Checklist For Selecting The Very Best Executive Search Firm

In a tight job market many corporate recruiting functions are strained to the limit. One option is to “outsource” your higher-level searches to executive search firms. Unfortunately, because of the large number of firms, it is often difficult to decide which firm to choose. Should it be a small “boutique” firm or a large multi-national? Is a retained firm better than a contingency firm? Are firms that offer “unbundled services” superior to those that don’t? Because not all search firms do an excellent job, it is essential to do an extensive assessment of their capabilities. Some are slow, others produce a low quality (performance) of hire, and some recommend candidates that result in a high turnover rate. Few firms meet all of the criteria, so it is important to first select which of the following are relevant to your needs. The one certainty I have found is that firms that say that you should “trust them” and then refuse to provide answers to the criteria listed below are NOT top firms. Here is a checklist that I use when I help firms select from among the many, categorized as follows: I. Results

II. Their database

III. Their range of services

IV. Their responsiveness

V. Ethical and legal issues

I. The Results Of Their Searches Talk is cheap and almost all exec recruiters are great at it. Focus on the numbers and the results, and ignore the bravado about whom they work with, their size, and how long they have been in the business. It is a good general assumption that if they don’t measure their results, then they are not the best. If they say it’s too hard or not necessary them, I guarantee they are “all boots and no cattle.” Here are the “results” standards a good firm should meet:

  1. The firm has a high past success rate for all jobs with your company or similar firms in your industry. Where success is measured in quality of hire, speed, cost, the retention rate, manager satisfaction and the performance of the hire.
  2. They must have verifiable track record of successfully locating and placing qualified candidates for this targeted position with your or other benchmark firms (your competitors?).
  3. Search firm-placed employees must have higher performance on the job (performance appraisal scores, promotions, bonuses, output etc.) than employees from other hiring sources or firms.
  4. They must be cost-effective (lower cost vs. benefits) than other firms and other methods of recruiting.
  5. Candidates that accept have a longer average tenure in the job (lower turnover) than other firms and other methods of recruiting.
  6. The use of this executive search firm must result in a __% higher overall recruitment success rate than other firms and your own internal recruiting function. It must be able to demonstrate a positive ROI on the use of its services over those of regular internal recruiters, and its rates should not exceed industry standards.
  7. The firm must have a verifiable track record of successfully placing diversity candidates for your hard-to-fill jobs at our firm or other benchmark firms (our competitors?).
  8. Recruited candidates request lower starting salaries than equally qualified candidates from other sources and firms (some firms “shop candidates and as a result they demand higher salaries).
  9. Candidates referred by them must yield a higher offer-acceptance rate than other firms and our own general applicant pool. This is to minimize manager frustration, and it also shows that they have strong “closing skills.”
  10. Completes a higher percentage of searches on time, under budget and within specifications. In low unemployment times, the rate of unfulfilled searches for retained firms can be quite high.
  11. The overall time to hire must be faster than using your own recruiters, and better than other firms. In a competitive world the cost of a vacant position can be in the millions, and a delay can mean losing the best — who are often gone in a week.
  12. In a “side by side” simultaneous search (with your internal recruiters continue searching at the same time), they provide better candidates in the same time period.
  13. When asked to prove their capability in a “test” they can give you a list of your own firm’s top talent within a week. (It is hard to know if the talent they find in other firms is the best.) But since you know your own talent, if they can find it in a “dry search” odds are that they can find talent in other firms also.

II. The Quality Of Their Database The very best firms don’t start the search the day you hire them. They have active “who’s who” databases with the names of the top people already identified. The best pre-assess prospects. They also keep in touch with their database, and already know their interests and decision criteria. There are no secret superstars, so if they start cold calling on the day you hire them, they are not the best.

