Why Headhunters Don’t Return Your Calls


Once upon a time is the phrase which begins fairy tales and fabulous stories set in some unspecified moment in the past. Except the story you are about to read. There is nothing fairy or fabulous about this real-life experience of mine. I absolutely hated executive headhunters. My story starts like this: Once upon a time when I was a candidate myself.

My resume was the obligatory two-page document without my photo. Of course, I had not typed “RESUME” on the top of page one, as I knew recruiters are intelligent people who know a resume when they see one. I didn’t list several names of references because I knew the space was better utilised for listing more of my accomplishments. I did not state the reasons for leaving each job that I had chosen to list in the resume. I had not included details of my compensation or what I expected to get in my next job. My hobbies were so irrelevant to the job I wanted, that it would confuse rather than clarify my qualifications; so I left that out too. executive headhunter

I used traditional fonts like Times New Roman and Arial. There were no text boxes and other fancy features that would jeopardise the beautiful look of my Word document, when printed out on someone else’s computer. I had the Career Summary and Value Proposition as my first paragraph just below the header with my name and contact details. Oh yes, my resume was a master piece. I was ready to roll it out and impress the headhunters. I should have known better; but I didn’t at the time.


Books to read if you are job hunting

To really get into the groove of job hunting I read several great books on the subject. You can still buy What Color Is Your Parachute by Dick Bolles. Or the smaller book Don’t Send a CV by Jeffrey J. Fox. And if you have just lost your job, go get the Mars And Venus Starting Over by John Gray. And check out www.ilostmyjob.com.

I do apologise if I am just stating the obvious, but trust me, most people have no clue about how executive search firms work. And why should they. You can imagine the surprise and increased frustration that grew inside me, when I realised that headhunters didn’t want to talk to me when I called, they didn’t return calls when I left messages with an assistant or on voice mail, nobody bothered to answer emails either. What was going on? I never understood what was going on until I moved to this side of the table. My current table as a headhunter that is.


Don’t call us, we’ll call you for a job

It was back then that I made a promise to myself. I wanted to be a headhunter, I wanted to be different in my approach, I wanted to tell people why there is a lot “don’t call us, we’ll call you” in the recruitment industry. Here’s the thing. You need to accept the fact, that headhunters are retained by clients and not candidates. In other words, it’s the clients who pay their fees. Not you. Any minute the headhunter spends talking to people who are no way near a client’s requirement will just delay the completion of the search assignment. It steals valuable time away from the client’s project and as a business person yourself, you will appreciate that billing fees is a part of the cycle that makes business successful. We need to keep the eye on the ball.

A delay in the process to fill an important position could also easily spill over to the client side and have serious impact on their business, whether being the introduction of new projects, an organisational restructuring, a classy sales campaign to kick start a dull period, a greenfield getting off the ground, or whatever it may be.


Low hanging fruits in recruitment

Headhunters are typically under a lot of time pressure. But don’t worry; we thrive with that positive stress. We know that all assignments by definition are difficult-to-find positions. It is the main reason and purpose of our industry. If all fruits were hanging low and you all had great skills in assessing the well thought out dance of candidates… well, you get the picture.

So executive search firms will in general only engage in meetings with candidates if there appears to be a good match between their client's requirements and the particular candidate profile. Assessments of qualifications take the form of a structured behaviour based interview, the use of a unique designed questionnaire that links to the needed technical skills and performance competencies. Only this way can the headhunter and a candidate have a meaningful meeting that will be helpful to both parties.


Oh well, it’s out of the bag now and the secrets revealed. This can no longer be a fairy tale.   


The Ultimate Executive Career Guide: Connecting with Executive Search

As a senior-level executive, you can use this guide to:
- Learn about executive search and how it differs from other forms of recruiting
- Discover the best ways to connect with executive search professionals
- Understand how the search process works
- Implement strategies that will help you become visible to the search community
- And more!

Download Now!

