Getting the most out of a headhunter

By David Essex, ITworld.com |  Career

Headhunters -- or search or staffing firms, as they're more formally called -- are
often a hiring manager's best remedy for a staffing crisis. Whether you're retaining a
search firm to find the perfect chief technology officer to formulate your start-up's
development strategy, or paying a staffing agency to hire 20 engineers for a product
launch, the right outside recruiter can make the critical difference. But with search
firms demanding commission as high as 50 percent of the target position's first year
salary, hiring a headhunter is a major commitment from a purely monetary standpoint.
Plus, you can ill afford to discover months later that the work was shoddily done.

How do you find the right headhunter, then make sure the firm delivers what you
need? Experts and hiring managers concur that, in a sense, it comes down to being a
headhunter of headhunters. You must make sure the agency knows your needs and your
business just as well as it knows the talented people you want to hire. In other words,
you must build good relationships, with frequent communication, flexibility,
understanding, and a little schmoozing.

Meet your new business partner

There are two main types of headhunters: retained (you pay a percentage of the
open position's salary, regardless of whether anyone is hired) and contingency
(you pay a percentage of the salaries only of those who are hired). Some firms offer
hybrids, says H. Michael Boyd, director of human resourcing strategies at International
Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, Mass. Fifteen percent of the target
position's salary is the lowest fee nowadays, but one-third is common and 45 to 50
percent is not unheard of, Boyd says.

Retained firms, such as Heidrick & Struggles International of Chicago and Korn/Ferry
International of Los Angeles, generally aren't interested in doing searches for jobs
that pay less than $150,000. In IT, that means CIOs, CTOs and above. Both companies run
Websites targeting a lower-salary middle market for positions earning between $100,000
and $150,000. Numerous staffing firms place IT jobs at that level and below. Some
firms, called boutique agencies, are small but effective because they focus on
a specialty like the fast-growing bioinformatics field.

"Like any business, there are good, top-notch service providers, and there are
crooks," Boyd says. "Good agencies like to establish a relationship with a company and
become an extension of the company. They're really your recruiter, and they're out
there representing you in a very positive light."

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