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External recruiting for senior management candidates or specialized technical professionals can be a difficult and daunting process. Engaging a search firm can make it easier, but only if you find a reputable, experienced, responsive and ethical partner.

You may only be recruiting for a single position right now, but if you foresee more external recruiting needs you should establish an ongoing contractual relationship with one or more headhunter. This can help make future recruitment more focused and efficient, and it might allow you to negotiate more favourable fees.

Whether it’s for a one-off hire or an ongoing recruitment strategy, it’s important to remember that the firm you choose will be representing you in the marketplace and providing you with potential future leaders or specialists. Working with the right headhunter is vital not just to ensure you recruit the right talent to meet your needs, but to ensure that prospective candidates want to come and work for you.

Here are five things to consider when using a search firm to help you fill a job.

Find the right fit

There are a number of different business models among headhunters—some offer general recruitment support, while others may focus on specific industries or on recruiting for very senior positions only. To find a suitable partner you will first have to develop a very firm definition of your requirements.

For example, I helped one employer who was looking for an experienced electrical engineer with a specific specialization. We used this set of requirements to identify search firms with demonstrable experience and contacts in appropriate industries, and to pass over firms who did not.

Pick using a formal process

Utilize a request for proposals (RFP) and bidding process to identify and contract a firm. Detailed proposals and bids can provide an important level of confidence. Your RFP should ask for descriptions of the firm’s experience in your industry and with your requirements. Firms should also be able to characterize their databases of appropriate candidates. Ask for references in your request for proposals, and follow up on these.

Your RFP should also ask headhunters to describe their capability and willingness to perform pre-screening and first, or qualification, interviewing. Setting up pre-screening means you only spend your time interviewing highly qualified candidates, instead of everyone who submits an application.

Interview the interviewers

Meet the firm’s principals who may be directly involved in your search. You will want to develop confidence in their professionalism and in their knowledge of our industry and position requirements.

Interview these principals in their offices and ask for a quick tour, to give you a sense of how well organized the firm is and of the mood and morale of their employees. I remember visiting one firm that looked like they had just moved into their offices; in fact, they had been in that space for a couple of years. Unpacked boxes were stacked in hallways and the only employees I saw were having coffee in a break room. A second headhunter had clean, efficient looking workspaces with up to date computer equipment. Employees were at their desks, on their headsets talking business. The first firm did not make the cut.

Get it in writing

Your contract with a search firm should include clear definitions of the following important items:

• critical requirements for candidates who you would interview
• the schedule and duration of the search and cancellation criteria,
• what the firm will provide in terms of candidate background searches and resumés,
• responsibility to contact candidates and schedule interviews,
• communication with successful and unsuccessful candidates,
fees and
• a satisfaction guarantee

A satisfaction guarantee requires that the search firm to return its fees to you if you dismiss a hired candidate within a specified time frame. The contract should also define reasons for dismissal that would trigger the refund.

Talk money

The search firm should be able to provide you with a clear understanding of the salary expectations and other requirements of top candidates for the position you are filling. Before negotiations can begin you will want to define any limits on the employment offer, which will likely also include responsibilities and benefits including vacation, work location and reimbursement for relocation costs.

Headhunters will often offer to negotiate the employment and salary offer on your behalf. This might be attractive if you are inexperienced with this kind of negotiation or with the specifics of competitive compensation in your labour market.

Remember however that a search firm’s fees are usually based on the candidate’s starting annual salary and in Canada fees can be as much as 20% to 30% of the successful candidates first year’s salary. Ask for the data and logic behind the recommended offer.

Martin Birt is the president of HRaskme.comAfter serving seven years in the Canadian Army as a combat arms officer, he has enjoyed a thirty-five year career as a human resources manager, consultant and sought-after adviser to business executives. He can be contacted here.

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Have you ever used a search firm or headhunter to fill a position at your firm? Share your experiences using the comments section below.

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