The Important Differences Between Headhunters, Recruiters And Hiring Managers

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Woman conducting an interview

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Jennifer Bewley
Jennifer Bewley

Recruiters, headhunters and hiring managers all play similar but ultimately different roles in the recruiting process, and it's crucial to you as a job seeker to understand what these differences are.

What does a recruiter do?

A recruiter can work for the business or be hired by the company to help fill the position. In the case of the later, they will identify themselves as working for a headhunting or recruitment agency. The recruiter will team up with the hiring manager to define the job’s requirements and understand their ideal candidate. Dave Nerz, President of NPAworldwide, a recruiting network, described the external recruiter’s role bluntly: “Recruiters are really commissioned salespeople. You are the product.”

Sometimes a recruiter will work as a full-time in-house employee. While recruiters can work for third party agencies on behalf of corporate clients — managed in turn, by other internal, in-house recruiting employees. This means that they typically know more about the job role, corporate culture and certainly are more likely to know the actual hiring manager for the open role, itself. An external recruiter may work on commission, and be paid a certain portion of their fee in the form of a retainer with the bulk of their incentives aligned with actually bringing forward to their client a job-seeker who ultimately lands the job and fills the position.

How should you work with a recruiter?

Whether a recruiter is internal or external to the hiring company, an essential part of the recruiter's job is to put together a slate of viable candidates for the hiring manager, which means your first interaction will likely be with a recruiter. They often evaluate and prioritize many candidates with similar skills, experience, education and references. Recruiters can frustrate professionals, because they can be inflexible when your skills or experience don’t match up perfectly. Professionals often believe if they can just get to the hiring manager, they can convince them they're the perfect candidate. But it’s good to remember the recruiter is matching the specs agreed to with the hiring manager, and they’ll be the ones to determine which candidates get to meet with the hiring manager.
Even if you aren’t selected by the recruiter, candidates shouldn’t overlook the opportunity to build a longterm relationship with an experienced recruiter. Hard-working, honest recruiters can be an invaluable resource for professionals. As Nerz explained, recruiters are very knowledgeable about the industry or discipline where they specialize, and they may be aware of prime jobs that are hidden or unadvertised. 
Nerz provided a few tips for working well with a recruiter:
  1. Take the recruiter’s initial call. You can say no, but if you don’t take the call, you will never know what opportunity is available.
  2. Don’t waste the recruiter’s time. If the job is not a fit, say why and move on.
  3. Be honest. Candidates expect this of recruiters, and good ones are truthful. Don’t use a recruiter to get a better offer that you will turn down. 
  4. Prepare a good resume/CV. Your resume should be reasonably current, accurate and easy to read.
  5. Treat a call with a recruiter like a job interview. Because it is a job interview.
  6. Be prepared. Do your homework and learn about the company. Prepare ahead for common questions and have answers that tell the interviewer the situation, the action you took and the results you delivered.
  7. Be realistic. About all of it — your salary, next job title and responsibility requirements. If you’re unrealistic in what you say you’re seeking, the recruiter could legitimately question your judgment.
You need to sell the recruiter on you, and their interest in your career will extend beyond the current assignment. Recruiters get paid when they place you at a company. Even if Company A isn’t the right one for you, recruiters work with many more letters in the alphabet than a hiring manager. So, find a good, honest recruiter and build a relationship that can last your entire career.
In some cases, recruiters will try to "poach" employees from competitors, or take top talent away from the competition. If a recruiter tries to poach you, make sure you read your contract with your current employer to ensure you understand the terms; some companies try to guard against poaching by including clauses about the length of time you must wait in between positions before performing a similar role elsewhere.

What does a headhunter do?

The term headhunter sounds severe, and they are bounty-hunters to some extent. While the term 'headhunter' and recruiter is somewhat semantic, someone who describes their job as a headhunter is by definition not someone who works for the company that is hiring for the open position. Instead, that job title or self-description implies the person works as a third-party agent on behalf of their client who is the hiring employer.

A headhunter earns their income by successfully placing candidates into open roles. Often times, headhunters focus on a specialty area, e.g. developer roles, or urgent roles in a certain industry or even executive positions (in fact, often times headhunters focus exclusively on filling executive-level positions). Many times, an employer will use a headhunter when they have an especially important vacancy to fill and want to be sure they have canvassed all their possibilities (or simply exhausted their own internal recruiting channels). Other times, employers supplement their recruiting staff with external headhunters.

Employers generally pay headhunters fee based on the percentage of the salary for the position they are filling, and usually, headhunters only receive the commission if and when they successfully fill it. 

How should you work with a headhunter?

A headhunter's goal will be to place you in a company, since they earn commission if you do get placed. Therefore, work with the headhunter but make sure that they're keeping your best interests in mind.

What does a hiring manager do?

Unlike a headhunter or recruiter, a hiring manager is a person at the company with a vacancy on their team. They are the closest person to who the job seeker will work with on a daily basis, but unlike a corporate recruiter or executive recruiter, recruitment is only one of their many duties and responsibilities. They are probably not taking the first pass at reviewing resumes, but they probably did take the first pass (or at least edit) the job description, with the help of the human resource department.

How should you work with a hiring manager?

Ironically, while the hiring manager is the most important person in your job search, you may only deal with them towards the end of the recruitment process. At many firms, an executive recruiter or corporate recruiter sits between you and the hiring manager who you will only end up meeting during a phone interview or in-person interview. Ultimately, however, it is the hiring manager that makes the final decision about who gets the job. To get to that point, hiring managers often work with recruiters to find the professionals that best fit the role and the company so it is important to understand the role that both recruiters and hiring managers play in landing your future job!

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Jennifer Bewley is the founder of Uncuffed which provides detailed research into prospective employers. Jennifer has an unhealthy love of financial data and speaking her mind and she uses each to help candidates choose the company they work for wisely.