Professionally Speaking

Headhunter Headache

Our columnists share their distaste for some technical staffing companies.

I’m writing to see if I’m alone in my distaste for technical staffing. I’m on the job search now. I visit all the main sites, and 95 percent of the positions posted are through technical staffing companies. When you interview with a “staffing” company, you don’t get a feel for the actual company and you don’t know what benefits you’re going to get. The proposed company could be some struggling business that shuts down in two months. Do you agree, or am I just crazy in my distaste for staffing companies?
—Christopher Rey Henson, MCP, A+
Desktop analyst
Dallas, Texas
[email protected]

Greg Neilson says: I have to agree with both you and Steve. I have to add, though, it is pretty unrealistic to think that staffing companies will be stupid enough to disclose the name of the employer before they know a great deal about you, think that there may be a fit, and have you signed to a contract. After all, their knowledge that a position exists is the only asset they have. In general, headhunters are to be avoided if possible, for the reasons that Steve has discussed.

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One other dangerous scenario about headhunters is that some of the more unscrupulous (or perhaps I should say careless?) ones often don’t bother to check with you first before submitting your resume. This can lead to a couple of unfortunate situations: Perhaps your resume ends up submitted to the same company by multiple headhunters or, worse, your resume is submitted back to your own employer. So, while it’s true that some of these staffing companies are worthwhile, you need to be careful of handing your resume to anyone. My tendency is to assume that all of these guys are turkeys—unless you have had one recommended to you by someone you trust.

Direct contact with employers is a great thing and something I continually mention here. It implies you have done research about the company and know why you want to work there (as opposed to just blindly approaching anyone who can give you a job). You can also use the fact that you saved them the commission from a staffing company when negotiating a starting salary or signing bonus.

Another benefit of direct contact is that you may have a better chance of sidestepping HR folks and get straight to the people who have the power to hire you. HR people have a great grasp of HR issues, but — more often than not — they don’t understand our industry very well and aren’t able to read through your resume and understand how your skills and experience could benefit the company. Sure, they can look out for keywords such as “MCP,” “MCSE” or “NT” and determine how many years of experience you have, but they probably can’t evaluate your potential worth to the company. Worse still, for your case, these people will err on the conservative side and tend to screen you out rather than screen you in. On the other hand, a hiring manager usually understands exactly what your resume contains and is in a better position to evaluate if you might be useful to the organization.

As you progress in your career, you’re going to make many friends in the industry, and this is another rich source of information about employers — both those to avoid and those to pursue. And, better than that, it’s very common now for employers to pay a referral bonus to their existing employees when they successfully refer someone to the company. My current employer pays a $4,000 bonus, but I’ve seen others that award overseas trips or even the chance to win a sports car. For employers, this is a very inexpensive way to bring talented people into the business and is typically a lower risk than hiring someone off the street. That is, you know from your friend what the company is like and — as employers realize — high-performing people tend to stick together. So, if your friend is a star, then it’s highly likely he’s referring another star for the company.

When people leave a company I’m working for, I always ask them where they’re going next. If I know them well enough, I might also ask them why they picked that particular role or employer. This can help me better understand the market in the local area and may suggest some alternatives I might not have otherwise considered. Of course, most of these may not suit my aspirations or situation, but I won’t know unless I ask.

You’ve already shown good judgment in staying away from these staffing companies, so I’m sure you’ll continue to do well out there!

About the Author

Greg Neilson is a manager at a large IT services firm in Australia and has been a frequent contributor to and


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