How to Choose a Headhunter - Great questions to test them...

Since I started writing this "How to Choose a Headhunter" series in 2008, the world of recruitment/headhunting has turned upside down. Back then, my first post was the top questions I'd advise anybody considering engaging a headhunter for the first time, but time has moved on and the questions have changed - although not all of them!

Test your headhunter with great questions.....

So here's the main questions I'd ask if I were you - I'll omit "How Much?" as it's too obvious:

"How long will the search take?"

If they won't give you a straight answer, ditch them. If they're experienced they'll know within a whisker how long any search will take. If they don't offer to book a date in your diary for your first interview, ditch them again. In my experience, no search should take more than 6 weeks and very often less.

"Do you use LinkedIn to find candidates?"

If they tell you they don't, ditch them. They're either lying, or so out of touch that they're still relying on their steam-driven technology. I suspect they may still have a fax machine and print out their emails.

Every headhunter should use LinkedIn, but on its own it can be something of a blunt tool. Now that everybody is on it, candidates are increasingly cautious about responding, so approaches have to be personal and considered. Truth to tell, a headhunter should be working with a suite of tools and the phone should be glued to their hands. These days, candidates have to be courted by people who know how to speak their language.

"Will you guarantee your work?"

Any headhunter worth their salt will offer a 3 month guarantee without blinking. They should stretch to 6 months if they have confidence that they know how to match a company to a candidate.

"How will I know if you're on pace with the search?"

This one is a little more tricky, but you should gain some confidence if they commit to your first interview date at the start. They should also be able to update you at least weekly on progress - and they should be chasing you! If you start chasing your headhunter, they've got bored. Ditch them.

They may offer to send you updates and candidate spreadsheets, but anybody can construct one of those.

"What happens if I don't like your shortlist?"

Sometimes, just occasionally, you won't. The candidates have all the right skills and experience on paper, but you simply don't connect....

...but there are ways to lessen the chances of that happening.

Firstly, the headhunter should make GARGANTUAN efforts to understand you and your business. They should ask shed-loads of dumb questions to show they really want to understand your needs. If they don't ask you loads of questions, ditch them.

Secondly, they can use psychometric analysis to understand the individual better and even assess their line manager to check for fit and areas of potential conflict.

Thirdly, they can share CV's with you early (they may want to scrub out family names and contact details - issues of trust there for another blog!) and use them to discuss the  key points and check for clarity. Such an approach should give you some comfort that they understand your needs thoroughly way before it comes to crunch time.

Finally, if you don't like the shortlist, the headhunter has to smile and accept your decision. They don't have to like it, or even agree with it, but they certainly shouldn't be trying to twist your arm behind your back - never a promising tactic! - and anyway, the network they've built should be delivering a steady stream of names and they should have a Plan B.

In six years I've had one total shortlist kickback. It can be disheartening, but it has to be dealt with. There's no throwing the toys out of the pram in a hissy-fit. I had a Plan B (I always carry on engaging with new candidates as they emerge even after the shortlist has been delivered - and sometimes I will add them to the shortlist at the last moment).

"Do you have any references I could talk to?"

I'm surprised that more prospective customers don't ask for references from my customer base. They should do. If you're looking for a headhunter, YOU should ask.

"How do you think a CV/resume should be constructed?"

An odd question you may think from a client perspective, but the answer could signpost how much they know and how modern their outlook. CV/resume are no longer a paper document. How they were laid out just 4 years ago, no longer applies - are they keeping pace with industry developments, or are they still living in the past? To discover how to construct a CV/resume, click here

"How much?" - (OK. I lied earlier. It is a question that should be asked)

I'll explore this one in another blog very soon as it deserves more time, but if you find yourself needing to ask because you're not convinced that this headhunter understands your needs, ditch them. A poor, cheap headhunter will cost you more in the long run than a stunningly good one with a higher fee. Price is always a consideration, but the most expensive is often not the best. The most expensive probably also has expensive tastes in office furniture.

Written by Martin Ellis - email him

Views: 4180

Comment by bob ward on December 6, 2012 at 11:54am

Some very good points.  Your statement that no search should take more than six weeks could be misleading.  For less skilled/experienced roles, perhaps I would agree.  As you move up the food chain, searches usually take from 60 to 120 days.  Some searches can last for months given location, attractiveness of the employer, and cooperation of the client.  Just my perspective.

Comment by Suzanne Levison on December 6, 2012 at 11:56am

Some good points here.

I have found senior Level searches may take longer than the time frame mentioned.

CV, Resume is ALWAYS (IMO) the preferred method of the client.

