You aren’t likely to get headhunted unless you are already near the top of the career tree. In Australia, real head-hunters don’t tend to look for people to fill positions paying much less than $150k because there’s scant reward for the effort involved.Some earn a commission, taking a percentage of the first year’s salary. Others take a fixed fee.

Either way head-hunters are expensive and can only be justified for senior appointments. Of course, the salary threshold will differ in other countries.

There are exceptions to the salary rule. Employers occasionally ask head-hunters to deal with hard to-fill-vacancies in specialised niches. Occasionally an organisation hires a professional head-hunter to woo a specific person – possibly from a rival.

How head-hunters work

A head-hunter’s operating style makes a huge difference to the way you should deal with them. Fixed fee head-hunters receive a payment whether employers hire the candidates they find or not. Typically these head-hunters are only interested in recruiting for the top jobs.

Once they have a curriculum vitae they are unlikely to punt it around the industry if they fail to fill the original vacancy. While they may keep it on file and use it later if a similar position comes up later, they probably won’t do this without first getting permission.

It isn’t always true, but the head-hunters operating on a commission basis tend to work for a number of clients at the same time. Typically they’ll operate at a slightly lower level. They build databases of potential candidates: be warned once you are ‘in play’ they might hound you until they find you a new job.

Don’t assume that because head-hunters earn commission they have an interest in negotiating a high salary. In practice they can maximise their income by turning over more business than by squeezing an employer for a few thousand dollars here or there.

So, while they are happy to see you get more dollars, don’t push your luck in negotiations. If anything they are keener to close the deal than win more money.

Interview coaching

Some commission head-hunters will coach you before an interview. They’ll do whatever they can to help you secure the job. At times you may feel they are pushing you– that’s because they are pushing you.

It isn’t unusual for rival commission head-hunters – even from within the same recruitment organisation – to have candidates in line for a single job. While you’ll get a lot of push, you probably won’t get much of attention, that’s because they have so many irons in the fire.

Although it might look like you have a job in the bag, you might be only one of many candidates.

Fixed fee head-hunters will spend a lot of time with you. They probably won’t coach you, but they will help with negotiations and finding information.

You can expect to get lots of feedback about how the process is progressing. By the time you are in front of a company, you’ll be one of only two or three short-listed candidates. The job isn’t yours yet. But you will almost certainly be what the company is looking for. Most of the remaining work is determining if you are the best fit for that employer.

Negotiating when head-hunted

Another dangerous assumption is that a call from a head-hunter puts you in a strong negotiating position. After all, extracting better salary, terms and conditions is easier when someone else is doing the asking.

To some extent this is true, but don’t get carried away. Head hunters spend their working lives recruiting people. You only change jobs once in a blue moon. You have negotiating leverage, but remember you’re up against professionals. They will have seen all this before. What’s more, their clients are the employers, not the candidates.

If they have done their homework properly the prospective employer will already have a definite idea of your worth to their business. They are prepared to negotiate and may even go past their expected limits. You should remind yourself that they probably have other candidates in the pipeline too.

Despite this, a call from a head-hunter is an excellent way to boost your salary or job. After all, if they want to tempt you away from your current position, they are going to need to offer something attractive.

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