How to Choose a Headhunter - Honour Among Headhunters

In my last article about headhunter fees, I wondered how you could trust to get a headhunter to keep the promises they made when they told you they were the very best headhunter in all the world.  The problem is with most service organisations you have to make a start on a "Trust me" basis - until they let you down!

At this juncture, I should point out I have a foot in both camps: I celebrate seven years as a headhunter this month, but before that I employed headhunters to find me senior managers all over Europe in the B2B service sector. I'm sorry to report I wasn't very impressed with any (expect one I found in Norway who was the first and only headhunter who did what he said he would do). Most were far too "wide" in their approach, their chalk-stripe, and their shoulder pads, for my tastes.

There are no guarantees (well there are, but more of that later), but here are some ways to test if the him or her standing in front of you can keep their promises:

1.   Will they commit to your first interview date on the day they're appointed?

Any experienced headhunter should have a sense of how difficult (or easy!) any search is going to be, and how long it will take - NO HEADHUNT SHOULD TAKE MORE THAN SIX WEEKS from the start to the point of you first interview. So they should be able to commit to a specific date right at the start. If they start to wriggle on this: GO ELSEWHERE!

I can always commit to a date right at the start. It can get close, but having a date certainly grabs my attention and makes sure I have a target to hit. I know other headhunters think this is stupid and unnecessary. As a client, I need a damn sight more than a vague promise.

2.   Will they work to a Service Level Agreement (SLA)?

It's easy to commit to some simple and specific service standards. For example, how quickly they will respond to candidate contact, or how regularly they will feedback to the client, or how they will treat candidates to protect the client's brand and market image. It's hardly complicated, so I don't understand why some headhunters don't do it.

3.   Look at their Terms and Conditions.

Read them properly. Yes, I know it's a bore, but just reading them tells you something about the headhunter. If they're full of legal jargon and let-outs and escape routes, that could mean you're left taking the vast bulk of the risk. Is that how you treat your customers?

4.   Will they guarantee their work?

If they've taken the time to understand your needs, and they've worked to your brief, and they've delivered a shortlist of qualified candidates, why wouldn't they? It's easy to give at least a guarantee to replace any failed candidate for no extra charge for 3 months. And they may take that further with a gentle nudge.

5.   Ask them if they use LinkedIn to find people.

If they say they don't - they speak with forked tongue - or they're so out of touch you minds as well not bother. LinkedIn is just a tool like any other. It makes finding people easier, but the skill is still about reaching them and getting their engagement.


There are lot's of other ways to take this further, but these 5 will help you identify those you're likely to get who will work diligently on your behalf - and isolate those you should avoid like the plague. I'm afraid they exist, but we shouldn't give them elbow room.


(Image courtesy of

Views: 289

Comment by Derdiver on April 20, 2013 at 11:34am
Great post!
Comment by Linda Ferrante on April 24, 2013 at 10:24am

I would argue the LI point.  Not everyone is on it, and some execs don't see the need nor feel the value in it.  Honestly, I can't blame them.  It's just a tool.  The headhunter, however, should have a COMPLETE webprint on themselves, to lend credibility. 

Comment by Martin Ellis on April 24, 2013 at 12:04pm

Linda. My point isn't that you just find people directly on LI, but it's a great way to find sources too. Anybody not using it is working harder than they need to. I appreciate not everybody feels the need, but doesn't it make you wonder if they're a little out of touch?......

Comment by PAUL FOREL on March 1, 2014 at 4:17pm

Hello, Martin!

Well, you sure are an interesting person- the first thing I pick up is that you lack 'trust'. As a search consultant I'm sure that suits you and is probably a characterization I'd say is a good thing to have. As a client, though, I can see it would be difficult to engage you as a business partner and I'd probably pass were I first meeting you and was endeavoring to do a search for you; I think your caution would become a stumbling block for me.

Especially when you would suggest a search must take less than six weeks to complete. This is too broad a guideline for my taste. I do agree it is a reasonable average but not a realistic 'must-be'.

And what is your fascination with LinkedIn? Were you to ask me if I use LI, I'd probably first want to suggest that 'you be the client and I'll be the search consultant' and when I do present a recruit and you want to know the source, I may be inclined to suggest 'you stick to interviewing and I'll stick to sourcing'.

Do you ask this because you are a recruiter and want to compare notes? As a client, I'd think it more relevant to stick to the fact my recruit comes from an appropriate competitor of yours or comes from your industry.

Did you really say [in one of your videos] that you expect to have all your recruits ready for a F2F interview on the same day? The same day? The same day?

Are you joking? What a perfect world you must live in...

Regarding Guarantees, I generally agree, especially with your premise that if the work done is solid, it should stand the test of time for certainly at least six months and in fact, I've suggested the same with clients but decline offering it since you never know when that bus will be coming around the corner and might, well, you know. I do tell clients, once the search is complete and the recruit is hired that they should call me even ten months later if something is amiss since again, as you said, good work should be sticky in nature and although I may not offer a 'free' replacement after ten months, it is entirely probable I would extend some kind of offering that would, hopefully, suit both parties.

