Turning A Search Source Into A Client

“I’ll just steal their people.”

We hear that comment all the time. It’s the ultimate way a recruiter reacts when an employer won’t pay their fee — either before or after a placement. The ultimate in sadism. Of course, the employer never hears that comment and its employees are never “stolen.” At best, one or two might be motivated to consider a job change.

If it were possible to “steal” employees, it would be a crime. You’d be a prisoner rather than a professional. But it’s not a crime. Employees can’t be “stolen.” There are no recruited robots. Candidates fully negotiate then, very carefully, decide whether to accept an offer from another employer.

The real crime is masochism. Employers used as search sources can be turned into exclusive clients easily. In fact, more easily than those sophisticated ones who work with recruiters now. They become true “clients” who won’t deal with anyone else.

If this seems strange to you, ask your lawyer how they acquired their most loyal clients. Invariably, they’ll tell you they were turned off by the legal profession. They showed them a lawyer can be honest, responsive and reasonable.

You can do the same thing with employers. It takes more than words. It takes identifying why this employer isn’t a placement payer. There are five primary reasons. Just determine which one (or more) applies, and adapt the easy suggestions that follow it to make your move.

Here are some of the ways:


If the placement industry ever gets a mandatory certification program, the first requirement should be actual experience hiring for someone else. Anyone who’s done it knows how contradictory the words “hiring authority” really are.

The confusion in most companies is masked by that committee-generated, politically-charged, fantasy-based document called a “job requisition.”

The “hiring authority” (initiating line supervisor) usually has a major fight justifying the budget against the constantly-asked question of “Why do you need someone?” and the often thought one “Aren’t they just empire building?”

So while the requisition may appear concise and accurate, it’s a product of internal marketing rather than a reflection of hiring need. The person who “gives” you the job order is usually a human resourcer or other staffer. They’re just reading it to you. If you’re confused, you don’t want it to appear that you are. You’re supposed to be the expert. You don’t know where reality ends and fantasy begins on the JO.

Time adds to the confusion about the job. Those spec’s change because job duties change. The result is presentation of space cadets to cave men. You haven’t “produced” a “qualified candidate” and it appears you just added to the confusion. You did.

Confusion in hiring is so pervasive that Thomas Peters devoted an entire chapter of Surviving on Chaos to it. He observed:

The task of transforming raw recruits into committed stars, able to cope with the pace of change that is becoming normal, begins with the recruiting process per se. The best follow three tenets, unfortunately ignored by most.

1. Spend time, and lots of it;

2. Insist that line people dominate the process; and

3. Don’t waffle about the qualities you are looking for in candidates.

Most recruiting practices, which mirror the firm’s values for better or for worse, are reflections of yesterday’s needs; and bureaucratic (overly complex) reflections to boot.

Peters’ advice has revolutionized corporate America. Even if you haven’t read his bestsellers In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence, this quote from Surviving on Chaos should be printed on your send-out sheets:

The recruiting message is simple: Line people looking for no-nonsense traits … Begin by involving front-line employees in interviews [to] gradually give them full responsibility.

Should you “end run” around the HR department? That’s not the question to ask. Human resourcers want to see people hired, often more intensely than line supervisors. They have to justify filling open requisitions regardless of whether they’re new or old, hot or cold, fill or hold. I had jobs like that for years. Many jobs like that. Most jobs like that.

I got so frustrating that I bought a big toy traffic light and left it in a corner of my office. Every time a supervisor came in, I’d press a button on my desk, and the light would change from red to green. A bell would ring. I stayed in that job around eight months. Rang the bell a lot, though.

How do you work with the HR department? The answer is exactly that — work with the staffer, and through him. Don’t deal with them as though they’re the “hiring authority.” Their functions may be confusing to them (because their primary focus is on keeping their job). But they shouldn’t be confusing to you.

They are (in order of your importance):

a. To approve your fee and guarantee. (No games. Get the approval first, or you’ll never have placement pleasure.)

b. To “interface” (not “interfere”) in the dialogue between the hiring authority and you.

c. To greet, meet and seat your candidate.

d. To extend offers, explain benefits and otherwise “hire” your candidate.

These are all legitimate staff functions. All you need is to talk to the hiring hot button as much as you think is necessary.

That’s how to eliminate the confusion that foreclosed your predecessors.


You can’t even cold-call without a positive attitude. So recruiters really work at having one. Nothing throws their placement plane into a tailspin faster than a negative employer. Placers become defensive and hostile.

The hiring authority may know what they want, how to interview properly, and how to hire the right people. They’re just negative. There’s a reason. Sometimes it’s based on personal experience, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s valid, sometimes it’s not.

Negativists are easy to spot by comments like:

a. “We won’t (don’t/can’t) pay fees.”

b. “We’ve tried using recruiters before, and weren’t satisfied with the results.”

c. “You won’t be able to find anyone we can’t find on our own.”

Behind these three comments are three distinct types of potentially exclusive employers:

a. Those who reject all recruiters.

Someone like this usually is the product of a bad experience — one of many common bad experiences. From phone fee confirmation to candidates who fall off (or are pushed), contingency-fee recruiting lends itself to them.

