by Don Levett Comments (32)

Reckoning with Recruiters: How to Outsmart the Sharks and Land Job Offers Without Being Eaten Alive

Reckoning with Recruiters: How to Escape the SharksIt’s exam day in my final year of university and I’m sitting in Starbucks, cursing my idle ways and hurriedly inhaling whatever a brain on Red Bull can manage in 40 minutes.

Across from me I recognize an acquaintance – Stephen – immersed in conversation with someone across from him.

I look down at my notes and hope he hasn’t seen me – not for any fault of his, but at this moment making small talk ranks alongside being rendited in my list of priorities.

Minutes later his associate pops into the restroom, at which point Stephen darts across the room and approaches me.

“Don,” he says, “I’m so glad you didn’t come over just then”. Flattering stuff, I think.

He continues: “Because as far as he knows, my name’s James”.

Welcome to the world of recruitment consultants.

Recruiters = Good or Evil?

Recruiters are a special species in the professional ecosystem.

As an avenue to procuring a position, they can smooth the process considerably, cutting out the need to scavenge for open positions, the tedious process of writing covering letters, and the other requirements of job-hunting through corporate programs, such as 800-word essays or fiddly forms that want everything on your CV to be entered manually in bite-size chunks.

Yet when they’re bad, they’re very bad, so approach them with caution: here be dragons.

The View from the Deep: What Recruiters Really Want

To get the most out of the exercise, it pays to think through what a recruiter is trying to achieve.

Most recruitment agents are rewarded by commissions on their placements.

Their agencies can charge from 30% up to (at senior levels) multiples of the annual salary of the individuals they place, and in turn, individual recruiters typically get a good chunk of that.

Therefore the impetus, from their point of view, is to get as many of these deals to close as they possibly can.

Some do that with impeccable professionalism and integrity, recognizing that fundamentally they farm relationships, and that today’s candidate is tomorrow’s client.

But many do not – and this ranges from not answering your calls, to not notifying you of rejections, to mining you for information. Most of this is discourtesy and laziness, yet some are downright devious.

The take-home point here is that they’re looking for an easy sell, so the utility they pose to you is directly related to the utility you pose to them.

How (Some) Recruiters Operate: The Bad and The Ugly

I once met with a highly successful recruiter – a man who’d earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in his second year in the industry.

We settled down to our lattés and after a half hour or so on strategy consulting, he asked me whether I’d ever considered a career in recruitment.

I enjoy the interpersonal stuff, so it had crossed my mind, but not in any serious sense, so I asked him where he was going with this line of inquiry.

He was in need of an extra pair of hands, so I thought it’d be interesting to hear him out – and “interesting” it most certainly was.

When starting out, he said, the best trick is to set up a website advertising some fake positions in the industry you’re looking to specialize in.

Candidates will apply, and in turn you will arrange to meet them. Conversations will be had, experience will be shared, and at some point the issue of the candidate’s current efforts will be raised.

Cue the brimstone and tridents: the recruiter will then angle to pinpoint where else the candidate’s interviewing. And candidates – those with less experience in particular – will often volunteer this in their eagerness to impress.

At this point, assuming the recruiter has all the information they need, he/she will then wrap up the conversation. The moment the hapless candidate is out of the door, the recruiter drops the recruiting institution a line, and equipped with the knowledge of the candidate’s ability, has a good idea of what’s required to pip them to the post.

Usually operating on a ‘no win, no fee’ arrangement, the recruiter then gets to work.

This is not always a negative process – they may then parachute the ‘victim’ ahead of another – but you can easily avoid this situation in the first place by keeping your cards close to your chest.

So never tell a recruiter where you’re interviewing – keep it ambiguous.

They might push a little, but will ultimately respect your street smarts. You have been warned.

A Strong “Cultural” Fit?

It doesn’t end there.

Recruiters have a strong incentive for you to take a job, and so they’ll often try and parlay you into roles which are simply not for you.

Some take “softer,” more flattering approaches – one pursued me for weeks until she exasperatedly blurted out, “You know what, you’d f***ing hate this job; you’d be bored out of your mind” and putting the phone down on me. I never heard from her again.

Years later a flat mate in IT – a notoriously vicious field thanks to rapid contract turnover – had one recruiter threaten to “blacken [his] name across the industry” if he did not take a role.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the practice of the “head shunt,” where an employee’s company engages an agent to recruit an individual out of their company, often into a competitor.

It’s rare and usually illegal, but it does happen, and it serves as an elegant means of dispatching someone whose removal might otherwise prove messy – not to mention netting the recruiter two sets of fees in the process.

