Since you’re reading this, you probably don’t love networking and are wondering what the hype…
This article features advice about how to work with recruiters from an insider’s perspective and covers the two main types of recruiting engagements. It is the second part of a two-part series based on an interview I had with career coach, resume writer, and former executive recruiter Andrew Gardner. Andy is Managing Partner of AGA Executive Career Coaching. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
In case you missed it, check out part 1 of my interview with Andy, in which he shared resume and cover letter advice for job seekers.
Heidi Giusto: There are different types of recruiting engagements. Can you briefly explain what they are and what job seekers need to know about each?
Andy Gardner: Multiple recruiting firms are often bidding on or searching for the same job. Most search firms are contingency firms—I would estimate over 90%. The business model is important to understand because a contingent recruiting firm or individual will typically get paid a search fee of 15–25% of the first-year base salary if their candidate is hired. If their candidate is not hired or the client decides to cancel the search, they are not paid.
In a retained search, the recruiter is hired as a consultant to conduct detailed research about the company and the position and to identify candidates who may not be looking for jobs, known as passive candidates. These candidates are typically harder to identify and are more difficult to recruit away from their current positions. Ultimately, the search firm may submit only three to five candidates, who are thoroughly vetted. A retained firm’s fees are higher; they typically get 33% of the total first-year compensation, which would be 33% of the base salary plus 33% of the bonus that the new hire would receive, assuming they reach their quota. So, a retained firm can get a 50–100% greater search fee.
Heidi: How can job seekers tell if a recruiter is conducting a retained or contingent search? Do recruiters typically not reveal that?
Andy: Retained firms typically state in their initial outreach that they are conducting a retained search or that they have been retained by their client, whereas contingent firms rarely state that they are conducting a contingent search, because they are less desirable to a strong, more senior candidate. When asked, the firm’s representative may say something that’s misleading or not entirely accurate; for instance, that they’ve been engaged exclusively, which is sometimes the case, but that does not make it a retained search. If they’re paid an up-front fee as a retainer, they may say they’re doing a retained search, whereas they’re really a contingent recruiter who has negotiated to be paid part of a contingent search fee up front, as a retainer. But they’re not conducting a true retained search. In fact, a retained search is very different, and individual recruiters rarely conduct both types. I can go through some of the differences that justify the higher search fees.
Heidi: I’d love to hear more about these two types because they might seem convoluted to job seekers who are completely unaware of the complexity.
Andy: When recruiters try to misidentify themselves, it’s very hard to tell, but there are some typical, distinguishing characteristics. Well-established companies (clients) will almost always conduct a retained search when they are hiring for an SVP or C-level position. In fact, if they’re publicly traded, they and the board may need to use a retained search firm to show they’ve kept an open mind and engaged independent consultants to conduct a thorough evaluation.
Very few clients conduct retained searches for positions that are at the director level or below. One of the reasons is it’s more expensive to conduct a retained search. So, if you are approached by a recruiter about a manager position, it’s almost certainly a contingent search.
You can also go to the recruiter’s website to see if they’ve posted a large number of current searches. If an individual recruiter or a small search firm is searching for a lot of jobs, they’re almost certainly contingent. You can also ask whether they are retained or exclusive. If you see the job posted and carried by other agencies as well, then it’s a contingent search.
Retained searches may take longer because they’re much more in depth. There are many reasons why a client chooses to conduct a retained search even though they cost more, but I won’t cover them all here except to say this: retained recruiters are better able to identify passive candidates, who are viewed as more desirable than active candidates. An active candidate is someone who is looking for a job: they may be unemployed, unhappy where they are, or know they’re going to be laid off in the near future. A passive candidate is somebody whom I call a “happy puppy.” They are successful in their job, they like it, and they don’t want to leave. They like the people that they’re working with. They’re treated well by the company. They’re more difficult to recruit because they’re happy where they are and highly committed to their company.
Contingent firms don’t know if any of the candidates they present are going to get hired and whether they’re going to earn a search fee or not, so they have to work very quickly and, most often, divide their efforts over a larger number of searches. If they don’t make a placement within three to four weeks, the likelihood that they’re going to recruit a candidate who is hired for that job is low, so they can’t afford to take the time to ferret out these more desirable passive candidates. But a retained search firm is actually expected to do so: they have to conduct deep research to identify passive candidates who are not posting their resumes on multiple sites, are highly qualified, and are a good fit with the client’s management style and corporate culture.
You should strive to be a passive candidate for as long as possible, and you will be more desirable to recruiters for the best jobs.
Heidi: Am I hearing correctly that job seekers should try to present themselves as “happy puppies” for as long as possible?
Andy: Yes, almost every client prefers passive candidates. Accordingly, you should strive to be a passive candidate for as long as possible, and you will be more desirable to recruiters for the best jobs.
Heidi: The next question people frequently ask me is whether I have suggestions for “how to work with recruiters.” What would you tell job seekers if you were asked this question?
Andy: I would say the best thing you can do is identify a small number of successful recruiters who are specialized in your area, in your industry sector, and in your type of position. Build relationships with recruiters over the course of your career, and you will actually grow with them. There are people who I worked with years ago when they were in lower-level positions; since then, they have moved up to very senior-level positions, and we continue to work together.
Heidi: So, whether you’re running your own business or job seeking, it’s all about building and maintaining relationships.
Andy: Yes. Even if you are not a potential candidate, you can act as a resource for recruiters. And in fact, that’s the carrot you can hang out in front of a recruiter to develop a relationship. Let them know that even if you are not a fit for a particular job, they can come to you and say, “I’m doing a search for X.” Then you offer to help them by suggesting people who might be well-qualified for the role and interested in being considered for it. If you can establish that, you will build a mutually beneficial relationship with a recruiter. And it doesn’t get better than that.
