At the time, it seemed like a stroke of genius.

Ztel Inc., a telecommunications company in Andover, Mass., needed to hire about 15 engineers, fast, so it placed a want ad in The Boston Globe. But this was not your average want ad. This one offered successful applicants a free Apple IIe personal computer -- as long as the applicants did not use a recruitment agency.

"It was a hook," says Ztel's marketing communications manager George Bell. "We were revving up very quickly and were having trouble finding high-level candidates for jobs."

If the gambit worked, moreover, it could save Ztel a lot of money. After all, an Apple IIe costs about $2,000; executive search firms normally charge about 30% of a new employee's first-year salary for their services. And an agency fee -- unlike a signing bonus -- does nothing for morale. The whole idea was so devilishly clever that the Glaoe even ran an item about the ad in its business section, saying, "Headhunters Beware."

As it turned out, however, the headhunters had little to fear.

The ad ran for about two months. Between 50 and 100 people responded, of whom a grand total of 3 proved to be qualified for the jobs; 2 took the Apple computer, and I opted for its cash equivalent. According to Bell, most of the applicants were curiosity-seekers looking for a good deal.

Local headhunters were not surprised. "I can't shoot someone down for trying something new," said Dorothy Thorne, president of Thorne Associates Inc., a Boston-area executive search firm, "but let's face it, you get what you pay for. Recruiters are in the business of matching people with skill levels and personalities. We build teams, we don't just fill positions."

Ztel has now withdrawn its offer of personal computers for new employees, choosing to rely on more traditional methods of recruitment instead. It seems that, after the ad ran, the company discovered that it had plenty of resumes, but they had been buried in files and forgotten; many of them were from qualified engineers. Admits Bell sheepishly, "We're highly automated in the CAD/CAM department but very minimally automated for processing resumes."