Guidelines for Using Recruiters and Search Firms

The Basics

Search firms (also known as executive recruiters) can play an important part in your overall job search. Before getting down to specifics about how to use them as a resource, however, there are a few basic points to consider.

First, you should visualize your job search as an activity that has at least four parts. The most important part�the one that you should be devoting at least half of your "job search" time to�is networking, or making personal contact with folks you know to learn about job leads. The other three sources of job leads are: position listings and/or job postings (as found in professional publications and association websites in your field, national publications and websites such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, and job banks such as PennLink), direct contact with target organizations (i.e. finding employment opportunities that are listed on a company website etc.) and search firms. Each one of these three sources has access to different groups of jobs, so it is worth your while to utilize all of them in your job search.

What are Search Firms and what do they do?

Search firms are in business to find appropriate candidates for job openings at their client companies. They come in all shapes and sizes, but one of their common characteristics is that they do not charge you a fee for their services. Search firms are engaged by the company or organization that has a position opening and are paid by them, usually a fee that is equivalent to a third of the job's first year salary. In other words, if a company asks a search firm to find appropriate candidates for a "Research Director" and the salary is $75k, the search firm's fee will be a third of that, or $25k. As you can see from this, the business of executive recruiting is quite lucrative; therefore the competition among search firms to present the best person for a job can be quite intense.

The fact that a search firm does not charge you a fee is important to keep in mind, especially since there are organizations who, although they might call themselves search firms, are actually glorified employment agencies, and will ask you to pay for their services. This can include preparing your resume and giving you a list of potential job openings, either in writing or on the Internet. You should be wary of such services and use them only as a last resort.

Types of Search Firms�Contingency-Based and Retainer-Based

There are two basic types of search firms; Contingency-Based firms and Retainer-Based firms. Contingency-Based firms are hired by an organization to conduct a specific search, and are paid only if the candidate that they present is hired. They usually deal with job openings that are below $100k/year, and focus on junior and mid-level positions. They may also compete with other firms to present candidates for the same job opening, and are therefore likely to submit as many candidates as they can. This may work to your advantage, since you may be seen as a candidate for multiple positions and given lots of exposure, but you also need to be a good consumer of their services, since you may be presented for jobs that are not an ideal match for your skills.

Retainer-Based firms are hired on a retainer basis as a sole provider of executive search services, and usually conduct multiple searches for their company clients. They are paid whether or not their candidate is hired. In contrast to Contingency-Based firms, they are likely to be more selective about whom they present to a company, and they usually make more of an effort to match an individual to a particular opening. They usually deal with job openings that pay $100k or more, and are likely to be the only firm working on a search, rather than competing with other firms, as Contingency-Based firms do. An important point about Retainer-Based firms is that your material�your resume, your cover letter and other job-hunting documents�is likely to be sent to only one staff member who will have exclusive "rights" to market you, and you will be "off-limits" to other members of the firm. All of this means that your chances of being presented for a wide variety of openings are much smaller with a Retainer-Based firm, so it is a good strategy to send your material to multiple firms of this type.

How do I find a Search Firm?

One of the most comprehensive sources of information about recruiters is the Directory of Executive Recruiters (sometimes called the "Red Book"). It lists both Retainer-Based and Contingency-Based firms by geographical location and business function, and also offers an e-mail service that you can use to distribute your material to as many search firms as you want. Although there is a fee involved, you may find that it is more economical to use this sort of service than to go to the trouble of printing out multiple resumes and cover letters and sending them by regular mail.

A copy of the Directory of Executive Recruiters is in the Career Services library (Suite 20 in the McNeil Building), and there are also copies available in most public libraries. You can also access the directory on the web (, but you will be asked to register and pay a fee, depending on the size and scope of your search and the industry area you are interested in. To use the Directory, you should first look up search firms who specialize in your career area (like "Publishing" or "Finance" or "Biomedical Sciences") and then turn to the individual listings of firms that may be appropriate for your needs. It is a good strategy to choose local Contingency-Based firms, since they are more likely to be conducting multiple searches in your geographical area, but you should choose as many Retainer-based firms as you desire, even if they are not in your geographical area, in order to maximize your chances with them.

Additional links for search firms include and These are large search engines that can link you to specific search firms in the same way that the Red Book does. Another excellent resource is, which is a publication of the Wall Street Journal, and has many excellent articles on using search firms, as well as helpful updates about the field. To see how search firms compare to one another, go to to check their latest ratings.

