Cold-calling in the Job Market

A week ago there was a minute cause for celebration with the news that the number of women on FTSE100 Boards of Directors had reached the stunning level of 19%. At least that figure is heading in the right direction and, although I am opposed to quotas, the threat of their introduction still hangs over the City.  (In case you’ve forgotten, the goal proposed 2 years ago was a figure of 25% by 2015.) Six boards still have not a single woman on them and fund managers at Legal and General are threatening to vote against the chairmen of such companies. How do boards decide who is going to join them? How do they draw up a list of plausible candidates? My guess is that, as with many other high level appointments in universities, companies or a new Chief for a Research Council, head hunters are employed. If they come up with no women with strong credentials who are interested in the position is it the fault of the head hunters, or is it simply that women don’t want these jobs or lack the courage to pursue them?

Over a year ago I wrote about the apparent absence of women on a couple of high profile guestimates of shortlists for high profile posts and pointed out that one should be careful about reading too much into such absences. I’m not going to rehearse those arguments again but I’d like to build on that post in the wake of some discussions I have had with head hunters in the time since in various situations; this includes discussions initiated by one of the major companies (let me call it company A for shorthand) specialising in hires in higher education who approached me to ask for my thoughts in the context of work they are doing around diversity.

If you are a graduate student you probably have never had one of those mysterious conversations where a complete stranger rings you up cold from one of these firms – or sends you an email asking if you can find a time when they can ring you. When it first happens it can seem very strange. In my experience the conversation usually starts by the disembodied voice giving you a few details about the position they are handling – sometimes the description can be quite exhaustive and you start to wonder if they will ever get to the point – after which they ask you if you know anyone whose name should be considered.

Now at this point there is a potential bifurcation of response. If you are supremely confident you may assume they are really covertly asking if you are interested. If on the other hand you are of a more modest disposition you may take the question at face value and dredge your memory trying to think of anyone plausible who might want to become a dean of engineering in Kazakhstan or the CSA or whatever it might be. Based on my own suppositions and experience, coupled with a straw poll of one man and one woman over a glass of wine, I think not uncommonly the difference in response will align with gender. I think there is a coded message, a sub-text, in these conversations which different people will respond to in different ways. I don’t think this is helpful.

I personally find it much easier to deal with direct questions than wonder if I am suffering from over-confidence by thinking the phone-caller might be asking obliquely about my own interests. I don’t know why head hunters follow the etiquette they so often seem to do, but I believe it is in many instances counter-productive for both men and women, but possibly particularly if they want to catch the serious interest of a woman. This fact I passed on in my recent discussions with company A.  I should add, as I have got more senior, there has tended to be less and less beating about the bush about what is being suggested, but it is at the earliest stages when people are least likely to be confident that it is most important that there is total clarity about the terms of the interaction, not at later stages when they seem to be more prone to say ‘your name has been brought to our attention’.

A second point is that no one more senior than me has ever passed on any tips for how to deal with head hunters. Nor, I must confess, have I ever done this for anyone else. Perhaps it is like the British attitude towards money, simply not something that is ‘done’, though I have to wonder why. Possibly the whole community is confused and doesn’t have any tips to pass on. But as I approached my advisory meeting with company A I realised that perhaps, had I ever wanted to leave Cambridge, I would have been well advised to approach one of the specialist companies and let them know this was the case. Maybe, in one of these not infrequent conversations that I have with the companies, they could have indicated how to go about this by suggesting that even though I might not be interested in the particular post they had rung me about I should let them know if I was ever thinking about a move.  I don’t recall that such a suggestion has ever been made to me and likewise I have never enquired (but then, I didn’t want to leave Cambridge). What I am really saying is, the mystique of the communication between head hunter and target ‘huntee’ is almost certainly not helpful in encouraging a diverse field of candidates. Although it is of course possible that the rest of the world understands the rules of engagement and it is only me being stupid, I don’t believe this. I suspect many individuals – male and female – may equally not be getting the most out of these interactions.

