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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Don’t Outsource It to Headhunters


I have a kind of love/hate relationship with headhunters. Few of my friends happen to be headhunters and they helped to find pretty good jobs several people I know. So they can’t be that bad, right?

On the other hand I happen to deal with headhunters in my professional life. I can’t say any of these experiences left me thinking how valuable and helpful these folks can be. I’d even say the opposite.

The other day I was on interview with headhunter. I can understand the guy didn’t check my technical knowledge in details as he just doesn’t know much about all this software development stuff. He’s never written even a single line of code and I doubt if he’s seen any. I’m perfectly fine with that.

What I’m not fine with is how he verified my soft skills. If I say I’m a kind of guru team builder I expect a series of question how do I know and how could I prove this. Like sharing my experience on the worst hire I made, star programmer leaving the team, firing rotten apples, solving serious conflict or whatever. I heard none of these questions. Pretty good summary of the interview was an inquiry about my English. The question was asked in Polish. As every other question during interview. How exactly the guy verified my skills? Would it be that hard?

I may be unfair for some headhunters but they rarely verify any skills of a candidate. They gather some resumes, go through some small talk which only proves the candidate isn’t a complete freak and that’s all. Content of their resume may be a bunch of lies spiced with some wishful thinking.

Rule 1: Don’t outsource competency verification to headhunters.

What you will likely from headhunter get is a bunch of resumes marked “not a freak” and labeled with a price tag. Don’t expect more. Don’t pay for more.

Some time ago I was asked by my former colleague to give detailed references to his prospective employer. As it appeared it was a headhunter who called me. He found my colleague, run him through recruitment process and now, the final stage was gathering references.

I answered a list of questions trying to be honest and fair for both my former colleague and the headhunter. The problem was the headhunter was over-interpreting every word I said. Average meant good, good meant very good, I don’t know meant good or very good etc. At the beginning I didn’t get it. What’s the point?

Well, the point was the job search was almost done, the candidate was almost accepted and the client was almost invoiced for a headhunting service. The only person who could screw it was me, giving too weak references. They wouldn’t allow it to happen. I guess I would have had to say the guy is a thief and drunkard and knows nothing about programming (which obviously wasn’t true) to change the result of reference check.

Rule 2: Don’t outsource reference checking to headhunters.

If you can’t or don’t want to do it by yourself then don’t bother. Just trust your intuition. But if you care at least a bit about reference checking just do it personally. If you want to outsource it you may take your dollars, you’re going to pay for the service, and put them directly into the shredder. It would work equally well.

And yes, in general I’m not a big fan of headhunters, but I often do consider them as an option. Not the favorite one but still. However there are parts of the recruitment process I would never outsource to headhunters. It would be just a waste of money.

What’s your experience with head hunters?

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in: personal development, software business

11 comments… add one

  • jfbauer June 4, 2010, 8:22 am

    I can’t say I have had any positive enough experiences to trump your rules outlined above, both on the hiring side and being represented by headhunters hasn’t been an over all super positive experience for me.

    Only tip (not strong enough for a rule) is make sure you get a clear initial contact date/time from headhunters when they provide you a candidate. I hate to sort out “did the candidate post directly to the position first or did the headhunter provide the resume first” question without a clear date and time established as to when a candidate first was presented.

  • Allison June 4, 2010, 9:25 am

    Similar to your however I’ve worked with a few good ones (on both sides of the isle). In one case, what the headhunter does is crowdsource the people he represents – and he keeps lists of who he’s placed and how. He then follows up with them – getting feedback on other people. It’s an interesting concept and it’s allowed him to create a database of really great people. This you know you aren’t getting a freak of nature – however i’d still never let him do/provide reference checks. Fox and chicken coop analogies come ti mind.

    The other one who I liked actually but me first (and not the placement). Now granted we’d built up a relationship already – however he actually not trying to foist me on the first comer – and if he heard bad things about a potential fit he’d be sure to share them with.

    This leads me to believe that if you find an honest headhunter you can work with, either for placement or for finding people, keep their number on your speed dial. They are few and far between and worth getting to know.

    Also never, ever put a head hunter in charge of the entire hiring process. It’s a great way to shoot yourself in the foot. Repeatedly.

  • James Briant June 4, 2010, 9:47 am

    As CTO of a tech-startup in 2000, I used Datascope in London and found all excellent people. Paul and Andrea where the recruiters – if they are still there. Not all headhunters are bad.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 6, 2010, 10:14 am


    Thanks for a tip. I saw similar situation with recommendation prizes, i.e. when an employee gets bonus if new hire was recommended/submitted by them. Then it appears the candidate submitted their resume 3 years ago for completely different position but he already is in the database, isn’t he? It doesn’t really matter it was a person with vastly different experience, different position and different time. It doesn’t even matter no one ever looks for candidates in old HR databases.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 6, 2010, 10:19 am


    I don’t say there is no good headhunter. I haven’t worked with either of my friends who is a headhunter but I believe we would both be satisfied. On the other hand I’m not sure how far our private relationship would affect the deal. I mean they would probably run an extra mile for me.

