I recently listened to a podcast on the art of shrinking heads. It’s based on this article: “How Shrunken Heads Work” from howstuffworks.com, which is totally worth a read. But here’s a summary:

  1. Consult a shaman who’ll chew some “leaves” and then point out the person whose head you’ll need to hunt.
  2. Hunt him.
  3. Get inside his head with a sharp knife and carefully remove the skull, brains and eyes.
  4. Discard the good stuff.
  5. Holding the face-skin by the hair, plunge briefly into boiling water and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.
  6. Sew the lips and eye holes shut.
  7. Fill with hot rocks and roll around until dry.
  8. Rub with ash and dangle over fire to cure it completely.
  9. Wear as necklace.

And as I heard this, I thought to myself: this sounds exactly like the step-by-step guide for Executive Recruitment.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe that there are wonderful recruiters out there that do what they do because they love “bringing people together” and “helping you find your dream job”. I also believe that there are lawyers (real live ones) that won’t charge you for writing an email.


I do not believe that they are in the majority. And that’s because the incentives are all wrong.

How Recruitment Works


A recruiter acts as a go-between. They have CVs and records on file from us – the potential employment prospects (and I am amazed by the number of recruiters that have my details without me ever contacting them). And they get job specs and such from prospective employers, and then bring those two sides together.

Which is awesome – because it sounds like a centralised exchange where buyers (employers) and sellers (employees) of services get brought together and the broker (the recruiter) earns a commission for having supplied the market-space.

The Problems With This Business Model

Can money be made here? Absolutely.

The real problem is far more mundane than that. We tend to forget that the primary purpose of business, first and foremost and before anything else, is to break-even by having enough cash to pay your monthly costs. If you can’t do that, then you’re highly unlikely to survive until that big pay-off down the line when your company steps grandly into profitability. #Fact

So here are the problems faced by recruiters (there could be more – but these are what I would put down):

  • relative to the size of the market, there are not a lot of high-paying jobs available (ie. transactions are infrequent);
  • most companies prefer to hire from within, which means that there’s no need for recruiters in most cases;
  • even after that, the majority of jobs are actually sourced through networking (“who you know”) rather than through recruiters or job ads;
  • oh, and there is plenty of competition from other recruiters;
  • so that’s not great.
  • after they’ve handled that hurdle, they then discover that corporates that are hiring will usually go through an extensive interviewing and testing process;
  • during which time, most of the candidates presented by the recruiter will be rejected; and
  • worst of all, the recruiter only gets paid after you, the newly employed, have been employed for a few months (or something like that).

Which is quite a list of problems. And it would make for some highly erratic cash flow, I’d imagine.

What I Would Do If I Were A Recruiter

It’s clear that the objectives of any recruiter should be:

  1. Get as big a range of CVs as possible on the books; and
  2. Place people as quickly as possible (presumably by proposing overqualified candidates for the position who are therefore more likely to get it?).
  3. Also, cozy up to the big employers (the corporates) and attempt to become their preferred recruiter by offering them great candidates at bargain contract prices.

Excellent business strategy for the recruiter. But here’s how that translates into conversation with the freshly unemployed…

What I’d Say To Those People Who Haven’t Yet Given Me Their CVs

  1. “I placed someone the other day in a job paying <insert astronomical salary> per year – and it’s the kind of job you’re looking for!”
  2. “I just got off the phone with my old varsity friend at <insert name of big company in your industry> and she says that they’re about to lift their head-count freeze…”
  3. “I’m actually having lunch with the head of HR at <said big company> and she owes me a favour”
  4. Anything to suggest that I’m the most awesomest and reliable recruiter in the world.

What I’d Say To Them After They Sign Up

The minute someone has placed their CV with me, they would discover that the job market has turned, and frankly, they’d be lucky to get anything that I throw their way. Some classics:

  1. “The job market isn’t what it was two years ago. It’s such a pity that you’re two years too late.”
  2. “I think that you need to start accepting that in the current market, you really just need to be more strategic about the positions you’ll interview for.”
  3. “Have you considered something in <completely unrelated industry>?”
  4. “What are your feelings on a smaller business with great potential for growth? Smaller package, obviously. But great people.”
  5. “How negotiable are you on salary? If I can be entirely honest here, your expectation is just far beyond what employers are currently offering.”
  6. “It’s difficult to get someone hired when they’re unemployed. I think that you really just need to move into something as soon as it comes up, and then we can keep looking for something else for you over the next year or so.”
  7. “I know you’re overqualified for the position, but you really need the interview practice.”
  8. “It’s tough out there. I was speaking to one of my clients that’s refused to budge on his demands, and he’s getting really frustrated because he’s had to move back in with his parents.”
  9. “Look, you’re not get into <insert big corporate name> unless you’ve been through their graduate recruitment program. I’ve never seen it happen. Ever.”

What This Means For You, The Job-Hunter

Many of my readers are CAs. CAs that have just left articles (or will soon leave) and are hoping to go somewhere other than audit. And I’m not confining this conversation to you alone – most of us will, at some point, get caught in this position.

Just know that speaking to a recruiter when you’re looking for a new job is usually one of the most distressing, depressing and self-negating experiences. You lose all sense of perspective (there goes the brain and the eyes), you get tossed through a wide-range of interviews that you never wanted (the boiling water), you’re filled with blind panic (the hot rocks in your head), and before you know it, you’ve accepted an ornamental position where some of your best features play only a minor role.

You get recruiters who are wonderful. I’m lucky enough to know some.

But for the most part, few will try to get you a position where you’re underqualified and overpaid, if you know what I mean… So when you are in the process of job-hunting, make sure that you sign up with more than one recruiter (you also spread the net wide), be prepared for some self-esteem bashing, and spend most of your time speaking to people through your networks.

After all – that’s where your new job is most likely to come from.