How to Deal with a Headhunt Call

How to Deal with a Headhunt Call

Traditional thinking on Executive Search or Headhunting (Def: the act or practice of actively searching for new employees, especially for professionals or executives) is that it applies only to Senior Level Executives in a given industry or sector. Now, while that still remains case, in the modern business world, Headhunting can apply to any level of seniority especially where there are skill shortages or talent gaps.

It can also apply to ‘Teams’ or ‘Departments’, where a company tries to enter a new market or ‘bolt-on’ a new service line…. by headhunting a department from one or more of its competitors.


So here’s what normally happens.; an experienced Recruiter is formally engaged by an organisation to trawl the market for candidates with a certain level of experience/skill set for a position that they have identified is critical to their organisation. This can be in any sector you can think of.

The reason they would outsource the search is mainly due to confidentiality management (for both client and candidate). Also, by using an experienced Head-Hunter, this tells the market place that the organisation is very serious about this hire.

Also, as opposed to waiting for candidates to apply to an organisation (some may feel uneasy about applying to a competitor), a Head-Hunter will proactively go after candidates and bring the opportunity to them. In Ireland, the talent marketplace is relatively small (compared to other locations) so this is also a factor in using an Executive Search firm.

Based on the criteria given (including strategy and timing, companies to target and scope of assignment) the recruiter would then normally produce a ‘Market Map’ of the talent landscape, using like for like competitors mainly as their research base and produces a ‘long-list’ of likely suitable targets or names. (There may be an Advertised route taken too, but the majority of Executive Search assignments carried out in Ireland are not advertised, again for confidentiality reasons).

After gathering the information at research stage, the Head-Hunt targets are then ranked in order of perceived suitability, all those ranked Tier 1 are viewed as a very close match are contacted first, then those ranked Tier 2 and so on.

The recruiter then starts making discreet contact with the candidates on the ‘long list’ in order as above. They will evaluate targets against the brief they have been given (and the responses received from candidates) and ‘whittles down’ their long list to a short list (or the ‘Hot list’ of candidates to focus on).


So, you receive that headhunt call, what should you do?

Headhunt calls are rarely pre-planned and more likely than not you receive the call ‘out of the blue’ whilst at work in your open plan office. If you can, take the call, if you can’t agree to talk later to the Recruiter (exchange mobile numbers), they will totally understand that you cannot freely talk. Once the Recruiter has qualified why and what they are contacting you about, and you are generally happy that they are seriously presenting an opportunity to you, engage with them.

Right now, you may be happy in your current role, and both the Recruiter and their client probably know this but, you are in demand and this may be the opportunity that will change your career trajectory.

It is normal for the recruiter to arrange to meet you to qualify the job they are working on and to divulge more information. This gives you the chance to gather more information and to see if it is worth meeting with the client company.


The first meeting with the company recruiting is normally quite informal (and it is purposely so, as you have not applied for any position and things are still at exploratory stage from all parties)

However, if you are interested post this meeting, you should be aware that there will be other candidates in the same boat as you and this is where the game changes.

Post first ‘informal’ meeting, most companies now view you as interested and the dynamic changes and it now reverts something closer to ‘regular’ classic interview mode, testing and probing you on your abilities, experience, competencies and emotional intelligence.

Remember, although you “weren’t looking” when initially approached, you are now firmly in the mix with other targets and you now have to show them why you are potentially the person that can take on this critical role. (You should remember the company in question were always going to hire someone but decided to go down the headhunt route to deliver a more structured targeted success). It would also not be unusual for some form of psychometric testing to be used after the first interview, more so at the more ‘senior’ level.

During first, second, third interview and negotiation on salary and benefits the Head-hunter will be there as an experienced sounding board to advise and guide you. Again, remember, although you were “headhunted”, the organisation still has a ball-park package figure that they will probably not go beyond, so be careful with any outrageous demands. Yes, you are in a good position but be careful not to blow it out of the water.

Regarding salary negotiations, your recruiter again can be invaluable during this period in clarifying any queries you have and asking questions you feel slightly awkward asking.


In summary, always accept that Head-Hunt call (a recruiter will be reluctant to contact you again if you are completely dismissive).

Listen to the opportunity and gather as much information presented at the first meeting with the recruiter AND the company.

After the first exploratory meeting with the company offering the opportunity, decide whether to opt in or out. If you decide to opt out, that is fine, let the recruiter know that you would be still interested in hearing about future opportunities (this will keep you on the recruiter’s radar).

There are psychological events and hurdles to manage during the Head-hunt process that you need to recognise to take full advantage.

So, while there is no ‘exact science’ to headhunting, there definitely is a pre-defined strategy deployed in the background and it still represents a fantastic way for a company to identify and acquire critical talent (and intelligence) to facilitate growth objectives.

Eamonn O’Reilly,

Managing Director, Red Tree Recruitment

Recruitment Specialists in; Legal & Company Secretary | Compliance & Risk | Data & Tech | Data Protection & Cyber Security | Insurance


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