Playing the Recruiters’ Game

Recruiters manage pools of candidates and filter them to provide the most eligible ones to their clients.

“Eligible” really means conforming to a very specific set of criteria laid down to them by those clients.

If you’re near the top of their talent pool, comprehensively ticking those boxes, then you can expect them to invest a decent amount of effort into recommending and then preparing you for interviews.

If you’re especially good, then on occasion a recruiter will approach companies of your choosing on your behalf.

Conversely, if you are weak relative to the rest of their pool, then you’ll be lucky to get a look in.

Either way, if they submit you for a few roles to little avail, then their patience will wane rapidly, and you may be shelved as “damaged goods.”

So the long and short of this is, if you fit the classic “profile” for your target roles, you’ll get good mileage out of them, but if you’re in any way unconventional or “weak,” then you should allocate more of your job-hunting efforts elsewhere.

These dynamics are affected by supply and demand and if your chosen industry is particularly short on candidates, then these general rules are less relevant.

From your point of view, the ideal recruiter is one with great roles and poor talent. If you find one, great: but take rapid advantage of them – they won’t stay that way for long!

Working with Recruiters: Improving Your Stock

Once you’re in their pipe, then a good recruiter can be very helpful indeed, coaching you through the application process and grooming you with the information they’ve gleaned from their experience.

Not all recruiters are great at this, but a few well-aimed questions can certainly help guide them.

When you land an interview, make sure to ask them what it will cover, how many people will be there, what they are like, and what they are looking for.

Ask them where other candidates have fallen down, and how successful ones have impressed. And afterwards, get a proper postmortem.

Your recruiter’s insight can give you a serious advantage over candidates who have arrived via other channels, so pay special attention.

Asking these sorts of questions will also give the recruiter the impression that you are switched on and aware of the process, which will increase your stock in their eyes, which is huge.

The better your stock, the better the client they will put you in front of, and the harder they will try to sell you to them, so put as much effort into impressing them as you would any other type of interviewer.

If the client trusts the recruiter, then they should be well-disposed toward you in interview, and look to see your better side.

Treat the recruiter with respect, reply promptly, but do not hound him or her – needless interruption and appearing desperate are not endearing.

Touching base by phone once or twice a week should be sufficient in most cases – but do make sure you use the phone, as you can then develop a relationship with them and they will place a personality to your name, helping you to stand out from the sea of people they interact with daily – which further ensures that you’ll be high in their mind for new opportunities.

And help them. If you know of opportunities or candidates that match their needs, send them their way, provided it’s not to your disadvantage. Everyone appreciates a favor.

Working Against Them: Gathering Intelligence

Sometimes you just won’t tick the boxes. This doesn’t mean you can’t do the job, but clients don’t respond well to consultants that ignore their instructions, and so it’s simply not worth the agent’s time of day to try and sell something from left field, particularly if there’s already an abundant candidate supply.

It’s nothing personal, but it is an obstacle, and for those with initiative it can work to your advantage. Although some companies use recruiters to save the hassle of managing the process and doing the filtering themselves, plenty of others use them for their origination abilities.

If you can find and impress the client yourself, you come with a hefty savings attached over your competition – a cute advantage.

Fortunately for you, the speed of their business leads to slapdash laziness, and careful reading of job listings can furnish you with incredible information.

Pay special attention to company descriptions: any wording that contains a stack of facts or looks like corporate gloss usually is, and a quick Google search (with quotation marks) can lead you straight to the website that the recruiter copied and pasted from.

Note that the term you search for doesn’t even need to contain facts – it can simply be a slightly incongruous yet specific turn of phrase unique to the client website!

The road is then clear for your own approach, and a judicious letter or networked introduction can land you an interview without having to go through recruiters.

So Should You Use Recruiters At All?

Absolutely, provided you keep your wits about you.

Plenty of industries rely almost exclusively on recruiters, and there’s a great breath of sophistication in terms of how they approach the task.

Some will drop the dragnets into LinkedIn, while others will carefully piece together the real players in a market, perhaps with the aid of a pseudonym and an expense account, a la Stephen.

A good recruiter can serve as an excellent source of information and save you unimaginable amounts of time, but a bad one might spam your CV around, tell your employer that you’re on the prowl, or waste your time with jobs that don’t even exist.

Yet overall, the best recruiters get great word-of-mouth and percolate through to the top of their industry’s trade journal listings, resulting in a virtuous feedback loop of happy clients and happy applicants.

Just make sure you never tell them where else you’re interviewing, and you might just escape your encounter without being eaten alive.


