Oh, to be among the wanted. That's what many workers out there say when they hear friends or colleagues moaning that they don't know what to do when a recruiter -- or headhunter -- calls them at work to tell them about an exciting new job.

But to be among the wanted: It can be a tricky balance of checking out an opportunity and remaining loyal to an employer. And it's particularly difficult when one is sitting at that employer's desk, talking to a recruiter on the telephone. So sneaky. So underhanded.

So common and so necessary.

Recruiters often happen upon workers in one of three ways:

The workers are well known or other people refer them, and they are very good at what they do. These people are in very senior positions or have specialized skills.

Others are found because they are incredibly active in their job searches, whether they are searching or not. They are on job boards and databases, and because of that, they end up in recruiters' files or simply on a recruiter's radar screen. Often.

And others are found because they are very public. They are association officers or on boards, or can be found easily via a Web search. These are people who hold positions in the community. Therefore, recruiters or organizations know about them.

These people might get calls rather often from recruiters who are paid by companies to find good hires for open positions. The recruiters are essentially trying to make a sale. That's great for a lot of people. But the question lingers: How do these people handle the sticky situation of being recruited while at work?

"The beauty of the recruiter-candidate relationship is its mutual benefit," said Paul Villella, chief executive of HireStrategy, a Reston staffing firm. "The recruiter can call your referral in confidence if you desire and therefore protect you, and they are always grateful for your assistance with their sourcing and the building of their network. Their gratitude will often show itself when they think of you first for the very best position that opens up and may be of interest to you, whether you are actively looking or not."

But trying to deal with that relationship at work is no easy task. A reader from California recently wrote to me asking just what to do in such a situation. Headhunters often cold-call him at work, he said, looking to fill open positions, or even to ask him to pass along names of colleagues or friends who might fit a particular position.

"Declining their call is relatively easy, since I can just say that I don't know anyone who is interested at this time," he said. "However, sometimes they do dangle something that sounds like it might be interesting to hear, even though I am not actively looking right now."

So how should someone like California handle this, particularly when one sits in a wide-open cubicle environment, as so many of us now do? We know our neighbors nearby can sense when we're sick, when we sneak out to take a coffee break, or when we have to make a private doctor's appointment. Surely they will sense or hear when we start looking for another job.

Villella said his recruiters know things have changed as office space has become more open. The short answer for the recruited: Talk to them, but make it on your terms as much as possible. Villella said his recruiters are used to working around someone else's schedule. Some of his employees come to work early to catch people on their commutes to work, while others stay late so they can call workers in the early evening, once they are home.

Most recruiters understand how the office has changed, and will be willing to play 20 Questions (Is the job bigger than a breadbox?) or will completely understand an employee who asks to call the recruiter back at a more convenient time.

"Indicating that it is not a good time to talk is not only appropriate, but it is often expected," said Kathy Albarado, founder of HR Concepts LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Herndon. "Ask the recruiter for a number and ask if you can call back at a later time. They will expect to make themselves available to you after standard working hours."

But also, cell phone use at work makes it possible to listen to that tantalizing job offer.

Just as so many workers now have a separate e-mail account from the work account so they can send personal e-mails, many have cell phones so they can make personal calls, including those to and from recruiters.

"Sometimes they just talk on the cell phone" while they wander hallways, Villella said. As for headhunters, the life is all about networking, so this is the important aspect of their day.

So take it from the experts. Most people who receive a call from a recruiter can put off the recruiter without, well, putting off the recruiter.

Have a work issue that might make a good Life at Work column? You can e-mail Amy Joyce at lifeatwork@washpost.com.