You might think this is a dream… You’re in your office minding your own business and an up pops an email. It might come from LinkedIn and you don’t recognize the name. Maybe the subject mentions a possible job title, e.g. “Sales Manager.” Or, it might mention the name of someone you know, or something else that gets your attention. (By the way, if the initial contact comes over the phone, please know that it is smart and perfectly acceptable for you to say it’s not a convenient time and ask to schedule a call.). 

You open the message and it reads something like this, (from an actual message I received recently):

This is an example of something that is very likely not worth my time.  But how do I know? 

Is the Headhunter Legit or Not?

The thing is, it’s normal to get excited! Who hasn’t had the dream that one day we would get a phone call from a headhunter looking for someone just like us offering an amazing opportunity? It could happen, right? Yes, it could. And when it does you want to be prepared.

That means you’ll want to keep your eyes open for red flags and ask a few smart questions.  Sadly, as in any profession, when it comes to headhunters there are good ones and lousy ones. A good headhunter will have great relationships with prospective employees and with the employers who hire them because they treat everyone well and with respect. They are generally (although not always) being paid to fill a specific job. A lousy headhunter is working a numbers game. S/he is likely to be new to the role, working for commission-only, and is trying to get into companies by dangling a great candidate like you in front of a hiring manager. They reach out to hundreds of folks just hoping one may stick.

There are a few red flags in the email above. The first was “executive-level income.” What does that mean? Is this an executive position? He has no idea what my income is and that felt like click bait to me. Why start to sell me on the position before we’ve even spoken? Then, he mentions my background but says nothing about the job itself. Nothing. I have a varied background – what specific aspect make him see me as a good candidate? It makes me wonder how carefully he looked at my profile.

With those doubts, I decided to check out the firm.  I went through their website and was surprised to see that it looked like the real deal. Thank you Google.

My conclusion, because I am very satisfied as an entrepreneur and love my work, was to respond with a polite, “thank you for reaching out, but I’m quite happy where I am…” But, if I wasn’t, there are a few questions I would have asked to learn more.

Questions to Ask When a Headhunter Contacts You

Let’s say you feel comfortable with the initial outreach, there are still a few things to consider. This is important because you will be sharing personal information and you want to make sure you are speaking to a trustworthy professional. Here are a few questions you’ll want to ask:

  1. Tell me about your background, how long have you been doing recruiting?
  2. What was it specifically about my background that caught your attention?
  3. Is this a retained search, or are you collecting resumes for your database? If it’s a retained search, it’s serious. If they are collecting resumes, it’s up to you whether to share, just don’t expect too much from the interaction.
  4. Have you had placements with this employer before?
  5. How would you describe the employer? What can you tell me about them?
  6. What can you tell me about the role? What kinds of skills are they looking for?
  7. What’s the salary range for the position?

With the answers to these questions, you’ll have a good feeling for whether to move forward with a discussion. A reputable headhunter will feel comfortable responding with simple details and will want to do so to make sure it’s worth their time and yours to keep talking. If the recruiter tries to cut you off or blows off your questions without really answering them, thank them for their time and say goodbye.

For more advice on navigating your career, please email me at