WRONG QUESTION: “Do you know a recruiter who specializes in….”

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Here’s one of my biggest  job search pet peeves: asking for a recruiter who specializes in a particular industry or location.

Perhaps you’ve gotten emails like this:

  • Do you know a recruiter who specializes in IT (or project management, or supply chain, etc.)?
  • Do you know a recruiter in Seattle (or Houston, or D.C., or Podunk, USA)?

When I get this question I cringe.  Not because the job seeker is doing the wrong thing (they are just trying to get a job), but because they are barking up the wrong tree.  Here’s why I say that, based on my experience and observations. I’d love to know what your experience has been…

Recruiters don’t work for you and they don’t care about you.

Really.  Maybe some of them do (okay, I know some of them who do care about you, as a human being), but their job is to match a company’s needs with a candidate who fits those needs.  They work for the company, not you, and when it comes down to it, they get their multi-thousand dollar commission because they placed the right person, not because they spent the time to coach all of the wrong people.

Recruiters aren’t really good at networking.

In Never Eat Alone Keith Ferrazzi includes “headhunters” as that elite group called “power connectors.”  The idea is they talk to people all the time, know everyone, know what opportunities are coming up, and can likely introduce you to the person you really need to talk to.


My experience with most recruiters is they (a) are so busy they don’t know which way is up and which way is down, and can’t take a second to spend any real time with you, (b) are very protective of their network because this is how they make a living (protective of your peers because they might eventually place them one day; protective of company contacts because that’s how they get those big-commission opportunities in the first place – not by charitably help you, rather by signing a contract with the company so they get a piece of the pie when you are hired).

Now, I say they aren’t good at networking, but in fact they are excellent at networking as it pertains to their job.  Don’t expect them to put their networking mojo on to help you figure out who you should talk to – perhaps I should say “recruiters aren’t really good at networking for you.”

When you find that right recruiter, you make THE mistake.

I bet 99% of the people do this.  If you ask me for a tech recruiter in Podunk, USA, and I give you a name or send an email introduction, you do the wrong thing.

What is the wrong thing?

You become a needy job seeker, just like the other 5,000 needy job seekers in their database.

You send them a well-thought-out email that looks a lot like a cover letter, talking about all of your great strengths and accomplishments, and a resume.  You have prepared hours to send this stuff, which makes you sound and look very professional, so you think.

But you look just like 80% of the rest of their candidates.

And then you don’t follow up right.  You ask them a week or two later if they got your email, what did they think, and do they know of any positions open.

Here’s the problem: you are using them like a tool, and they are considering you like a candidate.

UNLESS they have a position open right then that exactly matches what you showed them, or if they can recognize some very special qualities and qualifications and know something might come up where you’ll be the perfect match, you are mentally (and virtually) filed into some “add one more to my 5,000-person database” bucket.

You have marginalized yourself because you played right into the system, instead of actually “networking” with the recruiter.

How do you get around this stuff?  Realize that, as human beings, not all recruiters are the same.  I’d say most that I’ve met fit into this stereotype, but there are some out there who care more about you as a human being I’ve given them credit for.  I’d listen to anything that Steve Levy, Heather Gardner, Nick Corcodilos (aka, Ask the Headhunterget on his awesome newsletter) recommends.

Here’s my advice, if you get the name of “a recruiter who specializes in….”:


Don’t send them a resume and cover letter or intro email.

From one professional (that’s you) to another (that’s them), send them an email or make a phone call and network.  Work on a long-term relationship. Nurture it.  I’d start off asking them questions about their openings and how I can help them.  I OFFER to make introductions to my industry peers.  I bring something to them to help them do their job and get that commission. I try and become a power connector FOR them. I try to become helpful, and memorable.

Sure, they’ll know I’m looking, but I’ll stand out from the other 5,000 candidates they have in their database.

My followups won’t be “do you have anything for me yet,” or “have you heard anything at my target companies?”  That is focused on me… rather my followups would be “what can I do for you, how can I help you with your current openings, what kind of professional do you want to get to know.”

Perhaps I’m way off-base on this one – what do you think?

24 thoughts on “WRONG QUESTION: “Do you know a recruiter who specializes in….””

  1. Jason,

    Excellent piece! As a recruiter for the past 23 years, and one who does care about adding value somehow to everyone I come into contact with, this advice is dead on.

    I speak to groups locally about how to effectively work with recruiters, and this is what I tell them as well. Too often people view recruiters as their agent to help them find a job, when in fact the recruiter is the company’s agent to find the best person for a job.

    As a job seeker, you will build FAR more credibility, good will, and create a desire to help when you add value to the recruiter instead of simply seeing what you can get like the vast majority of others.

    Thank you for the contribution!