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  1. Their database must be made up primarily of currently employed people who are top performers in their organization (passive job seekers). If their database has a large percentage of unemployed people, avoid them (in low unemployment times, those that are in “need” of a job are not top performers. The best have to be “poached” from good jobs at top firms.)
  2. Since hiring top performers from direct competitors has a double whammy (you get better…they get worse), the number of top performers working at your direct competitors in key jobs is a sign of an excellent database.
  3. The firm must be able to demonstrate that it has a wide variety of industry contacts and candidates from your targeted benchmark firms. Hiring from benchmark firms means you learn about best practices and acquire good employees.
  4. They must be able (and willing) to prove both the size AND quantity of their database to you by sharing a sample of their database for a given position (anonymous resumes and skill sets).
  5. The firm’s database must contain qualified candidates that you have not identified yourself. If you compare your internal database with theirs…they should have different and better candidates. Often you find that they “have the same people that you do” — which means they offer no value unless they have better selling/closing skills than your firm has.
  6. Their database has few “blocked firms” — i.e. those protected from “raiding” because the search firm is on retainer to the firm (so it agrees not to recruit from them).
  7. How old/dated are the resumes in their database is a key question. Is it continually updated? Having old resumes of people that have left the area, retired, or recently started a job can frustrate mangers and slow down the process.
  8. They must have a diverse database that will provide us with a minimum percentage of diverse referrals especially in our under-represented jobs. Diversity candidates are among the hardest to convince, so the firm should have a long-term relationship among these candidates.
  9. Does their database contain candidates from geographic regions where you have offices/needs?
  10. Do they have an international database and international hiring capabilities in areas where we are weak in recruiting?
  11. Does the database include a large number/ratio of “turkeys”? Having a high proportion of low performers means frustration and the need to closely screen all referrals. In reverse is the database rich with superstars? Soon to be superstars? And lesser-known superstars from other industries that could make the transition?
  12. What firms do their candidates work for? Large databases can be clogged with talent from smaller or weaker firms that just have no chance of surviving in our firm (culture).
  13. Do the people in the database know and look positively on your firm? If a candidate admires a firm, it means an easier sell and a faster hire.
  14. The firm must be able to provide “pre-screened” candidates that result in a __% or less of rejection rate of unqualified candidates in your searches.

III. Their Processes And Services Everyone puts on a good show before the deal is closed, but the best firms execute consistently in all geographic areas.

  1. Does this firm track the amount of management time they use? The best reduce the time they take up of your executives (and internal recruiters) on each requisition.
  2. Is the firm willing to provide advice and counsel on how you can improve our in-house recruiting efforts?
  3. They are Internet savvy. They use technology to find and assess candidates. A significant portion of their database was sourced from the Internet (Internet sourcing yields high quality candidates).
  4. Their databases and HR systems are compatible with yours. Their “extranet” allows you access to their talent database 24/7.
  5. Is the firm willing to provide advice and counsel on how you can improve your retention rates and help you understand why other firms successfully poach your employees. Can they teach you how to identify the “targets” and then block or minimize it?
  6. The firm provides advice and counsel on which firms you should target to acquire (for their talent).
  7. The firm assigns the best (specified) search consultant or consultant team to your account. Great firms often do a “bait and switch” with account executives. Make sure you don’t get the rookie!
  8. Do they measure the effectiveness of their sources and search tools? Can they show that their recruitment and sourcing methods and practices are the most advanced available and are continually improving? Assuming you are going to work with the firm for an extended period, it is essential that they continually improve everything they do on a regular basis.
  9. Are they consistent and reliable? Some large firms “franchise” their offices. As a result you can easily get spotty results in different regions. This can also be true of non-franchised offices, but generally it is less of a problem.
  10. Does the search firm demonstrate a working knowledge of your culture and your values? Placements must fit into your corporate culture more rapidly than the norm, and they can’t “quit” because of a bad “fit.”
  11. The firm uses post-exit interviews to assess what went wrong in any failed placement in order to prevent future occurrences.
  12. Does the search firm utilize the best state-of-the-art technology available (online databases, Web tools, ATS, Extranets etc.). “Paper” slows up the hiring process and technology can aid in finding the very best in remote places.
  13. Does the search firm demonstrate that they can accurately forecast and anticipate hiring and economic trends. Can they warn you of upcoming surpluses and shortages?
  14. Do they provide us with advice why people quit or take a job? Do they also give us a “heads up” on superstars that are looking.
  15. They act as a benchmark double check to ensure that the salary survey information that we use to make offers is not inaccurate and costing us hires.
  16. They practice “relationship recruiting” over an extended period of time with potential candidates. This means that candidates are slowly assessed over a period of time, and that the recruiter knows their “real” needs.
  17. They offer a guarantee (a free redone search) and they track to see that their candidates actually work out. The guarantee is found to be seldom necessary.
  18. If they are on retainer, they have a “no raid or poach” policy that protects them from shopping you own talent. They also have a track record as well as policies and procedures to back it up.
  19. Is the firm retained or contingent? Do they fit your needs and explain the advantages/disadvantages of each?
  20. Does the firm has instant/emergency search capability? Is there a backlog of searches or does the firm “bump” you ahead of others?
  21. Has the firm done a sufficient volume of recent searches for this job to demonstrate their current competency?
  22. Does the firm accurately pre-screen candidate using your required competencies? Are candidates ranked or rated using numbers for easy comparisons? When they (and you) simultaneously assess the same candidate, do they give a similar assessment score to yours?
  23. They demonstrate that they provide immediate follow-up and feedback to managers after meetings and interviews.
  24. They have a local office in your area or are “in town” on a regular basis.

