What to Do When a Headhunter Calls

For Starters, Pick Up the Phone; This Is No Time to Lose Sight of Yourself

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Paul Gumbinner
Paul Gumbinner

When I was a young account guy, I was always delighted when a headhunter got in touch with me (it is OK to call them that). I always took or returned the call; I knew it was in my own best interest. And, at least once, I got a new job out of it.

When I became a recruiter, I was surprised by how many people failed to take or return my call. I understand that everyone is busy, and today, more than ever, employees are asked to work harder with less support, so it is easy to put the recruiter message on the bottom of the pile. But everyone's first priority, especially in today's volatile market, ought to be themselves. The bottom line is that if a recruiter doesn't know you today, he or she cannot help you tomorrow.

So what do you do when a headhunter calls? The first thing is to speak to him or her. You want to determine why you are being called and what's in it for you. You want to determine what kind of recruiter it is. There are recruiters who specialize in one industry (advertising, for instance) and recruiters who deal only in certain departments (for example, account people, planners, media, creative).

Recruiters vs. 'senders'
While there are recruiters who are interested in your career and can help you plan your moves carefully, there are also "senders" who simply try to get your resume in front of as many people as possible in the hope of making a placement, whether it is in your interest or not. So it's critical to determine how the person who calls works and if he or she has your best interests at heart.

Much of that can be done during the initial conversation. Determine how long they have been in business, for whom they recruit and the levels in which they usually place people. Are they calling for a specific opening or just to meet you? If possible, determine what their reputations are; ask friends, business acquaintances, even human-resources people from previous jobs. Be wary of recruiters who don't know you but in that first call insist they have the "perfect" job for you.

Paul Gumbinner is president of the Gumbinner Co., New York. Before starting his executive-search firm in 1985, he spent 20 years in advertising, as an account person in categories including package goods, cosmetics, broadcasting, financial services, publishing, retail and fast food.

If they call with a referral from someone you know and trust or they seem to have your interests in mind, make the time to see them, even if it is just to get to know each other -- or for "futures," as I like to say. There is no excuse for a recruiter who is in close proximity to you to do a phone interview, even though it is simpler for you both. That personal knowledge is critical both for you as a candidate and for the recruiter's clients. Not only should recruiters know you, they should know the cultures of their clients so they can make a good match for you both. If they have a specific job in mind, find out what and where and at what level. Make it clear that your resume is not to be sent to anyone without your specific permission and not to be sent until you have actually met the recruiter.

Also, be very wary of recruiters who send you on "speculative" interviews; you do not want to be exposed in the marketplace.

Goals and ambitions
In addition to the usual interview questions, the best recruiters will ask you about your goals and ambitions. The really smart recruiters should be able to give you advice on how to achieve your personal objectives and even be able to help you develop a personal plan to achieve them.

If the recruiter is a really good one, he or she will be with you for a good long portion of your career. There are many candidates I have placed several times, and there are others whom I have never placed, but I have given them counsel and advice over many years. Those are very satisfying relationships. And establishing such a relationship starts the day the recruiter first calls you.

Answer the phone.

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