Headhunters: In demand, but not always reputable

Many companies enlist the services of headhunters to find experts. However, their quality varies considerably.

The German Federal Association of Human Resources Managers conducted a survey of more than 1,300 HR managers on their experience with headhunters. Its findings are less than flattering: Two-thirds complained about headhunters who promoted themselves in a pushy way, 61 percent had had dealings with dubious ones, and more than 40 percent criticized the fact that the fees they demanded were excessive. And all that in spite of grave shortcomings, ranging from a failure to examine lists of candidates, ignoring agreements or pretending to have know-how of an industry, to subsequent attempts to poach the candidates they had presented.

The shortcomings are also all the more serious given that headhunters are mostly tasked with finding candidates for key strategic posts in management or specialist departments. Yet, according to the survey, even the most experienced HR managers have trouble distinguishing good from bad headhunters. More than four-fifths of those surveyed would like to see greater regulation in the market, which in 2015 accounted for revenue of more than 1.8 billion euros in Germany and over 12 billion US dollars worldwide—a figure that’s growing by 6 percent every year.

HR managers are demanding a “good headhunting code.” Until that’s in place, a headhunter has to be chosen on the basis of other criteria. Initial providers have voluntary codes of conduct. Guides on best practices provide initial hints. And membership of associations is also an indicator of quality. The Federal Association of German Management Consultants (BDU) aims to create transparency with CERC/BDU certification—but only few headhunters have undergone it.

Companies thus weigh up very carefully whether to prepare internal candidates for strategically important posts instead. As a result, experts and managers can grow into and with their task, forge social and professional contacts at leisure—and act as role models for junior talents. And last but not least: Every internal solution saves money that would otherwise be spent on headhunter fees.

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