Establishing Contact with Headhunters: The Biggest Mistakes

Headhunters can help you to reach the next great step in your career. This cooperation normally only lasts for a short amount of time, usually a few weeks, provided it’s successful for all parties involved – especially in the long-term. Beside subjects like a candidate’s professional competencies in regards to a specific vacancy, especially concerning the terms of the position (the location of the company, salary, language skills), there are important factors to consider concerning the cooperation that could be considered mistakes – or even worse, “cooperation killers.”

establishing contact with headhunters

To this point, we’ll give you an overview of the biggest mistakes that candidates make when interacting with headhunters. In our personal experience, every headhunter prefers a different method of introduction.

This article will guide you through the entire process: the first steps of establishing contact with headhunters, the follow-up call, how to send your CV and cover letter, all the way up to setting up an appointment with the recruiter. And as for the interview – you can read more about that in our next post.

1. Mistake: Talking on Your Company Phone

If a headhunter first calls you while you’re at work, you’re already in danger of committing the first big mistake. Ask the recruiter if it would be possible to set up a later time for a phone interview; for legal reasons in Germany, these conversations can’t take place through the communications infrastructure of your employer.

The headhunter may not hold any kind of longer conversation or discussion with you while you’re on a company phone, on company time.*

Limit the conversation to rescheduling an appointment. The way to turn this situation into a conversation killer is by drawing the discussion out longer – regardless of your intentions, things like asking questions about the position will create a bad situation.

Simply using phrases like “I’m alone, we can talk” does not release the headhunter from his obligation to keep conversations with candidates as short as possible while they’re at work. On a similar note, don’t start the conversation by mentioning these regulations.

By doing so, you give the recruiter the impression that you’re trying to trap him, or that you’re the kind of person who would rather focus on irrelevant minutiae than more important topics at hand.

Solution: Give the recruiter your private cellphone or home number. (Don’t forget – your company mobile phone is also off-limits). Then, create an appointment for a private phone conversation.

Did the recruiter find and contact you through a career service like Experteer? Reply with your private phone number, and suggest a fitting appointment for a phone call.

From the perspective of a headhunter, it’s also practical for you to include a private email address, and request an overview of the position in question. This way, the phone call can proceed with more direction and information for both parties.

Observations: There may be some recruiters who don’t like candidates to behave so assertively – they prefer to be in control of the situation, and to offer as little information as possible about each position. It’s our belief that withholding information has no place in the world of executive search.

(*Note: For readers outside of Germany, these laws and regulations may not apply. Regardless of your country’s policies, it is understood that talking with headhunters and recruiters within work hours, using company time and resources, is very unprofessional.)

2. Mistake: You’re Unavailable

The next opportunity for a large mistake: the recruiter can’t reach you at the agreed upon time! Besides the fact that it’s impolite (the recruiter has taken time out of her day for you), it gives the impression that you’re either bad at planning, or unreliable. Or is this opportunity unimportant to you? Maybe you’re not taking it seriously?

3. Mistake: You’re Daydreaming During the Conversation

An even worse error would be to appear unfocused during the phone conversation. Of course, there could be extenuating circumstances – maybe you’re in the car, or being distracted. But it’s up to you to ensure that you can speak freely and focus on the discussion at hand. If you can’t guarantee a distraction free atmosphere, then you should have picked another time for the conversation.

But multitasking is even worse – do not answer if you’re putting the kids to bed, smoking, eating, or trying to quiet your dog. This also signals to the recruiter that the call is unimportant to you. But it is for them. So take the time to concentrate on the call!

Our values and experiences show us that candidates who don’t take the first call seriously will approach the first in-person interview just as casually. These candidates are never well prepared, and rely instead on their “winning ways” and confidence in their personalities.

To make one point clear:

The recruiter has one goal – he wants to present the best possible candidates for one particular position. In a conversation with candidates like you, he’s working to determine if you’re the proper fit ofr the position, and if this vacancy could be an interesting career opportunity for you – in the long term. He will not waste his time and energy on an apathetic, disinterested candidate.

