Most job seekers would be shocked to learn that many times their resumes don’t wind up at the company advertising an open position, but rather on a desk at a headhunter’s office. It happens more often than people realize, as more executive search firms are taking on the role of a third-party recruiter.

I’ll discuss the different paths your resume can take—perhaps unbeknownst to you—once you send it off, and what you can do to make sure it’s in the appropriate hands.

The forks in the resume road
Once a resume is entered into a headhunter’s database, one of two scenarios can occur. If you’re lucky, the headhunter forwards your resume to the respective company. “The headhunter plucks out the diamonds,” explained Mark Mehler, coauthor of the annual directory called CareerXroads, The Directory to Job, Resume, and Career Management Sites on the Web 2002, published by the MMC Group in Kendall Park, NJ.

But if the headhunter deems you to be a bad fit, your resume gets buried in their database and is soon forgotten. You’re out of the game and you don’t even know it—a “high sleaze factor” scenario in which job seekers lose control of their resumes, according to Mehler.

Why the recruiting game has changed
While superstar candidates will land jobs no matter how their resumes find their way to corporate recruiters’ desks, many other qualified people are likely missing out on good job opportunities. A big reason for this is that some headhunters have changed their business approach in an attempt to make it through the hard times that have befallen much of the tech sector.

Mehler says that this year, he is seeing more third-party recruiters tossing up sites and not disclosing their identities to hide what could be considered as double-dealing. “They’re asking job seekers to post resumes and advising corporate recruiters to post jobs, and so [they] are playing both sides of the fence,” he explained. “The headhunters are earning money under false pretenses.”

Why the deception? Why are resumes diverted from target destinations? It’s money, plain and simple, according to Mehler. These days, it’s survival of the fittest in the recruitment world, which is grappling with a slow economy, a fiercely competitive job market, and a dramatic increase in job sites, he said.

Weeding out third-party recruiters
But not all third-party recruiters are unscrupulous. Large national companies like Korn/Ferry International, Manpower, Inc., and Spencer Stuart, for example, make it clear from the get-go that they’re recruiters.

In 1995, when Mehler and partner Gerry Crispin began tracking job and resume sites, they discovered approximately 300 job sites and no third-party recruiters. In 1997, that number edged up to 475, followed by a slight rise to 500 in 1998. In 1999, the number catapulted to 2,000, and for the 2001-2002 edition of CareerXroads, the authors viewed more than 4,000 sites and tried to weed out as many third-party recruiters as possible.

Many companies, such as Charlotte, NC-based First Union Corporation, which is ranked among the 10 largest financial service companies in the United States, don’t accept resumes from third-party recruiters.

“The question we ask is, ‘Do we want to pay a headhunter a hefty fee or look for candidates ourselves?’” said Ed Gagen, First Union’s director of recruiting programs and operations. “Most often, we run our own ads.”

If a third-party firm sends Gagen a resume, he promptly sends it back. On occasion, he will call a headhunter when he is trying to find a specialist, such as a Java programmer. “But before the search begins, we agree on a price so there are no surprises,” he noted.

Investigate a recruiter’s identity
Bob Etheridge, vice president of Job Circle, a West Chester, PA, tech site serving New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, understands how Gagen feels. “What with corporations and headhunters both posting jobs, it has gotten confusing,” he said. “Out of the thousands of jobs, I wonder how many are duplicates and how many are actual jobs?”

Job seekers are likely asking themselves the same question. So what’s the solution? Ask questions—lots of them. Job hunters have a right to know where their resume is being sent. But unfortunately, many third-party recruiters purposely make it difficult to discover their true identities.

“If it’s a site that you’re not familiar with, then a red light should go off,” said Mehler, adding that the site’s disclosure or privacy statement should reveal what the firm does and who it represents.

”If you’re lucky, the site will list a contact telephone number or e-mail address. Send a brief e-mail bluntly asking who they are or who owns the site. If they don’t respond, move on,” advised Mehler. “A legitimate company, even though it didn’t openly identify itself, will tell you it’s a headhunter,” he added.

So start asking questions and find out just whose hands your resume has fallen into. If you don’t, you could miss out on a great job.

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