When headhunting goes wrong

The very nature of search and selection means when mistakes are made they tend to be pretty big ones, often with major consequences. Here are five real examples of what happens… when headhunting goes wrong!

Please note, names have been changed to protect the innocent…

1. Hung up by a phone provider

Self-employed Derek White wasn’t even looking for a permanent job when a headhunter called having spotted his CV on LinkedIn with details of what seemed his perfect job. The basic salary impressed London-based White and although the company was run from the Midlands, the headhunter assured him he would only have to travel up two days a week.

After two in-depth interviews with the headhunter, White was given a date and time to meet the company. But the short notice meant the rail fare topped £200, with no reimbursement offered. Then things got worse.

On arriving for the interview, White was kept waiting for an hour, and was then told the role was based full-time in the North. He returned home disgruntled, but was assured by the headhunter there was still a chance he could work mostly in London. Days later, White was told a new director had come on board and the recruitment process was starting from scratch.

He instantly withdrew his application and despite protesting vigorously received no compensation. The combination of a poorly informed headhunter as well as a  disorganized and unsympathetic recruiting company left White out of pocket by more than £500 (lost work time plus travel expenses) and feeling exploited – and he hadn’t even wanted a new job!

2. Million-dollar mishap

A US leading fashion retailer was looking for a new chief executive and a search and selection firm was enlisted to find the ideal candidate. However, so attractive was the role, so desperate the retailer to fill it and so keen the headhunter to deliver as quickly as possible for its new client, that a clash of business philosophy between candidate and company went unrecognized – a basic, but ultimately fatal error.

Just weeks into the role it became clear there were irreconcilable differences between the new chief executive and his board over future business strategy. Following much negotiation and embarrassment, particularly on the part of the retailer, the chief executive left – but with a staggering payout of $1.1 million in damages.

This spectacular headhunting horror story could have been avoided with a little more care and attention during the recruitment process. The board should have discussed strategy with the candidate in advance, the headhunter should have ensured there was greater dialogue about the intent and aspirations of the board, and the candidate should have tested some of his assumptions before taking the plunge – not that he was complaining too much in the end.

3. Blowing a big opportunity

Ambitious, talented digital media professional Grace Morgan was convinced if she chose her next move carefully it would take her to the pinnacle of her profession. She was pondering whether to use executive search and selection, when a headhunter contacted her on behalf of a major business about a senior role.

After a rigorous series of phone and in-person interviews with the headhunter, Morgan was confident all key issues had been addressed, including her salary requirements. Although these were higher than the original search request, the headhunter assured Morgan that the client was willing to meet her salary demands due to her exceptional qualifications and experience.

As she went in for a face-to-face meeting with the client, Morgan was sure everyone was on the same page. And when the headhunter called to say he was sending over a formal job offer, she was buzzing with excitement. However, Morgan’s euphoria turned to despair when she saw a salary £10k less than she had stipulated.

Chaos followed, with the client convinced Morgan had suddenly upped her demands, while she thought the company had reeled her in only to cut the value of the job package at the last minute. The reality was the headhunters had never revealed Morgan’s true salary demands to their client in their desperation to present the right candidate. In the end, not only did Morgan lose a potentially dream job and the company a perfect hire, but both parties’ disgruntlement ricocheted round the industry tarnishing reputations as it went.

4. The phantom CV

Jim Storey was happy at his job in a multinational company. He’d been there around a year and was expecting a decent year-end bonus. Then he received a text from a former colleague saying: “Jim, are you leaving your job again? Good luck!”

Jim ignored the message, thinking it had been sent in error. Then he got a call from a company who wanted to interview him for a sales position. When Jim explained he was not available, the company’s HR director seemed surprised. Two hours later, another company emailed Jim with news he had been shortlisted for senior vice president. Jim was baffled. Then he noticed the email said something about his “excellent CV”.

In fact, that was what his boss was holding when Jim walked into his office after being called in. Jim’s boss was convinced he wanted to leave the company, called him unprofessional, handed him his CV and told him to find another job. It was the CV Jim had emailed to the search and selection firm that had placed him at his job. The search firm had been touting Jim as a candidate to various companies – including his own – without his knowledge. Revealing all to his boss just about saved his job, no thanks to the reckless behaviour of the headhunters.

5. Hunting the placed

A headhunter placed Allan Bicknall in Pharma Industries (PI). A couple of years later, the same recruiter picked up on some industry news and wasted no time in calling the HR head of PI to ask how Bicknall was doing.

“The company’s delighted with him,” replied the HR head.

Strange,” answered the headhunter, “I didn’t expect that, because he was recently seen in animated talks with John Phillips of Pharma Factor UK.”

The headhunter than called Bicknall advising him how pleased PI were with his performance and telling him to stay put, but adding: “However, if you’re seriously looking, I can probably find you an even better placement.”

Similarly, two years after Connie Smith was placed by a different headhunter, she received a call about an opening elsewhere. She was stunned and appalled by the headhunter’s behaviour only to be told that it was alright as “no one will know”.

Smith immediately reported the incident to her company’s head of HR, who banned the headhunter from servicing them. The head of HR then showed Smith a list of people the headhunter had both placed and then attempted to pirate.

Such practices can not only unsettle an employee, but also destabilise an entire workplace if the headhunter achieves their goal of poaching someone they had already placed. Pirating in this way abuses the trust that is primary in the relationships between candidates with recruiters and clients, and serves to undermine a sector that provides a vital business service.

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