Skip to main content

Confessions of a Headhunter

By February 26, 201514 Comments

I’ve been accused of many weird and wonderful things in my decade as a recruiter but last week took the biscuit.  Shock, horror and scandal…I was accused of being a headhunter “well-known for poaching staff from other agencies…”  Well blow me down.

Some context is probably needed:

I was speaking about the emerging “Flex Economy” and Non-Traditional Talent in Wellington last week, at a very pleasant event hosted by the guys at Flexitime and The Detail.  In broadcasting the upcoming event, they sent out some invites to various good people of the Wellington recruitment community.  The response, from this one particular quarter, was what you read above, and that they would be surprised if many in the industry would want to come along.

It surprises me that this Director of a recruitment agency is critical of this kind of behaviour.  I mean, are they suggesting they never headhunt candidates for their clients?  Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as recruiters?  Are there really businesses out there who are simply happy to pay us large placement fees for throwing up ads onto online job boards to farm the unhappy, the disenfranchised, and the displaced active job seekers of this world?

What’s the point in that?  They might as well get WINZ to do their recruitment, although this could be an insult to WINZ in comparison to this agency, for which I apologise.

Headhunting is a delicate, complicated, but necessary function of our profession.  I think that what is important is the way, and the style, in which the approach is made.  Everyone has their own moral compass around these things but here’s the compass I take my directions from:

  1. It’s not appropriate to “spam” headhunting approaches.  Whether calling from desk to desk within an office, or sending out bulk InMails just to see if anyone might happen to be “interested in exploring new opportunities”.  I think a direct headhunt should only be made to one person for one specific role, preferably one they have been recommended for by someone else in your network.
  2. It is not necessary, in fact I would actively discourage, revealing to your target who it was you were referred by.
  3. It goes without saying that you don’t headhunt from your clients, and then seek to back-fill the vacancy your efforts created.
  4. The question of “who is a client” is really open to debate.  In my mind a business is only a client when they have paid one of your invoices for work done in the past.  There is also, I feel, a time limit on this and I think that if you’ve done no business for around 2 years or more then it’s fair game.  Before the hysterical brigade pipe up, let me also say that this doesn’t automatically mean that if you’re a previous client of more than 2 years past that I’m going to headhunt from you, there’s many I still hope to recruit for in the future.
  5. It’s never OK to headhunt a candidate you placed in the past, even if the past client is no longer a current client as per above.

Do you agree or disagree?  What are your guidelines that you believe apply to headhunting?  Or are you in agreement with this Director and feel it shouldn’t be done at all?

I’d like to finish with a couple more quick points:  Firstly, it was nice to meet all of the recruiters, managers, clients, Directors, and suppliers at last week’s event in Wellington.  I’m glad that you didn’t all feel the same way as my accuser, and I appreciate you making the effort to come and listen to my presentation.

Secondly, the irony of all of this is that I’ve never headhunted anyone directly out of this particular agency anyway.  Their recruiters have always come to me directly.  But hey, I don’t mind being a scapegoat for poor retention strategies and rudderless leadership.  We headhunters are well used to bearing that mantle.

Jonathan Rice

Director of New Zealand rec-to-rec firm Rice & Co, co-founder of freelance recruiter platform JOYN, and people-centric technology firm superHUMAN Software. Recruitment innovator, agitator and frustrated idealist, father of two, husband of one, and lover of all things Arsenal and crafty beer.


  • Jason says:

    Completely agree, as a business owner I would expect that if my team were good at their jobs (and they are!), then other people may be interested in approaching them. I don’t love it, but there is no point in being hypocritical.

    However, and I’m on a soap box here (where did I put my loudhailer), don’t be so lazy that you call the main line of my office to ask the first person that answers if they’d like a chat #literallyjusthappened

  • Daniel Rock says:

    Great article Jon and I couldn’t agree more. I’m sure that agencies staff have never headhunted anyone at all.

    Hang on, does that mean they just post to job boards…

  • Troy Hammond says:

    This is hilarious Jon.

    I have always the fact that you will not headhunt from the clients you worked with and everyone else is fair game.

    The reality is that it would be impossible to run a recr2rec firm and not headhunt recruiters if you want to be successful. I for one am glad that we have firms here like yours who do this with etiquette and integrity unlike good old “Lady X” ( and others overseas.

  • Phil Crothers says:

    You are far more professional than I am Jon. I think that kind of jibe would’ve resulted in uncontrollable laughter down the phone, then a sudden pause to say ” oh wait.. you’re serious” then another bout of laughter.