About the Author

Don Levett is the author of How to Find a Graduate Job and has produced events that brought together some of the world’s top financiers.

Break Into Investment Banking

Free Exclusive Report: 57-page guide with the action plan you need to break into investment banking - how to tell your story, network, craft a winning resume, and dominate your interviews

We respect your privacy. Please refer to our full privacy policy.


Read below or Add a comment

  1. Hi

    I was fortunate to obtain a job offer in M&A at a top 10 investment bank in London (I owe a large part of this to you and your articles – keep up the good work).

    My long-term plan is to move to NYC after a few years. I was just wondering how easy or difficult the process is for someone who requires a visa and who will be going for experienced hire positions.

    Also what is the best way to make such a move, aside from intra-company transfers? Head-hunters?

    Thanks v much.

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Thank you for your note. I am glad you find our advice useful. I think the best bet is to transfer internally. Headhunters may work if you are senior but internal transfers are usually easiest in such situations.

  2. Hi, i’m attending an italian business school.But I am a little bit confused about how our Gpa is evaluated because here it’s out of 30.So do you know if a 27/30 is enough for a summer intership, or you need a 28-29/30.I’m waiting for your answer, i hope you know some italian experiences :)

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      I’d say 28-29 though I’d speak with bankers in your country to confirm the number.

  3. Hi Brian,

    Recently a headhunter called me re an analyst position at a boutique firm. I later checked the boutique’s website and found the job posting there. Could I go through the headhunter and contact the firm by myself?


  4. Avatar

    God bless you Don Levett (assuming I’m employed in the next 48 hours :) ). This advice is perfect, speaking as an American interviewing in the UK. I followed it, had a great interview with a headhunter yesterday, then had a great interview with an investment team today. Very useful things to keep in mind when talking to headhunters here.

    “The take-home point here is that they’re looking for an easy sell, so the utility they pose to you is directly related to the utility you pose to them.” <–THIS.

  5. Very well written! Thank you, Don!

    Brian – I am looking forward to seeing more articles about different types of hedge funds and their specific requirements for candidates.

  6. You made some decent points there. I looked on the internet for the issue and found most individuals will go along with with your opinion. Thanks!

  7. A most interesting article, and I have experiences to share from my dealings with New York City recruiting firms.

    Most people (I was one such fool) believe that recruiters will do all the work: you apply to a position and you will somehow get an interview for the perfect position and have a smooth process without all the usual HR “shenanigans”.

    Most people believe this because they think that the recruiter wants to fill the position and to earn the commission.

    Right? Wrong- the objective of the recruiter is to fill their book of open positions with anyone, not to help you fill one of their open positions. This is the distinction that must be understood. The recruiter is ultimately paid by the hiring firm, so their motivation is to fill the position, not necessarily to help you find a position.

    So is all lost? Not necessarily, if you approach recruiters with a symbiotic mentality rather than a parasitic one. Use the recruiters as a tool in your job search. Keep in contact with the recruiter and continue to apply to jobs on the website that fit your qualifications (or that you are interested in) so that you are in the system and “in front of them”. Try to squeeze out whatever advice, assistance, connections you can from the initial meetings. Ask to be referred to their colleagues for more coverage, under the guise of “exploring all options”.

    I have worked with large and small recruiting firms. Overall, I am neutral on their effectiveness, but getting some interviews through recruiters is always better than no interviews. You can always reject an offer.

    At one of the larger recruiting firms in NY I was actually placed in good interviews (I did not do well because the hiring firms wanted candidates with bulge bracket experience), and the agents actually followed-up after a couple of weeks to make sure things weren’t going stale.

    At the other large recruiting firm in NY my contact became uninterested after seeing my experience wasn’t that good compared to bulge bracket lay-offs (…which was why I was seeking her help…).

    At a smaller firm, I was constantly placed into interviews that did not fit what I was looking for. Got placed into numerous middle office interviews and interviews for positions where I had no transferable skills (I was looking for front office positions). I decided to go with it to get some interviewing experience (interviews can be fun if you don’t care about the outcome and pose the same silly questions to the interviewer during Q&A to see their reaction).

    At another small firm the guy promised to send my in resume and was seemed helpful but I pinged him after a week of silence only to learn that the company was not interested.

    Ultimately, use recruiters as one of many tools to help you find jobs (in conjunction with traditional applications, job boards, etc.), not as means for quick salvation.

