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Retainer-Recruiter "Pet Peeves" About Courtesy Interviews

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Retainer recruiters consider courtesy interviews a "necessary evil"... whereas contingency recruiters run ads in newspapers and on Internet job sites to encourage them.

Every recruiter wants to think of every candidate as a potential future client, not just a possible solution to today's search. If you stress your well-established relationship with another recruiting firm, not only will you not obligate the unfamiliar recruiter to give you a get-acquainted interview, you'll make him leery of ever proposing you at all. Why should he jeopardize a solid client relationship by bringing in someone who's known to favor another recruiter?

So you're "swimming upstream" to even get a courtesy interview with a retainer recruiter. She's busy looking for people who fit several narrowly-specific searches and... no matter how polite and cordial she may be...she's more likely to think of you as an interruption than an opportunity. Therefore, you'll want to avoid several amazingly prevalent mistakes that executives make in seeking and handling courtesy interviews:

1. "Let me buy you lunch" Here's the #1 loathsome line, that makes every retainer recruiter cringe. Lunch is too much time, when you're not part of a current search. With only five lunch dates per week, the recruiter can't allocate them to people who...for now at least...aren't the ones she's looking for.

The only situation where you probably will have lunch with a retainer recruiter is when you're suggested by somebody who spends lots of money with her. Then she'll take you, as a display of respect for the person who referred you. Bear in mind, too, that lunch isn't an ideal setting. You may be overheard. Also, it's hard to read and handle papers. They're forbidden at most private clubs, and awkward anywhere, until you're down to the last few minutes over coffee.

"Let me buy you lunch" also has an insulting twang. Is the retainer recruiter so hard up socially and financially that she can be manipulated with a free lunch? Indirectly, of course, the offer also says that the person making it is petty and cheap...vigilantly conscious of who pays at the lunch table.

A truly seductive offer, on the other hand, could be made by changing just one word in the hated "Let me buy you lunch." The retainer recruiter would be thrilled if you could truthfully offer:

"Let me buy you time." And of course you can, by being considerately well-organized and brief your visit her.

2. "What do you think of my resume?" This question wouldn't be so bad if it were asked right up front to indicate that the executive wants to use the session for free counseling, instead of pushing himself as a potential candidate. But it usually comes after having answered all the recruiter's questions, and used up all the interviewing time. Then it demolishes the visitor's image as a secure, decisive executive. It's a loser's question...a departing plea for further attention, from someone obviously frustrated and frightened because he isn't getting much response to his job-changing efforts.

Polish your resume to your satisfaction. Ask help from anyone who's knowledgeable. But don't spoil your courtesy interview! Winding up with a question about your resume is like winding up a chart presentation to your CEO with: "What do you think of my charts?"

3. Don't ask for career counseling. Just as bad...and usually delivered at the same wrong a request for career advice. Don't say, "With my background, what do you think I ought to be doing next?" Or, "What level do you think I'm ready for?" Surely, if you know anything, you know that. If you need counseling and psychological testing to figure out what kind of job you're suited for, get it before you reach the retainer recruiter. Don't ask for it at the end of a courtesy interview when your time is up.

4. "How's the job market?'' This question should never be asked.

The market is always elusive to almost every executive at the moment he wants to change. But ultimately it turns out to be excellent for the outstanding executive. The other types, of course, have difficulty regardless of the economy. So here's another downer that implies you're a fearful, frustrated loser.

5. Don't demonstrate a "God's gift'' attitude. Don't be the person who comes in rather pompously, feeling that the retainer recruiter obviously needs grist for her mill, and ought to grovel in gratitude for grist like him. If you take this attitude, you're dead. The underlying assumption, of course, isn't true. There's a glut of grist...even in very strong job markets. And plenty of the finest executives have a pleasant, straightforward, cooperative attitude. You'd better, too, or you'll be cancelled out.

Don't be misled by what's said at the end of a courtesy interview: the "pseudo review" of searches in progress.

At the end of your courtesy interview with a retainer recruiter, he'll probably look at a book or a computer screen to check a list of current assignments information visible from where he's sitting, but not from where you are.

If the firm is a large one, it may handle well over 1,000...and even 4,000... searches per year. You know dam well that there must be several-most likely dozens-that would represent excellent next steps in your career.

Instead, referring to his notebook or terminal, the retainer recruiter will give you a pseudo-review of current assignments. He'll summarize several of the firm's searches, in a performance that will seem confusingly like the "ideal relationship" review. But it will be different in three important ways:

1. There will be something unacceptable to you about every job that's mentioned...industry, function, location, compensation, title and reporting relationship, size of business, or caliber of company, etc. And each "fatal flaw" will be one that would be obvious to anyone knowing what you just told the recruiter.

2. The identity of the company will not be revealed... unless the position has already been filled. "Too bad you weren't here a few weeks ago when we recruited the..."

3. You won't walk away knowing for sure that you'll be a candidate on the job you like best among all those the firm is actually working on.

Suppose you sense that, in his interview-ending review of current assignments, the retainer recruiter is deliberately overlooking the searches on his list that would be highly attractive to you. Or, if he does read off pertinent searches, you suspect he's ad-libbing into the description of each job a factor that he knows will make it unacceptable to you.

But don't feel bad. You just received the standard "pseudo-review of current searches," which most retainer recruiters almost always use to close a courtesy interview.
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