    Harry Urschel

  2. Jason, kind words my friends. Thanks.

    Best thing to do is to think of a recruiter as a potential long term relationship partner; I know this concept makes your skin crawl because I’m shuddering as I write it – but it’s true.

    When I receive your email and it’s addressed to Dave, To Whom it May Concern, or Madam (no operations for me), or when it has my name correct but the body of the email speaks to some other company, it won’t help much.

    The more touch points we have – again, another skin crawling thought 😉 – the more I’ll keep you in my short term memory. Feel free to let me know that you heard that company XYZ is hiring because someone in yoru network just interviewed there; feel free to ask me about my openings and give me some names to call (but be sure to call them first if they aren’t really good friends – if don’t want to hear, “Steve gave you my name? Why did he do that?” If I feel uncomfortable, you’re toast (not really but it’s not as if you’ll get many second chances with me).

    Give me the names of targets if you have them; when you interview, give me the names of the people you spoke with (I’ll use them to build my network and they won’t know their names came from you).

    Send me links to interesting articles; suggest people whom I should be connected to. Read my blogs, Tweets and comment.

    Show me some love…

  3. Jason have you been listening in on my phone calls? I get the “Do you know any recruiters….” and the “Do you have anything for me yet” calls all the time. Comforting to know that I’m not the only one who cringes!

    You and Steve have explained the right “how to” perfectly. Establish a relationship with recruiters as you would anyone else in your network. No only are we not “tools” to be used to find a job…..we don’t find jobs for people, period.

    Get to know me and you will realize I’m not Frank or Mr. Hogan. (No operations for me either Steve!) Get to know me and we can share valuable information to help each other.

  4. Jason, you are spot on. I ran a recruiting firm for over 20 years and quite honestly I know that if I didn’t have a job for someone who just lobbed in a resume I rarely made the effort to get to know them or establish a relationship with them. Unfortunately most people don’t understand that building a relationship with a recruiter involves giving rather than always asking. The reality is that most people involved in a job search don’t always have much to offer a recruiter but even the act of offering helps differentiate them from everyone else and might keep their resume (and the conversation) top of mind. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Ahh, the Dual Co-incidence of Wants strikes again! 🙂

    As a recruiter, I really do _want_ to help people. What I don’t often get is someone willing to let me connect with them on MY time, in MY way. Sometimes, I want to say, “If it’s all about YOU, then you obviously don’t need ME.”

    If you’re a nice person and you give me MULTIPLE ways to reach out to you, I will almost always at least acknowledge your communication and offer ways to connect at a time when I can actually focus. OR, I will tell you it’s just not worth it for us to connect right now because I have nothing to offer you.

    HINT: If you are skilled enough to get to my phone and take the time to leave me a voicemail, don’t just leave me your phone number, but let me know how I can EMAIL you, find you online somewhere, or if I have permission to send you a text message.

    Oh, and I know you’ve been hearing your own name and number for a long, long time. I haven’t. Please consider SPELLING YOUR NAME if it’s not “Barbara Jones” and repeating your number at least once (slowly) to be sure I got it.

  6. Well stated points. As one seriously unemployed…serious about finding my best next opportunity I have heard your comments repeated in the Dallas/Ft Worth area by recruiters.

    I would add the comment that recruiters work not for the client, but the clock. BTW: I will pass along your blog/website to DFW area job seekers. Thanks for helping us.

  7. Every now and then someone says it, and Jason said it very clearly. Headhunters are just busy doing their jobs, and what they do is fill positions for their clients. They aren’t paid to place “who comes along,” even if “who” is impressive. They’re paid to go find the right candidate; not to spend their time talking to eveyone who comes up to them. That’s why headhunters won’t return your calls when you’re job hunting. They can’t help you. (And no, you’re not helping them by “making yourself available.”)

    But Jason makes a very fine distinction: If you’re offering help, a headhunter will take it. If you’re begging (Yes, that’s what that sound is… “Uh, how about now?”), you’re losing any respect he might have for you.

    Jason’s advice may be hard to swallow, but if you want to be around headhunters, it is indeed purely a relationship you’re building. It may never pay off for you with a job. The payoff is more likely to be insight and introductions to other folks in the industry you’re both a part of. What you do with it from there is up to you.

    (Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that those schlocks who scrape your resume off job boards and contact you with “opportunities” are headhunters. They’re hacks dialing for dollars…)

  8. Your headline caught me right away, Jason and I have not only heard that from my resume clients but from other resume writers on e-lists etc. Perhaps sometimes they do have the perfect candidate but most of the time, it is one more way to give the candidate something…

    As Mary said above and Nick reinforced, nurturing relationships is critical, and that involves both give and take. We all want job seekers to find work but teaching them how to do the extraordinary takes time and isn’t easy.

