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15 Tips for Working with Recruiters and Headhunters


If you’re looking for a new job, you may wonder if you should work with a recruiter. Or perhaps recruiters are seeking you out — whether you are job-hunting or not.

I’m asked this question every day by jobseekers: “Should I consider working with recruiters?” Let me give you my honest answer.

I believe that you’re your own best advocate when it comes to jobseeking. However, recruiters can be a very helpful addition — and, almost always, working with recruiters is free! If you want to be as competitive as possible in your job search, definitely consider working with recruiters. But don’t stop your own search — do both together.

Don’t contact the employer directly. Once you are in the process of working with recruiters and interviewing with the client employer, this is a no-no. Doing so is the same as going over the recruiter’s head. Trust your recruiter to see you through the process.

These are my 15 best tips for how to work with recruiters.

1. Understand that recruiters don’t work for you. When working with recruiters, this is a big one! The clients of recruiters are the employers, not the jobseekers. A recruiter will be delighted to work with you, but only if you meet the specifications required to fill a position for an employer. At the end of the day, the company that is hiring will pay the recruiter’s bill. So, remember that every interaction with the recruiter is part of the interview process. When it comes to being professional, don’t let your guard down.

2. Consider recruiters who specialize in your field. Not every recruiter fills every type of job. Most recruiters specialize in specific industries and job functions. For this reason, you will likely have the most productive relationships with recruiters specializing in your field or job function. You will even want to develop relationships with different recruiters based on geography, as certain recruiters will fill jobs in one city while others will focus on other areas.

3. Know whether a given recruiter utilizes an inventory of candidates. Some recruiters maintain a list of resumes that they turn to when a client employer requests that they fill a position. Others prefer to find new candidates for each role and won’t consult their list of resumes unless they can’t find someone fresh. Ask the recruiters you contact whether they’d like to keep your resume on file even if they don’t have an appropriate opening for you at the moment.

4. Don’t worry about the model (contingency or retained) through which the recruiter is paid. Contingency recruiters are paid when they make a placement, while retained recruiters are usually paid up front, regardless of the search results. Retained recruiters tend to work with companies when they have executive-level jobs open. Jobseekers shouldn’t worry about which pay model their recruiters use since, at the end of the day, you probably won’t have much control about which kind you work with.

5. Be prepared to put a positive spin on your status if you’re unemployed. If you are unemployed, recruiters may see that status as a red flag. Especially in a weak economy when they can be very selective, recruiters, like many employers, assume that something is wrong with you if you are out of work. Of course, this judgment is unfair. To some extent, you can combat this bias against the unemployed by engaging in productive, resume-worthy activities while out of work — consulting, project work, volunteering, and professional development. It won’t always work, but it’s better than not addressing your unemployed status. Either way, be prepared to discuss your employment status in a positive or neutral way. If this is a sensitive area, take the time to write your story down. Practice it on friends. Record yourself. Work through your story until you truly feel comfortable with it. It will make a huge difference in your job interview delivery.

6. Tailor your communications to each recruiter’s preferences. Learning how to write an exceptional resume and cover letter will always help you to stand out with recruiters. However, do check with the recruiting firms you contact for their preferences regarding resumes and cover letters. You can often find this information on their websites but, if not, just ask. Also, determine how they want you to submit these documents. Usually, they will want them submitted via email, but it pays to double-check. In some cases, you will upload them directly to their site. Finally, research how each recruiter prefers to be contacted and stay in touch periodically, but don’t be a pest. An initial follow-up call two weeks after you submit your resume is a good rule of thumb. If you update your resume, resubmit it or contact the recruiter to relay the new information.

7. Make it easy for recruiters to find you. Since many recruiters prefer not to be contacted unless they have an appropriate search going on, you’ll want to be visible to them so they can find you. There are a number of things you can do to be more visible to recruiters and hiring managers. Be sure to add your activity to your resume, portfolio, and LinkedIn profile so that they can see your accomplishments. It’ll help keep you fresh in their minds.

  • Write articles. Consider writing a guest submission on a topic in your field for a newspaper, blog, or website.
  • Take on big projects. Volunteer for projects that will grow your skills beyond where they are today. These will give you more exposure and will look great on your resume.
  • Give presentations. Consider giving presentations in your community on topics you are passionate about. You can often volunteer to be a guest speaker at a local club or community group.
  • Be active in trade and professional associations. Be sure to stay dialed into what the professional organizations in your field are doing.
  • Serve as an expert source for the media. Being quoted in articles or serving as a guest expert on the morning news can be a great way to show your industry knowledge.
  • Be active in your community. Volunteer for causes you’re passionate about.
  • Serve as a guest lecturer or adjunct professor at a university or community college. Universities are always looking for guest lecturers. Speak on a topic you know through your industry.
  • Cultivate a professional online presence on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a great way to stay connected to your professional network. If you use Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, be sure that you are putting your best foot forward, as employers will Google you.
  • Consider creating your own portfolio site to disseminate your thought leadership. Having a personal website can be a great way to combine your resume, your endorsements, your community involvement, and your press in one place.

8. When a recruiter calls, ask key questions as you decide whether to work with them. Ask what recruiting firm they represent. Ask about their experience with your industry. Inquire about the recruiter’s process. Then conduct research, including among members of your own network, to get a feel for the recruiter’s reputation and decide whether to proceed with this recruiter. Note whether the recruiter is a good listener. They’re not working for you, but you do need to have good communication with the recruiter to ensure they understand your needs and desires.

9. Don’t contact the employer directly. Once you are in the process of working with recruiters and interviewing with the client employer, this is a no-no. Doing so is the same as going over the recruiter’s head. Trust your recruiter to see you through the process.

10. Don’t back out of your commitments once you have agreed to be a candidate. Be sure you’re willing to see the process through. Don’t toy with the recruiter if you’re not serious about pursuing this opportunity. You will quickly fall out of the recruiter’s good graces if you back out, say, just as the employer makes an offer.

11. Trust the recruiter. In most cases, the recruiter has the experience and wisdom to give you the best advice as you work through your interactions with the client employer. It’s not a good idea to argue with the recruiter.

12. Let the recruiter negotiate your compensation package. Not only can you discuss your compensation package with your recruiter and get their advice, but the recruiter can present your requests to the employer. One thing that’s very different when you work with an external recruiter is that they will want to know your salary expectations right up front. They will require it. Be ready to have this conversation, and remember, they ultimately work for the employer.

13. Thank your recruiter at the end of the process. Failing to express gratitude is a significant mistake. A simple thank-you goes a long way toward cementing your relationship with the recruiter — yet few candidates exercise this simple common courtesy. Giving the recruiter a LinkedIn recommendation or a positive Google review also can’t hurt.

14. Be open to contact from the recruiter even after you’ve landed a job. You never know when you might need the recruiter again. You can get great support from recruiters, but only if you get to know them over time. You cannot turn them away when you’re done looking for a job and expect them to be waiting when you are ready.

15. Serve as a resource to recruiters after you have the job. One of the best ways to ensure a productive relationship with recruiters long into your career is to help them out by recommending top-performing friends and members of your network to them.

I believe that you’re your own best advocate when it comes to jobseeking. However, recruiters can be a very helpful addition — and, almost always, working with recruiters is free! If you want to be as competitive as possible in your job search, definitely consider working with recruiters. But don’t stop your own search — do both together.

Final Thoughts on Working with Recruiters

Recruiters can be strong allies in your career advancement. But before you reach out to a new recruiter or headhunter, be sure to update your resume. You’ll want to impress them right away. The free LiveCareer Resume Builder can be a great way to start on your new resume.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job search terms by going to our Jobseeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

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