When Should You Choose a Generalist Recruiter Over a Specialist?

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If you’re thinking of hiring a recruiting firm, you’re probably wondering whether to hire a firm that specializes in your industry. You’ve probably heard a lot of pretty convincing reasons why you should choose a specialized recruiter over a generalist, but that doesn’t mean generalists can’t be valuable partners.

Full transparency: I run a generalist recruitment firm.

Full transparency: Sometimes, a specialized firm is the right move for your organization. Sometimes, however, a more general recruiter is a better option for you.

How do you decide which recruiter is right for you? Let’s look at some situations where a generalist could be the better option:

You Need to Engage Hard-to-Reach Candidates

One of the problems with specialized recruiters is they can end up with a lot of conflicts of interest. For example, let’s say you’re a recruiter who specializes in helping accounting firms find the right candidates. Accounting firms A, B, and C are your current clients. So far, so good.

Then, accounting firm D comes along and wants you to find the best candidate for one of its positions. Now, you know for a fact that the best candidate in the business works with accounting firm B — but accounting firm B is already one of your clients. If you’re running an ethical business, you can’t go after the candidate you know is the best for the position.

This is just an example, but the more heavily specialized a recruiter is in any one industry, the more likely they are to have these kinds of conflicts of interest.

Specialist recruiters like to talk about how they have databases full of candidates in your industry, and that’s true. At any given time, however, they might have commitments that prevent them from even considering bringing many of those candidates to you. On the other hand, a generalist recruiter has more freedom to go after any candidate they think is best for you.

You’re Hiring for Non-Specialist Positions

If you’re hiring a research pharmacy technician who needs to have a half-dozen PhDs, you might need a specialist recruiter. If you’re in a fiercely competitive industry and need to hire a new CEO at a crucial moment, you might need a specialist recruiter.

However, there are plenty of positions where a specialist recruiter is the wrong move. If you’re opening a new branch and have a lot of clerical and administrative positions to fill, it might be better to go with a generalist. If you’re making a lot of hires in one particular position (maybe because of high turnover), it might be better to go with a generalist.

You Need Somebody Who Is Invested in the Position

The right recruiter for you is someone who is committed to getting the right candidate for the position. That’s not just talk. The right recruiter makes sure their interests line up with yours. Your success is their success. Your growth is their growth. Your hires are their hires.

Plenty of recruiters will pick up a client here and there, try to find a candidate for a position, and not worry too much about the outcome. The right recruiter builds a relationship that lays the foundation for a lasting partnership. They take the time to really get to know your company. The best recruiters don’t just aim to fill a position today — they aim to earn a place as a strategic partner of your organization.

Why is a generalist more likely to be invested in your company in this way than a specialist? Simply put, it’s because a generalist recruiter’s success depends on customer service. A specialized recruiter sells their service based on their database of candidates. They’re not as invested in any one client. A generalist, on the other hand, doesn’t have that luxury. A generalist recruiting firm has to offer great customer service if it’s going to last at all.

You Want the Experience to Be Like Working With Your Own HR Team

Ideally, your own HR team would make all the hires and find you the best candidates in the job market with no problem. Sometimes things work that way. Other times, however, you need to bring in outside help.

When you need outside help, you’re going to want working with your partner to be as much like working with your own people as it can be. That means finding a recruiter who takes the time to get to know you and your business. That can happen with a specialized recruiter or a general recruiter. Any recruiter who is dedicated to giving a high level of service will take the effort to become part of the team.

However, the big advantage of a generalist recruiter is that they can spend more time on your organization. Most specialized recruiting firms will only be able to assign one recruiter to spend a couple hours a day on your position. The right generalist recruiter will be able to assign a recruiter to work on your position full-time, 40 hours per week until the position is filled.

A good recruiting organization will keep you updated on the hiring process and take as much of the trouble off your hands as possible. It will take care to understand what you need in a position, what the position means to you, and where your business is headed. In the end, the real question isn’t whether to hire a generalist or a specialist. The real question is: Who is the right recruiter for you and your unique needs?

Jeffrey Audette is president of VMG Recruiting. Contact Jeff at jeff@vmgt.com.

By Jeffrey Audette