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10 Signs Your Executive Search is "Going Off the Rails"

Posted by Bob Corlett on April 28, 2010

Every week I get at least one call from a frustrated HR executive or hiring manager who has just had a search "go off the rails." They call me disappointed and at their wits end, and unsure why it failed.

Yet in about 10 minutes I usually have a pretty good idea what was not working for them...because most searches don't fail suddenly and for mysterious reasons. Most searches display quite a few warning signs along the way and fail for predictable reasons.

10 Common Warning Signs

So keep your searches on track with these 10 common warning signs that signal your search is heading for trouble. Hopefully you won't have to waste three months on a doomed search, because as you will see, most of these warning signs actually appear very early in the process.

1) The hiring manager either never defined what they were looking for, or key managers disagreed on what they were looking for.

Be sure you know what is expected of new hires and how their performance will be judged before you start recruiting and outreach. A sure sign of trouble is an old, borrowed, or vague job description or one that is mostly a laundry list of qualifications. Both are signs the organization never got on the same page and decided what was most important about the position before advertising it.

2) The primary "recruiting" method was to post a dull job description on job boards.

Bad ads attract bad candidates. Period.

And developing a strong candidate pool can often mean looking beyond job ads - they only reach about 12% of the total job market. (One suggestion before you involve an executive search firm, reach more people by using the networks of your current employees to make your job known. This method creates an easy and often untapped source of additional candidates who aren't looking at job advertising.

3) Resumes were collected for weeks, yet nobody looked at them.

Be responsive and get back to people quickly. Good people almost never stay on the job market very long. And think about the impression you make on candidates with a haphazard, sluggish, indecisive hiring process.

4) Resumes were screened for "the perfect fit" instead of looking broadly at qualifications.  

Hiring managers often try to use the resume to make assumptions about the candidates, rather than actually talking to the candidates. (I've seen hiring managers pre-judge a candidate by their title alone.) The resume never tells the whole story. Most attempts to "save time" by carefully screening resumes...only waste more time.

5) Interviews took weeks to schedule.

Schedule your hiring process like you would any other high-priority project. Prioritize hiring and interviews in your own personal calendar, pre-scheduling the time you will need. Far too often when good candidates come along, it takes weeks to get them scheduled for a first interview. When hiring managers don't pre-schedule interviews, long lags occur between first and second interviews, and those good candidates vanish, taking other jobs instead. 

Also, if you find yourself with a pool of candidates quickly, try to cluster their interviews into one week. It allows you to act decisively and move more quickly from first interviews into second interviews. Which, again, keeps good candidates around to consider your position.

6) No salary budget flexibility.

A search is doomed from the start if qualified, interested candidates are ruled out of consideration because they want more than the budgeted salary number. Ignoring job market realities and hiring to fit the budget often leads to hiring the wrong people, chronic turnover and poor productivity.

Instead, look at the most qualified candidates, and then determine the fair "market rate" for their skills. Sometimes smart hiring requires the courage to stand up to internal politics and fight for the budget you need.

7) Unstructured interviews by busy executives.

Research found that the unstructured interview is only the 9th best way to predict job performance. Relying on great hiring decisions made based on an unstructured interview with a busy executive is a great way to set a hiring process up for failure.

8) You were forced to settle for one finalist.

You only had one finalist at the end of a long, grueling interview sequence. If you like them, there's the risk that you're not alone, and they'll take another position instead of your offer.

Or they might be last person standing, but you have serious reservations about their ability to do the job. Do you take the risk, or start over?

9) References and background checks were not done before making the job offer.

You never know what might crop up in these checks that didn't show up in the rest of the hiring process. Ignore this step at your own peril.

10) Salary negotiations fell apart right at the end.

Never make an offer without knowing how it might be received. When salary negotiations are left to chance, and not addressed early in the interview sequence, the search could fall apart.


Consistent, predictable hiring is not only possible - it's a business imperative. So if you are settling for anything less, maybe you should stop and look at the staggering cost of an executive mis-hire.

Learn more about the executive search and hiring process in our Resource Center.

Topics: Executive Search, Hiring Process