The HR professionals’ guide to dealing with headhunters


Following the positive response to my blog on why senior executives need headhunters, I thought it useful to look at the client side as well, examining how HR professionals running recruitment can make the best use of search professionals.

The temptation when using headhunters, especially when the role is senior, is to play safe. Savvy HR directors know that, if a big hire goes wrong, at some level their reputation within their organisation is at risk – and they may feel like the CIOs in the early days of personal computing who used to say that ‘nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM’.

In our industry today, the role of IBM is played by SHREK – unlovely shorthand for the big beasts of search (Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, Russell Reynolds, Egon Zehnder and Korn Ferry). Nervous HR professionals might well think that hiring one of these famous firms for all their recruitment needs will render themselves fireproof; but, sadly, life’s not that simple. While the SHREKs are pretty handy at the most senior levels, they are often not the best choice for searches lower down the ladder, or in situations where the right hire involves specialist insights.

In general, I have found that businesses with big recruitment needs get better results when they have hand-picked and cultivated a small group of good headhunters; around four or five firms, with a variety of skills and sector specialisations (finance, IT, HR, sales etc).

I’m aware that some large businesses have rosters of a dozen or more headhunters – and I feel quite strongly that this is too many, because it’s vital both client and search firm feel fully invested in each other.

As the client, you need to spend time regularly with each headhunter, making sure they’re fully informed about your organisation’s evolving strategy, and helping them understand its culture and approach to recruiting talent. It’s important to develop a real relationship with each of your search providers; recruitment is a people business, and you want your headhunters to rise above merely transactional thinking. That’s not going to happen if every search firm on your books know they are just one amongst 15 companies awaiting your custom.

So, commit to a small number of firms who are prepared to put bright and capable consultants onto your projects, and help them to get properly plugged into your organisation; they will end up acting as forward-looking talent scouts for your business. The build-up of trust and genuine understanding between you and your small group of headhunters will allow them the privilege of being able to come straight to you to discuss a genuinely exceptional candidate even when you’re not in a hiring cycle. That level of trust can occasionally deliver an outstanding and unexpected addition to your talent pipeline.

Finally, I feel you should think twice about choosing a particular headhunter for your business because you hope you might benefit personally as a future candidate. There are potential pitfalls. As the HR person in charge of recruitment, you’re far more valuable to your search firm staying exactly where you are right now, delivering them lots of work every year, than any one-off fee they might get for placing you in your next desired role. Secondly, search firms who headhunt their own client’s executives are likely to lose the client, and maybe their reputation. Thirdly, if you choose the firm because they are experts in jobs at your senior level, that means most of the middle-ranking roles you can hand them in your current business are going to be below their comfort zone. So their routine candidates are not going to be particularly good, and that may reflect poorly on you.

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, all senior executives can benefit from having a headhunter; but for HR professionals responsible for recruitment, in my view it’s probably best to keep that liaison clearly separate from the headhunter team you need to build up for your own company.

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