'HR people, headhunters and estate agents; they're all the same,' my breakfast companion complains. 'In my experience, they're not even nine to five; more like ten to four.' His disgust is only trumped by a later conversation about the health and safety regulations adopted by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs that requires its employees to travel in pairs.
The theme continues at lunch. 'I'm still waiting for a call from a headhunter. They need to let me know if I got the job or not. I actually flew to the other side of the country for the interview and have been waiting to hear ever since. The interview was six years ago, so I'm not hopeful, but it would be nice of them to return my calls or just call me when they promised they would.'
So why am I hearing so much recently about the quite often appalling approach of the headhunter? The forgotten phone calls, unanswered emails and, at times, an arrogance that would make even Piers Morgan blush. As a PR, I know that adopting an aloof and snooty approach akin to that of Downton Abbey's very own Lady Grantham does not ingratiate you to anyone.
So why is it that our headhunters feel that they have a relationship with us much like that of Simon Cowell and his X Factor finalists? If he wants them off the show, they are gone. We all know that he has his favourites; they might not always be the best but, most importantly, he will make the most money out of them. Sound familiar?
'We really believe in client service,' one headhunter tells me. I'm not sure he means it. He certainly doesn't understand it. During a recent contract negotiation, he showered me with false praise and effusive feedback in order to persuade me to take the job I did not want. It dragged on so long that, in the end, I was tempted to accept the role with the intention of resigning on the day before his commission would have been safe.
I have found a couple of great headhunters. Both are City-based one man bands that adopt a client service mentality disproportionate to their size. They are friendly, approachable, keep promises and offer honest advice. They show up the bigger firms who pontificate about client service but don't deliver - telephoning to ensure they know how much you are going to make from the latest contract they did little to secure for you, in order to ensure every penny of commission is extracted; then conveniently forgetting about you and moving on to the next 'pawn'. Of course, as you approach the end of the contract they are back in touch, acting like it was only yesterday that you last spoke and bemoaning your lack of contact with them. In reality, they are fishing to see whether you are going to extend the contract and then to whom they should send their bill.
We all know that it is not a great time to be looking for a new job. The market is slow. People are not moving. Recruitment is on hold. But I'm not losing any sleep worrying about headhunters. I'm more concerned for the candidates, some desperate to find a job,who have to bow down before the headhunters who appear to play a much bigger role than they should in deciding the destiny of many of us. Often they have limited knowledge of the real skill set and experience we offer and actually make little effort to find out.
'Who do the headhunters actually work for?' my father asked last week. 'Do they work for the companies or the candidates?' I have to stop and think. 'Well, they're paid by the companies, so I suppose they will always be their first priority, even though they might tell the candidates they are,' I eventually reply. But they can't make money without the candidates, so surely both sides are just as important as the other?
Apparently not. I've heard several tales about headhunters ignoring a candidate's wishes but in my view, if the candidate issues an instruction then that should be just as valid as one from the client.
When I finally spoke to my new boss about the long-winded process that led me to the job, we were both bemused. We were both being told what the headhunter thought we needed to hear rather than what we had actually been saying. Had we simply spoken to one another for ten minutes, many weeks of pointless negotiations and to-ing and fro-ing would have been avoided.
However, even worse than the headhunter who thinks they know what is best for you, is the headhunter who decides you are not what their client is looking for based on erroneous, outdated or just poorly researched information. I recently missed out on a role because the headhunter didn't even bother to call me following a recommendation. When I called, I was told that I didn't have enough experience. The decision was based on out-of-date information.
I'm quite sure the stories I have heard in recent weeks are the culmination of candidates at the end of their tether and frustrated because of the lack of jobs available. However, headhunters should be wise to this and realise that 'their' candidates need a metaphorical arm around the shoulder rather than a lecture or a false promise that 'we expect things to pick up next month'. I have been told that for many months now and it still has not happened.
I have images of London headhunters meeting in secret locations each evening sharing stories of people they 'allowed' to go forward for an interview and those they decided did not stack up. I'm hoping that one of them will read this and think. Rather than, as I am expecting, headhunters looking for their right to reply, they need to think long and hard about how they approach candidates. From my research, it is clear that something is broken but there is probably an easy fix. My advice is to take stock and use this down-time as an opportunity to address the many candidates who feel really let down and bitterly disappointed with your performance and approach.
Candidates feel you have far too much power, you don't like listening and you often fail to represent them in the best way. It's time to think again. I know that in my next job, I have a much longer list of headhunters that I will not be asking to recruit for me and a very short list of those I would be pleased to represent me.