Recruiters, Search Firms, Employment Agencies and Head Hunters

What they are, how they work and how to work with them.

Once reserved for top Executives, staff brokerages of varying stripes have become accepted in every industry. The Executive Search staffing model has evolved considerably from the early "head hunter" days, when a Wild West philosophy ruled the market. Knowing what they do and how to deal with them will make any relations you have with them more fruitful for you as a candidate or employer.

Search Firms, Agencies, Consultants and Agents

There are a several kinds of staffing, career and recruiting services available today:

Employment Agencies: The original employment agencies, which charge employees money to send them to jobs have all but disappeared. The few which still exist deal in jobs rather than careers, and depending on the laws of the state or the city where they work, charge either a fixed sum or a percentage of the employee's salary for the service. Agencies may also charge registration or listing fees. As a rule, however, a job seeker should never have to pay a fee for a job referral.

Contracting Services: Contractors, who pay staff directly and send them out to jobs, are rare in the hospitality industry. There are a few in New York, which seem to refer mostly lower skilled staff for short term employment. The insurance requirements, various labor laws, payment difficulties, and extreme seasonality in the hospitality industry make both temporary services and contracting very difficult in the United States.

Search Firms or recruiters, also called Executive Search Firms:  A Search firm, on the other hand, is either retained or paid on contingency by an employer to locate specifically skilled candidates with narrowly defined skills, experience and talents for highly defined positions. Search firms deal in careers. Agencies focus on jobs. Recruiters generally seek out specialists and executives or management staff in their fields. They are all employer paid. True Executive Search Firms deal only in upper level management and cannot be approached with a resume or by email.

Career Consultants: In addition to these brokers, there are a few career consultants who for an hourly fee give career guidance, arrange informational interviews, and help clients seeking career change or direction find appropriate niches. If you are unhappy with your professional life, seeing a consultant before deciding on a move may be the best investment you can make.

These personal consulting services paid by the job seeker can be valuable for the professional seeking to change the direction of a career track. Their services may include aptitude testing, development of an alternative career vision, direction to resources for information and informational interviews. A few meetings with a good career consultant can provide valuable insights to the source of career dissatisfaction.

If you seek a career consultant, you should only deal with an hourly arrangement. It is not their job to find you a new position, but to clarify potential paths for your working future. Those charging large sums of money to supply you with a certain number of interviews are not career consultants. You should find out if the career consultant knows much about the hospitality industry, and ascertain that the specialty is not insurance paid rehabilitation. A good career consultant will make you work to gain insights, rather than making any decisions for you.

Listing Services: promise lists of jobs in specific fields for a fixed amount of money. This includes cruise liners, casinos, summer resorts. You send a check for fifty or three hundred dollars and in return you get a list of the addresses of the human resource offices of the industry in question. You can get most of this information by using any Internet search engine intelligently or contacting the industry organization for the business. Save your money and do your own research.

Agents: More public relations experts than job and staff brokers, agents, or handlers market high end chefs personally. The considerable cost of their services is paid by the candidate either as an up front fee or a percentage of annual compensation or per job compensation. In order for an agent to be of use, a chef must already be well known.


Working with Career Resources

Working with a good search firm or career consultant can be help your career beyond advising you of interesting leads. To make the best use of these resources you need to know what you can reasonably expect from, how best to deal with and how to select consultants. You also need to realize that there can be pitfalls when you entrust the very personal details of your career to third parties.

There are fewer true "Head Hunters" - more or less quick buck artists more interested in moving people amount to maximize fees than maintaining a clean reputation to stay in business for the long haul - than there once were, but they still exist.

Most states have some laws pertaining to employment and staff brokers, especially when employees are asked to pay for services. Even where there are no specific laws, departments of consumer affairs can exercise control over agency activities. There are, furthermore, strict guidelines under the federal Fair Employment and Housing Act, which apply to any firms dealing with hiring, not to mention the many truth in advertising laws which apply to all businesses.

Fair Employment and Housing require that potential employees be considered only on the basis of their skills, employment records and experience, precluding the seven deadly discrimination sins: age, gender, religion, nationality, place of birth, race and health, to the extent that it does not affect job performance.

The Rules of the Game

Reputable firms would follow these rules with out being forced to, but now and then even the best firm hires a bad consultant. If you have any doubts about or problems with search consultants, you should first speak with the management of the group, since most situations are caused by over eager or naive subordinates. If you are not satisfied, you can check with the consumer affairs department of the state in which they practice, with the District Attorney's office of the city where they are located or with a Better Business Bureau.

Caveat Emptor?

While most firms today are proud of their record of careful matching of candidates to positions, a rogue group may pop up every now and then, usually for a short period.

These "consultants" usually prey on greed and naivety. Most serious cases of search firm damage could not happen without some help from the candidate. A reputable firm will not respond to unrealistic demands and will not offer positions which do not match your career progress.

