1. "There are better ways to find a job."
A recruiter or agency is one part of a job search, but it shouldn't be your primary source – and maybe not your secondary one, either. Referrals – that is, a connection made by someone you know – remain your best bet. CareerXRoads' annual survey of more than 200 employers shows that the percentage of hires made through referrals has remained remarkably consistent over the last five years. Nearly 27% of respondents said referrals were the biggest factor in external hires in 2009, practically unchanged from its 27.1% figure in 2005. Third-party agencies, meanwhile, accounted for only 2.3% of external hires last year, compared to a 5.2% success rate in 2005.
2. "We don't work for you."
Christy Ezelle, a media advertising executive in New York, was in her first job out of college when she got a call from a headhunter working for a major advertising agency. It was a good experience, until she tried to negotiate her salary – the company wouldn't budge. Why? They had already shelled out for the headhunter that tracked her down – a fee that was eating into the amount they were willing to pay Ezelle.
Recruiters work for the hiring company, and that's where their allegiance lies – not with the job-seeker. That means headhunters will always be more interested in making their client happy than in finding a candidate the best possible package, says Carolyn Dougherty, an executive search consultant in Villanova, Penn. "There's a belief that the recruiter is working on the candidate's behalf and that's not the case," she says. "They're working for the client – that's where the fee is coming from." And because most recruiters don't get paid until the position gets filled, they care more about sealing the deal than about getting you another $10,000.
3. "Until a year ago, I was a car salesman."
There are no laws or rules that govern what constitutes an "employment agency" or who can call himself a recruiter, and setting up shop is pretty easy: A year's worth of advertising, office space, travel and communications equipment is just $50,000 for an experienced recruiter like Eleanor Sweet, who runs the Remington Group in Barrington, Ill., an hour outside of Chicago; a rookie could put out a shingle for far less. Anyone can do it, she says, "It's pretty much like getting a real estate license."
That means job seekers have to vet a recruiter with the same diligence they'd investigate a potential employer. Ask how long the recruiter's been in the business, and where they've placed candidates in the past – and then call those companies and confirm, experts advise. Also, though a certification isn't required to be a recruiter, there are a handful of designations a pro can earn. Getting certified as a Temporary Staffing Specialist, a Personnel Consultant, or a Professional in Human Resources don't require any coursework, but all require previous experience and the passage of an exam – legitimate hoops for a dedicated professional to jump through. One strategy to avoid at all costs: firms that charge for job search services or call themselves "fee-based counselors" raise red flags with experienced recruiters, because "It's expected that the company pays the fee," says Dougherty. (see No. 2, above).