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Job Magician The Off Limits Rule: 
Retained Search Firms Can’t Recruit
from Client Companies

  • Retained search firms can’t recruit anyone who works at one of their client companies. A client will get upset if Bill Sobleblitzen of Sobleblitzen & Frazzle recruits their condensed milk divisional Sales Director and then his partner convinces the General Manager of their powdered milk division to take a position elsewhere.

The off limits rule is one of the core rules that all recruiters at retained search firms have to play by. Whether the firm has one consultant or over a hundred, all recruiters at the firm have to protect a client of any other recruiter at the firm. That means that even the guy in California is prohibited from calling prospective candidates at New England Stoveworks if Helen Dam Nation in their Boston office recently completed an assignment there.

They are also prohibited from talking to you if you approach them. "He came to us," simply won't fly when the client asks the search firm why they emptied out the office two doors down from the one they just filled.

Normally, a client is kept off limits for two years after the last completed project. One search won’t block off an entire client company if the company is General Electric size. With major conglomerates, the search firm will merely protect the division, rather than the entire company.

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During the peak of the internet bubble, the major firms did their best to limit this. One contract I happened to see from Heidrick & Struggles from that era prevented them from recruiting only the candidate they recruited and his/her direct reports for a period of one year from when the search commenced, which provided at best 6- to 9-months of protection for half a dozen candidates. The smart client negotiated better protection than this.

This, of course, makes it tricky for a recruiter at Heidrick & Struggles. She can’t call anyone she wants. Last I heard, they had several thousand clients off limits at any given time.

Of course, as a job hunter, you don’t care about Heidrick & Struggles’s problems. Unless you happen to be working for one of those three thousand clients. With your boss’s consent, the recruiter at Heidrick & Struggles can call you. But to do so, you’d have to meet with your boss to tell him that you’d like to consider another job, which is a dicey proposition.

The only real way around this is if the client hands your resume to the search consultant and tells her to check you out. The recruiter will still try to bury you, because they don’t want to risk getting the client mad at the firm, which will get her boss mad at her even if the client isn’t hers. You’ll need to be well-recommended to the client to get through this way, because then the search consultant will have no choice but to give you serious consideration.

So now that you know about the off limits rule, what should you as a job hunter do?

Stay away from firms your employer uses. If you’re trying to reach out to retained recruiters, stay as far away from the firms your company uses as you possibly can. These may be your best contacts in the retained search world, but they can’t help you. And they could hurt you. It would be unethical for a search consultant to go back to your boss and say, “Alphonse just asked me to help him find a job.” But it has been know to happen. Do your best to find out who your firm uses, and make sure you don’t contact these firms if you’re reaching out to search firms, either through direct mail/email or via networking.

By the way, this rule goes for other professional services firms that your company uses. Accounting firms, law firms and consulting firms are generally prohibited from helping employees at client companies find other jobs when they’ve decided it’s time to move on.

Make it clear on your résumé that you have left your company if unemployed. That old trick of putting “to present” even when you’ve left the company will bite you here. Your resume won’t get any attention if the company listed as your present employer is a client of the search firm. Some people mention in their cover letters that, “Amalgamated Conglomerated Industries is aware that I will be leaving the company, so off-limits blockages do not apply in my case,” but no one will take the time to read your cover letter if you’re working at an off- limits company.

If there is a company that you really want to work for, contact them directly. Don’t expect your recruiter friend who has done searches for both you and your biggest competitor to make an introduction for you.

The off limits rule may not sound fair to you when you’re job hunting, but them’s the breaks. Recruiters work for client companies, not the job hunter, and serve those who put money in their pocket.


To learn more about who canddiates that a search firm can't touch, click here to read, Retained Firms Can Present You to Only One Client at a Time.



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