How to Find Jobs Working with Recruiters, Staffing Firms, and Head Hunters


The “middle man/woman” in the job search process is usually a recruiter, someone who specializes in finding people to fill jobs.

Many different kinds of recruiters help employers fill job openings.

It’s important to know which kind of recruiter you are working with so you have a good idea of how that process works with them.

Recruiting has changed, and your old assumptions may be wrong — which could handicap you in your job search.

Some important concepts to understand about recruiters:

  • Recruiters may be the gatekeepers.

    They may determine whether or not you are considered for a job by the hiring manager. (More on that below.)

    While working with recruiters is necessary during the formal hiring process, smart job seekers try to network around the recruiter, and connect directly with the hiring manager, including before a job is formally opened. This is often done via a referral by an employee.

  • Recruiters are paid by the employer.

    So they work for the employer, not for the job seeker, and they are most interested in pleasing the employer, not the candidates.

  • Few recruiters make the final decision about hiring someone

    That decision is usually made by the hiring manager — the person who will be the boss of the person hired. The recruiter may be asked by the hiring manager for a recommendation or for input on the hiring decision, but they don’t usually make the decision.

Some job seekers work successfully with individual recruiters for many years, but don’t expect a recruiter to find a job for you.

Note: In some organizations, the recruiters work in the “Talent Acquisition” department. Don’t be confused if you see this term.

How Recruiters Work

Whether they are officially in the recruiting department or in talent acquisition, recruiters are usually in a hurry.

The reason recruiters are usually in a rush? Because they are typically measured and rewarded based on how quickly they can fill a job.

Both internal and external recruiters have the same need to fill a job quickly:

  • Time-to-hire is the metric used most often to measure the effectiveness of internal recruiters. Typically, time-to-hire is the amount of time between when the job is posted and when the hire is made.
  • External recruiters are often competing with other external recruiters and even with internal recruiters to refer the candidate who is hired. So, external recruiters want to make the referral as quickly as possible.

Complicating this process for recruiters is the habit too many job seekers have of applying for jobs whether or not they are qualified. Industry research has shown that the average posted job receives between 190 and 250 applications with typicaly fewer than 50% qualified for the jobs they’ve applied for.

That’s too many resumes for one person to review in a reasonable amount of time. Consequently, most employers use an applicant tracking system to sift through all of the applications, ignoring the unqualified (or the not-clearly-qualified) submissions, and focusing on the qualified applicants.

New Recruiting Role: “Sourcer”

With the appearance of the Internet, a new role has appeared in the recruiting/talent acquisition world — “sourcer.” Their job is to “source” (find) people using the Internet, most often using Google and other search engines as well as LinkedIn, Facebook, and other relevant social networks and websites.

If a sourcer finds you and determines that you are qualified, your next job may find you. You won’t need to hunt for it. This is why effective personal SEO and LinkedIn SEO are so important.

When information about you is found that indicates you may be qualified for a specific opportunity, your name and information is usually handed off to a more traditional recruiter. Beyond possibly confirming your contact information and basic information, sourcers don’t ususally interact with candidates directly.

Like other recruiters, sourcers are typically in a hurry too. If you aren’t easy to find on the Internet and clearly qualified for the job you want next, you won’t be found. If you are not found, you won’t be considered if you aren’t clearly qualified.

Learn and leverage Personal SEO (Search Engine Optimization) so you will be quickly and easily found by sourcers. Check out Choosing the Best Keywords for Your Job Search, The Top 25 Keywords for Your Job Search, and Your Most Important Keywords for more details.

Traditional Recruiter Roles

Understanding who the recruiter works for is significant. Not all recruiters are employees of the employer doing the hiring. Many work for other organizations or are completely independent of any employer. This can have a significant impact in how interested they are in helping you land a new job.

These are the general categories of recruiters. If you don’t know which kind of recruiter you are working with, ask them.

1. Internal recruiters

These recruiters are employees of the organization with the open job. They usually work at the employer’s location and interview you at the employer’s location.

The Upside:

They usually understand the organization very well and may know the hiring manager well, too, depending on the size of the organization. So, they should have a good idea of whether or not you can be a successful candidate. So, if they recommend you for an interview, you will probably get interviewed.