    But I agree there are few good headhunters. After all it is their work to keep as many contacts with great professionals as possible. Something we can’t devote our whole time even if we wanted to.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 6, 2010, 10:21 am


    Good to hear that. I believe good headhunters should be marketed by the word of mouth. Unfortunately they don’t scale up well since it’s all about specific recruiters you work with. You get another recruiter working for the same organization and your experience may be much different.

  • Andrea Clarkson June 17, 2010, 6:54 am

    I was reading your experiences above, and I must say I found it to be an outside view of a world you apparently do not have a full understanding of. I myself have spent the vast majority working in the staffing world, or being a “Headhunter”. I can not speak for the individual that interviewed you; as not all recruiters are created equally, but I may be able to shed some light on that situation for you.

    More often then not a first interview with a recruiter is a general assessment of your basic skills, presentation, personality, and your career objectives. Unless there is a current opening that fits your needs there may not be the need to delve into all of your soft skills during your first meeting. A good recruiter actually knows that at the end of the day the candidate who lasts at a company is not always the candidate with the best resume or skill-set; rather the candidate who can get the job done effectively and is a perfect match for the companies culture. That being said, it may have been more important for the person interviewing you to access who you are and where you want to go in your career.

    Plain and simple employers hire off of personalities whether they like to admit it or not. What you consider meaningless smalltalk with your recruiter may actually be very beneficial into their insight on what firms to market you to. I am sorry that you have had unpleasant experiences with such firms in the past, but I STRONGLY caution anybody generalizing in such a negative way, especially when you admit to requiring the assistance of such firms. My advice to you is to stick to representatives who you feel have your best interest at heart.

    Warm Regards,

    Andrea Clarkson

    Pro Image Solutions

    Business Development Manager

    Tel. 407.774.4884 x105

    fax. 407.774. 4408



  • Pawel Brodzinski June 19, 2010, 2:01 am

    Hi Andrea,

    Thanks for a comment. I really appreciate an insider insight. As I stated at the beginning I’m not against headhunters in general. It’s just my experience which is, well, far from what I’d expect.

    Anyway, I’d still advise people to keep reference checking and competency verification out from headhunters. In the first case recruiting company has virtually no business whatsoever to outsource it to anyone. Even more, I’d say that recruiting manager has no business to outsource this to anyone inside the company, namely HR department.

    The second case is just about necessary skills and experience needed to perform the task. Headhunter, from definition, can’t know as much as recruiting company about position specifics and is obviously focused on much more than technical skills, thus can’t be the ideal person to verify competency.

  • Jacek Madeja October 12, 2011, 6:23 am

    Hi Pawel,
    I see that I need to come here more often :)

    Interesting post. As some already pointed out everything you wrote is true for bad headhunters. Believe it or nor, there are hh who:
    – know and use interviewing methodologies that focus on candidate’s skills (and not how the candidate looks like or whether he/she knows how to build his/her cv)
    – do reference checks not for fun, but to get better insight in candidate’s experience, so clients can make their choices based on better information

    Another question is what’s the average service level in this market. But thats another story.

    And if I may, I don’t agree with Allison when she says about „not putting a head hunter in charge of the entire hiring process.” The results are usually similar to „not putting a hairdresser in charge of the entire cutting process” and as you might guess they are not good. Provided that the hairdresser just as a headhunter knows what he/she is doing. If not – why bother.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 13, 2011, 3:44 pm

    @Jacek – There are a few perspectives. You, as a competent headhunter, will likely do verification of soft skills way better than me. I mostly go with my intuition, which by the way works quite well.

    On the other hand if I have to go with an opinion on technical skills I’ll always go with the one delivered by guys from my team. I mean they do know our craft. They spent last few years dealing with it. Actually they focus on the technical stuff because it is their job. Recruitment takes only a tiny chunk of their work time.

    And then we have tasks which can be done by pretty much any person who knows how to use a keyboard to bang out some working code. Reference check for example. In this case it all boils down to trust. I either trust headhunter who does the job or I don’t. Unfortunately, in my case the answer is “I don’t.” Maybe I’m totally out of luck but actually I’ve never felt to be challenged by any headhunter I was talking with.

    Either way, I still need to run the huge part of the recruitment process, which is rather natural by the way.

    By the way: I don’t buy hairdresser analogy – I haven’t been to hairdresser for 17 years already and I still look pretty damn good ;)

  • Kyle Barrett January 18, 2013, 8:20 am

    The point is, a good headhunter provides a valuable service.

    Headhunter’s dedicate all their working hours to developing a portfolio of clients and candidates. So they will probably do a better job of separating the wheat from the chaff, than the line manager of a company, who has several other jobs to do. And often they will have a bit of expertise in the field they are sourcing for.

    If you can find time to do that job, on top of your current role, then good for you. Maybe the business is slow, maybe your role isn’t that intensive. But if all of your experience is based on bad headhunters, perhaps the title should be changed to…. “Don’t outsource it to bad headhunters, especially if you have time”.

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