    I’ve met some very nice recruiters on Twitter who truly care about the job seeker. But they are always working for their client – the employer.

    I work on connecting my clients – job seekers – with ways to network their way in to postings. My goal is to continue to connect people with talent with people who need the talent. Yesterday I got an e-mail from a client saying he was called for the first phone interview for a position that fits him well. The original contact was by e-mailing his resume to one of my contacts in the organization’s management and then he also emailed the posted recruiter.

    Companies and organizations are receiving a 1000 resumes a week these days. You cannot expect things to fall in your lap. Network, network, network…

  9. Jason, I’m going to print this out and share with al my clients/potential clients. Required reading for senior execs (the worst offenders, IMHO).

    Most of them have been brainwashed into thinking that 90% of jobs at senior level are sourced through recruiters and all they have to do is get in front of a couple of ’em. It’ll break their hearts to find out the truth, but a course-correcting dose of reality is better than a futile job search.

    Sure recruiters are a part of job search, and do help job seekers land, but heck, they’re just a piece of the pursuit strategy, not THE pursuit strategy. I’ve said what you’ve said often, but never so well as you have here. Thank you!

    Deb Dib @CEOcoach, Co-author The Twitter Job Search Guide

  10. Jason,

    My assumption is that you’re correct in your assessment of recruiters. Everyone knows they work for the company, not the jobseeker. I’m a bit surprised to hear that recruiters aren’t good networkers–don’t they seek out more clients (the companies)?

    The comments from recruiters seem to back up what you say. But I’m curious, do you have any hard data to back up your assertions?

  11. I appreciate all the comments everyone. You all know that (a) I’ve never been a recruiter, and (b) I wasn’t successful in my last job search… as I wrote this post I was wondering how far off base my perspective/experience might have been.

    Specifically to Bob’s comments:

    1. I think, in general, recruiters are good at prospecting and networking to do their job, but you ask a recruiter for help and see how he/she clams up. They have their network (or little black book) for a purpose, and the guard it carefully. I doubt any of them are going to open it up for a brand new network contact – much less a job seeker who they really don’t know and trust.

    2. Hard data? No, sorry. I’m not a believer in “hard data.” Not since I read the book “How to Lie With Statistics.” These assertions are all based on what I’ve seen, heard and experienced. So far, though, it sounds like it’s fairly accurate. There will always be outliers, but the point of the post is I want people to think about this question, and why it is a bad question.

  12. @Jason (re: Bob’s comments): I think you’re right that not all headhunters/recruiters are good networkers. Many focus strictly on the assignment they’re working on and dismiss broad networking, and that’s what most folks see. The highly-focused recruiter who won’t talk to you.

    Other headhunters, however (I think the best ones) are actually hubs of information and contacts in the field they recruit in. They cultivate relationships. Frankly, that’s the aspect of the business that kept me in it — I love exploring, exploiting and cultivating new relationships. That’s where the fun is, and frankly, it’s also where the impact is. But a headhunter has to be comfortable with something in order to do this well: Most new contacts don’t develop into business. Few do. But over time, contacts turn into something far bigger. They make the headhunter a respected hub of relationships. That’s when it all pays off.

    As with anything else, you must vet the people you deal with. Check the headhunter out. What’s his or her reputation? How does he or she fit into the industry? The best ones have expansive relationships throughout. They might not take time to talk with you when you think you need them, but nor will the person you’d like to date, right? It all takes time. The point is to do it so you’ll enjoy it.

  13. @Bob your comment made me realize that it’s easy sometimes to blur the lines between corporate recruiters (normally paid a salary by the company hiring you) and third-party or “agency” recruiters (headhunters). Though these roles are similar in that both people are “trying to hire people”, there are several key factors that may be different.

    Corporate recruiters generally feel ownership to the company they work for and develop deep relationships with the organizations they support and staff. They want long-term success for their company.

    Agency recruiters of course develop strong relationships too, but are focused broadly on a set of companies or a set of industries. Often placing talented people several times through their career at different organizations as they build their “book of business.”

    @nick, et al, recruiters not being good networkers is an interesting one. I know a lot of agency recruiters (usually the ones who become responsible for business development) who are very friendly and can be open…. as long as there are possible dollar signs somewhere down the road.

    However, I know many recruiters who are highly analytical and process-driven. It’s actually a very good skill in our world of digital-everything. Getting to “know” someone as a human being is not the same as aligning someone’s key skills and abilities against a list of open requisitions and jobs and letting the hiring manager actually do the “selling the job” part. Is it surprising to know that many recruiters never ever EVER physically meet the people they place, even though they can tell you eerily accurate information about you like exactly what company culture you will enjoy or dislike–often because they know your job match “DNA”, even though they don’t actually know YOU, the human being.

