Selecting a Recruiting Firm

Step-by-Step Guidelines on Choosing the Right Recruiter for Your Firm

1.    Create a Short List

This directory will help you build a short list of search firms and individual recruiters who should have the right background to work successfully on your assignment. At this stage, your primary concern should be to target recruiters who have recently filled similar positions for comparable companies. Appropriate industry or functional experience is important.  

In all likelihood, your company has relationships with a number of recruiters, some of whom may be relevant for this search. Check with colleagues in other departments or friendly contacts at other companies to get additional recommendations. The number of names on a good short list will depend on the assignment in question, but we recommend including a mixture of large, more general firms as well as smaller specialists.

2.    Ask Recruiters Questions

When you telephone short-listed recruiters, have a list of questions ready and go through the list with each recruiter. Your objective at this stage is to whittle down your list to a handful of finalists who you will most likely invite to a face-to-face meeting where the recruiter will formally present their credentials and recommended approach. Here are some simple questions to ask:
  • How long have you been a recruiter?  What is your training?  What was your prior work experience? 
  • How long has your firm been in business?  Do you operate locally, regionally, nationally or internationally? 
  • Does your firm specialize in particular industries or functions?  What background do you have in our industry?  What do you know about our company? 
  • What kinds of searches have you worked on recently?  How have the executives worked out? 
  • What is your process for working on a search?  What can I expect if we work together?
  • How can you insure that you will find the best candidates for my position?  What capabilities and resources does your firm have for researching good candidates? 
  • Do you participate in any of the following: creating the job description, checking references, setting up interviews and negotiating compensation? 
  • Who will be leading the search from the recruiting firm? 
  • What is your policy for recruiting candidates from your current and recent clients? Among companies in our industry, which ones would be "off-limits" for this assignment? 
  • Is your firm a member of any professional associations?
  • Is your firm a member of any network of recruiters that can help with the assignment? 
  • What are your fees, and what is your policy on expenses?

3.    Balance Industry Experience Against Blockage Problems

Companies usually want to select a recruiter with experience and contacts in their industry. Unfortunately, if the best recruiter has worked recently with two of your closest competitors, both companies will probably be "off-limits" for your immediate assignment, thereby limiting the available field of candidates.

This critical issue must be assessed carefully on a case-by-case basis. If you view your direct competitors as highly likely sources to fill the position, do not work with a recruiter who cannot touch those executives. However, it is usually an acceptable compromise to use a recruiter who is intimately familiar with your industry and has a few blocked competitors. The standard "off-limits" policy in the recruiting industry has been that a search firm will not approach a company for whom it has worked during the previous two years. But be aware that there are considerable variations to this norm, and the ground rules themselves are in flux. Some recruiters specify one year instead of two. This will mean they have fewer companies that are blocked from you, but it will also mean your own future protection against being raided is that much shorter. Some search firms observe no off-limits restrictions, and some clients do not require them.

The "off-limits" problem has a second dimension.  When a retainer-based recruiter is working on an assignment, he or she will typically take possession of the search firm's files on suitable candidates for the position. If you then retain a second recruiter at the same firm, this recruiter will not have access to these files until the first recruiter returns them to the firm's database. This policy is designed to avoid outright competition for executives within a search firm. For large firms that work on many assignments at once and for highly specialized firms, this can mean that many of the best candidates are not available to you. Ask about the number of searches that will be going on simultaneously in your area. Your recruiter will always try to gather the best slate of candidates for you, but, if the files of the five best VP's of Business Development in telecommunications are sitting on a fellow recruiter's desk down the hall, you are never going to see them.

4.    Evaluate Search Firm Presentations

For higher end assignments, the more aggressive search firms will often assemble thorough briefings that include target executives -- a good reason not to skip this phase of the process. Expect every firm to have smooth, professional presentations. Your challenge is not to focus on the quality of the sales pitch but to assess the real expertise, cultural fit and enthusiasm of each recruiter.  Is this someone with whom you will enjoy working?  Do they seem sensitive to the special characteristics of your company?  Are they savvy to any internal politics?  Do they have any unusual and creative ideas for the position that needs to be filled?  How responsive are they to your own suggestions?

Pay attention to what is not said. Are there companies that should be important hunting grounds for your assignment at whose mention the recruiter appears uncomfortable or changes the subject? Many recruiters hope that clients do not ask directly about companies that are "off-limits" to them -- a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Your best strategy is to ask about every company you would like the recruiter to consider.

5.    Clarify Who Will Do the Work

By now, you should have one or two front-runners. Before you pick the winner, there is one more trap to be avoid. Some recruiting firms are blessed with tremendous "rain-makers" -- people who are skilled at winning assignments from companies and who spend most of their time doing just that. Charismatic, powerful, entertaining -- these rain-makers are experts at attracting clients, but once they sell the assignment, they move on to the next opportunity, leaving the actual search to other members of the firm. Since an important part of your choice should be your sense of rapport with the recruiter with whom you expect to work, make sure that this person will be closely involved during the following months. How many other assignments will they be handling? How do they manage their workload? Will others be involved? What will they be doing? Who should you be calling day-to-day?

Recruiting firms also differ in the extent to which they use back-room research staffs. Some firms, particularly the largest ones, employ almost as many researchers as recruiting consultants. Researchers do much of the front-end work on an assignment, scouring through databases to uncover candidates and often making the initial contact to gauge a candidate's interest. This can be an effective way to speed up an assignment, allowing your recruiter to focus on evaluating candidates. The danger is that the busy recruiter ends up relying too much on the short-list of candidates presented by a researcher. The best searches usually involve a good blend of digging for resumes (by researchers) and inspired networking (by recruiters). Make sure the firm you work with is not overly dependent on just one approach.

6.    Make the Final Choice

Your final decision may well come down to the finalists' track records and your gut feelings about each recruiter.
A few years ago, Korn/Ferry Int'l (the world’s largest retainer firm) commissioned a market research group to ask companies which were the most important factors for senior-level searches. The ten factors from most to least important were:
  1. Firm's track record 
  2. Firm's ability to understand client needs 
  3. Quality of the individual doing the search 
  4. Knowledge of the client's industry 
  5. Ability to find the right candidates 
  6. Firm's reputation 
  7. Firm is easy to work with 
  8. Firm completes searches in the stated time 
  9. Firm's integrity and ethics 
  10. Cost
John P. Finnerty of National Westminster Bank offers a final client perspective: 
“The real test of any search firm is not only how well they know their own business but how well they know ours."