Working as a Recruitment Consultant

Working as a Recruitment Consultant

One job sector where foreigners, even those without much Japanese ability, can do well in is bilingual recruiting. The industry mainly operates in Tokyo and is dominated by 10 or so large firms which employ in excess of 50 consultants each. I would estimate that in the industry overall, there are about 1,000-2,000 bilingual recruiters from 150+ firms in Japan supplying foreign companies with over 10,000 candidates (mainly Japanese) each year...

Well, that's in a good year anyway. Right at the moment, the downturn in both the world economy and the technology sector in particular means that probably the number of candidates being placed has dropped by as much as 50%.

The industry is basically divided into 3 layers: the prestigious global brands which typically work on a monthly retainer; the executive search firms which usually work on success (contingency) fees and tend to specialize in a sector such as banking, technology, biopharmacy, etc; and lastly, the small boutique recruiters who service a few clients they know extremely well and where trust is the number one factor in the business relationship.

Getting work with a global brand is generally difficult if you're local, and it's always a function of your track record. If you're a consultant now, and have been doing consistent placements with a contingency firm during the past 12 months, then you're probably someone that the brand name companies will want to talk to. Usually a simple phone call will get you in for an initial meeting.

Of course, if you're reading this column, you're most likely just getting started in Tokyo, if not in the industry. So, firstly, if you do have prior experience overseas, then you have a good chance, even now, of getting in to an established contingency firm. CEO's of such firms are continually looking for confident people with deep technical knowledge of a burgeoning industry such as finance, retailing, or (even still) technology. The reason is simple: a good consultant can start contributing within 3-4 months, and thus the business is one of continually trying people out and throwing back those who can't cut it.

On your side, there are some things about the industry that you need to be aware of and look for when considering a company. Firstly, a number of firms in Tokyo have non-standard payment systems. The usual system is a low base (JPY250,000-JPY350,000 per month) and high commission (20%-30% of client payments). However, some less ethical firms offer no base and instead give you a "draw" - a euphemistic term for a loan - which you then have to pay back out of future commissions. If you're absolutely new to the game, beware of this kind of offer - regardless of how good the commission sounds. It TAKES TIME to build up a candidate base here in Japan, where people are less willing to move jobs, and so you might starve in the meantime.

Secondly, you need to check out the reputation of certain firms in Tokyo - even a couple of the larger ones. They have aggressive money-obsessed management who are difficult to work for and who have created a culture of greed within their firms. As you might have guessed, I don't care for this type of approach and feel that sooner or later such firms will start to eat themselves from the inside out due to office politics and disgruntled ex-employees setting up with competitors.

The most difficult thing in becoming a successful consultant has always been finding good candidates. You have to remember that we are in the country of lifetime employment, and people just don't move that much. So, certainly one of the major contributing factors to being successful is your personal network and your willingness to get out there and meet as many people as possible.

Another strong contributor to success is building your reputation as a trust-worthy and attentive consultant. Both customers and candidates respond to careful tending and prompt responses. Although there are some successful consultants who make business through aggressiveness and hard sell, it has been my experience that in a recession these are the first people to see their salestargets fall. The consistent producers are those people who are quietly self-confident, and who know when to push and when to back off.

If you are considering a career in the recruiting industry, you can drop Terrie Lloyd an email for more advice at You can also see his weekly newsletter, called Terrie's Take, at