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Do You Need a Recruiter or an Agent?

There are too many names to keep track of: recruiter, agent, headhunter, executive recruiter, search consultant. Which is which? And most importantly, which is right for your job-search campaign?

By Debra Feldman
FILED UNDER: Working with Recruiters.
Job Search

Do you expect your recruiter to be your agent? If so, you have confused an executive recruiter and an executive agent.

There is an unmistakable distinction: The two professions are paid by, loyal to and representative of separate parties — employers or job seekers.

That means they may have different priorities and opposite interests in the same recruiting transaction.

Recruiters find people for jobs.

Executive recruiters, often called "headhunters," stay in business by satisfying the mandate of their corporate client, the employer. They find appropriate prospects to fill an open position. They are not outplacement specialists. They don't create new jobs or find spots for individuals.

Executive recruiters are paid by employers to identify and attract new talent that exactly matches the employer's specific requirements. Their role is to source the perfect candidate and manage the applicant pool. Thus, executive recruiters guide the recruiting process by limiting a candidate's access to company insiders with hiring authority.

Executive agents find jobs for people

Executive agents are consultants who work for the candidate. Similar to the agents used by models, actors and athletes, executive agents are paid by job seekers to find them a job. They can provide services, including personal coaching, mentoring, representation, confiding and scouting to help land you a job. Executive agents can be long-term partners or retained on a short-term basis to advise on a job-search campaign. They can charge clients by the hour or project, but most often take a percentage of your annual compensation as their fee. Like executive recruiters, they typically focus their practice on a particular industry or functional discipline.

The difference?

It all comes down to who is paying the bill. Executive recruiters put their client first - the hiring company. Executive agents put the candidate first; they evaluate situations from the personal perspective of the executive.

If you are running a straight-and-narrow job search where you have close ties to prospective companies or industries and are making a linear career move (such as director of marketing to VP of marketing), an executive recruiter will probably work fine. Those most likely to appreciate and value an executive agent are executives who are running more difficult searches where the candidate:

  • Does not have a network, or known contacts are not generating leads
  • Running a high-stakes campaign: search must be confidential, discreet and sophisticated
  • Re-entering the workplace from a sabbatical or early retirement
  • Changing career or industry: needs new, targeted inside contacts
  • Have limited time and restricted availability for networking and researching
  • Has a job-search progress stalled and needs diagnostic to remove barriers
  • Needs sharper focus and consistent execution of the right strategy
  • Seeking a hands-on partner: "Can I hire anyone to job search for me?"

If any of the above applies to you, then an executive agent may help your career. Remember to inquire which type of recruiting party someone is. The answer will tell you a lot about what information they are privy to and where their incentives lie.

Debra Feldman, JobWhiz, is an executive talent agent who accesses opportunities in the hidden job market by personally developing inside connections for her clients. Forbes labeled her Matchmaker: Part sleuth, Part networker. Contact her for details on how to accelerate your career.

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