The 6 Most Critical Questions to Ask a Recruiter

Some years back I was made to realize that even the highest-level corporate chieftains can find themselves at a loss when it comes to knowing which questions they should ask a recruiting firm.

There I was, sitting face to face with a well-known chairman of a significant public corporation seated behind his expensive mahogany desk. The CFO was to my right; the HR executive vice president to my left. The conversation was going well until I was thrown a curve ball.

“What kind of information technology background do you have, Frank?” the chairman asked.

Ouch. How could I answer that without sending the dialogue into a downward spiral?

During the next few seconds, the following chess moves were rapidly played out in my mind:

If I replied “I have no experience in IT,” that might send the wrong message and portray my firm as one that lacks experience required to recruit for the job. At that time, I had 15 years’ experience filling such V.P.-level positions. Still, it would not sound right to say I had no experience.

I could not say “I have experience in IT,” because I really did not, at least not to any modern level of a company of this size that made a difference.

I realized I was at an impasse no matter how I replied.

It then hit me: My trouble was due to the flaw within the question itself. Within seconds, I replied back:

“The question you ask is a good one if I were the candidate you were considering to hire. But in all fairness, the question you are asking does not address what my firm’s recruiting track record consists of. You are hiring me to recruit and not to manage your IT department. Therefore, it is my organization’s track record and ability to recruit that you might be more interested in. Would it not be more informative for you to know of our success in filling executive-level positions?”

Since his facial expression did not signal resistance to my closing question, I immediately followed through with references I had prepared in hand.

As I spread the laminated “Thank You” letters in front of him, each of which was a full color copy with recognizable corporate logos imprinted on them, he raised his hand and asked me to stop.

He was satisfied. Our firm received the retainer and we filled the position within 90 days. But it was a close call that I was ill-prepared for.

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Over the years since then, I compiled a list of the six most critical questions a hiring manager should ask.

Each week my questions quickly expose those who are amateurs from the real McCoys as I use these same questions when receiving countless “cold calls” from recruiters who don’t know I’m a recruiter here at my own office.

These questions quickly expose those who have failed to invest in their business and those whose business practices are ill-conceived or simply inadequately trained:

  1. Are you able to supply references? Anyone with a few years’ experience under their belt would be proud to share references. Some corporate CEOs may not want to be bothered, or there may be confidentiality issues. In such cases, candidate references ought to be available in lieu of client references at the very least. If they can’t supply references, find out why. This could be a red flag.
  2. Where is your firm headquartered, and are you licensed? Every week I receive unsolicited “cold calls” from recruiters located from Florida to Nevada. Many firms seem clueless that a license is even required for placing here in New Jersey! To be fair, licensing for professional-level direct hires (where the fees are paid only by hiring companies) is not required in some states. It also doesn’t accomplish much, as in 19 years I’ve only had two surprise audits from state officials. Still, some oversight is better than none. According to Robert Style, legal counsel for the National Association of Personnel Services, the states that require licensing as of December 2006 are as follows:

    “District of Columbia, Hawaii, Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York (if you place people at $20,000 per year or less), South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming. The following states require registration: Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Wisconsin. Only New Jersey specifically requires licensing (registration) of out-of-state recruiters who make placements to firms located within the state.”

    Any recruiter who possesses pride in the execution of their services will at least know where they fit into the state and federal regulatory puzzle when it comes to such mandates. If they’re not familiar with state regulations, imagine what knowledge they may lack about more important federal guidelines and laws?

