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Contingency Recruiters: Look Out for Them to Get a Boost in Your Career

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Chances are, your career got some of its early momentum with the help of a contingency recruiter.

Forget how special you are now.

Years ago you were a commodity in vast supply: a management trainee; a financial analyst; an assistant account executive or an AE at an advertising agency; a "member of technical staff' in an R&D lab; an engineering manager; a plant superintendent; a computer programmer or analyst; a lending officer in a bank; a field salesman or a zone manager; a copy editor; an assistant or full product manager...I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Early in your career, you were just another face in the crowd of bright young people striving to get ahead. You needed all the exposure you could get. So you were properly grateful to find a friendly "counselor" at an agency (which today probably calls itself an executive recruiting or search firm), who saw the good qualities in you.

This "counselor" sent your resume...and extolled your "potential" HR departments and middle-managers all over town. Finally, you landed the job you wanted. You appreciated your "counselor's" help, and you may have kept in touch with her for years. Maybe you got a subsequent job through her. And perhaps you've used her as a source of junior- and middle-management people reporting to you, as you've moved further up.

Most of us who've climbed the corporate pyramid have warm memories of several fine contingency recruiters who touched our lives in a very positive way. Certainly I do, and I'll bet you do too.

Very helpful earlier, the contingency recruiter no longer serves your self-interest the way he used to.

Now you're at, or within striking distance of, the senior-management level. You're already earning upward of $100,000... and probably way upward. You've outdistanced the crowd. You now have an impressively responsible position. You've made a track record. Your resume speaks for itself. Remember the contingency recruiter saying, "Keep it on one page"? That was because you hadn't done enough yet to justify more. And besides, she was your spokesperson in the Human Resources Department.

Today you don't need an advocate trying to break down HR Department doors for you. And when it comes to contacting the CEO or any other senior executive who'll take the initiative in bringing you into a company, you don't want an advocate. You can write your own covering letter and submit your own resume. And doing so will be considered more straightforward and dignified than if you're served up on a platter by a headhunter with a financial stake in promoting an introduction.

Avoid having a price-tag on your head.

Whenever a contingency recruiter introduces you to a company, you arrive with a price-tag on your head... usually more than $80,000 if, for example, you're making about $250,000. It doesn't matter whether or not the recruiter has been specifically requested to offer candidates for an open position. The price-tag is firmly affixed. Maybe he's just taking a flyer and sending your resume with no prior request for it, and possibly no prior contact at all with the employer he sends it to.

Nevertheless, if it's the recruiter who draws the company's attention to you, you can't be hired without his being owed a fee. Standard industry practice is that such referrals are "solid" for at least six months. All incoming resumes are date-marked-physically or in a database-in the HR Department. And if two contingency recruiters submit the same person, the recruiter whose submission arrives first is the one who gets paid.

Racing You to Your Employment

Anyone paid on contingency has this objective: to receive a fee when someone is hired.

Ideally, the recruiter pursues her goal by securing a listing from an employer with a specific job that she and other recruiters are invited to try to fill. She then races the other contingency recruiters to fill the job.

But suppose a contingency recruiter-or a retainer recruiter who shifts opportunistically into the contingency mode-encounters an exceptionally desirable employee. Then, despite having no listed job that this employee fits, the recruiter may nevertheless decide to attach his or her price-tag, and race to all the companies this employee is likeliest to wind up working for. After all, new job openings occur every day. There may be one the recruiter doesn't know about.

Let's assume that you're not just good, but outstanding. You're one of those exceptional executives that companies will surely hire if they have an opening. "Seen is as good as sold."

Moreover, the list of companies in your industry that might want you is just as obvious as your excellent record and personal attributes. Those companies, of course, are the ones you'll logically contact first when you're interested in changing jobs. They're also the ones where you may already have your own personal contacts. And they're where, even if you're not already personally acquainted, a letter and resume from you may spark immediate interest.

Therefore, the contingency recruiter has no time to lose. Since you're talking to him, you're probably talking to other headhunters too. And soon you'll be in touch with the most obvious employers as well.

So he may immediately submit your resume to all the companies most likely to hire you. If he's ethical, he gets your verbal okay first; if not, he doesn't bother. Either way, he moves quickly, to get your resume submitted before any other recruiter does ...and before you do. After all, if your resume gets there before his submission arrives, he'll be out-of-luck. Therefore, he "covers" you at all the companies you're most likely to join. A copy of your resume, an envelope, and a stamp-or merely an e-mail-just might produce a $80,000+ fee...or at least insure against losing one.

Would a recruiter be so brassy as to write and phone a CEO or another key officer he didn't already know personally?

Absolutely. CEOs and other senior executives I work with on a retainer basis have shown me this kind of mail many, many times. Moreover, their secretaries say it's often followed by persistent phone calls...especially if an opening has been reported in the trade press. Of course the more usual and circumspect submission will be to the HR Department in any company the headhunter normally does business with. There, he can't afford to overreach the people who give out the contingency listings of lower- and middle-management jobs.

The Harm That's Done to You

What's wrong with the above scenario from your point of view? After all, you're not paying. You don't care who does or doesn't collect a fee. You just want to find the right job to advance your career. Isn't it a good idea to be introduced by a professional who'll do everything possible to promote the idea that you ought to be interviewed?

No. The entree you achieve by personal contact, networking, or an impressive letter and resume you send is likely to be more, rather than less, persuasive than a headhunter's. The recruiter may have saved you some effort, but it's not likely that she's enhanced your image.

Assuming you get interviewed and hired and the headhunter gets paid, it's true that you haven't been economically hurt, since these days the employer always pays employment fees.

But the sad fact of the matter is that you're far less likely to get seen-much less hired-than if you'd arrived under your own steam, with no $80,000+ price-tag attached.
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