too! Look around, be an information sponge.

Aside from that, develop a short list of the recruiters and firms that seem like the best fit for you, practice your pitch, and then reach out! This does not require a lot of prep. Move into action. Now.

Written by Kim Eisenberg

Kim Eisenberg

I provide individual and corporate career development services to clients throughout the US. I’m your trusted business advisor, motivational speaker, professional butt-kicker, and complacency crusher rolled into one.

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