The Downside:

Internal recruiters do not usually have any vested interest in helping you get hired, so don’t expect them to coach you in how to succeed. In fact, keep your shields up — do NOT confide in them! Don’t share how much you hate your current job and/or boss, or ask how to answer a specific job interview question.

2.  External/contingency recruiters

They are paid a fee by the employer (not by you!) if they refer the “winning” candidate for the job — that’s the “contingency.” Many contingency recruiters and firms may be competing to fill the same jobs for the same employers.

The Upside:

Their income is “contingent” on their candidates getting the jobs. So, contingency recruiters have a vested interest in helping you land a job. If they refer candidates who are not hired, they are not paid for their efforts.

They will usually do their best to help you succeed because they receive a commission if someone they referred is hired, but you may not be the only candidate they refer.

The fee is typically a percentage of the first year’s annual salary for the job being filled, up to 30% or more. Consequently, they are well-motivated to help you land the job and get a big salary.

The Downside:

The fee paid to contingency recruiters raises the “cost of hire” for the applicants they refer, a negative factor for cost-conscious employers. So, some employers may choose a “cheaper” applicant who wasn’t referred by a recruiter.

Working with several contingency recruiters simultaneously can be problematic, particularly if more than one submits your resume for the same job with an employer. If you land the job, the employer would be faced with a fight over which agency should receive the fee, and most employers will try to avoid that situation.

[MORE: Guide to Working with Recruiters]

3.  Retained recruiters

These recruiters, called “head hunters” in the past, are relatively rare. They are paid regardless of whether or not someone they referred is hired. They are “on retainer” to find the best-qualified applicants.

The Upside:

They do not add to your “cost of hire” if you get the job because the fee is paid to the recruiter regardless of whether or not you are hired.

The Downside:

Typically, companies use retained recruiters only for the very top jobs in the company.

4.  Temporary staffing agency

Often a variation of external recruiting, temporary staffing agencies are paid to fill temporary roles for an employer. You work for the temporary agency. Many people find this a good alternative to a “real” job. They work when they want to work.

The agency finds you a temporary job, and pays you to do it. They get paid by the employer and mark-up your hourly rate to cover their efforts finding the opportunity, doing all the administration, and making enough profit to stay in business.

The Upside:

You you gain a revenue stream, and you aren’t stuck if you don’t like the job.

Many employers prefer the “temp-to-perm” method of hiring new staff.

  • They hire you as a temporary employee which gives them the opportunity to test working with you. Do you fit it? Do you do good work? If they like you, they may offer you a permanent job through the temp agency.
  • You have the opportunity to test working for them. Do you like them? Is the commute tolerable? Do you enjoy the work and can do it well?

Working for a temp agency provides the ability to work when it is convenient for you — when your kids are in school, for example — as long as you are clear with the agency when you are available and don’t leave a job abruptly.

In addition, some agencies also offer their temps the opportunity to get trained in different products and services that are in demand.

The Downside:

The downside of being a “temp” can be the feeling of isolation from the permanent employees and the lack of consistency in job duties, but some people also see that as an advantage.

The employer usually pays the temp agency a fee, adding to your “cost of hire,” if they hire you to a permanent position.

[MORE: Guide to the Temporary Work Option]

Cautions About Working with External Recruiters

You will be aided by them only if they introduce you to an employer you would not have contacted directly yourself. When you contact the employer directly, no fee is paid to any headhunter, and candidates who can be hired without incurring the extra cost of a fee may receive greater consideration by employers.

So, working only with external recruiters can sometimes be a high risk strategy.  However, many people do get jobs through recruiters or the industry would not exist.

For More Information About Recruiters

Read Job-Hunt Expert recruiter Jeff Lipschultz’s articles in Job-Hunt’s free Guide to Working with Recruiters column for more information. For more information about working with a temporary agency, read the articles in Job-Hunt’s free Guide to the Temporary Work Option.

For more on each kind of recruiter, how to work with them, and the advantages and disadvantages of each, read these two posts from Job-Hunt’s sister site

Next: Finding Jobs Using Job Boards

Susan P. JoyceAbout the author…

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn.
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