When you need an insight on a highly specialised niche role, or your recruitment process is hedged with secrecy, the headhunter comes into their own. Claire Hills reports.

Selecting the right candidate for a job can mean the difference between boom and gloom within a company. The ideal person for a position is not necessarily the one with the best qualifications, or even the most experience – some people will suit a role, others will not. It is very common for insurance companies to outsource their searches to recruitment consultants or headhunters. The question is, which is the most suitable approach for insurance companies to take?

It is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two methods, because today many recruitment consultancies offer headhunting services alongside their normal searches. The methods have not converged, however.

Richard Griffiths, director of City and international operations at Hays Inter-Selection, cites two main differences between them. Headhunting searches are project-driven, rather than general sweeps, and the method of payment differs. Headhunting is paid on a retained basis (a third up front, a third when a shortlist has been drawn up and the rest when a candidate accepts the job). With traditional recruitment firms, the client only pays when a candidate has joined the company.

Geraldine Kaye, of Gaaps International, says: “It doesn't matter which method you use

as long as the specialist knows its business.” Kaye believes that problems arise because the majority of recruitment consultants are generalists. As headhunters are retained to find one person for one particular role, they are likely to have done a lot of research into the given area and may therefore be more knowledgeable about the industry.

Jo Quail of Royce Appointments adds: “Clearly, if one wishes to recruit for a highly specialised role, say a financial institutions underwriter, a professional indemnity new business developer or a senior bloodstock underwriter, then this may pose initial difficulties not necessarily present in more junior roles. In this instance, as a first step, one might seek the advice of a headhunter.”

Griffiths believes that the use of headhunting depends on the seniority of the role sought, and the number of people in the market place. The higher up the recruitment ladder you go, the fewer prospective candidates there are, according to Griffiths. This means that it is hard to reach them all in the kind of advertising campaign a recruitment consultant might use. It is also doubtful that all the prospective candidates would be registered on the books of one recruitment consultancy, so the number of responses would be reduced dramatically. In order to attract any niche group, headhunting appears to be the way forward.

He adds: “If there is only a small batch of people then you will headhunt. The company wanting to recruit may know some key people, but it is the ‘marzipan layer' – the layer below the icing – that they all miss. We look at the market and find that through our research and archives we come up with names. That's what specialists like ourselves do.” The marzipan layer Griffiths is referring to is the group of people who employers may not know, but who actually fit the bill.

A major reason for employers to use headhunters is to avoid giving away their secrets to competitors, says Griffiths. It is common for employers to be acquainted with people in competing businesses, and when an opening arises they may well offer the job to them. The problem arises when giving out job details which reveal changes or new business practices which will come in as a result of the new position. By using a headhunting service, the identity of the company is not revealed until the prospective client has confirmed their interest.

So, headhunting appears to be the ideal method to recruit senior staff. The major factor that puts people off is the cost, which can rise to thousands of pounds. But the amount of time it can save in contrast to other searches, which may take months, may make it worth the money.

The consensus is that headhunting should be used to fill senior roles, while more general searches are suitable to fill more basic positions. And how should you choose your headhunter? Griffiths provides some advice for employers: “Look at how long they have been established. Do they have a track record in this type of business? Who are their clients? What sort of research archiving system do they have.” If all the answers you get are positive, then you should have all the ingredients for a successful candidate search.