Guarantee periods vary~another nuance of a specific search project

I find it puzzling that a "short list" of candidates initially presented should cause angst~A great match of candidates evolves over the search process..yes, the search professional may present exact position responsibility matches initially, but there are so many other variables!

Comment by Suzanne Levison on December 6, 2012 at 12:02pm

Martin, I just now glanced at your profile you cannot live without? mentioned LinkedIn first, then phone~Those of us experienced Executive Search Professionals have been recruiting long before LinkedIn was "born." We relied upon our contacts, via phone, in person meetings, and other industry periodicals to prospect. LinkedIn (to me) is an excellent tool, but still a tool of the trade.

Comment by Martin Ellis on December 6, 2012 at 5:48pm


Thanks for your comments Bob. I've been headhunting for 6 years now. I started without a HR or recruitment background and only because I'd been frustrated by headhunters when I employed them. I thought I could do better than those I'd used who I found expensive and slow. My experience since is that searches higher up the food chain are shorter rather than longer - if only because the brief is usually so precise that it's easier to define and reach the fewer people who meet the brief. I have undertaken some very senior roles and not one has taken more than 6 weeks despite geography. Just for clarity, by six weeks I mean from the day of engagement to the clients first interview.


LinkedIn simply helps me build a network very quickly. I did headhunt pre-LinkedIn and it's much easier now, although the trick is getting people to engage with me having gotten used to many more approaches than they may have had previously. I agree LinkedIn is only one tool, but it's very powerful. You will also have noted I also mentioned using my eyes and ears. Listening may be more powerful than LinkedIn alone.

You have both inspired me to write more blogs around your comments. Thank you.

Comment by bob ward on December 6, 2012 at 7:52pm


New data.  Six weeks to an interview between the client and a candidate(s) is what I consider the norm if not a little long.  I advise clients that every effort is made to introduce clients within 30 days but no promise.

Comment by Gordon Alderson on December 6, 2012 at 8:49pm


Here's a couple more good questions for our clients:-

How quick, complete and fool-proof is your briefing method and technology?

How will you ensure that the decision that I make about the preferred candidate is not over-ruled by others in the organisation?

Comment by Martin Ellis on December 7, 2012 at 2:54am


The second question is a toughie, but I try to get to the 'final' decision maker right at the start of the search and get them on-side from the beginning. Getting to the right line management is the key here. My SLA insists on direct access. It doesn't always work, but it does help most of the time.

Comment by Gordon Alderson on December 7, 2012 at 5:50am

Hey Martin,

SLA??  For a moment there I thought you were a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army then my favourite Search Engine led me to Service Level Agreement - Phew!!

We are working hard here in Oz on a SaaS-based product that will inspire Hiring Managers as well as Final Decision Makers to be involved in a 15 minute process (no painful meetings – they work independently of each other) that delivers their precise combined, ranked and weighted profile of Attributes they want us recruiters to find in exemplary candidates.

It has worked every time on a MS Excel platform for the better part of 15 years so, once we have bedded-in the SaaS version here in Oz I expect it will go on the "Cloud" (dreadful description of what it really is).

NOT problem solved but it sure helps us recruiters dig beneath the surface of our clients' minds before we start our assignments.  In brief "Recruit with the End Defined".

With no less work by us professional recruiters (head hunters, retained, contingency, temps, casuals, internal, RPO or whatever) this leads to 100% client satisfaction.

Believe me, I'm the most impatient person on the planet for it to be in the market place.

Comment by Martin Ellis on December 7, 2012 at 10:06am

Hi Gordon. No! I'm the most impatient!!! :-)

Comment by Martin Ellis on December 7, 2012 at 2:11pm

Hi Daren,

I certainly didn't write that LinkedIn is used to the exclusion of everything else. It's just another tool, but one not to be ignored. Nor do I think every search should take 6 weeks - in most cases that's the maximum. Trouble is, many headhunters (at least in the UK) won't commit to a date, and how does a client work with that?

I stick to my guns on the guarantee. If I've done my job properly, then there should be a good match. My guarantee has some sensible conditions to cover some of the points you raise.

I agree that for the US geography plays a much bigger role than in the UK. In comparison we are tiny, so we do have it much easier than you. I've worked in the US so understand that 3 time zones are a nightmare I don't have to think about. Thank goodness!

I can see your comments are heartfelt and sorry I don't agree with you on some of them. As ever, the devil is in the detail. My original blog assumed that stuff like salary was 'right' and I do appreciate it's never as simple as that.

Have a good weekend. I though I should write this before my first beer.


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