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Recruiters, Reconsidered

Even in an age of online job boards, one industry vet explains why a recruiter can still be a big help.

By Arnold M. Huberman - March 17, 2004

We have all experienced a truly horrible period of unemployment, across all job sectors, and that's unfortunate. The media sector has been especially hard hit, which is even more unfortunate. And now we're hearing phrases like "the jobless recovery," which is simply depressing. Because of all this, if you've been unemployed for a while, or have been recently laid off, you are but one person looking for a job in a sea of many. How do you get yourself noticed? The truth is, using a recruiter wisely is one way to make it happen.

Yes, recruiters are paid by the employers. So, yes, our primary allegiance is to that employer. I have been an executive recruiter for the past 18 years, specializing in public-relations executives for both agencies and corporations, and I can attest that recruiters can be a great resource in a job search. The key is understanding—and this is critically important—that there are two kinds of recruiters, and that the type you choose can make a big difference in the help you receive.

First, there are contingency recruiters. Contingency recruiters get paid only if they fill the job, and there may well be several different contingency firms all working to fill the same position. Then there are retained recruiters, who get an exclusive contract to fill a position, and whose fees are guaranteed to be paid by the company. For you, as a candidate, the difference between contingency and retained recruiters is immense. Contingency recruiters, who are often competing against each other, often send out resumes without even meeting you and consider candidates to be "piecework." They want their firm to be the one to fill the job. Retained firms like mine, on the other hand, never send anyone to a client without first meeting them, often more than once. We're guaranteed payment, so we can afford to make sure we have the right professional—because that's what you are, and how we treat you—for the right job.

Here's an example: A major PR agency recently hired us to find a senior vice president. There was a candidate we had met earlier—a recruiter's memory, and database, is also one of your best allies!—who seemed a perfect fit, so she was the first person we called. It turns out that she had two other job offers from competitive firms, and the salary for each of them was more than we knew our client would—or should—pay. A contingency firm might have sent her along anyway, figuring that at least they'd have a shot at filling the position before someone else did, even if this wouldn't be a good fit for either party. But, as a retained search firm, we could afford to move onto other, more appropriate candidates.

We also took the time to discuss the competitive offers with the candidate to help her make up her mind between the two. We gained nothing from that; in fact, we lost a candidate. But because we helped her, she will tell others that we did, and good word-of-mouth is key in all aspects of the job-hunting process.

Does it really make sense for us to work on helping the candidate as well as the client, even though it is the client who pays the bills? Sure it does—once again, because of the difference between the two types of recruiting firms.

Contingency recruiters, who make up about two-thirds of the recruiting universe, get paid by the piece and you are the piece. Because there is usually no loyalty or exclusivity between the firm and the recruiter, their only chance to make money is to send as many resumes as they can and hope that one of them hits. In most cases, they have not even met the client, an impossible situation since any job requires recruiting for the personalities as much as the skill set. Retained recruiters—and, granted, there are very few in media—have ongoing relationships with many of their clients. But even if it is only a one-shot, a retained recruiter—at least in our case—first meets the client, then accepts the assignment. And since a retained search is exclusive to the recruiter, we don't care about volume, we care about quality. So without you, the candidate, feeling good about us, we are dead in the water, because we won't have top-quality candidates to place. That's why we go out of our way to make your experience a good one. (It doesn't always work, but we do try!)

Because we get to know you, we may call you three or four years later when a new client comes aboard and talk to you about the search. Currently, we have one candidate up for a search who we originally met 15 years ago and have already placed once. And that is the other difference. Because we get to know you—and see many candidates on any particular search—we are in a position to help you if you are laid off or are looking for new work for some other reason. We have many candidates whom we have placed twice—and it's not just my firm; the vast majority of retained recruiters work this way.

Of course, despite the differences between retained recruiters and contingency ones, there are job opportunities to be found with both types. That's why we always counsel candidates to talk to more than one firm, since a contingency firm might be working on an assignment in which the company did not want to commit to a retained search. Be sure to see more than one recruiter in your field, and be sure to see both types. Visit them as well as checking's job listings. Because companies often advertise on sites like mb even when using contingency recruiters, it becomes a race to see who can fill the assignment first—a race the candidate ultimately wins!

Good companies—from Workman Books to Conde Nast, from NBC to Sony, from MasterCard to JPMorgan—believe in using recruiters to fill key jobs. They don't use recruiters for every position, certainly, but they do for the really key ones. And when we get a call from one of these companies, we call you. We don't just try to plug you into a position; instead, we determine whether you're right for the job and the job right for you, and then we work with you to prepare you for the interview. We send a written profile of you to the client so that they know who you are, not just where you worked. And we support you throughout the process, to make sure you have the best interview experience and therefore maximize your chances for the job. We're not waiting for the payoff, as a contingency firm would be, so we can afford to take the time and help both you and the client by doing as thorough a job is needed. And that kind of preparation and support isn't something you can do searching for a job on your own.

Can you find a job without a recruiter? Sure. Should you avoid recruiters, because they might hurt your chances, as an HR consultant and recruiter suggested in this space? Not at all. If you're working with a bad recruiter, yes, you have a problem. But taking the time to find good recruiters in your field—by using your friends and others for suggestions—is worth every minute. Many key jobs will always be filled by recruiters, and the best thing you can do to help yourself is learn to work with us. It'll help you get the big jobs, and it'll keep you on our radar screens, should we hear of a good job for you that isn't using a recruiter. That kind of inside information is invaluable, and it can only be achieved by establishing a relationship with a recruiter.

Good candidates, working with good recruiters, create a win-win situation. Always have, always will.

Arnold M. Huberman is the president of Arnold Huberman Associates, Inc., an 18-year-old senior-level executive search and management consulting firm specializing in the placement of public relations and corporate communications professionals worldwide.

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