Executive search: global best practice keeps employers & candidates safe

By on July 29, 2015

The recruitment industry has come in for some bad press in the recent past due to some eyebrow-raising practices. But the next tier sector, that of high-level headhunting of SA’s C-Suite and top executive leaders, also has some introspection to do, an expert says.

Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, CEO of Jack Hammer, which is rated one of South Africa’s top three executive search firms, says headhunting is a massive global industry; but because there is no regulatory body or universal standards of good practice, both qualifying candidates as well as employers who make use of headhunting services should ensure they look carefully before they leap.

“If you don’t know what to look out for in the executive search sector, making the wrong move can end up with you shooting yourself in the foot, rather than finding the solution you were hoping for,” she says.

“It is also very important that the industry and search firms move toward self-regulation and stick to global best practice in terms of their code of ethics, to ensure that its reputation grows positively.”

Goodman-Bhyat notes three major concerns for employers who seek the services of a search firm.

“Firstly, there is the issue of non-solicitation. An executive search firm should not headhunt or solicit employees of the company to which they provide services. For at least a year, there should be a clear hands-off policy. And it should be a given, not even required to be stipulated, yet we know from fears expressed by prospective clients, that they are not used to being treated with that level of good practice,” she says.

“Non-solicitation is best practice internationally, but requires voluntary compliance as there is no local or global governing body. The industry is reliant on individual standards of ethics and integrity, so a hiring company must ensure they partner with a firm that operates in a way that will not threaten their existing structures.”

Goodman-Bhyat notes that one of the reasons headhunting firms would dodge the non-solicitation question, is if they didn’t want a prospective client to know that they were in fact working with too many direct competitors, and therefore couldn’t actively hunt from those competitors.

“The search firm should be working for no more than two, or maximum three, direct competitors in a sector, so that they will have enough of a market to source from. If they are servicing too many companies in the same sector and therefore have too small a pool to fish from, that is bound to create a conflict of interest.”

Secondly, headhunters should commit to providing full disclosure about prospective candidates, says Goodman-Bhyat.

“As search companies, our job is to find out as much as possible about candidates – good and bad, the jobs that didn’t work out, the blips on the radar. Most candidates will have some of those. It is important to play open cards with clients regarding any concerns we may have, while still ensuring candidates’ dirty laundry does not get unfairly aired. There is a fine balance to be maintained, but never should either party be compromised.

“A code of discretion and confidentiality is implicit. The client must be able to rely on the search firm to keep certain information confidential and discreet. Similarly the candidate will want to ensure their details and willingness to explore new opportunities are kept in confidence. This bond of trust and discretion needs to be upheld with all parties and frequently without any written undertaking to do so. But it is vital for the industry.”

Finally, headhunters must put clients and candidates’ interests ahead of their own, says Goodman-Bhyat.

“There is often a fear, often justifiably so, that an intermediary of any sort will be motivated solely by financial gain to ensure that a deal gets done. But once again, that kind of practice has the potential to damage the industry as a whole.

“Search firms should steer well clear of unduly influencing or manipulating any party to make a decision that is not a right decision for their careers or their companies. Where there is any suspicion that a placement won’t be the best long-term fit for a corporation, or career move for a candidate, our industry should be open and transparent about those concerns.”

Goodman-Bhyat says the top players in the executive search sector have substantial power to influence and they should do so ethically and with responsibility.

“Parties are not compelled to sign a contract or agreement regarding the best practices noted above, but for the industry to work, this code of conduct has to become an unspoken rule, self-imposed and voluntarily adhered to.”



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