What to do when the headhunter phones

They will say that they're doing research, but they could be trying to poach you.
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You are at work and the search consultant's telephone call comes straight out of the blue. Not only is it unexpected, but an interruption to what you were doing. Your initial reaction is likely to combine surprise, momentary confusion, heightened self-esteem, curiosity, and concern that somebody might overhear you. Only then do you realise that opportunity may be knocking.

The approach is rarely direct. The call may come from the consultant, who has already identified you as a potentially suitable candidate for the vacancy, or it may come from the consultant's researcher, who is putting together a list of potential candidates and wants you to recommend suitable people. In either case, the initial call will normally appear to be a "research call".

"It's a device to make sure they are not in breach of common law," explains leading headhunter John Courtis of Courtis and Partners. "It is a classic enticement problem. If you do try to seduce somebody who is actually in a job somewhere else, that is actionable at law. So they often pretend to be doing research when all they want you to do is say `I'm interested'. There are relatively few cases where someone will phone and say `I'm a headhunter . We want you'.

"The only problem the poor old headhunter faces is when the idiot at the other end takes that [research] approach as being real and keeps on mentioning other people without mentioning himself." Mr Courtis advises that if a headhunter calls and describes a vacancy that interests you, and to which you would be suited, you should say explicitly that you want to be considered.

Jenny Mayes, another experienced search consultant and a director of NBS, has faced the same problem. "Sometimes, if you try to walk the line between `you could be a possible source of information' and `you could be a potential candidate', the person you're talking to either plays devil's advocate, or just doesn't understand."

The problem is aggravated by the limitations of the telephone. "You don't have their full attention. They're working on their PC or gazing out of the window. They only catch one word in three so you have to focus quickly on what you're looking for, but without raising their expectations too high."

Confidentiality is important, though it is no longer as clandestine as when Miss Mayes started in the business. Mobile phones and direct-dial numbers make things easier today. "If you phone people in the daytime, you can usually say `this isn't a good time to talk to you about it, so can I have your home number and we can talk about it this evening?' We want to move the discussion from the workplace to home as soon as possible."

Because the initial contact is made without warning, it can be very difficult for the candidate, acknowledges Miss Mayes. "You haven't enough information. So ask the consultant to send a job spec or person spec. This will buy you time to think about it. That is particularly useful if the consultant is not yet willing to tell you who the client is."

However flattered you are to be approached by a headhunter, you should be honest about your availability. She says: "Don't falsely raise the expectations of the search consultant. If you are not in the market - perhaps because you have just moved job or are about to get married - flag that up right at the beginning of the process. Be honest."

Simon Scantlebury, a Regional Director of Connaught Executive Career Services, adds some advice for senior executives on how to market themselves. "Always express interest, co-operation and enthusiasm whatever the basis of the call because if you are going somewhere in your career, you need headhunters," he says. "Don't be stand-offish or defensive, even if this is not the right move for you or they are not looking for you."

He suggests you treat it as part of your networking. "Even if the call doesn't work out, you could say `Can I come and see you sometime?' and set up a networking meeting. If they are sufficiently interested in you to call you, and they think that although you don't fit this particular job they might be able to interest some of their clients in you, then they will meet you." He adds: "I always advocate to my clients that they should establish the best possible relationships with headhunters, because even if today doesn't work out, tomorrow might."