IV. Their Customer Service And Responsiveness Angering candidates can mean lost customers and a bad image.

  1. They provide accurate and timely candidate synopsis/summaries and consistent evaluations. Candidate profiles must include accurate assessments of their skills, needs, and job acceptance decision criteria.
  2. The firm’s response time to calls and requests exceeds the industry average, even during busy and off-cycle periods.
  3. The firm measures candidate and manager satisfaction. This firm’s satisfaction rate exceeds the industry average, even during busy and off-cycle periods.
  4. The best search firms are capable of rapidly adjusting and modifying their procedures to meet our changing needs. They modify their approach as economic conditions change. The search firm listens to your needs and is flexible and willing to readjust procedures if your business needs require it.
  5. They are experts in our industry. They know your business, competitors, products, and customers.
  6. The actions, progress, and responsiveness of the account are monitored and rewarded by the search firm.
  7. Their recruiter maintains a continuous relationship with your firm long after the placement to ensure the success of the placement.
  8. Placed candidates and hiring managers have a high percentage of satisfaction with the search firm and the recruiter.
  9. Your use of the search firm must result in the reduction of the time spent by our internal recruiter and the line manager on each requisition.
  10. The search firm verifies that each candidate has not previously applied to your firm (thereby eliminating disputes over whether a fee is owed by our firm).
  11. The firm has a dispute resolution process that is quick and fair.
  12. Their firm has a low turnover and transfer rate for its search consultants so we don’t have to continually r-orient their new account reps.
  13. Our manager’s rate the quality of the service and candidates provided as excellent.

V. Legal Issues, Values And Ethics

  1. They have a reputation for not exploiting your database. When you give them access to your database they don’t “steal” from it or try to charge you for candidates that you already had.
  2. The firm has an exceptional track record in privacy/confidentiality and conflict of interest matters.
  3. They must have a track record, image, and brand both so that they can attract the top candidates and also to protect your reputation.
  4. The firm/recruiter has no history of attempting to “go around” or circumventing HR and dealing directly with line management.
  5. The firm has a near-zero complaint rate among clients.
  6. They have an excellent record of adherence to applicable Federal and State employment laws (ADA, EEOC, Title VII etc.). Their sourcing/pre-screening methods demonstrate no adverse impact, or no disparate treatment.
  7. They have a recent proven track record in our industry as demonstrated by their positive references and their adherence to high ethical standards (NAER/AESC).
  8. Their percentage of lawsuits and complaints is below your internal rates.
  9. They use the best available objective system to assess candidate skills and to ensure only valid “knockout factors” are utilized.
  10. The executive search firm demonstrates a working knowledge of and adherence to your corporate values and culture.

VI. Miscellaneous

  1. They have the broad capability to help you improve your retention rate, refine your offers and compensation to make them more competitive.
  2. They forecast labor trends.
  3. They are the “place to visit” to find answers and best practices relating to the employment function.


Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



6 Comments on “Checklist For Selecting The Very Best Executive Search Firm

  1. To bad they don’t check out Doctors, Lawyers, Dentists, etc., etc. like this.
    I don’t know where this list came from but it is asking for more than 99% of search firms could supply, as far as data goes. Is this a golden rule or something the Doc just dreamed up in his spare time?

