Executive search: does your candidate management process help or hinder employer branding?

Frank Lippens


No company sets out to give candidates a poor experience but it still happens all too frequently, damaging the ‘employer brand’. Why is this? What can be done to minimise a negative experience and what is the search firm’s role? This article offers some guidance.

Competition to attract the most talented people first created the notion of the ‘employer brand’ in the 90’s. The idea is simple: take the same marketing and brand-building techniques used to attract and retain customers and use them to attract, hire and retain good employees. If you have any doubts about the value of this, consider the words used in an opening address at the CIPD’s 2008 annual conference by its erstwhile chief executive Jackie Orme:

“When I started out in the profession, nobody talked about employer branding. Now it’s absolutely integral to business strategy – resonating well beyond the doors of the HR department.”

Now we all know that customers will be turned off and will go elsewhere if what they experience differs negatively from what they expected by product or company branding. The same applies equally to potential employees if they experience dissonance at any stage of the hiring process. That’s why having a well-thought-out and well-run candidate management process is critical. In the executive search sector there are six distinct phases that make up that process. Any one of them can lead to the unravelling of all the effort and money a company spends on employer brand building:

1. The brief

This should be clear about the role, the ideal candidate profile, the company and its challenges. It should have the right level of detail, ensuring it presents the company realistically, and should make clear the various stages that candidates will be expected to go through before a decision will be made. Too often we receive complaints from candidates that briefs seem to have been hastily compiled, comprise little more than a single page document with scant information. A good search firm will help draw up the assignment brief so that it ticks all of the aforementioned boxes and more: describing the role in just the right way to attract the best candidates.


“…having a well-thought-out and well-run candidate management process is critical.”


2. Candidate outreach

Following candidate research, the second step is the initial contact between the search consultancy and the ‘long list’ of people this throws up. This is most often by telephone and calls must be professional, to the point and, most importantly, compelling, good people may not be actively seeking their next role and need to be persuaded to consider a move. In terms of candidate interest, it helps if your search firm has already had some contact to create credibility and trust with the individuals they call. The quality of the firm’s network is not just about numbers, it’s also about the amount of time and effort they’ve invested in building relationships with potential candidates.

3. Initial, face-to-face meetings

This is the stage where a long list of candidates gets reduced down to those who will be short-listed for client interviews. This is clearly a two way process, the candidates want more in-depth information and the consultant needs to understand the candidates’ skills, experiences, motivations and overall suitability for the role. The interview should be a competence-based assessment. If required by the client, psychometric testing is added, although in our experience this is uncommon for senior positions. Candidates are rarely 100% perfect for the role in question, so a good search consultant helps to advise, guide and coach a client on which areas to probe and how best to support a good fit. This is where detailed reporting and a proper shortlist briefing with the client come in. Individual candidates should be discussed, and strengths and weaknesses outlined.

Understanding the complexities of the life sciences sector with knowledge accumulated over many years and thousands of assignments is very important. CVs are always written to impress but consultants need to know how to probe deeper to discover exactly what a candidate means by “I was involved in X, Y or Z,” and similar claims. Clearly one cannot know everything to the smallest detail.

The outcome of this first meeting with the search firm can be decided immediately. More often the consultant will only tell candidates if they have made the short list once all potential candidate interviews are completed.


“Candidates are rarely 100% perfect for the role in question, so a good search consultant helps to advise, guide and coach a client…”


4. Feedback from the search firm

This is another area where a good candidate experience can be compromised. The search firm consultant who interviewed them should always personally telephone all candidates to explain the basis of their decision, offering honest and constructive feedback. This should never be done by email or even worse, a standard email rejection letter. Even if the message is not positive candidates appreciate and deserve useful, open feedback. For those who are shortlisted, the search firm and client need to ensure interviews are set up in the shortest, most reasonable, time frame. The search firm should then guide and prepare candidates for forthcoming client interviews. This entails many elements, but it all comes down to making sure the candidate enters client interviews as best-prepared as possible. Without breaching confidentiality, candidates should be aware of all relevant issues in the client’s organisation, and be clearly briefed on the characters and preferences of the people they will meet.

5. Feedback from the client

As candidates progress through the multiple rounds of client interviews, they have a right to expect timely and detailed feedback. We have met thousands of candidates and still too many openly complain about shoddy, unprofessional treatment. Mostly it is about the way their candidacy has been dealt with and the number one source of dissatisfaction centres on the total absence of client feedback. You would be forgiven for thinking that no employer or search firm can afford to gamble with their reputations in this way in today’s competitive market executive talent, but our evidence shows this still happens all too often. Timely feedback in the opposite direction – from candidate to client – is also important. For example, we heard from one candidate that an interviewer clearly wasn’t happy that the position in question was being filled externally and it showed by his line of questioning. Obviously this was unhelpful in ‘selling’ the position so we fed this back to the client for appropriate action.

It almost goes without saying that senior people are busy. The hiring executive who fails to prioritise rapid feedback after they’ve interviewed candidates is sending out an unintentional signal that the people they are looking to hire are somehow unimportant. This can blow a gaping hole in the careful expectation management efforts previously undertaken by the search firm and the client’s HR team. If there is a genuinely good reason for delay, the search firm should always contact the short-listed candidates with a simple update call or email. It’s a small effort but it creates a lot of goodwill. The consultant’s job is to then work with the client to rapidly resolve the issue.


“It should be obvious by now that one of the building blocks to creating a good candidate management process is clear, rapid and honest dialogue.”


Multiple interview rounds are commonplace nowadays and the final number is often outside the search consultant’s control. Frequently we witness candidates being asked to return four or more times and see up to 15 people. Of course, in highly-matrixed organisations, this is almost inevitable. All the same, keep in mind the negative impact this can have on a previously highly-committed candidate. And, instead of subjecting candidates to the same questions repeatedly, get each of the interviewers to focus on different points.

6. Job offer and closing the deal

When the process finally results in identifying the right candidate and an offer is made, the consultant’s role in ensuring a good candidate experience perhaps enters its most delicate phase: securing a rapid and transparent closing of the deal. As well as acting as ‘honest broker’ in agreeing the remuneration and other terms, occasionally the chosen candidate can have doubts at the last moment, especially when relocation is involved. Reassurance, advice and objectivity from a third party, in the form of a trusted consultant, can help those people make the final step to commitment.

It should be obvious by now that one of the building blocks to creating a good candidate management process is clear, rapid and honest dialogue. By paying close attention to this at every stage along the way, a hiring manager can make substantial headway in protecting their personal reputation, as well as contributing positively to the wider ‘employer brand’ perception. At the senior executive level it’s a small world in any sector and life sciences is no exception. That next candidate could easily be your future boss or business partner, or the search firm’s future client. We forget this at our peril!


About the author:

Frank Lippens was Head of clinical development for The Netherlands at SmithKline Beecham, now GSK. He joined executive search firm Euromedica in 2001 and is now managing director for the Benelux region. Euromedica has conducted more than 3,000 international executive searches for some of the world’s leading life sciences companies.

Contact Frank at Frank.Lippens@Euromedica.com.

How else can we improve the candidate management process when hiring senior executives?