Stepping on HR’s toes

What HR should do when the CEO decides to use an external search firm to fill a senior position

Human resource professionals manage their organization’s recruiting needs. It’s one of their core competencies. So it can be a little intimidating when upper management decides to go outside of HR and use an external search firm to fill a senior recruiting need.

However, HR still has a critical role to play in the process. There are a number of things HR practitioners can do to help the process go smoothly.

Before engaging a search firm

Before contacting any search firms, think about the type of firm that best fits the situation. Search firms are divided into contingent firms — those that simply send resumés and only get paid if one of their people is hired — and retained firms — firms that charge for conducting a full professional service including proactively searching for and convincing qualified candidates to consider the role.

Consider the firm’s relevant experience. Talk to other HR professionals about firms they would recommend. HR should feel comfortable approaching more than one firm if it doesn’t have an ongoing relationship with a specific firm. When approaching an executive search firm, be prepared to provide as much background information as possible on the position, the organization and the nature of the project.

There are a few criteria to help select which firm to use, including:

•Does the firm have a good understanding of the position and the challenges?

•Does the firm have recent, relevant search experience that will help identify a number of qualified candidates quickly?

•Does the firm have experience in the market, or in comparable markets both geographically and across industries?

•Is the firm unable to pursue some target companies because of off-limits restrictions related to recent work done for those companies?

•Has the firm provided references from past clients, or from past candidates, and has HR contacted some of those regarding their level of satisfaction with the firm’s work?

•Who will do the actual work of identifying and screening candidates before they are submitted for further consideration?

•Does the firm appear to have the capacity to execute the search quickly and efficiently?

Once the firm is selected, complete a formal agreement for the project. The agreement should include fees, expenses, guarantee provisions, how and when invoices will be handled and how additional hires would be handled. Retained executive search firms typically charge fees equalling one-third of the compensation that will be paid to the successful candidate in their first year. Expenses related to the search are often charged in lump sums based on a percentage of the fee. The typical guarantee period for retained search is one year, meaning that if the selected candidate is let go or leaves within the first year, the search firm will conduct a replacement search at a vastly reduced cost — usually about 10 per cent of the price of the original search. It is important to get all such terms and conditions in writing and agreed to by both parties before beginning the actual search.

The search

Once the search firm has been hired, ensure HR’s role is clearly laid out to both the search firm and the hiring manager. In some instances the HR department steps aside and asks the search firm to deal directly with the hiring manager during the search. Even in such circumstances, it’s a good idea for HR to be copied on all correspondence to stay in the loop. It is important that HR allow, and encourage, the search firm to work closely with the hiring manager so it develops a relationship and a strong understanding of the hiring manager’s style, preferences and concerns.

Communication between the search firm and the client should be frequent, regular and thorough. Nothing is worse for a client than hearing nothing for several weeks only to then find out there is a problem. Regular updates on the status of possible candidates, how the position is being received in the marketplace and any issues that are hindering the project are critical.

Occasionally a search project will run into problems, and all parties involved should meet face to face to discuss the situation and review options. The search firm, the hiring manager and the HR professional should work as a team, with everyone taking some responsibility to ensure the project ends successfully. It might be necessary to look creatively at what can be done to get the project back on track. Could the targets for possible candidates be expanded, should the position specification be revisited, should the interview and selection process be streamlined? Those are all questions that should be considered.

Once a candidate is selected by the hiring manager, clarify who will do what to conclude the transaction. Typically the search firm will conduct formal reference checks on the selected candidate and provide the results to the hiring manager and HR before a final offer is made. The search firm should confirm degrees, professional credentials and other background information. Negotiating a final deal with the selected candidate can be done by either the search firm or HR, but the search firm can ensure details of the offer are presented in a frank and open manner to the candidate, and bring back questions or comments without jeopardizing the relationship that is building between the candidate and the client.

After the search

Once a candidate is hired, the search firm should maintain occasional contact with both the candidate and the hiring manager to ensure both parties are happy and satisfied with the relationship. The HR professional should be included in those discussions and informed if any issues or concerns are identified by either the manager or the candidate. No surprises should be the order of the day.

The most important consideration for an HR professional working with an executive search firm is that there be a partnership that includes the hiring manager. Like any partnership, expectations need to be clearly laid out for each partner, performance should be tracked and the partners should work together to solve any problems that arise. A truly successful partnership should be able to look back at a search project with pride in the accomplishment of a good hire and of a job well done.

Bren Shervey is managing director at the Calgary office of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit for more information.

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