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  2. There two more criteria that are critical to chosing the executive recruiter. Korn Ferry ( requires an on-line “test” before a candidate is put in their database. Most executives I know have refused to take the “test”. The 2nd key area is to find out how the candidates are notified if the client declines the candidate at any step of the process. My company’s reputation was negatively impacted by the impersonal notification method used by one very reputable executive search firm. In my contracts, I make sure that the notification method is clearly defined to protect my company’s reputation.

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  3. I am an Independent one-man office. 3 years in the business before I opened my own office just less than 16 years ago. SO, what?s the point? According to this article none of this makes any difference . . . and the ?standards? that he lists are so ?overly? extensive so as to exclude just about any recruiting firm that is less than a multi-international conglomerate. I have heard of ?reaching for the stars and accepting the moon? . . but Dr. Sullivan would have employers looking outside the galaxy for qualified Executive Recruiting firms. I agree it is not a simple task to select an appropriate Recruiting firm. . . . but let?s not complicate it by ?seeking? things from them which is of little or no consequence – –

    When looking for an out-side third party Recruiter you must seek out honest, knowledgeable and proven talent. Databases are NOT important . . . guarantees are NOT important . . . being in the area is NOT important . . . being able to ?train? your in-house recruiting staff is NOT going to happen . . .

    John has written some excellent articles . . and I have ?learned? many things that my clients might learn to expect from me . . . most of which we already provided. However, I felt it necessary to take exception with this article and the numerated ?should have?s? that he noted.

    Thank you for requesting and accepting comments on your articles . . it give us each a voice . . . ?experts? are NOT always right just because they are ?deemed? Experts!

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  4. Dr Sullivan,

    Very interesting list, it is nice to know how HR is grading us from an agency perspective.

    I would find it helpful to have a similar type of list from the other side. Obviously we try to work on the requisitions we receive from employers and try to work on as many as possible. We cold call for opportunities and spend much of our day on activities which do not promise $ in the end. We get paid to perform and although we do perform, often the recruiter can be led down the wrong path: unresponsive HR departments, companies which do not pay, managers which do not commit to scheduled times, etc, the list is endless much as yours is. I think that many companies take the recruiters services for granted and do not realize we work on a straight commission basis.
    Perhaps a good idea is to have an article based towards HR departments and hiring managers to let them know how we grade them. The companies that receive the majority of my attention are those which are willing to have contact with hiring mgrs, pay on time, and respond timely to candidates presented so I can give candidates timely feedback.

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  5. Dustin Campbell

    Not to pick you… But like most 3rd party recruiters, they think they have the best candidate for my company, but I just get ugly resumes. I’m tired of search firms sending me ugly candidates. If I’m going to pay 20-35% of an employee?s first year salary, they better be Michael Jordan and he better be ready to play, otherwise I’m going to stick with the recruiting source the produces the highest ROI. The successful search firms that I do work with, understand the industry I?m in, has kept up on what the company has done, and yes, knows who our top performers are.

    Grant it I?m a former student of Dr. John Sullivan, but I?ve read almost all of his articles and have tested some of rules and/or guidelines, and they do work. I have more credibility when I make recommendations to my HR Staff or to Hiring Managers because I prove to them that it will work and talk to them in a language they understand…. MONEY $$$. Prove to me the candidates you submit are better than what I?m producing from my other sources and I?ll gladly respond to you about candidates, pay you on time, and even let you talk with hiring managers.

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  6. Just came across this article (was also shocked as i am an executive search recruiter) and joined the community.
    While I do get an insight with Dr Sullivans views.. His views on Selecting third parties is certainly impractical and surely he hasnt been a good third party recruiter himself !!!
    I agree with Garry Moore “When looking for an out-side third party Recruiter you must seek out honest, knowledgeable and proven talent. Databases are NOT important . . . guarantees are NOT important . . . being in the area is NOT important . . . being able to ?train? your in-house recruiting staff is NOT going to happen . . .”

    Dustin Campbell, My advice :
    Pl tie up with us!!!!
    In india most top recruiters get 8.33% – 16% of total CTC of the recruited one which is not a costly affair for corporates for senior levels..not 20-35%!!!!
    As a corporate recruiter, if you have got ugly CVs then you have NOT chosen your recruiters based on their knowledge of position and market and relationship building capability.
    Communication to the recruiters on status of positions also is good parameter for getting good results on CV search..
    The easiest thing on earth to do as a corporate recruiter is to complain and compile an inexhaustive complaint list..

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