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Working with Search Firms



What is a Search Firm?

Staffing agencies, third-party recruiters, temporary employment agencies, headhunters or search firms are organizations or individuals that recruit candidates for temporary, part-time or full-time employment opportunities for other organizations.  Employers use search firms when they do not have the time or expertise to fill positions using their own resources. Reasons may include the need to fill contract positions, rapid company growth, a needed internal change requiring an outsider, or higher level or specialized openings where there are fewer qualified candidates.

Search firms are typically divided into large global companies or small specialists or “boutiques”. Global search firms can be organized either as highly centralized and integrated or as independently run branches or networks. Integrated firms can have more consistent standards and adopt a common way of conducting searches while branches can be more entrepreneurial. Boutique firms tend to be specialized by sector or industry niches, for example biotechnology, financial services media, software, and emerging technologies.

How Search Firms work

The search firm exists to help client companies find employees, not to help people find jobs (even though that is the outcome)! The client company pays their fee. Fees are usually a percentage of the annual salary for the position being filled. Positions can range from entry level to upper level for experienced individuals.

The process involving a candidate usually includes the following:

  • The recruiter creates an initial list of possible candidates for an assignment
  • Candidates are screened and appraised to create the final short list of highest quality individuals and then presented to the client
  • The client will then interview the short listed candidates possibly resulting in an offer to the best candidate
  • Hiring decisions are always made by the client

Be aware that in your initial conversation and evaluation as a potential candidate, the recruiter may not divulge confidential information about the client or position until after you have been identified as a legitimate candidate. Even then, there are times when certain client information must remain confidential.

Types of Search Firms

Search firms can run from "traditional" temporary help services such as office/clerical and industrial to firms that provide more highly skilled workers in technical and professional areas. They can offer a wide range of employment-related services and solutions to their client companies, including temporary and contract staffing, recruiting and permanent placement, outsourcing and outplacement, training, and human resource consulting.

For contract and temporary services, the jobs may last from a few hours, to several months or even years depending on the industry. The contract employee may be paid directly by the client company or they may work for and be paid by the staffing agency.

Executive Search Firms mainly recruit for exempt-level managers or professionals at an executive level. The recruiter is sometimes referred to as a “headhunter”.

Choosing a Firm

As with any potential employer, do your homework before selecting a search firm with which to work. Research to gather information on industries and functions served, geographic locations, and whether they are general or boutique firms. Check their legitimacy as a recruiting agency. Get a referral to the company from a client, colleague or friend who has worked with the firm. Above all, do not sign with a search firm who tries to charge you a fee; reputable agencies collect their fees from the client companies for which they fill positions.

Tips for Connecting and Working with a Search Firm

Here are some tips for making an initial connection, and developing and maintaining a productive relationship:

  • Contact a specific person within the firm, preferably the contact for your field of interest, if the firm represents many industries. You will be better able to establish a connection with someone who shares your industry knowledge and interests.
  • LinkedIn is a good resource for finding a search firm. Do an advanced people search, putting your industry or field and the work "recruiter" in the keyword box (i.e. IT recruiter), and add your location.
  • Be professional and ethical at all times; respect your relationship with the recruiter and treat them as an employer.
  • Limit the number of recruiting firms with which you work, and if you do work with multiple firms, let them know, so they don’t promote you to the same employer. Also, don’t “back door” the firm, or go behind their backs to send your resume directly to the client company.
  • It’s important to establish a good rapport with the recruiter, so he/she can represent you well to their client companies. Make sure you feel comfortable with the recruiter and fairly treated by the firm.
  • Give the recruiter specifics on what type of job you’re looking for, so they don’t waste their and their clients’ time; discuss things like preferred location, job type, and salary range in detail.
  • Recruiters will be selling you to potential clients, so they will select candidates based on a combination of experiences, achievements, relevant skills, and personal attributes which match well with their clients’ needs.
  • Know your brand; all your marketing materials, including your resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile, and elevator pitch should be a good presentation of your skills and qualifications.  Generally search firms do not do career counseling or write resumes.
  • Emphasize achievements (in experience, education, and the community), skills related to the industry and types of jobs you’re applying for, and quantitative results wherever possible.  Demonstrate industry knowledge.
  • Once you’ve begun working with a recruiter, you will both need to put forth effort to maintain a productive relationship.
  • Realize how search firms work and work with them within these parameters. The recruiter works for their client companies, not for you. You are a resource they use to fill their open positions.
  • Give the recruiter a list of companies that you would like to work for; it’s possible they may have contacts at these companies, and can check for available positions that may fit your qualifications.
  • If the recruiter sets you up for an interview with a client company, get as much information about the company as possible before the interview, so you can research and prepare for the interview.
  • Be realistic -- research the industry and salary norms so that your expectations are in line with the market.
  • Keep in contact -- email the recruiter at least once a week to demonstrate your enthusiasm. This will keep you in the forefront of the recruiter’s mind, and they’ll hopefully make more effort to place you.