About the author

Tom Sorensen's picture

Tom Sorensen is a Partner at Boyden Thailand, a global Top 10 executive search firm, with 35 years’ experience recruiting in Asia, Europe and Africa. He has worked in retained executive search in Thailand for 15 years, and is recognized as one of the country’s top recruiters. Along with an extensive network, Tom has broad industry expertise, and has successfully completed a number of challenging searches for highly specialised roles. Contact tsorensen@boyden.com and learn more on www.boyden.co.th.


Other posts by this author

Share your thoughts


Dear Mr Sorensen,
your position is well argumented and your reading is pleasant and extremely clear.
Unfortunately this is something that - I assume - the majority of people here in Bluesteps is perfectly aware of. You are telling the simple truth, that head hunters are only too busy to give to candidates a feedback, but if they recognize something special in a Resumè they will pick up the phone and make a call to the candidate. Unfortunately - that's is my case - I would be more interested to understand if my profile is ok or can be improved, as it was for you at the beginning of this story. Or am I wrong? Anyway thank you for have it shared with us.

BlueSteps Support's picture

Hi Roberto, Thank you for your feedback! We agree that ensuring your career portfolio (resume, cv, career letters) are top-notch is vital to progress your executive career. If you have a BlueSteps membership, make sure to request your complimentary consultation with one of our best-in-class resume writers who will give you honest feedback on the state of your profile and what improvements can be made. Thanks again for reading our blog. We look forward to hearing more from you.
Tom Sorensen's picture

Dear Roberto,

Executive search firms are retained by clients so they focus on the job assignment to identify and assess candidates according to the specs required. Search firms are not career counsellors nor do they provide resume writing service. The volume of candidates we deal with does not allow time to comment or provide coaching; I should say with the exception for those candidates we end up interviewing in-person. For advice on how to write a super resume that will get people calling you, please contact BlueSteps. Good luck.

Mr. Sorensen,
Nice article. My question revolves around best practices for candidates to be readily found by recruiters. Instead of making calls and sending emails, should candidates upload their resume/CV to recruiter's databases? Is this generally the first place recruiters search for the required talent? Are there two or three best practices steps for how candidates can be readily found by recruiters that can be recommended? Thanks

Tom Sorensen's picture

Thank you Tom for your question. Executive search firms use several channels to search for candidates. And yes, the first is always the firm’s own database but second comes AESC’s popular BlueSteps where 9,000 professional headhunters, working in 350 different executive search firms around the world, have access. We also use the Internet which of course includes sites like LinkedIn and usig techniques like Boolean. Finally, we telephone companies in the same industry as our client i.e. competitors, suppliers and customers to talk to potential candidates. 

Thanks Tom
Really good and appropriate reading.
While I have some sympathy with the headhunters 'dilemma' and that it's about profile raising by candidates (of which I am one now) ... I have been a service provider for over 25 years and as a matter of personal courtesy I would (to the best of my knowledge and memory !) always take a minute or two to call or e-mail, and if I couldn't would arrange for my secretary to do it.
I've had my resume and LinkedIn and leadership profiles prepared by Blue Steps and ... apart from a reply from one of the Boyden guys .... nothing !

Any suggestions ?

Kind regards

Tom Sorensen's picture

Hi Vincent,

Candidate experience is fortunately and finally coming to the surface. About time that HR and hiring managers begin to treat their applicants and candidates like they would service their customers. Arrogance, inexperience and lack of top management involvement in the hiring process will likely continue in many companies. The purpose of your resume is not to get the job - but to get you an interview. Unless you keep it short, write about achievements instead of job responsibility and so on – it will likely not get anyone excited. If you don’t get the interview, you don’t get the job. Glad to see that at least one firm called you (recently ranked 8 of 250 by Forbes by the way).


they don't return calls because there are far too many people who apply, they dont give quality time to sift and learn about applicants. They also think that they are right. not ready to learn too.

people like me are hunted, and i dont care truly, my hands are full and i charge money from headhunters too. nothing for free.

I have finished an executive MBA and now i am looking for new job oportunities . I have more than 14 years of experiences and i am very interested on asian market where i havbe been many times on last recent years. Kindly regards. Jaime Corral

The candidate you decline to call back might be a potential client when they get their next job.

Stay Connected