Senior Executive Question

What can I expect from an executive recruiter?

Ideally, executive recruiters locate and place executives who are perfectly suited for jobs that organizations need to fill. Three parties are involved in placement: the recruiter, the employer, and the candidate. However, the recruiter is selling the actual service to the employer. The employer—not the executive seeking the job—is the recruiter's true customer.

How Recruiters Establish Relationships

Recruiters, often called search consultants, describe what they do as a "relationship business." Relationships between employers and recruiters typically rest on formal agreements that spell out fees and services to be provided. In contrast, job candidates should neither pay nor receive fees, resulting in a relationship between recruiters and executives that is not as easy to define.

An employer and a recruiter may start a relationship when the employer invites bids on a search or issues a request for proposals, but there is no such formal process for establishing a relationship between a recruiter and a candidate. Sometimes executives initiate the process, presenting themselves to recruiters by meeting with them in person or by submitting resumes. Other times, recruiters make the first move by posting job advertisements, cold-calling executives, or asking executives if they can provide names of network acquaintances.

How Recruiters Establish Prospective Matches

Successful recruiters are acquainted with vast numbers of executives. Most recruiters maintain a database of resumes and search it using keywords to match job requirements with potential candidate profiles. For example, an employer may want to hire an executive who has integrated organizations following a merger or an executive who has successfully led a financial turnaround. The recruiter would start a search by querying the database for resumes containing those attributes. After finding potential matches, the recruiter begins honing in on the best candidates using part intelligence, part wisdom, and part intuition.

If a resume survives the first round of screening, the recruiter will contact the candidate to establish his or her level of interest in the position. If interest is high enough, the recruiter will begin validating qualifications and checking references and then will set up a screening interview with the candidate. If an executive survives the screening interview, that candidate and approximately four other viable candidates will become the subjects of candidate reports prepared by the recruiter for presentation to the client (the employer).

The employer then decides whether to seek interviews with the candidates or to request a new batch of prospective candidates from the recruiter. Once a candidate makes it to the employer's "short list," the candidate can expect more frequent and substantive contact from the recruiter. The candidate should receive an in-depth assessment of the hiring organization, its leadership team, and its position in the market, as well as information about the community as a place to live. This information is intended to help the candidate prepare for what may be a series of on-site interviews. At this point, however, the recruiter is not necessarily going to advocate for one candidate over another.

Should an executive emerge as the preferred candidate, the relationship with the recruiter will enter an intense phase. Experts recommend that the recruiter be the primary representative in negotiating a mutually acceptable employment agreement and compensation package. A recruiter's constant exposure to compensation arrangements, benefits, and separation provisions enables the recruiter to negotiate an equitable compensation package. Even so, the candidate should have an attorney examine the proposed package before accepting the offer.

Different Types of Recruiters

The process outlined above is fairly representative of working with a recruiter. However, recruiters differ in important ways, and these differences have implications for executive candidates. The most fundamental difference is whether the recruiter is retained or working on contingency.

Retained recruiters generally are the only recruiters serving an employer for a particular search. Since the recruiter is not competing with another firm to fill the job, the employer-paid recruiting fees and expenses are not at risk as long as the recruiter satisfactorily completes the assignment. Historically, retained recruiters handle more senior-level positions.

In contrast, a recruiter working on contingency typically receives a fee only if the employer hires a candidate whom the recruiter presents. Since a recruiter working on contingency does not have an "exclusive" agreement with the employer, the recruiter risks having a competing recruiter fill the job first. Contingency recruiters tend to do less exhaustive candidate screenings. They also usually provide candidates with information about potential employers.

Since contingency recruiters have the incentive to "be there first with the most," they may handle a resume differently than a retained recruiter would. Unless a candidate carefully defines how a recruiter may distribute his resume, the candidate may discover detrimental information has been provided to individuals and organizations he would rather not have know about his availability, possibly causing him embarrassment or jeopardizing his current employment.

Other distinctions among recruiting firms include serving clients in only one industry versus multiple industries, or operating single offices versus multinational locations. A list of Executive Search Firms with a specialized focus in healthcare management is available in the Members Career Resource Center in the Career Services area.

No matter what kind of firm you decide to work with, it is important to keep in mind that the employer who pays the recruiter's fee is the real client. Consequently, you must adjust and limit your expectations of the relationship between you and the recruiter. If you wish to work with executive recruiters to make a job change, working with several will be in your best interest since a recruiter typically can only present your credentials to one client at a time and no one recruiter has access to all the opportunities that might be right for you. Finally, relying on executive recruiters should not replace your personal networking efforts. The two activities are complementary.