Human resources and headhunters can be each other's worst obstacles or greatest allies. Management must help facilitate a smooth relationship
In the business world we have a short list of traditional sources of interdepartmental friction. One of these "hot zones" is the intersection of HR and third-party recruiters, who can easily find themselves at odds.
HR departments often view third-party recruiters as obstacles, while recruiters know that if they can get their best résumés in front of a hiring manager, they've got a shot at making a placement. If recruiters are held up by HR bureaucrats whose own need to control the candidate flow overshadows their desire to bring talent in the door, headhunters are sunk. As a result, it's common to find tension between internal HR people and outside recruiters. Is there a path that allows internal HR and external recruiters to work together for maximum gain?
The Recruiter's Role
In my experience, the greatest service a third-party search partner provides to the organization, besides the strength of his or her candidate database and relationships, is the intermediary role a search pro performs during offer negotiation. I pride myself on good listening and negotiating skills, but if I'm inside the company, I won't have the same credibility with a candidate that his ally, the outside recruiter, has.
So it makes sense to let the recruiter handle the delicate job (BusinessWeek, 11/26/07) of negotiating between the employer ("our offer is good enough already!") and the candidate ("they're dreaming if they think I'll take this job for that salary") when the stakes are high. We do it when we buy or sell a house. We know that our trusted Realtor won't be as emotionally bound up in the negotiation as we very well may be. It's the same in a high-level offer negotiation process—a place where the middleman can get us more quickly to a handshake and save egos in the process.
As a CEO, managing partner, or division president beginning a high-level search in your organization, it's critical to sit down with your chosen search partner and your HR chief and work through the common issues that divide these two players. What can easily happen in the absence of such a kickoff meeting is that the search consultant creates a tight one-on-one communication bond with the business leader so that the HR person feels left in the dust.
A Profitable Partnership
Feelings are one thing, but the bigger issue is that without the input of your organization's Minister of Culture—a/k/a HR chief—your search will be hampered by a lack of a critical perspective. At every stage of the process—initial screening of candidates, the interview process, or the delicate negotiation phase—the quality of the hire you end up with will be affected by the level of participation of your HR chief, the one person most likely to know more than anyone else (including top management) about how things work on the human side of the business.
When I was a corporate HR person, I learned to invite my search partners into the office once every six months or so for a check-in meeting. In this way I learned that partnering with trusted search colleagues is one of the highest-yield moves an HR leader can make. Search pros will tell you things that candidates never would (e.g., "no one will work for Jane Smith any more—she's a terrible manager") and will fill you in on the state of the local job market with a level of detail you'd never have time to acquire on your own.
To cultivate a partnership, however, an HR chief has to let go of many an HR leader's favorite office tool: the presumption of control over the process. The fact is that in a typical, intense, high-level search, the HR chief won't be the conduit for much or most of the information that is exchanged. If your No. 1 candidate is suddenly presented with a competing offer, your search pro is going to reach whomever he can reach first—whether that's the HR leader, the CEO, or the CEO's assistant.
Cooperation is Key
In an effective senior-level search, the time-honored paradigm, "all information passes through HR on its way to the hiring manager," won't hold. Communication has to take place instantly, and important decisions may happen on the fly. With a high level of coordination and respect for individual talents, this can work to an employer's advantage. When hierarchy and bureaucracy creep in, typical responses run along the lines of, "I don't care what you and our CEO discussed. All new VPs get three weeks vacation, and we're not budging for this candidate." And believe it or not, negotiations with candidates (BusinessWeek, 11/01/07) can fall apart over things as seemingly small as a week or two of vacation.
HR chiefs and recruiters can be pivotal in one another's success. As one executive recruiter said to me, "Like most HR people, you chat with candidates maybe one or two hours a day. The rest of the time you work on other things, like executive comp or performance management or employee communications. All I do is cultivate talent and sell your company and my other clients to the talent marketplace. Isn't that worth my fee?" With the right partner, it is worth the fee—and more.