A few years ago the father of a cook, a well established chef himself, man called me angrily, demanding the return of the $1,000 his son paid to register. As it turned out, a fictitious firm had posted an ad with a name similar to ours offering jobs in the $80,000 category - an inordinate amount for anyone at that time. The aspiring cook had called the number, been told that for a fee of $1,000 he would be provided with such a position. He foolishly sent it.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't," is a good rule to follow whenever you are dealing with career decisions. If you are offered a partnership and a corporate position for $70,000 when your current sous chef position pays $25,000, you should be very cautious.

In 1998 we were made aware of a West Coast firm which was causing another problem. Resumes to blind ads were broadcast to a number of restaurant groups in the area, although the firm seemingly had no authorization to deal with the firms. In one case, if one candidate is to be believed, a forged letter of consent from the candidate, whose resume was culled from an Internet web site, was included with the submission.
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Since candidates believed to be dealing directly with an employer, they were truly victims of this behavior, as the employers targeted refused to hire even qualified individuals referred in this manner.

The firm folded after about two years, but the practice of posting resumes on the internet has created a few situations where search firms have distributed information without permission.

If confidentiality a concern to you, and it should be, you make a note on any material sent to an unknown address carries the statement: "Your discretion is much appreciated. This material is intended for the party to whom it was sent only and may not be shared with third parties without my express permission."

If you post resumes on the internet, which can be distributed by any passing firm without your consent, you can write "This resume may not be distributed by any search firm or recruiter nor are previous or current employers or colleagues to be contacted without my express permission," or something to that effect. Of course, posting anything on the Internet is a poor way of maintaining discretion or control of your information and job search.

What Should you Expect from a Search Firm?

What kind of recruiter should you deal with?

The question here is really whether a recruiting firm should deal with you, and, if so, which one.

Not all hospitality positions are dealt with by recruiting firms. Search firms are not in the business of providing first employment, training jobs or entry level positions for people who want to enter the field. Students graduating from a culinary school should exhaust the placement services of their schools, who are well equipped to deal with entry level jobs.

The less advanced your position, the more locally you should seek an agency. It is unlikely that a Kansas City based employment agency will find you a captain's job in New York City. If you are a captain and want to go to New York, your best bet is to check Craig's list or travel there, find an agency and get an interview. A seasoned GM with a strong background will should have interviews lined up first.

Agencies can be specialists or generalists. Some deal with chain restaurants, some with food service operations and commissaries, and others deal with high end restaurants. If your next logical step is the regional manager for a chain group, you need an agency with a fairly broad candidate base in corporate restaurants.

How do you choose?

There are several good ways to find agencies. Most schools keep lists of approved firms. So do restaurant and professional associations. A good way, too, is to find out how your colleagues dealt with their positions, whom they trust and why. There are also several international guides.

Don't be afraid to ask agencies what their practices are and what kind of clients they deal with, and you want to know if they deal with the regions where you can work.

Some questions you can ask a search firm are:

Don't expect a recruiter to:

As you discuss your background with the search firm, listen for points of common knowledge. If the agent knows friends of yours, take a moment to check with that friend on his dealings with the agent.

Try to listen to what the agent says with a clear head. This will be difficult, because you probably have a great deal you want him to know about you, so you can easily overhear important statements or misinterpret what he says. In your first conversation he will be laying down some of the rules by which he functions. You need to understand and follow them.


How Search Firms Work

Candidates wonder how search firms choose where to send their applicants. In most cases the search firms are actually chosen by the businesses seeking assistance. Recruiters may work on retainer or contingency. Either way the recruiter will choose between an existing base of good candidates and potential candidates gained through networking for any specific opening.

Good recruiters are contacted by repeat clients or clients who learn of them through word of mouth to find staff for specific jobs, but if a recruiter has a good relationship with a client and finds a candidate who fits their profile, he may contact the client directly to see if there is a need for the candidate. Since it takes years to develop a good client base, the recruiter will be very selective in presenting new applicants when no position has been posted with him.

A firm may also have standing orders from one or more corporations to provide them with profiles of professionals appropriate to their specific requirements.

Some firms send out blind descriptions of candidates available to potentially interested clients. This is far from best practice and could be dangerous for you if you have an easily identifiable profile in a specific industry segment, such as being the manager of a well known country club or chef of restaurant which is easily identifiable.

Most firms selectively pick from one to a few candidates for the openings they are expected to fill, sending only candidates they see as fully suitable for the vacancy. A broader type of operation, however, may have a per capita arrangement, usually with the larger chain style corporations, to forward large numbers of resumes with little or no prior selection. These resumes may come through mass recruiting efforts or from job fairs. These groups work primarily with chain restaurants. The Internet has all but caused the job fair to disappear.

A recruiter with a good candidate may learn of a position and contact an unknown employer, identifying himself as a search firm, and propose the applicant, whom he will refer if it there is interest.

