How to Choose a Search Firm

Build a list of potential search firms.

Often, the first step in the process of selecting a search firm is to talk with colleagues and associates to identify the firms or individual consultants they have worked with in the past. While compiling the list, assess their experiences and ask questions about specific consultants as well as the firm. Typical questions for references may include:
  • What kind of position were you seeking to fill?
  • What impressed you the most about this firm/consultant?
  • How did working with this firm compare to other experiences you have had using search firms?
  • If the search committee drafted a job description prior to the search engagement, how did it differ from the original specification (i.e. what was the contribution of the search consultant)?
  • Did you get quality candidates that you may not have gotten on your own?
  • How well did the search consultant represent your organization to sources and candidates?
  • How accessible was the search consultant?

Determine how the firm builds its candidate pool

The methodology used to access good candidate talent pools is a point of differentiation between firms. For example, if the position requires someone with specific business skills, the organization will want to understand how the search firm would build the candidate pool, if it has done this type of search before, and how successful it has been. In their assessment, the search committee will want to ask:
  • Is this firm tapped into the networks needed for a successful outcome?
  • Is the firm innovative in its approach in a way that will bring access to a talent pool that would otherwise not be accessible?
  • Who will be working on the search? Will it be only one consultant or will there be a team assigned to build the pool, review resumes, and screen applicants?

Understand how the search firm is paid

Search firm services typically require an organization to pay a fee that is one-third of the position’s salary plus expenses related to the search. However, fees will vary and can often be negotiated depending on the firm’s guidelines and type of service provided.
  • In a retained search, the organization commits to work with only that particular firm on the search.
  • Some search firms will offer unbundled services. For example, an organization could hire a firm only for advice on formulating the job description, or developing a candidate pool. Terms of engagement with search firms are usually negotiable.
A fully executed contract must be in place before the search begins. EEO information requirements and applicant tracking requirements should be included in the contract.

After gathering all relevant information, request references and proposals from your top choices and schedule a follow-up interview.

If the hiring manager prefers, Human Resources can provide a short list of potential search firms.

What should be done once an organization has engaged a search firm? Please refer to the Organizing the Search Checklist for steps to help this process run smoothly.

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