Depending on how familiar they are with your industry and its jargon, executive recruiters may not always speak your language. But if you want to keep moving up the organization chart, it’s smart to learn theirs.

Key Takeaways

  • Employment recruiters, also known informally as 'headhunters', are in the business of finding qualified individuals to place in jobs.
  • A headhunter only makes money if you get hired, so keep in mind that they are working for you as well as the company that hired them to fill the position.
  • Get the headhunter to be your advocate by being friendly, honest, and positive throughout the job search process.

Start a Dialogue

Even if you see no immediate gain for yourself in doing so, it’s usually worth taking headhunters’ calls or answering their emails. You might have the most rewarding and seemingly secure job in the world right now, but that could change with the arrival of a new boss, a merger or any number of things.

A headhunter might also be a useful contact for any of your friends, family members or colleagues who are in the market for a new position. Plus, headhunters who focus on particular industries can have useful information about what’s going on in the field that might help you in your current job. So take at least a moment to chat and be sure to get the headhunter’s contact info for future reference.

Be Friendly

At the same time know that the headhunter isn’t exactly your friend. If he or she is on anyone's side, it's that of the client they're doing a search for. This is a business relationship, pure and simple, ideally with something in it for both of you. 

Be Honest

If the headhunter has you in mind as a prospect for a job, hear him or her out and then offer a candid opinion of whether you’re at all interested. If you’re not, the headhunter won’t be offended, but in fact will probably be grateful that you didn’t string the process along. If you’re intrigued, but uncomfortable having this sort of conversation at work, ask the headhunter if you can make an appointment to talk later, when you can speak more freely. 

Stick to the Point

Headhunters are busy people (so are most of us, but they may think of themselves as especially busy). Once you're in a position to talk (see above), try to answer the headhunter’s questions with more than brief grunts, but less than your complete autobiography. If you get a sense that the headhunter is getting bored, you’re probably right. 

Be Helpful

If you aren’t interested in the job but have other worthy names to suggest to the headhunter, do so. The headhunter will appreciate it, as well, probably, the people you recommend. Being helpful will make it more likely that the headhunter will call you back someday with another, possibly better opportunity. But don’t recommend anyone you have serious doubts about, or the headhunter may end up questioning your judgment.

Be Positive

You’ll make a better impression if you avoid criticizing past or present employers, competitors or anyone else. If you sound negative or gossipy, the headhunter may worry that you’d be that way in your next job, too. Besides, there is probably nothing bad you could say about anybody in your business that the headhunter hasn’t already heard from other sources.

Don’t Expect Too Much

Headhunters rarely have the time to help you rewrite your resume or offer a lot of career counseling. (That’s why there are career counselors, life coaches and all the rest.) Remember that they aren’t working for you but for their client, the organization paying them to hunt heads.

Keep Your Cool

If a headhunter who once seemed keen on recruiting you suddenly stops answering your calls or emails, that may seem rude. However, it’s common in their field, and not worth getting worked up about. There’s nothing to be gained – and possibly much to be lost – by sending the headhunter an angry, sarcastic diatribe for treating you shabbily. You may be right, but you’ll just come off as unprofessional. 

The Bottom Line

For your own self-interest, try to build a cordial relationship with any headhunters you talk to and leave them with the impression that you’d be happy to speak again in the future. Aim to keep the lines of communication open.