Discreetly Marketing Your Professional Abilities by Partnering with a Headhunter

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I used to work for a man who was a headhunter in both the literal and figurative sense of the word. On the day I went into the office to interview, I couldn’t help but to notice the mounted animal heads on the office walls. There was a kudu, some kind of wild boar, some antelopes, and even a few pathetic-looking birds. After learning that Mrs. X had put her foot down and said that the trophies wouldn’t be allowed in my boss’s new home, I didn’t find the stuffed wildlife strange. What I did find strange was what the company actually sold: people.

Fresh out of college, I was interviewing for an administrative assistant position (not very ambitious, but I had bills to pay). I had responded to a very terse ad placed on my alma mater’s career services board and was called in (and hired) less than two days later. Prior to my interview, I had minimal knowledge of how outsourced recruiters worked. On my first day while working I got to see how my boss found his leads. At the time there were only three people out in the bullpen – my boss, my boss’s son (a junior recruiter), and me. I could hear every word of every conversation. I could feel my face freezing up from the palpable tension in the room. The first time I heard him cold-call into a company to try to poach a candidate, I was blown away.

I spent two years in what eventually became an office of fifteen headhunters and can tell you first-hand why some professionals get solicited repeatedly, and why others never do. Let’s first understand a few basic principles of the business of recruitment.

First and foremost, true headhunters are contracted by clients to find qualified candidates who are already doing a specific job. 

They don’t want someone who says that they “could probably” do a job. They need someone from the clients’ same industry who already has proven success in a role – someone with quantifiable accomplishments. While a car salesman may have sold a lot of cherry red Mustangs during his career, that’s no guarantee he’ll be able to sell luxury yachts.

Second, headhunters use a variety of not-so-top-secret methods to build lists of potential contacts. 

If you have your résumé or CV on a job board and have enabled the website’s search feature, any recruiter worth his or her next paycheck knows what keywords to plug in to find you.

Other more web-savvy headhunters use search engines to find names and titles on company websites, online résumés, trade show rosters, and networking communities.

Some particularly voracious recruiters will pick up the phone and cold-call every company in a specific industry and ask all the gatekeepers the name of the person who holds a specific policy. Absolutely, some of the larger companies have trained their receptionists on the ploys of headhunters and simply have them forward all these calls to the human resources department. But, in my experience, even a staunch, by-the-book receptionist or administrative assistant can have his/her lips loosened by a smattering of compliments (worked on me, anyway). Days later when the receptionist has forgotten that she’s been cheapened by a recruiter, when the solicitous headhunter calls back, they’ll be immediately transferred to whom they ask for.

Third, headhunters are paid good money by companies to recruit talent. 

Some agencies that work on contingency may charge a fee that is 35% or MORE of the placed candidate’s first year’s compensation. The new employee doesn’t pay a dime for being placed there, and in general, companies are happy to pay the fee because they now have an edge their competitors do not. As you can imagine, those companies don’t give headhunters assignments to find people they can easily (or ethically) recruit themselves. This explains why recruitment firms don’t respond to unsolicited résumé submissions from recent college graduates and people interested in making lateral career moves from other industries. In general, recruiters have a few people on their “A-list” that they sell to every company they market to. These professionals are the best of the best and benefit greatly by having recruiters confidentially inform hiring officials of their potential availability. The professionals may learn that they’re underpaid compared to industry standards, and the headhunters are able to obtain orders for more jobs to fill.

If you’re ripe for the picking and wouldn’t mind being contacted by a recruiter when they’ve got an awesome opportunity on their hot list, it wouldn’t hurt to make yourself available (as available as safe for you to retain your current job, that is). Here are some tips:

Post a blinded/confidential résumé on each of the major job boards and also any niche boards applicable for your industry. 

Be sure you enable the résumé to be searchable in your account settings. (Hint: some job boards allow you to “block” access to your résumé by certain employers. Use that security feature as an additional step in preserving your current employment). 

Be sure your résumé has strong keywords that make searching for a person with your expertise easy. 

Do not simply write titles and dates! If you are an engineer specializing in doohickey production, state any skills you have that are relevant to doohickey production, what they’re made of, and what technology they’re produced with. For example: “Use Six Sigma principles to coach six DoohickeyMaster 3000 operators in production of 57 polypropylene doohickies per hour.” 

Stick your neck out. 

In the past, you may have had a recruiter call you to do a reference check for a colleague you’ve worked with in the past. Proceed to give the reference and then ask the recruiter if it’s a position you’d qualify for. Alternately, if you don’t feel like snatching away your peer’s thunder, ask what other opportunities they have in the pipeline that you may be submitted for. 

Many recruitment firms have websites of jobs they are actively working on. 

Seek out recruiters who work only in your industry and submit your profile to them. Be cognizant that many franchised firms under the same parent company may actually be competing against each other. They do not necessarily share candidate databases, so submit your information to all that apply to your background. 

If you’ve submitted a résumé to a recruitment firm within the past year and your job title or credentials have changed, by all means submit an updated profile and a brief note restating your interest in being contacted should any applicable matches for your skillset be found. 

If you are able to set up a website with some bullet points of your experience, do it – but be discreet about it. 

Not only are headhunters seeking you out, but your current company’s HR department may also be keeping tabs on your Internet movements. It’s not uncommon for there to be designated staff in a human resources department who spend part of their day going to search engines like Google and plugging in employee names. People have lost their jobs over personal blogs and Myspace profiles. However, if you’ve contributed to professional publications or have patents on industry-specific devices or techniques, putting that information on a webpage (say, under the guise of attracting grant money) doesn’t look suspicious. You’ll just appear to be a fount of knowledge that any company should be proud to employ. USE YOUR BEST JUDGMENT! 


Headhunting doesn’t have to be a one-way street where it’s the recruiters’ job to find you and sell to you a career change. If you’re looking to advance your career and know that your unique skill set makes you a hot commodity, then meet them halfway.

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