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