Using Agencies and Headhunters

If you have exhausted the possibilities of recruiting internally, it is time to look outside the organisation. Recruitment agencies and headhunters provide a range of professional services that might suit your needs ideally.

Specialist agencies

Recruitment agencies are known by a number of different names, although in essence they perform the same broad functions. Many recruitment agencies are industry or function specialists. This means that they have specific experience of recruiting for specific types of organisation (for example, legal, accountancy or childcare organisations) or particular job types (for example, secretarial, administrative or teaching roles). Although they will still need careful briefing, they may well understand how organisations like yours works, and appreciate many of the technical and personality requirements of the role that your are recruiting for.

Agencies come into their own because of the experience and systems that they already have in place. If you are trying to fill a vacancy on your own, you may be starting from scratch. You might have a few leads to follow up, or know of a good journal to place an advertisement in, but apart from these you are a little lost. A good recruitment agency, however, will have an up to date database of candidates who are looking for new positions, and who might be ideally suited for your position. An experienced agency will have met many of these candidates personally, and could put together a shortlist of suitable candidates for your role at short notice.

Interviewing experience

An established recruitment agency will have interviewed thousands of candidates for hundreds of jobs, and so will be knowledgeable and experienced about the types of questions to ask at interview, and how to ask them. Organisations often use agencies to conduct the first round of interviews, and only get involved themselves once the agency has selected a shortlist of suitable candidates.

Industry knowledge

It may sound obvious, but recruitment agencies know how to recruit staff! They:

  • understand how and where to advertise (indeed, they may have already block booked the best spaces in the trade media)
  • know how to design and place an eye catching recruitment advertisement
  • know how to assess a CV, as well as see beyond it
  • know how best to draw up a shortlist of candidates to interview
  • have years of experience of interviewing prospective candidates

Briefing the agency

No matter how experienced the agency is, or how confidently you believe that they are right for you, it is essential to brief the agency as fully as you can. Using an agency is extremely expensive, and you are throwing money away if you do not spend time with an agency representative at the beginning, giving them as much information as you can about the role that you need to fill, and the type of person that you think could fill it.

Start with a thorough specification of the role you are trying to fill. Give the agency a copy of the job description and person specification. Your contact at the agency should understand all the responsibilities of the role, as well as the personality factors that will influence your ultimate selection of a candidate. They should also understand which factors are essential, which are important, and which are desirable, although not essential. It is unlikely that any agency will find a person that matches every single one of your requirements, so you need the agency to appreciate which factors are more important than others. For example, some requirements of the role may be essential (like a clean driving licence), whilst others may be desirable (like a professional qualification).

Briefing an agency properly is a time-consuming process. However, it is time extremely well spent. It will ensure that the agency only puts forward candidates that are closely matched to your person specification, and who are likely to fit in to your organisation. So it is better to spend time briefing the agency properly, than waste time interviewing unsuitable candidates put forward by an agency that has been poorly briefed.

Once you have established a relationship with a recruitment agency, it makes sense to evaluate periodically how effective the agency has been as a recruiting source. For each vacancy you have, record the number of referrals made by the agency, as well as the number of people employed as a direct result of these referrals. If there are few referrals, or a low conversion rate between referrals and hires, you should re-evaluate the relationship with the agency.

You might conclude that the agency did not really understand the specifications of the job you were trying to fill. Perhaps spending time improving the communication between you and the agency will make future recruitment drives more effective. However, it might be that this was not the right agency to use for this particular position. The agency might perform admirably when recruiting for administrative or secretarial positions, but does not have the experience or expertise for managerial or technical positions. Make sure that you also evaluate the performance of the agency with reference to the state of the job market as a whole. Is this a particularly difficult time to recruit in general? Is there a shortage of people in the particular field in which you are trying to recruit? If the job market itself is unstable, then it would be harsh to blame an agency for not producing the ideal candidate.


Some organisations use several agencies at a time when recruiting. After all, why not have two agencies looking for your ideal candidate and so reduce the overall time it takes to fill the vacancy? Well, there are pitfalls associated with using multiple agencies, and it is rarely to be recommended.

In a specialist field, for example, two or more agencies may put forward the same candidate. If this happens, it is your responsibility to credit the first agency who brought this person to your attention. It is good practice to date-stamp each application as it arrives to make sure that you know which agency sent each application, and when they sent it. You will find that most agencies are unwilling to work on anything other than an exclusive basis. It usually works best if you engage the services of an agency on an exclusive basis, but for a limited period only. After, say, three weeks, you could review the situation with the agency, and brief another agency if you feel it appropriate.