    As someone who has been the hunter and the hunted I can’t agree more with this write up.
    The approach is key

  • Dave Smith says:

    Jon, I think your comments are spot on.
    When I look at ‘headhunting’ I do it practically verbatim to your guide to be honest. There is no point in offering our services to clients if we are just going to do the norm, we have to go above and beyond what they can do themselves.
    A headhunt is simply the best way to find the best talent for your client. You are specifically supplying your client with the calibre of candidate who will not only be able to do the job, but also someone who is proven and can further the clients talent pool to the benefit of both parties.
    Done correctly it is a fabulous recruitment technique and for anyone who says they don’t like it or don’t do it….well that’s their loss…it makes our jobs as quality recruiters far more valuable and enables us to stand out further.

  • Kevin Chappell says:


    Agree wholeheartedly with your article, although I think 2 years is quite long. What that means, if any agency is smart, is to give you a role every two years to keep you at bay!! I think a year is fair – a bit like the 12 month “restraint” we tend to put on candidates to clients. And the reality is that if this firm has strong retention strategies in place, and treat their staff well, then they should say “Bring it on because no-one’s going anywhere!”

    • Fair point Kevin although I think I’ve wised up to when agencies are trying this tactic, sometimes the biggest challenge is saying “no” to a wannabe client without sounding too crass or arrogant about it…

  • Lara says:

    I totally agree – one of my newly acquired clients informed me that one of our competitor agencies told him that my company “is useless at recruiting and only is successful at headhunting and poaching staff”… Well…? Isn’t that one of the services that we as recruiters do better than anyone else? Give that competitive talent acquisition edge? Anyone can throw an ad on Seek, but who can find the strings that will pull Candidate A over to Company B?

    Anyways, sounds like it was probably the same guy who wrote back to your email Jon…

  • Dan Nuroo says:

    It’s just unthinkable to think the R2Rs would do the same thing as other Recruiters…. I definitely need a coffee now….

    However… number 6… Never float the (idea of a) candidate without getting OK first…. I once had an R2R tell a company I was looking (well didn’t use my name, but it could only have been me they described) and were going to represent me. Said agency didn’t know I knew the Directors of this place and when the Directors called me to ask why I hadn’t approached them directly, well that’s where the fun started!

    Don’t think said R2R is still in business 🙂

  • Greg says:

    Interesting article Jon and nice to see some light shone on a subject that despite billions of recruitment blogs rarely comes up. . Headhunting is complex and no two scenarios are ever the same.

    What I do know:

    1) Some clients don’t know what head hunting is. Last week , a ops manager from one firm rang me screaming that I was calling ‘her’ staff and to stop . The ops manager had interviewed one of my candidates , extremely reluctantly, two years prior , and we had no other business. The two candidates I called ; They were originally candidates of mine who found a job there (well over a year ago) – I was updating with them and asking for referrals. – That is not a head hunt.

    2) If you place a candidate somewhere and they contact YOU in 3 months because where you placed them is toxic – and want out. This is not a head hunt.

    3) If you update with your candidate to find out how there getting on 12 months after you place them – NOT a headhunt

    4) If you headhunt from a client you place with – your a idiot. If you find out a candidate (who you have not placed) is working at your key client and is looking for a job – there are ways and means of getting their contact details – which don’t involve you pretending to be someone else when phoning reception and getting put through. If you don’t get hold of them , tough luck.

    5) Headhunting is an extremely necessary part of vertical recruitment. Job boards are useless and external agencies have to maintain a commercial edge. Its raw capitalism. Unlike a internal recruitment team we don’t have the luxury of pulling the first 4 average resumes off Seek , presenting them to the line manager and saying they ‘must’ interview them as there is no one else. External recruiters have to go to market to find the best candidates.

  • Brad says:

    I quite like Gregs comments… adds further depth to your (Jon’s) comments. A very broad swipe here but the Director in question probably has a poor advisory team and high staff turnover, most likely under the old saying of “you leave a manager not a company”. I would also presume its personal from their side because the accusations (like many have already stated) are simply; ridiculous.

    In words of dearly departed – live long and prosper.

    Good on you Jon, another good topic put on the table for discussion.

  • Very well said, Jon. I agree completely. Last May I wrote a blog about the non-competitive nature of any ‘no headhunting’ agreements where very big name tech companies that were party to such agreements had been prosecuted in the USA