Headhunters: A Survival Guide

Looking for a new job, Juliet McShannon learnt the hard way how to get the best out of recruitment consultants

If UK businesses are spending £2.6bn on external recruitment each year and 92 per cent plan to use recruitment agencies in the next six months, surely it makes perfect sense to use a recruitment consultant to help you to find your next job?

After years of steady PR freelancing, I recently found myself out of work and queuing up with almost 1.5 million others in the UK for Jobseeker's Allowance. Where the private sector had once been a playscape for a freelancer with my skills, it was now lean pickings. I mournfully drew a line through my public-sector contacts. Even with my dubious mathematical ability, it was an easy equation to grasp – more applicants for fewer jobs equalled fierce competition.

I couldn't just rely on sending my CV on spec – I would need to cast the net wider, with helping hands to stretch the corners. With an estimated 135,000 recruitment consultants in the UK, it was a no-brainer.

First, I looked for a recruitment agency whose consultants did not earn commission. I was afraid of being hurried into a job match which just wasn't right for me. According to Jobfit.co.uk, nearly three-quarters of job seekers believe they have been lied to by recruitment agencies about a role, and more than half say they were pressured by agencies to attend a job interview. I soon gave up this lofty ideal, as I found that during an online job search, an advertised job would oblige me to apply through a recruitment consultant.

By the time I sat in front of the recruitment consultant of the fourth agency, I could anticipate the opening question: "So talk me through your CV." I could now recount chronological memories with alarming ease, as though my CV and I were siblings – and twins at that. Not only could I anticipate the opener, but most of the questions to follow. I could also predict the non-verbal behaviour of the listener – the sage nodding, furrowed brow, the scribbling of notes in the margin. Did I mention the furrowed brow?

I am finally employed – but not without having learnt a few hard lessons along the way when dealing with recruitment consultants. Sorry, Sir Alan, but the battle for a job does not begin in the boardroom; it begins when you are interviewed by a recruitment consultant in their offices. But your strategy must be the same – you need all your wits about you, a strategic plan at hand, and your mind fully engaged.

A chat is an interview

If the recruitment consultant likes your CV or thinks they have found you a job match, they will invite you for a "getting to know you" chat. Surely I could be candid? "Yes, I left my last job because my boss was a jerk," and "No, as a freelancer, I did not want to feel trapped in a permanent role."

So why the consultant's tight-lipped expression? Why the tapping of the pen with manicured nails? This was no chat, this was an interview. Her checklist was different from mine. A candidate with generic skills? Tick. A candidate who could be flexible with salary? Tick. A candidate who could commit to a short- or long-term role? Tick. The more specific my demands, the more I was pushing myself away from the "one size fits all" CV... and from a job.

Suspicious minds: The flexible cheque

"And what salary are you expecting?" Answer with a definitive number at your peril. Your recruitment agent is still ticking those mental boxes and factoring in commission. How difficult are you going to be to sell in to employers? If you're willing to accept a salary too low for your skill-set it raises a flag. Too high and you won't get invited for an interview. There are plenty of over-qualified applicants willing to work for less than what they are worth. The key words are "flexibility" and "range". Give a salary range in which you could fit comfortably. The time to negotiate over salary is in the boardroom – just remember which one.


Consider the question: "What other recruitment agencies are you registered with?" The recruitment consultant doesn't want friendship, but does expect loyalty. If, like me, you prefer not to reveal other agency names – why is this relevant, after all? – remember this is not all about what you want. The recruitment consultant will be gathering information from you to hand over to the marketing team. In fact, a recruitment consultant could even pump you for information that helps another candidate to get your job.

Your list of other recruitment agencies often leads to: "What other jobs have you been put forward for?" The rationale seems perfectly plausible.

"We don't want to put you forward for any jobs you might already have applied for through another agency."

So, you don't think twice and answer. "X job with XYZ company."

"Is that a first- or second-round interview?"

"Er... first."

You have just provided the recruitment consultant with a brand new lead – the employer's name and an indication of where the interview process lies. Your recruitment consultant may have his or her own candidate in mind for that role, and as it is at first-round interview stage, will probably still be in time to submit their CV for the job you want.

Talk Me Through It

Your CV has been sent to a company and if all goes well the employer may want to meet you. Tantalisingly close to getting employed, you may still be giving another candidate an advantage. It is quite common for a recruitment consultant to ask you for feedback after the interview. I have always obliged. On one occasion, I emailed my favourable feedback, saying I thought the interview went well and that there was a mixture of competency and personality questions. I immediately received a reply text from my recruitment consultant:

"Call me so you can talk me through it!"

So I phoned.

"Talk me through it step by step," she said. The interview had been more than an hour long.

"Hold on, talk slowly... no, more slowly." Was she writing this all down? Aah, of course she was.

"I don't want to go through the interview format," I cautiously replied. "I don't want to give someone else an unfair advantage."

So my recruitment consultant was quite prepared to use my detailed feedback to prep the other candidates she had also put forward for that interview. Hedging her bets.

Pump back

It is common practice to receive employer feedback on your interview through your recruitment consultant. Don't accept vague feedback. If you don't get the job, you want to know why, and constructive feedback can only benefit you. Most employers will give detailed feedback if they are asked. And don't be fobbed off by: "I'll try to find out more and get back to you." The longer time passes, the less likely this will happen.

Recruitment agencies are there to help you to find employment but in my experience, there is a quid pro quo which goes beyond the commission they receive from your eventual employer. If you choose to use them, do so strategically. If you do so well, you will have the skills that all employers want – a candidate who knows how to play the game... and win.