Unfortunately, our industry does little to change the perception of employers. In The Business Healers, Harold Higdon quoted the “head of a large executive recruiting firm” as saying:

“I’m right now in the process of coming close to withdrawing from our professional association because they’ve hired a PR guy.”

Higdon added: “Many share his view.” Whether you do or not, it provides a great opportunity for you to become the sole source for placing with that employer.

The key is to deal with the bad experience — the hiring authority’s perception of what went wrong. There are two cautions here:

i. Don’t be defensive. It’s easy to be, since you’ve already been on the other side of typical “bad experiences.”

ii. Defend our industry. That’s right — it’s not the same as being defensive. Simply say, “It’s unfortunate that things didn’t work out. Outside recruiters perform a necessary function.”

iii. Tell how you’re different. Easy, now. Just say something like “Our goal is to complement your efforts by giving the search more depth and breadth. We consider you an ongoing ‘client,’ not just an employer who agrees to pay a fee.”

b. Those who reject the idea of using recruiters.

There’s a lot of negativism floating around wherever human resourcers meet. Higdon didn’t have to look far:

Executive recruiters, to their horror, have accumulated a string of uncomplimentary nicknames. They have been called flesh-peddlers, personnel pirates, raiders, [and] body thieves … The executive recruiter is a man feared and sometimes hated. He operates under a cloak of almost total secrecy.

Thus, the executive recruiter often moves in a shadow world of disguised phone calls, unmarked envelopes, marked “personal and confidential,” and furtive meetings.

Unlike the first negativist, this one just needs an education about how you operate. The biggest fear isn’t fees. It’s usually fear that:

i. You’ll use the employer’s name in cold-call recruiting.

ii. You’ll misrepresent something about the employer.

iii. You’ll misrepresent something about the job.

iv. You’ll let current employees know about a secret search.

v. You’ll attempt to recruit key employees. (Don’t tell them you already did!)

Of course, none of these things are true. But they’re not obvious to those who hear all the stories.

We say “consider the source” of negative comments, but nobody does. We think “there must be some truth behind what everyone says…” It’s a natural reaction. Trusting someone who’s not being paid to perform a job — only after they perform it — is unnatural. Certainly unnatural to some salaried staffer inside an HR office.

Consider your source and explain what you do. It’s really not that strange, and you’re there to help. Helping is what it’s all about– ask any successful recruiter.

c. Those who reject the idea of using a recruiter for the opening.

This hiring authority appreciates what you can do, but just doesn’t realize how much you can do here and now.

If they’re not negative because of Items “a” and “b,” they may be right. You can’t help with about half the “job openings” out there. Consider those:

i. Where the “hiring authority” wouldn’t hire no matter who applied (due to fear of losing their job, window shopping, etc.).

ii. Where the “hiring authority” couldn’t hire no matter who applied (due to budgetary constraints, changes in work, etc.).

iii. Where the employer really has a rigid policy of not paying a fee (for the level, type of opening, etc.).

Your biggest mistake would be trying to place in that situation. Instead, just consider this employer a long-term investment.

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Time is on your side. Meet that person and take them to lunch. Don’t leave without touring the facility and meeting the line supervisors (discreetly). These things will have them calling you when this (or another) requisition is real.

All three types of negativists can be turned around into exclusive positive activists for your cause. As Robert Bramson observed in Coping With Difficult People:

To understand negativists, it is important to realize that they are not by intention obstructionists to every scheme … They are no different from the rest of us in needing to validate their deeply-held concepts through the evidence of their own senses. Having done that, they state the same perspective with that conviction that comes from a deep belief. Small wonder that they become irritated with you when you persist in thinking that something might yet be done.

Good thinking. It will be done if you isolate the reasons for his negativism.


Not returning your calls is way to avoid dealing with any recruiter. You’re an unknown to someone who successfully evades you, so there’s no opportunity to break the syndrome. No opportunity to show them how you can help.

The evader was originally identified by Henry Calero in Negotiate the Deal You Want. Once you connect with them, don’t let them wiggle away. They’re an exclusive employer for sure.

Calero said:

He’ll immediately change the subject or try to flip … into another area where he won’t have to deal with it.

Here your only effective response is firm refusal to be distracted. Put off a distracting side issue with a calm remark that pulls you back to the issue at hand [recruiting]. Keep your cool, lest your evident irritation with the situation becomes the side issue. At times it can help to wrest the initiative from the other person by pulling attention back to the issue with an immediate proposal for consideration.

We’re totally opposed to anything except a total placement fee unless there’s a value-for-value exchange with the employer. In this case, there is an exclusive assignment.

The best way to present the offer is to propose a small reduction in the scheduled fee

a. Only for currently active requisitions,

b. Assigned to you now,

c. If a hire (job offer and acceptance) results within 30 days.

Don’t worry about the search being exclusive — you’re dealing with an evader. They won’t let others through. Don’t pick the openings that look easiest to fill, either. You don’t have any idea how hard they are to fill – only how hard it might be to recruit for them.