Heidi: I hear stories from job seekers all the time about bad recruiting experiences. How do they know they’re going to be working with a good recruiter, even though most people are not going to be working with a recruiter engaged in a retained search? Just by the numbers, a lot of people think they will fall into the contingent search category, which doesn’t seem to be as good for candidates.
Andy: The best time to speak to a recruiter is when you don’t need a job. So, establish relationships with recruiters on an ongoing basis. By and large, people who are successful will be approached by recruiters with some frequency, especially as they move up the ladder of their career. It also depends on the economy and how specialized their skill set is. But when you are approached, do your research about the recruiter. Find out if they’re contingent or retained and decide if you want to establish a relationship with that recruiter.
Heidi: What’s the best etiquette for contacting recruiters?
Andy: Here’s what I would do. You get an email from a recruiter. It seems like somebody you might want to work with because the job is of interest, potentially, or you would like to establish a relationship with this recruiter because they know your industry sector and functional area. Often, the best response is to state you’re not interested. You could reply with something like this:
“Dear Ken, thanks for reaching out. I’m very happy in my current position at Company Name. I’m not looking for a new position. I wanted to let you know that up front. I’m successful, I like the company and the boss, and they treat me well. I would be interested in learning more about the role you told me about because I have an extensive network, and I may be able to recommend one or two well-qualified candidates. I’m going to give you my personal email address. Please reach out to me if you think this would be helpful.”
Okay, so what you have done is established yourself as a passive candidate, making you more desirable. You’ve not asked them to send you the job description, so you’ve also protected yourself, because your company may have access to your email.
I can almost guarantee you that recruiter will set up time to speak with you. That’s how you take advantage of recruiters who approach you about a job that you might be interested in. It’s a little bit like playing hard to get.
When the recruiter responds and you learn more about the role, you might become interested. Then, you can say “I’m not looking for a new job at this point, but this does sound like a great opportunity. Please send me the job description. Look at my background—I’m on LinkedIn. If you think I might be a good fit, I’d be interested in speaking with you further to learn more about the position and the company.” This should all be in a conversation after you’ve sent them an initial email telling them you’re not interested.
Questions about etiquette for contacting recruiters and when to follow up may be the wrong questions to ask or the wrong way of thinking. The best time to reach out and contact recruiters is long before you need a new job.
Heidi: That is savvy communication. Can you share a little more about etiquette for contacting and following up with recruiters?
Andy: First, did the recruiter reach out to this candidate? Or did the candidate reach out to the recruiter?
Let’s look at scenarios for both. If you initiated contact, but the recruiter doesn’t respond, just let sleeping dogs lie.
If the recruiter reached out to you, emphasize that you are a happy puppy. Say you’re not interested in the job, or you might have some referrals. The recruiter will get back to you. If a recruiter reaches out to you, and you show a willingness to help them and potential interest for yourself, you will get the conversation with the recruiter.
Heidi: What about this situation: a recruiter reaches out to a person who isn’t necessarily looking for a new role, but they become interested. They were the happy puppy, then go through an interview process with the recruiter. But after two or three conversations, the recruiter ghosts them, and they are blindsided. They tell me, “I don’t understand what happened. They said they would get back to me by Tuesday. I didn’t hear anything. I followed up after a week, but I still haven’t heard anything. What do I do?”
Andy: Well, first of all, it’s important to recognize that there are lots of reasons that you can be ghosted. And you should not take it personally because any number of them might be at play and may not be related to you.
If your recruiter goes dark on you, the likelihood of your getting a role diminishes over time. The more you hammer away, the less likely they’re going to want to recruit you, and you may have lost the opportunity to generate that longer-term relationship. In the scenario you’re describing, I would say that it would be fine to write a follow-up email after a week.
Also, keep in mind they may still think highly of you. They may think that you have good skills, accomplishments, and qualifications, and they’d love to place you—but this job is not the right fit. There may be other factors entirely unrelated to you. For example, the client may have changed the role, filled it internally, or decided to cancel the search, possibly because of a change in their circumstances, such as losing a key client, failing to meet financial projections, etc. Even though you were initially a good fit, that’s no longer the case.
An ethical recruiter should definitely get back to you, after you’ve spent time with them. But many don’t, especially in the contingent category, because they’re dealing with so many searches and have such limited likelihood of success with any one candidate or search. They can’t spend too much time on candidates that they’re not going to deliver to the client as a potential hire. The client may have canceled the search, or the recruiter may have proposed a “first choice” candidate and are waiting to see the results before telling you they aren’t moving forward. So, the recruiter is not ready to cut you off entirely because you may be a good backup candidate.
You can be responsive and follow up. If you haven’t heard anything after two weeks of your initial follow-up, you can write something like this:
“Since we haven’t continued this conversation, I understand that you may have gone another way or filled the position. But I thought it would be good for us to maintain open contact because I am well-connected in this industry. If you identify another similar search, please feel free to reach out and let me know about it. If I know anybody in my network who might be qualified and interested, I’d be happy to pass them on to you, because you’ve been an excellent recruiter to work with.”
In the future, that recruiter will remember that you were the person who didn’t get angry you were passed over! They might also have another search to discuss with you. Since you’re showing that you understand it’s all just business, and you have no ill will toward them, you may find yourself back under consideration for the original position!
Heidi: It’s a little bit like playing chess.
Andy: Definitely. Also, remember that questions about etiquette for contacting recruiters and when to follow up may be the wrong questions to ask or the wrong way of thinking. The best time to reach out and contact recruiters is long before you need a new job. It’s about building a network so that when there is a search for a job for which you might be a good fit, the recruiter will contact you.