I don't supply short lists. Doing so during the course of a retained search might have me submitting a 'warm body' just to meet the requirement of being issued my second third of the search fee. It is possible that after only thirty days/forty-five days I may have no suitable candidates and I don't want to build into my search contract a barrier to receiving the second third of my recruitment fee.

I do not understand your reluctance to receiving a search fee based on the traditional formula of 33.3% of the total compensation. Your suggesting a fixed fee avoids 'surprises' [not sure you used that word but that is your intent] is not, IMO, a realistic objection since surely, any adjustment of the total amount of the search fee due is predicated most probably on an anticipated range of salary possibilities. In most cases, an example would be an expectation at the start of the search of paying $140K but actually making an Offer of Employment based on $155K or maybe $160K. That is not sticker price shock, that is merely an adjustment to suit the particular recruit, job specification and whatever else may figure into the final salary calculation. In such events, the search consultant should merely be sure the client understands in advance that the anticipated salary may need to be adjusted based on the final specifics.

Any 'discounting' of search fees you execute affects us all, Martin. My request is that you stick to the industry formula.

Psychometrics?  No babble, just another way to measure a candidate's capacity for performance. A documented and verifiable track record of accomplishments (given the past job is reasonably translatable to the new job) ought to accomplish the same thing and might save you on testing fees. This would be especially true if your interviewer is reasonably competent in the domain of reading people, Martin.

I'd still like to know what brings you to remark on LinkedIn since, after all, as you yourself said, the source of a candidate is only the tip of the iceberg; that the ability to bring a 'qualified' recruit to your table for assessment is possible only with a series of successful next steps.

And of course, what if I bring you someone I recruited using traditional methods and only used LI to check the person out after I had that person's name? Of what use or concern to you would it be to ask this question since so many professionals are listed at LI but their being there may not have been the trigger for me to have contacted that person in the first place?

If for example I was recruiting a senior actuarial professional for the insurance industry, LI would not be my first choice of resource since there are other, more focused data bases available.

Oh, by the way, if I see "passion" on a resume, it goes into the round file. This is an over-used word someone invented as what they thought was a good idea (it was a marketing person) but has no place on most resumes except for the Arts.

I always suggest 'enthusiastic' or forms of the word, instead.

Thanks, Martin.



Comment by Martin Ellis on March 2, 2014 at 4:08am

Thanks for a very full comment Paul. Not many bother that much!

I'll just pick up on a three points:

The 'trust' issue is very broad. When I used headhunters in a past life, I learned not to trust them. Each experience wasn't very good (bar one I used in Norway who opened me on this part of my career).

Regarding prices/fees. I don't think I'm discounting, but just presenting my fees differently. And I'm not sure there's an industry 'norm'. I haven't seen a competitive quote anywhere close to 33.3% for years.

And LinkedIn is just a tool. If I give the impression it's the only tool, then I should apologise. If another headhunter told me they never used LinkedIn, then I don't believe them, or they're making life more difficult than they need to.

Sorry for such a short reply to a lot of comments. You clearly did your research, for which I am rather flattered. We seem to agree on some stuff and not on others. That's how the world turns I guess.

Comment by Martin Ellis on March 2, 2014 at 4:34am

...and just to add one other comment Paul, more often than not, I can get 3/4 people to a client interview on the same day even for very senior roles. If I've agreed an interview date on the day of sale (which I also do) then I can make sure candidates are aware of that date from the outset. Maybe I'm doing it wrong, but it just doesn't seem to be much of an issue. It has all sorts of benefits, not the least of which it makes it easier for a client to make a choice and a decision, and it also makes sure I don't have candidates cooling their heels as the interview cycle drags along.

Comment by PAUL FOREL on March 3, 2014 at 1:17am

Hello, Martin...

Well, you know the world of recruitment existed long before LI came along. I do use it but it is often a source to add to my knowledge before I pick up the phone to call someone I sourced on my own.

As for not trusting recruitment firms....well, I guess. Another war story about inexperienced or less than ethical recruiters....what else is new.

I'm just sorry it is so easy for flakos to be in our business.

Like I've say, I've been apologizing for my competitors since I first got started in this business.

As I had suggested 'trust' does not come easy for you, I'm sure 'caution' has always been one of your tools and I'm sure it has served you well.

A reliable search consultant in Norway? Well, then it is true, after all, that one must on occasion go 'around the world' to find an honest man. We should tell Diogenes, he won't have to use up all that lamp oil walking around, LOL...

If it is not proprietary I'd like to know what, specifically, you charge for recruitment fees. "differently"?