Staff people are evaders by nature — they avoid conflict by deferring decisions. It’s self-defeating and can cost them their jobs, but so can making wrong decisions.

You’ve given the human resourcer a great deal that they can brag about to management. Be sure to help them by sending copies of your PR materials and telling them about your qualifications.


Higdon nailed the familiar five-figure fee-fighter:

The arrival of a consultant may pose to the middle-management executive (and to a certain extent also to his boss), a threat to job security.

. . . They hesitate to give information that may in the end be used against them.

That’s why you have to be so careful with this kind of hiring authority. The more you sell your probable success, the more they worry that you’ll cause them to admit their failure.

Of course, you’re not causing them to admit failure at all. Your success is their success. It’s all in the way it will be perceived by management. You’ll never find out until they perceive it properly, though. They’ll do everything possible to sabotage your efforts. Try to spank them for their own good, and they’ll catch up with you at the candidate’s final interview. Some will wait for the reference check. Use the line supervisor against them, and they’ll use the candidate against you. They’ll claim prior knowledge of the candidate from another source. Maybe even from “another employee.” They’ll clean up that file. Clean it out too.

The latest bravado carries a five-figure sticker price. Why not just assure them you want them to look good. Quietly, quickly and competently.

Tell them:

a. You’re a specialist (if you are).

b. You’ll “assist” with their recruiting efforts.

c. You’ll work with them and through them (never around or above them).

You won’t need to say more. They’ll work with you. Exclusively.


You’d think employers would realize that leaving a critical opening unfilled is incredibly expensive. Overtime pay, overworked employees, and overbearing customers are overlooked with overwhelming costs. If it’s not a critical opening, employee time is wasted interviewing and discussing it.

Don’t blame human resourcers. They’d pay you if they could. There are two reasons:

a. Every one is a social worker in a suit.

b. It’s not their money.

But whose money is it? Top management’s! That’s right. Kenneth Cole nailed the corporate heads in The Headhunter Strategy:

[T]hey have first claim on compensation dollars and are paid on a very different standard from the general and midlevel management of the firm … Officers have performance plans they are measured against. Keeping total compensation [overhead costs] at or below a specified level is usually one of its major goals.

The best thing to do is ask the human resourcer to arrange an in-office meeting with the highest executive available. I don’t recommend lunch in this situation and discussed why in How to Turn an Interview into a Job:

There is so much that can go wrong in terms of personal mannerisms, offhanded remarks, eating or drinking habits, and etiquette, that the “businessman’s special” can be you! For higher-level positions, this may be unavoidable, so attempt to ask discreetly. If it is merely an invitation and not a requirement, graciously decline. You don’t want to sacrifice a job for a meal.

It’s up to you to convince the executive that using your services is consistent with their self-interest. The human resourcer will help if you coach them in advance (“work with them”). Do your homework. Then follow the advice of Paul McDonald in The Proposal Preparation Manual:

Don’t just describe a variety of possible approaches and let the customer try to feel out what you really recommend. If you have thoroughly studied his problem and your range of capabilities to meet it, and have made a careful tradeoff analysis, you know there is only one best approach that you can provide to meet his specific need.

Don’t assume the [executive] is familiar with all details of your technique or with all your terminology. He must have logical reasons for making his [decision] without a struggle.

As we mentioned in Item 2, don’t leave the facility without touring it and meeting the line managers.

These are five easy ways to turn a search source into an exclusive client. Best wishes for exceptional exclusives!

More than thirty-five years ago, Jeffrey G. Allen, J.D., C.P.C. turned a decade of recruiting and human resources management into the legal specialty of placement law. Since 1975, Jeff has collected more placement fees, litigated more trade secrets cases, and assisted more placement practitioners than anyone else. From individuals to multinational corporations in every phase of staffing, his name is synonymous with competent legal representation. Jeff holds four certifications in placement and is the author of 24 popular books in the career field, including bestsellers How to Turn an Interview into a Job, The Complete Q&A Job Interview Book and the revolutionary Instant Interviews. As the world?s leading placement lawyer, Jeff?s experience includes: Thirty-five years of law practice specializing in representation of staffing businesses and practitioners; Author of ?The Allen Law?--the only placement information trade secrets law in the United States; Expert witness on employment and placement matters; Recruiter and staffing service office manager; Human resources manager for major employers; Certified Personnel Consultant, Certified Placement Counselor, Certified Employment Specialist and Certified Search Specialist designations; Cofounder of the national Certified Search Specialist program; Special Advisor to the American Employment Association; General Counsel to the California Association of Personnel Consultants (honorary lifetime membership conferred); Founder and Director of the National Placement Law Center; Recipient of the Staffing Industry Lifetime Achievement Award; Advisor to national, regional and state trade associations on legal, ethics and legislative matters; Author of The Placement Strategy Handbook, Placement Management, The National Placement Law Center Fee Collection Guide and The Best of Jeff Allen, published by Search Research Institute exclusively for the staffing industry; and Producer of the EMPLAW Audio Series on employment law matters. Email him at jeff@placementlaw.com.


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