I did learn something very valuable during my conversations with company A, something that would not be apparent in the Cambridge system but where the firm had obviously already worked out how they could be helpful to some individuals, probably women in particular, during recruitment. Many universities (although not my own) use head hunters to help them recruit professors. After interviews and once the offer of the position has been made, the companies come back into the loop to facilitate the negotiation of a package. Such negotiation is likely to include salary. If the person underestimates themselves/doesn’t like to brag or self-promote etc, then they may not ask for as good a deal as someone of a less modest persuasion. You can see where this is heading: the head hunters are in a position to do their bit to reduce the well-documented gender pay gap at professorial level. This strikes me as something very positive. It would also help to circumvent the problem identified in various studies (see e.g. here) that even if women do ask for a pay rise or equivalent they are penalised for doing so by those with whom they are negotiating. If an intermediary is used who is familiar with negotiating strategy, then there is more likely to be a happy outcome.

So I would summarise by saying

  1. As I said before, one should not conclude that absence of women on shortlists mean no women have been approached.
  2. That head hunters might have more success with certain types of character if they were explicit in what was being asked when cold calling, not leave it as a subtext.
  3. That head hunters could also make it clear that they could be approached by those looking to move and explain how this would best be done.
  4. That facilitating negotiations for those of modest temperament might contribute to a reduction in professorial (or equivalent) gender pay gap.

Now I will sit back and wait to be told by others that my understanding of the head hunter – huntee relationship is all wrong and that others’ comprehension of the interaction is very different. Fire away.



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7 Responses to Cold-calling in the Job Market

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Slightly peripheral to your latest posting, there is an interesting article in the September 2013 issue of “Physics Today” on all-male physics faculties in the USA. The average proportion of female physics faculty members is 13%, and when they look at the (smaller) faculties where the highest degree awarded is a batchelor’s, the proportion of all-male faculties is right in line with the statistics for a binomial distribution. However, for PhD-awarding faculties, only 8% are all-male compared with an expected 12% from statistics, suggesting that the larger and more prestigous departments are trying to diversify (research and comments by Rachel Ivie and Susan White of the Statistical Research Center at AIP).

  2. Rebecca Hoyle says:

    I was once cold-called by a headhunter just as I was about to go on maternity leave. As Athene describes, he asked me if I knew of anyone who might be interested in an opportunity that was exactly the sort of thing I’d have loved to do if I were not about to have a baby. And that’s what I told him, after first having racked my brains for other names and not managed to come up with any. It didn’t occur to me for a second that I was being targetted specifically, and it wasn’t until many years later when a more senior (male) colleague described being headhunted that I understood that that is how it works. I felt rather dumb retrospectively. I agree that more straightforwardness by headhunters might lead to a greater diversity of candidates on shortlists for high profile jobs. There must be lots of people whose instinct is to answer the question they are asked…

  3. Michael Proulx says:

    This is very interesting to read. I had such a call a few months ago, and found myself wondering whether it might be a veiled invitation, but thought I was being arrogant to think so. It was not something I would want to pursue at this time, so I figured it did not matter much whether it was or was not. This post points out one of many unwritten rules that make things difficult and potentially unfair. Although I can think of a few women who would take such a call as an invitation, I can think of many more men who in normal bravado would assume such a thing. Can all unwritten rules be written down?

  4. Laura says:

    I’d have say that if you’re that clueless, you failed the interview….

    Also note that in many cases, a headhunter can’t/won’t explicitly discuss taking a position with someone that they are cold calling, until or unless the target initiates it. Many industries have some ‘anti-poaching’ norm — mostly as a sort of equilibrium where everyone wants to poach, but not be poached from.

  5. Rebecca Hoyle says:

    Probably what’s going on here has something to do with a clash of cultures. Headhunters come from a corporate culture, bound by anti-poaching rules and the like, while academics come from a culture where it’s not at all unusual for your friends to ask you if you’d be interested in a job in their department. And in a culture where there’s no need to be veiled and headhunting is very rare until you are fairly senior, you don’t have to be particularly clueless not to ‘get it’ it the first time it happens to you. Especially since people almost never mention it – too busy thinking about the paper they’re writing perhaps?

    • Laura says:

      I think academia also has a strong no-poaching norm at the senior level.

      Perhaps the difference is that in academia, there’s a very high proportion of people who are clearly expected to be looking for a new position relatively soon – new PhD’s, post-docs, research associates, etc. It’s only at a quite senior level that people have “permanent” positions. With so much circulation of people, there’s a norm of quite openly recruiting for many kinds of positions.

      Friend to friend recruiting is the norm in all circles. The nightmare/dream scenario is when a senior engineer goes to a new company, then brings all of his competent friends in with him over the next few months…

  6. paul martin says:

    Headhunter calls – sometimes a sign your boss thinks you should move on ..

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