  3. Do you carry adequate insurance? Is E&O included? Any recruiter placing executive-level IT or finance professionals is playing Russian Roulette when it comes to the fiduciary responsibilities such placed employees carry within the organizational structure. These high-level individuals have exposure, passwords, and user IDs to some of the most sensitive information a company has. Eventually, even the best screening and referral methods will fail. In those instances, you may have comfort knowing the firm you’re dealing with can name you as a co-insured for Errors or Omissions. Some national corporations demand to see insurance certificates each year before retaining for mid-level management positions responsible for multi-hundred-million dollar divisions and branches.
  4. Are you a member of any professional trade association? If so, which ones? Many of the best recruiters are genetically predisposed to abhor memberships and associations with just about anyone. These are maverick-type individuals. They are fiercely independent and pride themselves of being untethered to any corporation and surviving as a financially independent entity. While this can strike you as cocky, such are the very traits you want in a recruiter if you anticipate success. Despite this bipolar love/hate relationship with associations, a smart recruiter will affiliate with some association, if not for professional development then at least for candidate pipeline development. Are they a member of the National Association of Personnel Services or other similar organization such as AESC or NAER? While my preference has always been the NAPS organization, any affiliation is better than none, as such membership stipulate codes of conduct one must abide by. The absence of such affiliation does not mean you should not use the firm, only that you should look at this information in context of the other factors I’ve outlined. Some very successful recruiters are consistently able to pull rare rabbits out of the proverbial recruiting hat for their clients, with not one conference, membership, or trade show attended in decades. They might even tell you they can’t afford to waste such time at these events due to their high success level remaining at their desk.
  5. How many positions do you fill monthly and at what levels? This is self-explanatory. The reply should be realistic and credible. Four to five positions a month is achievable at staff level functions and disciplines. At management tiers, one or two per month can be considered high performance due to the extra time requirements. Climb up a notch to VP levels and even one complete search per month or quarter can be considered outstanding.
  6. How long have you been recruiting? It’s no secret the recruiting profession is an easy-entry profession. Ease of entry, however, does not translate to long-term success, which is an entirely different matter. Many search firm owners consider “the hump” to be somewhere between 24 and 36 months, during which a recruiter advances from apprentice to industry specialist. Determine whether the person you are speaking to will actually recruit, or if another researcher will support him/her behind the scenes. Some companies use their most polished recruiters to “sell” to corporations and then switch the search work to a lesser-skilled apprentice. Find out who will remain accountable during the search.

Google the Recruiter’s Name

One final piece of advice, in addition to the six questions to ask, is to take research tasks into your own hands. For example, anyone who is visible within a certain network should have left some digital footprints in cyberspace that will come up in a Google search.

Simply place the recruiter’s name in Google and see what you find. You might be surprised. If you find nothing whatsoever, you may have some due diligence on the preceding questions to follow up on. Ask, “How come I see nothing about you when I Google your name?”

One thing you will notice by the above list is that previous corporate experience within a specific discipline is not important. I have hired recruiter trainees from the ranks of director to executive vice president from the corporate world.

Despite their “black books,” decades of seasoned tenure, and Rolodex of names, most of these recruiter-trainees failed miserably within the first year despite intense training.

Having a network is useless if you don’t possess the soft skills of massaging and nurturing such network contacts and transforming them into a consistent candidate pipeline.

This career requires a personality make-up that is at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of the classic corporate citizen. If someone excelled in the corporate world, they most likely will have difficulty recruiting, which demands intense entrepreneurial resourcefulness. It calls for a completely different genetic brain composition.

Don’t be impressed with previous experience in a particular corporate function, as this presents little correlation with current recruiting and placement success.

President of & Within two years after leaving the corporate world in 1987, Frank Risalvato was earning $21,000 average fees as a search consultant. Each individual fee equated to almost 50% of his previous annual salary in 1987. In 1991 he founded, the search firm he continues to operate today. Today his fees are more than double that of his earlier years while working fewer hours weekly. Frank's audio download page on provides an opportunity to "be a fly on the wall" and listen in to live calls, messages, conversations with clients and candidates. His recent book, A Manager's Guide to Maximizing Search Firm Success has helped recruiters using it lock up partial and full retainers between $5,000 to $45,000 by helping drive home the concept of exclusive/retained over the usual contingency approach.


6 Comments on “The 6 Most Critical Questions to Ask a Recruiter

  1. Lou –

    Great article, but I would sharpen #5 to read, ‘For this position you/your firm would like to help me on, how many identical (skill, similar title/role and geographical location) have you filled in the last 12 months?’

    I mention this because of my experience this past year in filling a couple of SAP-specific openings. A plethora of firms said that they would ‘love to work’ with us, or that they had resumes or that they ‘could’ fill such a position. I gave some of them a shot. What I experienced was a lot of talk, but little results (nothing to be exact). If an external firm (direct placement or temporary) cannot answer my above question, I’m polite but firm. Neither side should be interested in pursuing such a partnership without a good track record to go on – it wastes time that no one seems to have an excess of and ruins what could be otherwise a good firm’s reputation.

    I am happy to report that we did uncover 2 firms that did have an SAP recruiting practice and could answer my the question with a simple straight forward number.

  2. Lou –

    Some great info – but Q #1 should be, for independent recruiters, ‘Do you have a contract with them?’ (or are you tire kicking?) & ‘Have you made any placements with the co. & what is your experience with them?’ (like do they pay their bills on time, etc. & how have your hired candidates faired).


  3. I really appreciate this article, especially in regards to our maverick tendancies. I agree we need to remain connected to our industry as well as the one we recruit for, autonomous but connected. I also liked your candor in your mental hiccup with his question, and your recovery from the moment.
    And even in my special recruiting world I get the young peppy ones calling to ‘help’ me fill my req’s for my clients. Promising me the moon and stars.
    Maryellen O’Connell

  4. Frank, outstanding article. I find it interesting to see the slight competitiveness in the above responses (meaning between the independent recruiters and corporate recruiters). At a high level, we should be collaborating more and competing less.

    The truth is that the independent recruiter’s job is not to fill the easy positions that corporate recruiters can fill. Our job is to be the safety valve – the person the internal recruiter or hiring manager can call when there is that purple squirrel out there that they are having a heck of a time finding, recruiting, and better yet, closing on leaving their current company. If you’re an independent recruiter that focuses on filling the easy positions, your days are going to be riddled with this hesitance and competitiveness from internal recruiting teams.

    As a former Marine, I liken this to the Army’s hesitance against Marines taking over the most critical/deadly missions in Afghanistan and Iraq – they resist, but know that they can’t do the things the Marines can do, and frankly, just like you say, it’s a completely different mindset. As with third party recruiters and corporate recruiters, it truly is a different DNA structure as the levels of focus, perseverance, and intestinal fortitude required are exponentially higher.

  5. Frank,

    You have brought in a significant insight on steering the hiring managers assessing a recruiter/firm. Here are some more thoughts that can obviate the assessments disconnects of Hiring managers while hiring a recruiter.

    1.Apart from the traack rcord you are showing, what are the resources you have and how do you harness them to reach the goal of succesful placement? track record doesnt mean future behaviour as the recruting firms are themselves facing resource crunch regularly… ex: once the star performer leaves the recruiting firm the track record is only their to boast off.

    2.Key differentiator of todays’ recruiter is ‘opportunity presentation’. Ask him how would he present this opportunity to the prospective talent? The answer to this question is the key hole to see the work of recruiter and the assignment in hand.

    3. How do you upgrade yourself in the profession?This is another key question to know whether the recruiter would bring in the cutting edge practices on board as talent acquisition partner.

    If you have any views on the above suggestions you may reach out to me at or

  6. I’m responding to this remotely as I’m traveling this week – forgive my need for brevity.

    First, thanks for all the input. The office received so many emails blocks of about a dozen each were forwarded to my assistant for sorting – I promise to get back to each one soon.

    This reply is about comment made in reference to ‘corporate recruiter’ competitiveness. I wish to clarify that I have outstanding respect for the corporate recruiters I often work with. We’re simply cut from different cloths and we should value the strengths/weaknesses we each bring to the table.

    I have similar respect for teachers … or anyone working in a large group setting that must exhibit an ability to compromise and extensive patience for such teams to arrive at mutual decisions.

    So to clear the air – I have outstanding relationships with corporate H.R. to this day … in fact I can say there are some (who are reading this right now!!) that know exactly who I’m referring to (hint: Hello Seattle, Cincinnati, Duluth & Indianapolis … oh yes and St. Louis as well!) Our relationships (recruiter/Corporate) is more like that of a close knit family. It has transcended the single transaction mentality. And we’ve worked together in some cases for twenty consecutive years!

    We need to respect that we all have different strengths to bring to the process. As one H.R. manager reminded me just yesterday, ‘Frank you can ask much more personal and pointed questions than we can as technically you are not interviewing the person to hire them but are asking questions to provide more general career advice … the information you are able to get is such that I could never ask directly as a representative of the company contemplating the hire.’ Bingo.

    As an ‘independent’ I can ask a candidate anything. I can ask if their married, if the marriage would impact relo, if they’re kids involved, if they own or rent … of course I preface such questions with the clear understanding they DO NOT have to answer any of them. I’m also not ‘interviewing them’ as I’m ‘not the one that makes hiring decisions’.

    BUT if they DO answer these questions I will provided valuable information that will only serve to help me coach them on their career decisions. I may talk someone out of proceeding in some instances. You see, my candidates appreciate us because we’re not just looking to ‘place them’ but
    ‘to act in a dual capacity as a career coach’.
    And that’s just one small benefits of the symbiotic relationship we have with HR.

    Big Bear Hugs to all the corporate H.R. folks reading this that have helped me get to where I am today (while helping you score fill those positions!) We did it as a team. It was your trust, confidence and ability to put up with my group that led us to achieve success for one another.

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