  14. Spot on! Don’t ask the recruiter to do your job for you if your current job is finding a new job. As a recruiter who has worked on both the corporate and agency side of the table, I can add that there are at least those two perspectives to consider. Corporate staffers would rather have you network into them directly than to pay a third party agency…it’s about the money. Agency recruiters may want to throw all the starfish back into the ocean, but in reality can only save one at a time with the clients they represent…did I mention that it is about the money?

    A must read article for job seekers, but I must also add a knee jerk response to your bolded headlines regarding recruiters “not caring” or “bad networkers.” I know that the rock stars of sourcing and recruiting really do care and are excellent networkers. I would suggest that like most generalizations there really are some bad apples who are lazy, cynical, deceitful and uncaring. They should not be seen as representing a talented group of dedicated professionals.

  15. I love this. Love, Love, Love this. I’m a new recruiter, currently searching for new clients to start building and connecting, and putting some amazing candidates into great jobs. But I get messages like this all the time. Stick with your recruiters… make quality networking connections… and maybe we’ll go out and find a great client to put both together.

  16. Hi Jason,

    I don’t understand why jobseekers have this image that recruiters are working for them. They aren’t!

    I just had someone on the phone yesterday who was telling me about this recruiter that wanted to charge him $3,000 to get him a job. This recruiter was apparently telling him that he had access to the “hidden job market” and that only 2% of available jobs are advertised and he had “exclusive” access to the other 98%.

    The unfortunate thing is that he would have done it if he actually had the money to spend.

    Thank you for writing this. Hopefully, if we write enough of these pieces the word will get out.

    I will definitely be sharing this post. 🙂

  17. @Jennifer – *I* thought recruiters worked for me in my job search!

    My strategy relied heavily on two amazing resources:

    1. Job Boards, which is where job postings are, and

    2. Recruiters, who know where I need to go and can help me get there.

    Boy was I wrong… I spent WAY too much time chasing those two job search resources.

    Look were it got me. :p

    It’s really a matter of BAD information/assumptions. Really, when I was in my job search I had read a single book or article, and didn’t feel I had the time. I was going to go get my job and get those paychecks coming back… so my ASSUMPTIONS really made an As_ out of me 🙂

  18. You said, in regards to recruiters:

    “Now, I say they aren’t good at networking, but in fact they are excellent at networking as it pertains to their job. Don’t expect them to put their networking mojo on to help you figure out who you should talk to – perhaps I should say “recruiters aren’t really good at networking for you.””

    You are right. And it is not just recruiters. So many people forget that networking is “creating a mutually beneficial relationship where both parties achieve more than they would have alone”. Instead they think it is all about them. Takers.

    If you want a network to work both parties must be givers. And it is not just referrals. There are lots of things that people do to impact others. And the ones who say they are too busy are liars too. We can help others in some way.

    Can you help everyone? NO. But those who are not helping some folks regularly had best examine their efforts to see if they are indeed selfish networkers.

    You, Jason…. are NOT a selfish networker. You are a giver FIRST CLASS!


  19. Great advice (as always!) Jason!

    It’s important try to be of value to every connection you have – regardless of whether they are a recruiter or not. You’ll get equal value or more back from your network this way. Recruiters are great, I work with them all the time 😉 but ultimatley it’s best to network on your own…. it will get you far better results in the long run.

    …. and Jason, you ROCK at adding value to all that you network with. Thank you!

  20. Jason, I think your advice is spot on and reinforces two vital points about networking:

    1. Establish your network before you need to lean on it.
    2. Givers gain.

    People who follow those two simple things will find their job search is shorter and more fruitful. I’m living proof of it. While still employed I set an insanely aggressive schedule of 30 days to find a position and negotiate employment. Aside from my determination, I met my goal because I practice those two key points daily. I am happily in week two of my new position.

  21. Good article and great comments. I have recruited from both sides of the desk (staffing agency vs. corporate) and they are two completely different animals. Tom Bolt said it perfectly! The agency recruiter works strictly on jobs that are available and will close the fastest and easiest with the highest payout, also known as ROI. It depends on how your agency is set up, but there are anywhere from 15-20 jobs that will close within a week that they have to try and find candidates for. Recruiters are putting calls out (push recruiting) 60+ to try and find the right “fit” for a role. If your not a return call from calls put out earlier, don’t expect to get a call back right away. On the other hand, corporate recruiters, who are invested into the success of their own company, are searching for the right personality as well as the right skills to fit into their organization. They are looking to get a bit more behind the skills and into the personal side of the candidate to try and find out work habits, learning ability, and drive. Just my 2 cents.

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