Ego boosters? Time-wasters? Do search firms fulfil a role?
Who needs headhunters? Certainly not the middle-ranking employee who's under threat of redundancy. If you earn less than £75,000 and you have to approach us, say the more prestigious executive search firms, you are probably wasting your time. 'Middle managers aged 45-plus and earning £50,000 don't interest us,' confirms John Viney, chairman of Heidrick & Struggles. 'We receive 400 CVs a week which we are unlikely to progress further.' On the other hand, 'If we call you, then you have been identified as someone doing great things in your company' - and greater opportunities, he implies, could well follow.
It's hardly surprising, then, that everyone is flattered to get a call from a headhunter. 'In terms of your ego, it's very comforting if people believe that you're doing OK, and have something to offer other organisations,' says Bernard Sullivan, general manager of Rover Learning Business, part of Rover Group. 'Hearing what (headhunters) have to say is almost irresistible,' says David Wimpress, managing director of 'autonomous businesses' at ICL.
But the initial pleasure can soon wear off.
'Being approached by headhunters who haven't done their research properly is both annoying and frustrating,' Sullivan adds. 'They may portray a post as very exciting but their rhetoric sometimes fails to match reality.' Wimpress agrees that headhunters can get carried away: 'You have to remember that they are in the business of selling flesh. They want to make a deal stick. So they may package a job in such a way as to make it seem irresistible, then do a very heavy sell to persuade you to accept a job that you would not have gone after in the first place.'
It's even more annoying to be approached by headhunters only to find that you're taking part in a spurious competition. 'I went through the process of being used as a benchmark,' recalls one City-based marketing director. 'The client company clearly had no intention of recruiting me, which was highly frustrating. In retrospect I realise that I was only approached in order to make the numbers up. After long and tortuous meetings and interviews the job went to the internal candidate. My whole experience of being headhunted was negative.'
Of course, there's no question that the established firms frequently do very well by their clients - and by themselves. 'If you want global reach,' says Viney, 'if suitable candidates are scarce, if secrecy is at a premium, the position is high-level and the potential appointee may require a degree of wooing' - then executive search is the right answer.
But search is expensive, and 'if those criteria do not apply, then it might be better to use other methods of recruitment such as advertising, word of mouth or the Internet.'
Advertising has obvious limitations. 'You are very much at the mercy of whether suitable people see the advert or not,' says David Rogers, director of headhunters Egon Zehnder. Don Beattie, chief executive of personnel at BOC Group, thinks that businesses simply can't do without headhunters. 'They fulfil a very useful role and their international reach is particularly important.' Beattie maintains that 'search works best if the organisation builds a strong strategic relationship with one or two headhunters. It's clear that, for search to be successful, headhunters have to work very, very closely with the client organisation. They need to understand the culture - who will fit and who won't.'
That's why some firms these days are highly specialised. Sarah King is a former lawyer who was recently taken on board by legal recruitment consultants Eagan Janion. 'Knowing our clients - the City law firms - and understanding their business so well means that we can find them lawyers with the right qualifications and skills.' she says. 'It's not our job to waste anyone's time.'
Nevertheless, if that welcome summons comes, the cautious quarry should still beware of having his or her time wasted.