Choosing the right agency

So where do you start in your hunt for the perfect recruitment agency? You may not have to look very hard at all. Some agencies are very active in promoting themselves, and may already have contacted you on a number of occasions introducing their services to you. If not, they may have approached one or more of your colleagues, and so it is a good idea to talk with them about any agencies that they may know. If your organisation has a personnel department, they may have details of a number of agencies they have used successfully in the past.

If you are starting your hunt for an agency from scratch, the first place to try is the newspapers. Start locally. If you look through the jobs pages in the local newspaper, you are likely to see a number of vacancies advertised by the same organisation. These advertisements will have been placed by an agency, which is advertising a number of positions on behalf of the organisations that the agency currently represents. Look through the vacancies on offer, and see if you can see similar positions being advertised to your own. You should be able to identify the specialist areas of each agency. For example, some agencies tend to recruit for general, or administrative positions only. Other agencies specialise in a particular field, like publishing or marketing positions. If you see an agency that fits the profile you are looking for, take down their details and contact them.

If you know that the position you need to fill is likely to need a national search, start with the national press. Take a look through the classified advertisements of a newspaper which advertises jobs similar to yours, and record details of appropriate agencies. If you are struggling to find what you are looking for in the national press, consider trade journals and professional magazines that are published for your industry. Many of these journals will have job sections, and specialist agencies will often advertise their current positions.

The important issue is to ensure that you select an agency that is appropriate for the position that you are recruiting for. There is no point in engaging the services of a highly regarded agency if they do not have the expertise to recruit for your particular needs. If the vacancy you need to fill is an administrative assistant, then use a general or clerical agency. If the position is specialist, then find an agency with industry specific expertise.

Finding the names of experienced agencies is only part of the job. An agency is only as good as the people who work for it. You must make sure that you meet the particular agency staff who will be dealing with your recruitment issue. Interview them, as you would a potential employee. Remember that they will effectively be representing your organisation during the recruitment process. Do they share, or at least understand, your organisation’s culture? Do they understand your specific needs? Are they qualified to recruit for this position? Do they understand the specific requirements of the role?

Just as when recruiting a member of staff, you should take references and follow them up. Talk to another organisation that has used this agency. What was their experience of using the agency? You can often get a feel for how the agency works by visiting it in person. Check to see how busy the agency feels on the day that you visit. Were you greeted politely? What impression did you get about the agency staff and surroundings? Was the office presentable?

Agency feedback

Proving feedback to an agency is just as important as briefing it in the first place. You should contact the agency after every interview, to review with your agency contact your reaction to each applicant. If the candidate is not suitable for the role, explain the reasons why so that your agency contact can make a better selection next time. This might sound obvious, but if you fail to take this simple step, you should not be surprised if the agency continues to put forward unsuitable candidates. The more feedback you provide, the more suitable the next candidate put forward by the agency will be.

Equally, if you plan to take a candidate forward to the next stage, explain to the agency contact what you like about them and why you think they might be suitable for the role. As soon as you feel you have seen a sufficient number of candidates from which to select, let the agency know. The agency will have built up relationships with their candidates, and so will not want to put forward candidates for a role that is likely to have been filled.

Working with an agency can be a time-consuming occupation, but the effort of building an effective relationship will pay dividends.

Agency costs

For full-time positions, most agencies charge a percentage of the annual salary paid to the employee. The actual percentage charge usually varies according to the salary paid. On average, you might expect to pay a fee of 10 per cent of the first year’s annual salary. But this percentage might rise the higher the annual salary. It is therefore worth shopping around when considering which agency to use, as fees will vary between agencies If you are looking to recruit a part-time employee, you may find that the agency is willing to negotiate a flat fee for finding the right candidate, rather than a percentage of the salary paid.

When weighing up the cost of using an agency, consider all the elements involved. Remember that there are rarely any upfront costs when using an agency. You only pay a fee if a person referred by the agency is appointed to the position that you are trying to fill. You should also note that this fee is refundable, or at least partly refundable, if the candidate proves to be unsuitable within the first month or so of employment. If the employee leaves, or is dismissed, during the first month, the refund is often 100 per cent. During the second or third month, the refund can be 75 per cent. During the 4th, 5th or 6th month, it can be 50 per cent. Some agencies choose not to refund money. Instead, they may offer to find another candidate to fill the vacancy for no additional fee.