Reputable search firms rarely "cold call", calling a client they do now know stating that "I just wanted to see if you had any needs I can fill today," or call a candidate to whom they have no connection to ask if he would like to be considered for future openings coming through that firm. In fact, we are so connected today. This "empty desktop" churning is generally a bad sign.

Why do employers spend good money on search firms, with so many good employees available?

Regardless of the details of the consultant/client relationship, it is important that the referring agency has the specific authority to present candidates, contact with the hiring firm and will be able to market you to his client, who finds the service worth the fee. It is the relationship of the agent to the employer which also benefits you as a possible candidate. The recruiter will do nothing to jeopardize it.

Although you may want to guard your information with a new search contact, you can, of course, especially if you are not able to pursue any employment opportunities on your own, give an agent carte blanche or limited permission to distribute your information, thus gaining the advantage of the free use of his time. He can save time spent waiting for your approval of individual positions this way. Allowing a recruiter this liberty should be a matter of great trust. You want to be careful with this approach, if you require a great deal of discretion in your current position.


How Can You Help The Agency Help You?

Once you have decided to approach or work with an agency and to provide them with your resume and work information, you can facilitate their work in a number of ways.

If you are accepted by a search firm, even if only for passive consideration, you have a pretty good deal: You pay nothing, and someone who probably spends ten hours a day dealing with employment specialized in your field is looking out for your best employment interests.

You can increase the value of the agency's concern for you by forming a considerate alliance with the consultant. The most important thing you can do in this partnership is to be reasonable, honest and clear in your goals and present your information in a comprehensible and comprehensive manner.

Your end of the bargain:


Other Considerations

You should keep your window for opportunities as wide as possible. The more narrowly you define your search, the fewer chances the agent will have to assist you. Every search firm has experienced the candidate who shackles them with unrealistic expectations, then accepts a position far inferior to the positions the agency did not offer him, a lose - lose situation.

There is a limitation to what a search firm can achieve. During some months there is little or insignificant growth in certain parts of the country. Consultants simply cannot create positions where they do not exist, nor can they force you into a job which does not fit.

Be realistic about what is possible and determine your priorities. It's rare that we get all of our desires. You may need to make concessions to achieve your career ambitions or to meet your personal requirements. These can be in the areas of geography, title, job environment, product nature or compensation, among others. You won't find a sous chef position in a five star restaurant in on the Montana border. If you want five star, you need to be in culinary country and be prepared to work nights. If you want time for your family, you will not be able to work in a five star restaurant. Let the recruiter know your priorities.

Search firms are neither the tooth fairies or miracle workers. They cannot repair bridges which have been burned or repair wasted careers. That is what friends are for. Although most search consultants would like to fulfill all wishes, they cannot convince five star restaurants to move even the nicest people from family restaurants across country or convince major clients that very fine cooks have the "talent" to head up a Research and Development department, although they have no experience in that area. The consultant's task is to locate the person with the closest set of skills for a position, not to force their client to take on an eager pretenders.

Most firms have only limited time to counsel job seekers, and rarely have opportunities to assist in career changes.

Agencies are not directory assistance. They are not sounding boards. They are not therapists. Trying to use them as such is very inconsiderate.

A good agency will tell you their limitations. This is not nastiness, but realism. Remembering again that agencies are paid a fee for referring precisely defined candidates, you can understand that agencies may not be able to achieve the results you desire. This does not mean it cannot be done, but that the probability for the consultant to succeed is very low. You may have great success on your own. "I can't get you that position" is not something that an agency says lightly.

Good search consultants really like and respect the people with whom they deal. Their frank assessments their capabilities with you is intended to assist you in your decision making, not as an insult.

Some agencies work with other agencies for some jobs and not for others. It is indescribably rude to ask an agency for the names and addresses of competitors. Of course if you don't realize this, you are probably not good agency material anyway.


When Should you Register with a Search Firm?

The best time to find any professional service is before you need it. You should have your resources in place while your position is still comfortable and challenging.

Conversely, the least productive scenario occurs when a candidate contacts a search firm as the last resort to finding a position, after all other resources have been exhausted, funds have run out and the car has just broken down.

By making contact early, you enable the firm to inform you of opportunities you may find interesting and which you can consider rationally, without the pressure of pending unemployment.

A conscientious consultant would prefer that you be selective rather than highly motivated through the necessity to find a job quickly, and people safely employed make the best decisions about their careers. He will gracefully take "no" for an answer.

Experience shows, furthermore, that prospective employers much prefer candidates currently employed: There is a security in knowing that the candidate has not been fired. Potential employers often appreciate the opportunity of tasting the food or observing the service where the applicant works, and like the consultant, employers understand that employed candidates make fewer short term decisions.

If you do not maintain an informational registration with a search firm, you should at least try to contact a consultant before a job search is urgent rather than at the moment you are ready to go return to work.


Easy Ways to Tick Off a Search Consultant

With just a little ill will and effort, you can turn a great ally into a lukewarm representative or an enemy. Some of the best ways to irk an agent are: