Are the cowboy recruiters back in town?

Why I think there should be barriers to entry in the executive search business.

Somewhat surprisingly four different head hunters approached me four times in the last four months. Now given that my CV and background is splashed all over the internet, you don’t have to be a Mensa member to figure out what my activities are and what demographic I’m in. So it won’t come as shock to anyone if I said that these were misplaced calls. They were cowboy recruiters.

So are these cowboy recruiters back in town, or had they never left?


An only cursory check via Google, told me that the first caller was a senior consultant who had transferred into a reputable search company from the business sector. Two of the callers were junior in the job and newbies to the search business. The fourth was setting up his own company, having seemingly been laid off from a marketing job in 2020. I say that with some certainty, because no one in their right minds would have voluntarily started a business in the executive search sector during that period, when in the EU job loss were at an all time high.

Overall, 50m or even more jobs disappeared from the global workplace. None of the callers had done any research and the experience was altogether far from ideal. All four had one thing in common. They had a pretty limited idea of what they were doing. They were the epitome of cowboy recruiters.

Rogue Recruiters

Before COVID there was much complaint about cowboy recruiters proliferating the market. They tapped into then buoyant economies carrying a high number of unfilled openings. In some cases this was unfair. It had as much to do with the hiring manager, unrealistic candidate expectations, as incompetence. But some of the complaints were clearly true, so all but the strongest survived in the following years. A positive spin-off was the disappearance of many of the search and recruiting cowboys. My fear now, is that with the green shoots of growth there might be a return of that same blot on the landscape.

As someone with considerable experience and qualifications in this area, I get frustrated by the sheer lack of professional training that many have in this field. Someone suggested to me that interviewing was just about “chatting to people”, then by the same token accounting is just about “adding and subtracting.”  Yet accountants are required to study and pass exams for certification before they are let loose on the company finances.

Strategic function

So shouldn’t those responsible for some of the most potentially costly and strategic decisions within an organisation (hiring) also be similarly highly qualified? Now there will be some who will say that professional certification and competence are not necessarily mutually inclusive, and at times I certainly agree that can be true. However as a general guideline it is a useful barometer of ability and knowledge. Similarly people claiming to have good “people instincts” believe that is all that is required in candidate assessment and team building.

One’s person’s gut instincts are another’s irritable bowel syndrome.

Corner cutting

To some extent this is fuelled by companies themselves. Recruitment is an area where some try to cut corners, without relating the strategic impact of those measures to other elements. There might be a cheaper cost of hire metrics but  if other organisational costs such as onboarding time and attrition levels are greater, someone has to do the maths. I was even asked by a journalist recently for a soundbite on the future of “speed interviewing”. That went quickly! Horror! Some companies for more junior level positions, expect recruitment organisations to work on contingency i.e. “no hire, no fee“, so the payment of even basic overheads is reliant on the whims of the hiring managers, which often change.

So other than the big players or established organisations, many search organisations are operating on shoe strings and this is reflected in the talent hired internally and the resources which can be allocated for training. These underqualified individuals are then let loose on the market, creating bad PR for the sector.

We need to deal with cowboy recruiters

By setting up some barriers to entry we can deal with this more effectively.

  • Basic training: Anyone claiming to be a search or recruitment consultant should have a minimum and certifiable training in many fields ranging from telephone, online and face to face interviewing techniques, skill assessment, testing, sales and research skills, sourcing and even basic psychology. And let’s not forget unconscious bias training.
  • Licence to practise: New companies setting up in the field should require a licence to practise, where a track record of demonstrable competence,experience and training are required to operate. This happens in some countries, Belgium for example, but not others, where anyone with a telephone, a lap top and a LinkedIn account can set up shop.
  • Penalties: There should also be penalties for those whose codes of practise are sub-standard or ethically dubious,  with the possibility to be professionally barred.

Without insisting that these professional criteria are met, as economies pick up it will indeed be back to business as usual.

If your organisation wants a recruitment relationship with  people who know what they are doing – get in touch!

4 thoughts on “Are the cowboy recruiters back in town?

  1. Wendy Mason

    Hi Dorothy
    I very much agree with you here. I too have the experience of being approached by those who have clearly not done their homework and show little expertise in their chosen field. I have also had experience of outstandingly good headhunters who went far beyond just putting their client “in touch” with likely candidates, in terms of preparing both parties for their encounter. The cowboys are in danger of bringing the professional specialism into disrepute – I’m sure one answer is professional self regulation.
    Best wishes

  2. Kerry Patterson

    It surprises me how little is known by interviewers about personalities and how certain types of people fit certain jobs better than others. I’ve worked with some very highly paid individuals that were totally in the wrong job. Once there though they tend to stay until everything falls apart.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Kerry – yes you’re right, some people involved in the interviewing process or even hiring process generally, regrettably lack the necessary skills, qualifications and even experience.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *