Headhunters are an invaluable part of the recruitment process

Headhunters are far from lazy and harmful, says Kim Frost, who uses them all the time

August 24, 2016
Recruiter browsing photos of potential candidates
Source: Getty

Lazy, costly and positively harmful. Why on earth would a university consider using headhunters to fill a senior position? 

This question was posed in a recent article in Times Higher Education

As a human resources director who regularly uses headhunters to help fill senior academic and managerial positions (“administrative”? Please, we are not in the 1970s), I can think of several reasons why. 

The “Heineken effect”. Headhunters really can reach the parts that other recruitment methods can’t. They will target not just those who are actively looking for roles but also good candidates who need persuading to apply, perhaps because they are not actively looking or are overseas, in another sector, or the job needs selling to them. Try doing that with just a print or online advert. 

Diversity is no less important. It is now common for institutions to tell headhunters to look positively for candidates from under-represented groups for the university to consider, whether female or black or minority ethnic. The proportions of under-represented groups in senior academic and managerial roles are gradually improving from a low base, but headhunters – the Heineken effect again – can play a big role here by bringing to the table good candidates from under-represented groups who might not have thought themselves suitable or ready.

Most institutions make diversity a key part of the headhunter’s job, and there are good people in academic and managerial jobs now who might not have been there without that encouragement from an insightful headhunter. 

Which leads to “the marriage broker”.

Any firm working for universities in the UK markets who behaved like the “lazy headhunters” would find work drying up overnight. The work is much more than just providing the long- and shortlists. A good headhunter will also help the university to define a marketable job description and a realistic package – the “proposition”.

Firms that bring candidates to organisations, nurse them through the uncertainties of the recruitment process (and believe me, some senior academic candidates do need careful courting) and work with both sides to achieve a happy match – both before and after appointment, and for months afterwards – add real value to the process. 

Perhaps it’s worth raising the veil on the shortlisting process a little.

Headhunters typically produce “A”, “B” and “C” lists for the client. A-lists contain the most suitable candidates, based on recommendations gathered from peers and colleagues, CVs (by the miracles of LinkedIn and university web pages, these are normally freely available) and the headhunters’ knowledge of the sector, built up over years of handling jobs and building key contacts. The B-lists contain those who are potentially suitable but weaker for some reason. The C-lists are everyone else, and can stretch into hundreds.

It’s through this process – building the ABC lists, repeated conversations with key contacts, reviewing CVs, handling job after job across the sector and beyond – that headhunters build up the broad and deep knowledge of the market and potential candidates that appointment committees value so very much. If it were as simple as a Google search, we’d all be doing it. 

So who exactly is in charge of the appointment process? It’s certainly not the headhunter. Of course they act as the trusted adviser to the university and how they construct their ABC lists is influential, but I’ve personally often moved people from one list to another, and this careful scrutiny of the lists is exactly what the client should do; unless of course they are a lazy client. There are some out there. 

So why this bad reputation? It’s certainly true that a recruitment process is only as good as the university with the vacancy. Lazy appointment committees get lazy processes. But it’s worth pausing and looking at the candidate here. After all, the whole point is to find the best candidate, and to treat the others with respect and care.

Today’s unsuccessful candidate is tomorrow’s appointee, and one day might be on the appointment committee themselves. Headhunters who ignore that simple fact will find the phone calls from potential clients drying up very quickly, and candidates won’t answer their calls. Could it be that the bad reputation at least in some part exists because some unsuccessful candidates find adverse feedback, inevitably funnelled through the headhunter, hard to take? 

Shooting the messenger? Now that would be lazy. 

Kim Frost is outgoing chair of the Universities HR association, and director of HR at the University of London.

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Reader's comments (2)

Kim, I couldn't agree with you more. I read the 'Useless Headhunters' article with a sinking heart, and was slightly confused as it appeared to on the one hand claim headhunters do little to add to the recruitment process, and on the other claim that they were primarily responsible for poor appointments. You are quite right. In my (12 years') experience providing executive search services to the HE sector, I have found that it is my client institution who owns the final appointing decision. It is our responsibility, as recruiting partners, to provide a field which is representative of quality and diversity, from which our client institution can select a strong and competitive short-list. Listening to our clients at the outset ensures the search target list we develop (from scratch) reflects the specific requirements of each role. We know recycling old search target lists is lazy practice and pretty easy to spot. The other crucial point you make is the importance of candidate care. For me, the very best feedback we can get from an unsuccessful candidate is an expression of appreciation for the care we have taken throughout the process and the professionalism and respect they have been treated with. It's very easy for a successful candidate to be grateful. Far more telling (and gratifying) if an unsuccessful candidate expresses gratitude.
Kim, Claire; you've had some criticism from an individual who seems to know what they're writing about ... are you sure you've read his/her article properly?? Your astonishment at the criticism is quite surprising and your response is typical. Why, for example, is it necessary to accuse the author of existing in the 70's after using the term "administrative"; have the CIPD redefined Manager?? if so may I have the distinction. We used to use the word 'clerical' (in fact I used to be a Clerk) before it was lost in the foggy equivocalness of CIPD terms ... it was not that long ago that CIPD was IPM, and we were comfortable with knowing what 'Personnel' did. Not now though; it's far too complicated a profession to allow the standard academic to comprehend, or that's what you would have us believe. I've seen good practice in the Personnel function and I've seen bad. It would help your case(s) if you simply acknowledged that bad exists and accept thatwe have become more and more circumspect of using the kind of 'service' you both laud.