4. Mistake: “Testing Your Market Value”

Some people believe that every opportunity is worth learning about. But this mentality won’t get you very far in a conversation with a headhunter. If you’re open to every option, without any genuine interest or direction, you give the impression that you’re unable to set prioritiesOr are you only here to talk? Just to check your market value? This will certainly sour any interactions with a serious recruiter.

Observations: There are senior professionals who receive a large amount of contact requests. But sort through and decide which ones are seriously veritable options for you. By conveying the attitude that you’re bored or annoyed by your high volume of contact requests, you’re only going to annoy the recruiter, too. This kind of approach could ruin your chances at finding your next great career step.

Solution: Stay authentic and take your phone call seriously.

Be prepared to answer the classic relevant questions – about your career path, your personality, your goals and your reasons for wanting a change – and take advantage of the opportunity to ask important questions. The goal of this telephone conversation is to decide if you’re prepared for the next step. Anything that’s still vague will remain an open issue – the recruiter may even stop the process if he feels uncertain about you as a candidate.

Example: When asked about your willingness to relocate, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you need to speak to your family first. But it’s absolutely unacceptable to dodge the question. If you simply dance around the question of your willingness to travel or move, with filler answers like “We’ll see,” “Yeah, probably,” etc, you may give the recruiter the impression that he’s taking a risk by talking to you – a candidate who’s just sizing up her market value, with no serious interest in the position.

5. Mistake: Avoiding Commitment

Conveying the attitude that “recruiters will come to me” is another great mistake. This is true, but of course there’s always a goal behind these interactions: recruiters want to find interested and relevant candidates for interviews to fill their mandates. When you act as though you’re being “courted” by recruiters, all vying for your attention, it will leave the recruiter with a strongly negative impression of you.

Be aware of how both sides benefit from the exchange: Perhaps the recruiter needs someone exactly like you to fill his current mandate. Perhaps this recruiter is exactly the person who will help you to reach your next great career step.

Conclusion: Be clear, professional, and don’t be afraid of commitment! Tell the recruiter what you need, and what won’t work for you. When you come across as a waste of time, the headhunter will avoid you for all future opportunities.

You’ve promised the recruiter that you’ll pass your application documents along? Then establish a date when you’ll have your documents prepared by, and stick to it. Make sure to double-check that all of your documents (resume, letters of recommendation, cover letter) are up-to-date and correct, and that nothing is missing. No recruiter wants to chase a candidate for missing paperwork.

6. Mistake: Acting Before Thinking

When you’d like to set a date for a personal interview, work with the recruiter to find an appointment that works for both of you. There are two important parameters for this – time and place.

Ensure that you two can reach a compromise: either you’re flexible regarding time (i.e. you’re aware that you might need to factor in travel-time), or you can be flexible regarding the location (i.e. you can defer to the recruiter to see when they’re available).

It’s a mistake to agree to an appointment too soon, especially before all of the details of the position are ironed out. This could lead to the worst kind of misunderstanding – you may unintentionally accept a position with the condition that you’ll have to move, then after meeting with the recruiter, you’ll both discover that you expected to commute back and forth each week. (Read more in the next article.)

Change Your Perspective:

Forget that you’re playing the role of an “applicant,” and instead consider the recruiter a team-mate; you two are working together on the same project. Both team members have the opportunity to remove themselves and focus on other projects.

Be sure that you aren’t interested in other projects. If you’re not so intrigued by this prospect offered by the recruiter, you should remove yourself from the process and save both parties time. Instead, focus on the next offer that meets your expectations for a new career step. You can’t do much to change the conditions of the arrangement, but your attitude can play a huge factor in the success for this project!

About the Author

After years of serving in the military, Thomas Friedrichs began a career in executive recruiting in the late 90s. Previously, he worked with methods and systems, and has recently published a textbook. Today, the author is the director and a shareholder with the executive search group Tröger &  Cie. AG in Frankfurt am Main.


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