    1. Interesting to hear all that – thanks for contributing!

  8. Just wondering, If you dont get a job after a recruiter introduces you to an employer, does that recruiter stops looking at your resume or he/she does still considers you for other openings that matche your profile/experiences.
    Also, what if you don’t accept the job offer that came via a recruiter, typically your relationship with him ends ?

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      A good recruiter will consider you for other openings.
      No not necessarily, depends on how you handled the situation

  9. Hi,

    Is the work in operation similar to management consulting? Is the work in operation mostly settling trades or also have a big chunk of problem solving? Do you think an internship in operation will be a good plan B in case I cannot get any consulting internship?

    Thanks a lot!

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      No, I don’t think the two are similar.

      No, I think they are different fields.

  10. Avatar

    I’m starting July 2012 as an analyst in a BB. When should I apply to PE firms? Is it too soon to star networking? Or when should I start?
    When should I contact headhunters?
    Great post, BTW!! As always!

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole


      You get recruited to large PE firms about 6-9 months into year 1. Smaller ones do more year-round recruiting and will continue through the fall of your second year.


    Hello M&I,

    My question is simple: Is it over? I’m in my 1st year of military service (ends in 4). When I start working in finance in say 5 years, will I still make 6 figures as a first year analyst? If no, it’s a big no no for me. Prob just consider going to b-school. I’m real serious!

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      People are thankful to have a job in IB now. Not quite sure if you should be too focused on getting 6 figures in your first year. I think you should worry about breaking in now first.

  12. Recruiters are a joke. There is simply no value add to the service they provide and all that they do can simply be done by the company itself.They are far overpaid for the amount of work they do.

    Then again.. so are bankers.

    1. Disagree there as it depends on the recruiter and company itself. There are some who add no value, just like there are some bankers who add no value. But if you want to work in certain industries, you need to at least speak with recruiters.

      Re: the company doing the work itself, yes, theoretically that’s possible but everything takes time and money. Often companies actually save money by outsourcing at least the lead generation part of recruiting vs. doing it themselves – sifting through people and doing initial screens takes resources, and depending on the company’s size and hiring needs it may be more economical to outsource it.

  13. I think it’s important to mention the difference between contingent and retained recruiters/headhunters. It’s akin to saying there are many shady personal financial advisers, then comparing them to an M&A team..

    Whilst recruitment is an industry populated with a lot of mugs, if you are a couple of years into banking you should be dealing with a decent firm that is retained by the bank. They will be retained because they provide genuine, useful and expert guidance at a sensitive time. There are many, many firms like these, and they can be incredibly useful to one’s career. I used to work in executive search, and I never saw any of these dodgy practices. Keep in mind C-suites and Heads of IB etc are all usually placed by search firms; they wouldn’t deal with this sort of shit.

    Good article, as always!

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Thanks for your input.

  14. Avatar
    Xiu Fei Chen

    My fd is getting laid off. My roommates already packing to go back to his hometown. I think the end is near. There’s blood on the floor. There’s blood everywhere.

    What do I do? We need a post for this.
    What do we do when we get laid-off?

    That silly article on Dealbook just depresses me further.
    I need real advice! You got me in! Now tell us how we can get back!

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Yes we have an article on the topic “getting laid-off” – we will publish that soon enough. Don’t worry!

      Sorry to hear re your friend’s situation. It happens; this is the nature of the industry, or life.

      No use in being afraid.

  15. Remember how you used to add relevant quotes from TV Shows to articles? The one from The Office would have been hilarious for here.

    Pam: Do you have any leads on a job?
    Michael: Pam what you don’t understand is at my level, you don’t just look in the want ads for a job, you are headhunted!
    Jim Halpert: Have you called any headhunters?
    Michael Scott: Any good headhunter knows that I am available.
    Dwight Schrute: Any really good headhunter will storm your village at sunset with overwhelming force and cut off your head with a ceremonial knife.

    1. LoL I love Dwight

    2. That’s a good one, very applicable here. Also, note that this is actually a contribution from Don – I do edit and review articles but this is not my own work and everyone has their own style.

  16. Recruiters are the scum of the world in my experience. No other group of people in the financial services industry is as uneducated and unethical as recruiters.

    1. Some of them are, but they’re not all bad… they’ve helped plenty of job-seekers as well.

    2. Boris – One does not need to spend 3 years in a ‘Red Brick’ to spot a ‘walking fee’ our client will love or to spot a complete duffer who will plague us with follow up calls eventually becoming a nuisance!

      If we are as useless as you claim, why do jobseekers coming running to us with their CV’s again and again – many of them expecting miracles!

  17. Tips in this article are fantastic, good work!

    1. Thanks! Will pass along your feedback to Don.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *