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the job search

Headhunters still help companies narrow down their field of candidates for a job.SaulHerrera

Headhunters used to be the source for smart, talented employees who were open to new opportunities. They had a database – or a rolodex – of people at their fingertips and they could quickly present clients with a short list of qualified potential workers.

But how relevant are headhunters in the digital age, when a human resources specialist can search using specific keywords on LinkedIn – the biggest job search engine in the world – and connect to hundreds of potential employees with a click of the mouse? Job seekers can leverage their contacts or apply directly to a hiring manager. All of this can be done without paying a headhunter a dime, so why contract one?

Here's a test: search for "environmental engineer" in Canada on LinkedIn and you get more than 2,000 names – there's the key problem. That's a lot of LinkedIn résumés to read and that's where headhunters say they can provide added value to a company looking to narrow the numbers down to a handful of candidates.

Veronica Pastor, a partner with Toronto-based W.P. Osborne Executive Search Inc., says headhunters can find and assess candidates to find the perfect person for a particular job. This saves companies a lot of time, she adds, making it worth their while to pay for a headhunter's services.

"We identify the talent pool for that specific [job] requirement," Ms. Pastor explains. "We want to find people who don't contact us. LinkedIn is one tool and there is a small per cent of talented people there because not everyone is on it."

Allan Jones of Calgary-based Clear Road IT has been a headhunter for 16 years and he helps find and place information technology candidates. Working as a headhunter is not for the faint of heart, he says.

"You only eat what you kill," he adds, explaining that companies don't pay when headhunters fail to bring the right candidate to the table.

Delivering someone who gets the job is only the beginning of a headhunter's compensation, which can range from 10 per cent to 30 per cent of the position's first-year salary. Most headhunters are paid in thirds: a third once they've compiled a short list of candidates, a third when a candidate is interviewed and the final third when the position is filled with the headhunter's candidate.

While anyone can be a headhunter, good ones differentiate themselves by staying in constant contact with both the company and the candidates, Mr. Jones says. A company may need time to consider its options but candidates can interpret silence as disinterest.

For workers who are contacted, headhunters can help them prepare for interviews and they can provide details about a company's culture, the salary and the job position. Some will also review résumés and conduct personality tests to ensure the candidate is the right fit for the role and the company.

Another reason companies use headhunters is because LinkedIn and other job sites can't offer access to "passive candidates" – those who are not currently looking for work or don't have a profile online.

That's why Sachi Kittur, vice-president of human resources at Mercatus Technologies Inc., a Toronto-based company that provides shopping technology to retailers, has used headhunters for 15 years. The value of headhunters for Ms. Kittur is the relationship she has with them and the relationship they have with their candidates.

"To make the relationship work, you have to invest some time in researching the best firms to partner with and give them access to your company, executives and hiring practices so that they can understand your culture," she says. "Once they have [done that] they have a better chance of succeeding in helping you scout out talent."

But sometimes a headhunter can be a hindrance. Patti Bond, 44, has been looking for work as a legal assistant for the last nine months after IBM eliminated her position. She is looking at job boards and company websites as well as contacting headhunters attached to relevant positions. It's been a frustrating experience for Ms. Bond, who met three headhunters who contacted her after she submitted her résumé to various job boards.

"I walked out of there feeling good about myself and my résumé," she says. "Then I'd hear from them for the first couple of weeks, then nothing."

She's had better luck securing interviews by applying directly to certain companies. A headhunter accidentally revealed a client's name and Ms. Bond sent her résumé directly to the HR department – and then was interviewed by the company.

Whether headhunters are truly the gateway to a job is still up for debate. "Headhunters are often expert in the particular field that they recruit for – which can be useful. I've heard of more than one case of an employee actually applying for a job – and having that application be ignored – only to later be recruited for the very role by a headhunter," the editor-in-chief of Workopolis, Peter Harris, said in an e-mail.

However, if you really want to get the role, Mr. Harris suggests trying to get your résumé on the desk of the person you'll be working for. He says they are the ones who will know best how to evaluate and appreciate your skills.

Ms. Kittur doesn't see an end to headhunters in this digital age but as Ms. Bond continues to look for work, she remains disenchanted. "Headhunters are valuable for networking on LinkedIn," Ms. Bond says. "But I have never gotten a job using a headhunter."


Allan Jones of Clear Road IT suggests candidates ask headhunters these questions:

• Who is the client who will receive my résumé?

• How well do you know the company?

• Do you have a detailed job description?

• What are the client's candidate requirements?

• Are there other headhunters submitting candidates, or do you have an exclusive arrangement with them?

• What is the salary or hourly rate being offered?

• How fast should I expect to receive feedback about my résumé?

For companies using a headhunter:

Sachi Kittur, vice-president of human resources at Mercatus Technologies Inc. says the headhunting industry has changed in the last 15 years, when it was more standardized.

• Check out who the headhunter is. "There is no umbrella organization. Anyone can be a recruiter," Ms. Kittur says.

• Ask the headhunter to provide examples of people they have placed. "Let me talk to the CEO and HR," she says. "I need to see a long-term track record."

Special to The Globe and Mail