Contacting a Search Firm�Do's and Don'ts  

If you are at the beginning stages of your career, i.e. finishing your undergraduate or graduate degree and have limited work experience, you should focus your efforts on the Contingency-Based firms, since they may be handling openings that are closer to your level. You may also find it useful to send your material to some selected Retainer-Based firms, however, since they occasionally get requests from one of their clients for junior-level staff members.

Once you select the firms you want to contact, you should draft a cover letter that includes your background, your desired career direction and such information as your salary expectations and your willingness to relocate. You should also mention your date of availability and any special circumstances that might help the recruiters place you most appropriately. NOTE: The content of this cover letter is different from one that you might send to a prospective employer, primarily because you are trying to help the recruiter consider you for multiple positions, rather than match your qualifications to only one specific job opening.

When you contact search firms by email, you should paste your cover letter and your resume into your email message, rather than sending them as attachments. This makes it easier for the firm to look at your information and store it in the appropriate file. If possible, you should also address your email to a particular person, hopefully one who is listed in the Directory as specializing in your career area.

Following up�Do's and Don'ts

Once you have sent your material to search firms, you should give them a chance to do their job and keep your contacts with them to a minimum. It would be appropriate to call them just to check whether your material was received, and you should definitely let them know if your employment status changes, but otherwise you should expect to hear from them, rather than vice versa. The life of an executive recruiter can be quite hectic and intense, and repeated phone calls from you asking if they've found any job openings will annoy them and diminish your chances of being seen as a viable candidate.

Occasionally, you may find a job opening on your own, either by networking or some other means, but when you apply for it, be told that the search is being handled by an executive recruiter. If that happens, you should ask whether the recruiter is Retainer-Based, and if so, follow the suggestions of the company about how to be included in the job application process. This does not always apply to positions that are being handled by Contingency-based firms, however, since there may be multiple firms presenting candidates. In that case, it would be appropriate to apply directly to the company on your own, particularly if you are able to find someone in your network who can help you get past the initial screening process and get to the interview stage.

When someone from a search firm contacts you about a particular position, it is wise to ask as many questions as you can�the responsibilities you will have, who you will report to, the salary and benefits, and other information about the company that isn't accessible on their website. A good recruiter will have developed a clear understanding of these things, and should be willing to share it with you. This is even more important when you receive an offer�the recruiter is likely to have helped the organization determine salary levels and other job particulars, and is in a position to help you negotiate the details.

One important point�you should guard against having multiple search firms present you for the same job opening. This can lead to a real conflict between the firms and the hiring company, particularly regarding who should be paid a fee for presenting you if you are hired.

Continuing the Relationship

The most important thing to keep in mind about working with search firms is that you have an opportunity to develop a working relationship that should last over time. If an executive recruiter successfully places you in a position that you deserve, you both benefit from it. If you are successful, your recruiter will keep you in mind for future positions, and is also likely to see you as well as a source of information about individuals who could be good candidates for other openings. For that reason, you should consider executive recruiters as a valuable resource and a necessary part of your long-term career development, rather than just a one-time service that can help you find your next job.

A Short list of Search Firms

Korn-Ferry: A world-wide retainer-based recruiting firm with offices in most major cities in the U.S. and abroad. Korn-Ferry conducts executive-level and senior management searches for all business disciplines and industries and has been rated as the #1 firm in the field for the last few years. They are notable for their practice of posting submitted resumes on a company-wide bulletin board to ensure that their staff has access. They have also developed an extensive database of executive profiles in various disciplines (finance, research, HR, manufacturing) which they use to assess candidates. Competitors include Heidrick and Struggles, Russell Reynolds, A.T. Kearney and Spencer Stuart.

Diversified Search, Inc: A regional firm with offices in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Diversified Search is one of the pioneers in placing women in high-level positions. Generally conducts retainer-based searches in all fields, but also does some contingency-based work. Guarantees its searches, and claims to have never had to "repeat" one.

The Swan Group: A small firm with offices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, specializing in technical and professional (IT and research) placements for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Conducts both retainer-based and contingency-based searches (clients include Johnson and Johnson, Novartis and Shering-Plough). It is one of many such firms in the Philadelphia area.

Carney-Sandoe: A Boston-based firm that specializes in searches for independent (private) schools in the U.S. and abroad. Carney-Sandoe is a leader in placing teachers and administrators both locally (the Philadelphia area) and nation-wide.

DRG: The Development Resource Group (DRG) is a small search firm in New York City that specializes in management-level searches for non-profit organizations. They have a strong track record of successful placement in both the public and private sectors. (Another source for openings in the non-profit world is, a web-based listing service that resembles