How to get the most out of a recruiter

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A. Ah, the dreaded "headhunters". Love them or hate them, we do crave their attention and advice. To get the best from your relationship with an agency, you need to understand the different types of operators out there.

At the top end of the market you have executive search consultants, the proper headhunters, who go out to find senior people (senior VP, MD) for particular vacancies. You can't register with them, as such. They call you, not the other way round.

At the other end of the market are the recruitment agencies dealing with high volume, lower level jobs. They usually have large databases of CVs which they trawl through looking for matches, when they get an assignment. These agencies are more interested in receiving speculative CVs from candidates.

Rates of pay are typically 20%-33% of guaranteed first year income and in all cases are paid by the recruiter. Our experts have never heard of anyone being paid to keep salaries down and it's certainly not common practice. As to who's side the agency is on...well, in all cases, it's the employer who is paying them. Agents/headhunters need candidates, of course, but it's not their role to help you find a job, but rather to fill vacancies for clients.

The distinction is important. It means that to get noticed, you need to find out what the agent needs and present yourself accordingly. Don't expect an agent to help you find a job, the more so if your skills and experience aren't conventional. It's not that they are against you, but you're not the one they are focusing on.

As to your question about pay, employers do have the right to ask but you are not obliged to tell them. Get round awkward questions by using general statements and diverting the conversation: "I assume you will be offering the market rate and I'm sure we can come to some arrangement." Or "My current salary is about average for the market, but the reason I want to move is to take on more responsibility...etc." Or even, "My pay is a little behind the market and that is one of the things I want to improve. However, the main thing that attracts me to this position is...etc."

If you are really pushed to state your salary, be truthful. It is never, ever worth lying to a prospective employer.

Readers advise:

Having run a recruitment agency and supplied all levels of staff including plc board members, there is no "negative" effect linked to the agencies remuneration. In general, middle management or sub-60k roles are contingency-based fees, i.e. a percentage of the first year's starting salary (generally excluding bonuses); for more senior roles the agency will often agree a fixed fee, referred to as a retained deal, where they will receive lumps of their fee at set stages of the process. I can't see any professional agency, big or small, working on a bonus for "lower wages". The bonus can't be too high otherwise it would be a false economy and any recruitment consultant would rather have a candidate starting a job (and therefore earn some commission) rather than none at all.

Next week's question: I'm close to 40 and taking a specialist finance course at London Business School to buff up my MBA and make a break into investment banking, hoping to snare a job as an associate and work my way up. I've been with Shell for 15 years in various jobs. I've got lots of drive to succeed and deliver consistently. But I have a feeling I'm setting myself up for a difficult situation, getting into a scene where someone my age will get knifed early.

What would you advise? Send your answer to:

Look out for the Experts' answer to this dilemma and readers' comments on Ask the Expert next week. If you would like to submit a question to our panel of experts,


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