Although agency fees appear high, it is important to bear in mind that the costs of advertising, selecting, and interviewing a number of applicants can be considerably higher than the agency fee. Since the agency only puts forward pre-screened applicants, you save both time and money, making the recruitment process cost-effective. Every agency works in a slightly different way. Before you deal with a new agency, ensure that you see a written statement of their fee structure, refund policy and working practice, so that there will be no misunderstanding at a later stage.

Headhunters and what they do

If your organisation is recruiting for a senior position, you may well find it necessary to approach a headhunter. Headhunters, or executive search consultants, are specialist industry recruiters, who can play a very important role when recruiting for senior positions.

Headhunters are almost always industry specialists. They search through their contact databases and networks to produce a list of suitable candidates for your position. Then they approach these people direct, to discuss with them their interest and suitability for the role. If appropriate, they then pass on a shortlist to the client for further interview and assessment. Headhunters may also take part in the interview and assessment process. Sometimes they also assist the client with writing the job description and person specification.

Headhunters can be expensive. Fees vary, but are usually at least one third of the first year’s guaranteed salary. This often means the complete salary, including any bonuses and extras, such as a company car. So it is unlikely that you will use a headhunter when recruiting anyone other than a senior member of staff.

Using headhunters effectively

If you plan to use a headhunter, there are several steps you can take to ensure that the recruitment process succeeds. First of all, make sure that you use the services of a headhunter with knowledge and contacts in your industry. You are paying for expertise, so you must find a suitably qualified headhunter in the first place. It may be appropriate to ask colleagues, or business acquaintances in other organisations, to see if you can identify recommended headhunting firms. It is good practice to follow the same process to locate a headhunter as you would to recruit a new member of staff:

  • Draw up a shortlist of potential headhunters and go and meet them
  • Try and meet the specific contact who will be helping you
  • Make sure that you see examples of past work, as well as endorsements from clients and relevant references.

Each headhunting firm will have terms and conditions that define exactly what process they will undertake to find the right candidate for you. Make sure that you read these terms and conditions, and that you understand them. You should also establish exactly what the process will cost.

  • What extra fees and charges are applicable other than the percentage of the successful candidate’s first year’s earnings?
  • What happens if they fail to find a suitable candidate? Are any charges applicable?
  • What if the person appointed leaves within the first six months of employment? Will the headhunter refund a percentage of the fee?

As with an agency, you must also remember to brief the headhunting firm as thoroughly as possible. The more the headhunter understands, both about the position and the type of person you are looking for, the more likely the headhunter is to succeed in this search. Just as with using employment agencies, you should also allow plenty of opportunity for feedback. Let the headhunter know what was right and wrong about each candidate that they put forward. Ongoing feedback like this increases the chance that the headhunter will find the ideal candidate in the end.

Using headhunters can be a difficult process, but you will undoubtedly reach candidates who are otherwise unattainable. Headhunting firms will contact suitably qualified people who are already employed in other organisations. They will not wait for candidates who actively apply for roles. Headhunters are often used in the following situations:

  • When the nature of the rule is such that only a few people could do it
  • When very few people would apply for the position
  • When potential applicants are spread very thinly across an industry
  • When very specific skills are required


There are a few pitfalls however:

  • Headhunters usually require quite a long period to produce the shortlist of suitable contacts. They may initially ask for around four to six weeks.
  • The headhunter must have an excellent understanding of the vacancy, the organisation and the type of person that you hope to recruit.
  • Remember that headhunters are not always successful, so you may commit the time required for headhunting, only to end up without someone appointed to the role.
  • Some time can be wasted when headhunting, because those who have been shortlisted may go through the interview and assessment process just because they are flattered to have been approached in the first place. They may have no interest in the role that you are recruiting for, or may be happy in their current position, and have no plans to leave.
  • You must ensure that headhunters conduct new research, rather than just work through their existing database.

Agencies and headhunters: Checklist

  • Would using an agency help with your particular recruitment needs?
  • Would you be able to locate a suitable agency?
  • Could you brief an agency effectively?
  • Could you manage your relationship with an agency effectively?
  • Can you justify the agency’s costs?
  • Will the vacancy you need to fill require the services of an expert headhunter?
  • Can you justify a headhunter’s costs?