On that 'competitive pricing', well, on contingency I go either full fee (33.3%) or as is more often seen, 25%; I won't go less than twenty-five percent although, as I'm typing this, I do remember agreeing to this with Litton Industries in Beverly Hills (Telecom Mgr) back in the early eighties and I think it was Seagate, yes, it was Seagate who got me at twenty percent (Quality Mgr), back sometime in 2001 or 2002.

Not that I'd ever admit to it.

I don't think I've ever had to 'compete' with anyone; when I've gone to twenty-five percent it was because it was that company's policy and I don't like to waste my time fighting City Hall.

All my retained searches are at 33.3% plus expenses, no exceptions.

As for your 'all on the same day' interviews, I don't have that kind of luck; my candidates come in at different times so having them all come in at the same time just never seems to apply as a possibility for me.

You look organized, LOL, I guess you are organized, Martin!

As for LI, I'm not suggesting it is the only source or that you had suggested this; just curious to know why you would bring it up since there are other sources for recruits other than LI....

That's why I was wondering if you are comparing notes...

Wait, you set interview dates on the same day you get a search agreement?

Boy, now that is organized.

Oh and again about fees. I have run into situations where a client/possible client have told me they have recruiters who have agreed to as little as ten and fifteen percent.

In these instances I simply tell them 'good' and wish them luck. I don't trust an employer who would tell me that and then suggest they would also see my candidates at my usual fee since if they show me they are willing to trust 'recruiters' who only charge ten or fifteen percent then I don't trust them overall.

Seen too many companies go capricious on me halfway through a process to waste my time when there is 'something rotten in Denmark' at the outset of forming a search agreement.

I only need to see the tip to know what the rest of the 'berg looks like and 'hoping' it gets better or that the client will magically act sanely after coming off wrong is not logical nor does it work.

Better to cut it off sooner than waste time finding out after the fact I am dealing with a loose cannon.

So, uh, speaking about 'loose cannons' what are they saying about President Obama over there?

Be Well, Martin.



Comment by Martin Ellis on March 3, 2014 at 2:30am

Hi Paul,

Just one comment on LI. Here in the UK there are 10 million users. That means almost everybody I touch is there. People give themselves away in all sorts of ways they'd never intended (by their connections, their groups and their activity) Best example is somebody who has 30 recommendations, but none from customers, all collected in one month - at least they have the ability to organise their friends!

Summary on Obama over here is he's struggling. The Economist Newspaper (ever read? great international perspective) broadly says he's wasted two terms. He's not had it easy, but he's walked past all his opportunities.

Finally. Yes I am organised. I find it better to manage the client than have them manage me - or else everything drags out and gets messy. They start out all eager, then life interferes and they almost disconnect. At least with an interview date in their diary they feel the deadline too.

Thanks for the debate. Always good to be challenged!


Comment by PAUL FOREL on March 3, 2014 at 10:22am


Hmmm, depending on the speaker, I'd rather learn than challenge.

Yes, I do read The Economist and I also have the BBC News on my Smartphone (I have twenty-two publications on my Smartphone) but I thought I'd ask you since as an individual I figured you would have a more personalized perspective.

The O is not a President; he is an attorney who likes to talk.

Anyway, I totally agree about managing the client vs. having the client manage me. I hate being one step behind whatever a client is going to do next and in fact, one of my greatest strengths is anticipating people and knowing ahead of time what will be done or said next.

Hah, I am lucky about my candidates' integrity- I work niche markets that require a certain amount of competence in order to execute so just about everyone I speak with/recruit has professional connections and consistent Groups and Followings that make sense.

As for myself, with one individual exception so far, I decline connect invitations unless that person is part of my core industry, military/former military personnel being another exception. I don't want clients/potential clients looking at my Profile at LI and wondering why I have left field or right field connects at my Profile. Well, uh, I do have a LION there but at least he seems to be a credible industry person. I won't do that again, though, LOL.

Also, I have another advantage- all my recruits, being similarly qualified, have winning resumes reflecting Excellence so with occasional exception I don't have to spend time re-writing resumes or wondering if they are 'really' qualified.

Well, I'm going to think about what you say about setting interview dates in advance- I can see where priming the client to know when they are committed to speaking with me again could be an advantage toward client control.

Thanks for that, Martin.

A random chuckle- at the company where I started in the business, we had someone who specialized in Actuarial recruitment.

In fact, he was an actuary, himself.

He had been jailed for doing something illegal and when he was released, he apparently could not go back into the business so he executive recruiter!

He had left just before I came on board but from his reputation, it seemed he was legitimate and ran a straight desk. He also, of course, knew all the actuaries at every insurance company.

Sort of like a safe cracker who becomes a recruiter of mechanical engineers.

Stay Well, Martin and I will do some studying as I had promised regarding psychometric assessment.

Best Regards,


Comment by Martin Ellis on March 3, 2014 at 10:28am

Thanks Paul. I like your actuarial story. Sounds like "poacher turned gamekeeper" as we'd say here. It has some merits! Take care.


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