How to Work with Executive Recruiters

A step-by-step guide on how job seekers can work effectively with executive recruiters.


You met with a recruiter, but now she’s not responding to your e-mails. Maybe your background is perfect but you don’t make it past the phone screen. How could it be that you’re “not a good fit” when you’re so clearly made for the position?

Ladders spoke with several current and former third-party recruiters, as well as job seekers, to learn more about the nuts and bolts of the process of working with a recruiter.

Job hunters tend to view recruiters as an unfortunate necessity in the search process, regarding them as the people who don’t respond and don’t really know what the hiring company is looking for.

It turns out that many job seekers have misconceptions about the most basic role of a recruiter. “They don’t understand that we don’t work for them,” said Greg Bennett, a headhunter at the Mergis Group in Cary, N.C. “We work for the client” — the hiring company.

Below are some typical scenarios in which job seekers may find themselves. We asked the recruiters what’s happening at their end.

Scenario One: You think you’re a perfect fit for the position, yet the recruiter isn’t responding to your application or your follow-up calls and e-mails. Potential red flags may include:

You’re not qualified for the job.

  • Like it or not, your work experience may not fit the bill. It could be that the hiring company is looking for 10 years of sales experience and that your 15 years in sales is not attractive. It’s also possible that you didn’t read the posting closely, or at all. “When a job seeker ignores certain stipulations such as a listing that requests local candidates only or has degree requirements that don’t match, it becomes evident that they are answering postings without reading them,” said Sherry Brickman, a partner at Martin Partners, a retained search firm in Chicago. “This is a waste of time for everyone involved as well as frustrating for a recruiter.”

You’re a good fit but not an ideal fit.

  • “[Third-party recruiting] agencies get paid a lot of money to find people that a corporation in need of staff can’t,” according to Michael Rosenberg, manager of sales, productivity and performance at Ladders. “And with a 15 to 25 percent fee going to the recruiter, corporations want to make sure they hire the exact right person.” In plenty of cases, almost isn’t good enough, especially now that recruiters are pulling from a larger applicant pool.

Your recruiter — or the hiring company — isn’t effectively communicating the job specifications.

  • Sometimes recruiters aren’t able effectively to express what their client is looking for, a result of their own limitations or their client’s lack of specificity. The larger the organization, the more red tape there is, according to Rosenberg.

Your e-mail subject line could be slowing down the process.

  • Effective subject lines in e-mails should reference the position you’re applying for, rather than “Hello” or “Intro,” Rosenberg said. If a recruiter is sorting through hundreds of e-mails a day, it makes her life easier if she receives a cue about the contents of the e-mail.

Your resume may not be conveying your story at a glance.

  • With so little time to devote to each resume, make it easy for recruiters to find what they’re looking for: your last employer and position, your tenure there, and the three most relevant bullet points based on the job you’re applying for. If a quick scan doesn’t yield a compelling career narrative, Rosenberg said it’s possible that your application will never make it beyond the inbox.

Misspellings of any kind turn off some recruiters.

  • Typos may leave the impression that you don’t pay attention to details. Double- and triple-check your cover letter and resume. Better still, have someone with an eye for detail proof it.

A generic cover letter could be your undoing.

  • Recruiters may read the lack of specificity as lazy and/or uncaring, Rosenberg said. Tailor each letter to the particular company, industry and position to which you’re applying.

Superlatives may be getting in your way.

  • For instance, calling yourself the “best” or “greatest” CPA without supporting evidence can be perceived as cocky. “It suggests the job seeker is way too sure of himself and may be tough to work for,” Rosenberg observed. “A recruiter could build a story in their head before they even get you on the phone.”

What can you do?

Not much if you’re not qualified, but applying for a specific job and making sure that you’ve dotted all your “I’s” and customized your cover letter will at least ensure you’re getting the attention you deserve.

Scenario Two: You didn’t make it past the recruiter’s phone screener.

Your general attitude could be a mismatch with the hiring company.

  • For instance, your professional-yet-serious demeanor may not work in a setting where a sense of lightness and humor is considered a priority for managers, said Harold Laslo, a staffing specialist at the Aldan Troy Group in New York. Don’t take it personally. The longer a recruiter has worked with the hiring company, the better he’s able to evaluate your candidacy.

You didn’t listen to the questions.

  • During phone screens and interviews, less is often more. Whether the cause is nervousness, self-absorption or other limitations, candidates sometimes provide far more information than a question warrants, according to Marian Rich, a recruiter with Bonell Ryan, a retained search firm in New York. Rich said she often asks candidates to give a quick overview of their careers, probing for details later in the process. “I’m always dismayed at how many candidates launch into an in-depth and very lengthy response,” Rich said. “It can put me off and will certainly raise the question of whether or not this candidate will interview well with a client.”

What can you do? Follow up with the recruiter to ask her why you’re not a good fit. She should be able to provide a concrete reason. If she can do that — and you trust her assessment — let her know you’d like to be considered for future positions.

Scenario Three: You met the recruiter in person, but now he doesn’t think you’re right for the job.

Your work style may not be suited to the position.

  • For example, the recruiter may determine that you thrive in structured work settings, but the hiring company is looking for someone who functions best in an unstructured environment. Once again, recruiters who have placed candidates with the hiring company have a good sense of who would succeed there. It is well within a job seeker’s rights to ask how long the recruiter has worked with a certain company, said Laslo of Aldan Troy.

Your personality may not be a match for certain company or department cultures.

  • For instance, you may think your ambition and assertive personality could only be an asset, but it could signal potential challenges at some firms. “If a candidate has career aspirations and I pick up that they may not have patience before they see advancement or will be badgering HR in regards to advancement, they may not be right for certain companies,” Laslo said, adding that small companies tend to be more focused on personality than large ones.

What can you do?

Talk to your recruiter and find out exactly why you’re no longer in the running. Gather as much information as you can and ask if there’s anything about your personal performance that you could improve.

Scenario Four: The recruiter is being vague about why the hiring company doesn’t want to proceed with your application.

She may not have all the information.

  • Recruiters agree that at each point in the application process your recruiter should be able to cite specific reasons why she (or the hiring company) doesn’t think you’re a suitable candidate for the job. But recruiters don’t always have that information if the hiring company is reticent to disclose it for legal or other reasons, said Rosenberg.

She may be reluctant to talk about personal quirks.

  • If the hiring company is troubled by your lack of personal hygiene, for example, the recruiter may withhold the information if she thinks it’s not constructive.

What can you do?

Strike a friendly tone when probing for details. Help the recruiter understand that you value his feedback and would appreciate any information he’s able to supply.