5 Ways to Keep Executive Candidates Secret

By Srta.PalabreríoWhile running the executive recruiting department for a Fortune 50 company, I once overheard a conversation between two people at a well-known coffee bar. Based on their dialog, they were executives from my company’s main competitor and were discussing a candidate they had just interviewed. Said candidate was a high-potential executive at my Fortune 50, and like many executive candidates, this person was a valued employee and not an active job seeker. The indiscretion of the two leaders from the competing company could have put their candidate’s career at risk, or at the very least, jeopardized his interest in continuing conversations with them.

The experience reminded me how much responsibility hiring entities have to maintain the confidentially of the executives they interview. There are at least five areas where exerting caution is imperative.

The first is illustrated in the above story. Talking about candidates in public may cause undue vulnerability. While this may seem obvious to ERE readers, it may be so obvious that we forget our clients often need cautionary reminders. External to the company, someone from the press, the candidate’s current staff, their boss, a customer, or a variety of other interested parties could be within ear shot. Regardless of the motivations, many categories of eavesdroppers could benefit by exposing the candidate’s employment discussions. More than likely, that exposure would damage the candidate’s relationship within their current employer and adversely impact their career within that company.

There’s risk within hiring entities as well. One time, an employee within a hiring organization was friends with one of the external candidates. The current employee learned of a competing external candidate through the hiring executive’s imprudence and leaked that candidacy to the press. The exposure caused the individual to withdraw from the search; the friend lost a competitor, and the hiring executive lost his lead prospect.

The second and third areas of risk have to do with visibility of candidates’ resumes. Companies often make the mistake of putting executive candidate resumes in applicant tracking systems. Once a resume is in an ATS, it is visible to a host of people: human resources, hiring managers, varieties of recruiters. Rarely do these constituents understand or remember the sensitivities typical of passive executive candidates. I have known staff recruiters to call the office of an executive whose resume they found in their system, and announce to the receptionist that they have the executive’s resume and would like to discuss a job opportunity with him or her. These risks can be mitigated by tracking executive recruiting activity within a separate, restricted-access system; there are several specific to the profession that serve our needs better than traditional ATSs.

Third, limit the distribution of executive candidates’ resumes. Too often, when debriefing after a series of interviews, I learn that candidates saw the resumes of competitors on the interviewer’s desk. When feasible, distribute biographies instead of resumes during the search process — they do not scream “candidate” as loudly. Additionally, when sharing executive resumes, remove names and contact information. Not only does it add a layer of anonymity, but it also hinders others from calling the candidates without your knowledge.

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The final two areas of caution have to do with visibility of candidates during the interview process. If your company requires visitors to sign a guest ledger, work with the receptionist or security to ensure that each of your candidates signs a blank ledger which is then removed from the stack of other sign-in sheets. This is especially important if you have multiple candidates interviewing for the same job on the same day. Further, limit your candidates’ time in the reception area. Otherwise, subsequent visitors may see your candidate’s sign-in. Additionally, I’ve known employees to scan visitor sign-ins to glean company intel; segregating executive candidate visitor registrations limits exposure to others both internally and externally.

Lastly, limit your candidates’ vulnerability during interviews. Refrain from hosting their meals in the company cafeteria or the company’s favorite nearby restaurant. Also, instead of having candidates move from one interview to another, keep them stationary (in a room that has opaque walls and doors) while your interviewers go to the candidates. This limits the candidates’ visibility to other employees in your company hallways. Also, if you are interviewing more than one candidate for the same search on the same day, make sure the interviews are in different areas, and the candidates use different dining and comfort facilities. Further, if they are overnighting, house them in separate hotels and recommend different restaurants to them. Each of these cautions will decrease the likelihood that your candidates encounter each other during your interview processes.

The bottom line is that you never know who knows who, you never know who is listening or watching, and you never know who is friend or foe with accordant agendas within the political and competitive realms of corporations. Exercising these basic cautions will help protect your reputation as well as those of your candidates’ and their interest in continued engagement with your company.

As Principal of ScoutRock, Caroline B. McClure provides consulting and networking services to other corporate executive recruiting professionals and also helps human resources professionals to better understand and leverage the executive recruiting profession. Prior to founding ScoutRock, she was the director, executive recruiting at Lockheed Martin, where she initiated a corporate-wide centralized executive recruiting program.

Focusing on the top 2% of executive positions within the company through direct executive search, following the retained model, the function improved the quality of hire by a 215% increase in high-potential nominations, a 175% increase in diversity, and a 570% decrease in executive attrition. Prior to Lockheed, she served as a consultant in Korn/Ferry International.


13 Comments on “5 Ways to Keep Executive Candidates Secret

  1. Caroline-
    Thank you for writing an excellent article and
    reminding all of us of the adage “discretion is the better part of valor.” It is especially true and needed in the Internet age.

    Best wishes,
    John DePolo

  2. Caroline,

    You are certainly right on with your comments. However, the problems you describe and solutions you offer should not be exclusive to candidates below the executive level. No candidate, regardless of level, should be subjected to breach of confidentiality.

  3. @Carol:
    You are absolutely right, every candidate, regardless of level deserves as much confidentiality as possible during the interview process. However, I believe that because executives are typically more broadly known, and are more easily recognized, it is especially important for their identity to remain confidential throughout the recruiting process.

    Thank you for the reminder to keep our vision elevated beyond our own niche.

  4. Thanks Caroline for reminding us the importance of discretion, especially at client location. Not long ago one of my clients wanted organize a “carousel” of candidate’s interviews, which would have led to that candidates would see each other.

  5. Caroline, terrific article. I remember learning this lesson early as a new recruiter at a search firm. While in the elevator two people in front of me started discussing an individual (by name) they were interviewing. My colleague reminded me as we got off the elevator to never do that!

    My second experience was heading recruiting for one of the Big 8 (at the time) healthcare consulting firms. An individual had indicated interest in speaking with us, when the Partner saw the resume he said, I know so and so over at that firm I’ll give them a call. I told him he would do no such thing. The candidate had not given us permission to call and the Partner may just the be the one to get the person fired. Sometimes recruiting is all about keeping the puppies in the box or not letting the cat out of the bag!

  6. @Vicki
    I learned the elevator lesson exactly the same way you did as a rookie recruiter. It’s good to learn early on before making the mistake yourself.

    Also, the experience you had with “I know someone over there who knows them; I’ll give a call…” Is so common. Fortunately, you learned of the intent and were able to stop it. Much of the need for confidentiality is so inate to us as recruiters that we forget to remind our hiring partners of the need for discretion through out the process.

    Thanks for your comment.

  7. Terrific and timely reminders, Caroline. I’ve coached job seekers for several years on how to conduct confidential and discreet searches to manage their privacy and confidentiality. I always make sure to inform them that no matter how cautious they are, they may have limited control over how others treat these confidential interactions and information.

    It is a shame that people can be so careless or in some cases downright unprofessional when dealing with these sensitive matters. With the exception of the same hotel or restaurant hosting non-local candidates, I’ve observed examples of each of the other issues you’ve mentioned.

    I completely agree with @Carol that these courtesies should be extended to all candidates no matter what career level they are or whether or not they are actively or passively considering new opportunities.


  8. @Kelly, thank you for the feedback. Coaching job seekers to attend to the confidentiality issues makes a lot of sense–that way, they’ll remind the folks they’re interviewing with of the need for caution.

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