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How to avoid being bitten when swimming with sharks

By Julian Smith, Director of I am recruiting 


I thought I’d use this month’s blog to shine a light on an often rather murky side of recruitment: executive search. Before I start, however, not all executive search consultancies are unethical; many of them provide an invaluable service. The problem is, there are plenty of charlatans out there who will sell you an ‘enhanced’ search and selection package when you only need a basic recruitment service – and they’ll charge you handsomely whilst they’re at it. The proof? In the past week, two of my clients have come to me with tales of executive search woe which could have been avoided if they’d come to me first…

The mystique involved in an executive search is largely smoke and mirrors. It should include everything that a good recruiter providing a full recruitment service does for you (including elements such as assistance with the job description and person specification, long- and short-listing candidates, etc.) and more! It might also contain extras, such as writing adverts, negotiating with advertisers, organising psychometrics and assessment centres, and is usually much more involved than standard recruitment practices. It is also, usually, quite a bit more expensive – but it shouldn’t be exorbitant.

Interested in taking a dip? Here’s your five-point plan to help ensure you’re not bitten when swimming in those shark infested waters…


  1. Is an executive search really necessary?

Recruitment products come in all shapes and sizes, to fit all budgets and needs. If you’re buying something from a shop, the chances are that somebody will ask you to purchase more than you’d wanted, by offering additional products or services – and recruiters can often be like that.

When deciding on which recruitment product to select, think about these five key things: time, resources, know-how, role and budget. If you have both the time, the resources and the know-how in-house, then you might not need to engage a recruiter at all. If you don’t have the budget, then you may not have a lot of options. But in my experience, the most frequent mistake is when the role simply doesn’t require an executive search. As a rule of thumb, I’d never recommend an executive search for anything less than a board-level position in a mid to large organisation, unless the role/organisation is extremely high profile or so niche that standard recruitment methods can’t be used.


  1. Shop around

Once you’ve decided that you should go down the executive search and selection path, then you need to choose the best service provider. If you have a current recruitment partner, do they offer a ‘senior appointments’ service? Even if they do, what is the cost, and how might it compare to other agencies? Executive search rates vary hugely. I’ve heard of some truly, terrifyingly astronomical rates being quoted (30%), and even an 80% repeat billing in year 2. But these rates are rarely logical, or based on the work involved. If the service being provided isn’t much more than you’d normally expect a standard recruiter to provide, then don’t agree to a fee which isn’t commensurate with the work involved. In fact, in the current climate, I’d suggest that rates for executive search should be broadly similar to the standard rates you pay for permanent recruitment.


  1. Handle the negotiations yourself

It sounds obvious: negotiations for recruitment services are best left to the experts. You might find yourself too busy to engage with a recruiter, but freeing up an hour to have several different conversations could literally save you thousands of pounds. One of the issues faced by an HR client this week was the fact that she had the unenviable task of trying to extricate the organisation from a binding executive search contract which an inexperienced manager had signed them up to, which involved paying above-market rates for a service they didn’t require.

This particular circumstance involved paying over-the-odds for two executive searches, when standard recruitment through specialist agencies would have sufficed for both roles. Ouch.


  1. Ensure standards in customer care

Remember the fact that the agent you select will be responsible for recruiting in your (public) image, so select wisely! Choose an agent who offers an enhanced standard of customer care, and will deal with every enquiry tactfully and respectfully. You’re paying for a premium service, so it’s important that anybody applying for a role in your organisation should be as well looked after as if they were applying directly.

And if a candidate does apply directly, or an internal candidate applies, what happens? Are you obliged to hand them over to the agency? Could you be sleep-walking yourself into a scenario where you end up paying a recruitment fee for a member of your own staff?

Which takes me on to…


  1. Beware the hidden extras

A final consideration: remember to read the small print. What’s included? Do you pay extra for any design services, recruitment advertising or psychometric testing? And if so, don’t forget to sense-check the fees. Another client was recently quoted £2,800 per candidate, just for psychometric testing! Remember, you can opt out of optional extras, especially if you feel that they’re not delivering value for money.

My most recent enquiry was one of those “can they really do that?” questions. My answer was “yes, they can; but you’re not obliged to work with them”. So be prepared to walk away, if you don’t like what you’re being told.


So, there you have it. How to swim with the sharks without getting bitten.

Remember, if you’re not happy, talk to another recruiter whom you can trust to give you a straightforward answer – like me, for example. I’ll tell you what you should be paying and what service you can expect for your budget. More importantly, I’ll be honest about the state of the market, and whether you need to go swimming with those sharks in the first place…


I am recruiting provides an unrivalled recruitment service for candidates and clients within professional associations, membership organisations and the wider non-profit sector. Please phone us on (020) 7148 6749 or email us for a confidential chat about any recruitment needs.

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