Recruiters come in all shapes and sizes.

Although job candidates and employers are on opposite sides of the table during the assessment process, the pain of finding the right match is a shared experience. Professional recruiters are supposed to help with this, making finding the perfect job (and filling an open position with the perfect candidate) easier. Unfortunately, there's a lot of confusion about what it is that recruiters actually do, which can ultimately reduce the value that candidates get out of their partnership with a recruiter.

The premise of recruiting is seemingly straightforward: All recruiters are matchmakers of a sort, bringing together employers who have positions to fill with professionals who have skills to offer. However, the devil is in the details. As a candidate, should you work with an internal recruiter or someone outside the company? Is it better to be represented by a contingency or a retained recruiter? Finally, how much of an edge do you get from choosing to work with an executive search firm?

Here's what you need to know about the different types of recruiters and how to choose the right one for your job search.

Internal recruiters

A recent survey from Recruiting Grapevine reported that 68 percent of surveyed companies are focusing on direct hiring. This means that they employ professionals to find qualified candidates to fill open positions across a variety of functional areas within the company.

Internal (or corporate) recruiters are paid a salary just like other company employees. They represent the interests of the company, so their primary goal is to find the candidate who will meet the requirements of the position in the most cost-effective way. Although an internal recruiter may not champion your candidacy in the same way that an external recruiter might do, a candidate hired through an internal recruiter won't cause the company to incur additional fees. Some companies may recognize this financial incentive and prioritize an “internally sourced” candidate among others with similar qualifications.

If you are interested in connecting with an internal recruiter for a specific company, LinkedIn can be a great resource to get your foot in the door. Begin by locating the company on LinkedIn, then drilling down into individual employees with active LinkedIn profiles. Scan the profiles to find the individuals who might be responsible for hiring. Keep in mind that companies use a variety of job titles for their talent-acquisition teams, from the traditional “Recruiter” or “Hiring Specialist” to creative titles such as “Director of First Impressions,” “Employee Success Manager,” or “Talent Whisperer.” Look through profiles carefully and search with a variety of keywords to get to the right person.  

Once you have located the internal recruiter, send them a request to connect. Instead of opting for the boilerplate wording that's pre-filled by the LinkedIn algorithm, spend a few minutes crafting a personalized message. By doing so, you can engineer a positive first interaction that paves the way for a meaningful connection. In your message, briefly tell the recruiter who you are. Then, list a few relevant accomplishments, show why you are interested in this company, and ask them to keep you in mind for any current or future openings.

Using this strategy when you desperately need a job is a bit of a gamble, however. After all, the company may not have an opening for you just then. Still, building relationships with any professionals can pay off in the long term. When the opportunity presents itself, the internal recruiter may well go straight to your candidacy before casting a wider net.

External recruiters

External recruiters come in all shapes and sizes. There are local firms, regional companies, and national agencies. There are also executive search firms that tend to specialize in filling higher-level or specialized positions. Beyond their niche, expertise, and reputation, all recruiting firms can be classified based on their compensation arrangements, and there are two main compensation models: contingency pay and retainer.

A recruiter who works on contingency gets paid when two conditions are met: a candidate has accepted the job offer and has remained successfully employed beyond the initial trial period (usually three months). Contingency commission, which is the primary source of compensation for contingency recruiters, can be as high as 25 percent of the new hire's first-year salary. So, if a contingency recruiter places you in a position that pays $60,000 a year, he or she will receive up to $15,000 from the company. If the company chooses another candidate, sourced from another agency or through internal channels, the recruiter doesn't get paid.

Alternatively, there are recruiters who work on retainer. These are usually exclusive arrangements whereby only one recruiting firm is given access to fill a specific position. Retained recruiters serve as the extension of the company that has hired them — they partner with the hiring department to design the right candidate vetting criteria, rigorously comb the industry for highly qualified candidates, and otherwise facilitate the selection process. Because of the time and resource commitment involved in this dedicated search, retained recruiters are typically paid up to 50 percent of the successful candidate's first-year salary. In other words, a retained recruiter who places an experienced CPA into a Controller role with a $90,000 salary will get up to $45,000 as compensation.

Choosing the right recruiter — the company's view

From the company's standpoint, the least expensive method of finding the most-qualified candidate wins. For starting or mid-level jobs and when time pressure isn't dire, the management team is likely to begin the search by assigning the task to internal recruiters. After all, if the internal team is able to produce a suitable candidate, no additional cost is incurred.

If internal efforts fall short, or if the company doesn't have the resources or time to source candidates, contingent recruiters are a common next step. It's not unusual for a company to work with many contingent recruiters at the same time — those recruiters will compete to present the best candidate and get paid.

For upper-level positions, as well as jobs that require specialized technical expertise, companies often turn to retained search firms. Retained recruiters rely on their network of industry contacts to hand-pick professionals who may be looking for a change. They sift through resumes, conduct the initial screenings and interviews, and only present a handful of top candidates to the company — which justifies their higher price tag.

Choosing the right recruiter — the candidate's view

Which recruiter is best for you? The answer will depend on your circumstances.

If you know which handful of companies you would love to move to, and if you are in no rush to change jobs, consider building relationships with internal recruiters. They are in the best position to know how the company really works. They also tend to have working relationships with various functional teams or departments within the organization, which can help you find exactly where you should be. When the time is right, an introduction from an internal recruiter may put you on a faster track towards an interview.

If you are in job-search mode and short on time, working with a contingent recruiter may be your best bet. Remember that contingent recruiters are financially motivated to present your candidacy to as many hiring managers as possible. Require the recruiter to seek your approval before presenting your resume for a job opening to eliminate the possibility of frivolous or duplicate applications. Also, ask about his or her experience with the employers you are interested in (including specifics about the number of positions filled over the past 1–2 years). Remember that if the recruiter doesn't have “inroads” with the hiring manager, you as a candidate don't gain much from the recruiter's involvement. In fact, you may fare better if you send in your application directly!

Retained recruiters usually reach out to candidates that fit the criteria for their client's search. When working with a retained recruiter, keep in mind that the firm is presenting multiple candidates to the same employer. In other words, a retained recruiter is hand-picking you — and your competition. Sure, it might feel great to be represented by a discerning retained recruiter. However, it's important to remember that the recruiter's compensation is tied to filling the position, not getting you a job. On the other hand, many positions that justify the expense of a retained search aren't advertised. In those situations, an introduction by someone in your network or a retained search firm may be your best options for being considered.

Related: 7 Reasons to Use a Recruiter to Find a Job

Choosing the best recruiter for you

As is the case with other professionals in your network, a recruiter can boost your career by opening doors and identifying opportunities. Before you commit to working with a recruiter, be sure to understand what kind of recruiter you are speaking with. Without this clarity, it's easy to just assume that the recruiter will champion you and your search (which may or may not be accurate).

If a recruiter reaches out to you unsolicited, ask how he got your name (insist on specifics, as a flattering version of “A colleague spoke highly of your accomplishments” doesn't answer the question). Then, map out the companies where the recruiter has strong working relationships. That way, you can feel confident that their introduction is giving you an advantage over a direct application.

Finally, trust your gut. Certifications, references, and testimonials are important, but they do not replace chemistry. Ask yourself if you like the recruiter's personality and presence; meet them face to face at least once. The best recruiters work tirelessly to understand your professional history and career aspirations so they can offer personalized and effective advice throughout the search process. Do not settle for less.

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