Recruitment consultants: Top tips for HR

A good relationship between HR and recruitment consultants increases the chances of filling posts with the best available talent. Without this, mismatches between CVs, shortlists and vacancies will waste time and resources. Yet failure to work at developing these relationships is a common complaint from both sides. Here, consultants and HR professionals share tips on how to get the best out of each other.


Like any relationship, both sides need to develop a clear understanding of each other to work effectively. For Pauline Wiseman, general manager of European HR at Honda, the single most negative thing a consultancy can do is bombard her with speculative CVs. “I expect as a minimum that an agency will wait until they know something about us as an organisation before targeting us with possible candidates,” she says.

A scattergun approach is also counterproductive when adopted by clients, according to John Baker, chief executive of Macmillan Davies Hodes (MDH). “If they’re briefing us about a role and say that eight other consultants are involved, how long do they think the consultant is going to spend looking at that role? Working with a consultancy is an investment of time. The time invested up-front in ensuring that the consultancies they work with truly understand their business will save a massive amount of time in the future.”

He adds that without proper engagement with the consultant, the client is likely to end up with a larger and less well-targeted list of candidates. “If the recruitment consultant is not given time by the client to understand their business strategies, cultural values and the behaviours they expect, we’re not going to get the best result for the client. You need to reduce the variables in the consultant’s mind.”

Personal contact

Jason Willis, divisional manager of Reed Human Resources, says the best way to achieve understanding is through personal contact. “The personality of the candidate and the cultural fit in terms of whether they are right for the client’s business is a very important part of the decision-making process. That’s hard to get right unless you have spent time with the client and understand their business.”

Thom Staight, director of Michael Page HR, agrees, saying the main problem with the relationship is lack of communication, something he feels is exacerbated by increasing reliance on IT. “Online portals are fantastic tools but they don’t foster the same amount of verbal communication between the supplier and in-house recruiter. The fewer contacts there are, the less strong the personal relationship and the harder it is for either side to pick up the phone.”

One way that consultancy HR Staff Search encourages personal contact is by offering clients added value services such as seminars and briefings. This not only helps remove a sense that the relationship is purely transactional, according to UK sales manager Sean Curran, but develops awareness about a client’s organisation and culture through the meetings that follow. “It gives understanding of the softer skills they are looking for in candidates and also the technical skills.”

Wiseman believes it is important to deal with the same consultant wherever possible. “The company knowledge and experience transferred during one appointment process then isn’t lost but can lead to a more effective process next time.”

Rules of engagement

Staight argues that establishing rules of engagement at the start of a relationship encourages the client to think precisely about what it is they want from the consultant. “If both sides can get their requirements out up-front, it’s normally fairly easy to stick to.”

The success of the relationship will partly be measured by how many people are placed by the consultant and the subsequent effectiveness of the appointments. Staight says another measurement is the ratio of shortlisted CVs to CVs that are carried through to interview. “That’s a good indication of understanding of the business and the ability to follow the brief they are given.”

For Curran, both parties need to be clear about when interviews take place, how quickly feedback will be provided, and what support information candidates will be expected to provide. “We can agree all of these elements in an initial meeting,” he says. “Ultimately, I think it saves time and makes it an efficient process.”

Mike Lynn-Jones, group organisation development director at logistics giant Wincanton, insists that consultants deliver on agreements or give adequate warning if prevented from doing so. “You need to know exactly where you are in the process with them so you don’t turn up to a meeting expecting to have a shortlist and find they have nobody.”

Treatment of candidates

Wiseman says the way agencies treat candidates is a good indication of their quality and integrity. “If an agency fires copy CVs off to many companies with no initial conversation and no follow-up, it implies a lack of respect for that individual and the choices they are making.”

Baker suggests any agreement between client and consultancy should include a commitment from the client to provide feedback on candidates who are interviewed and not taken forward. “It may sound obvious but a lot of organisations are poor about the quality of feedback they provide. We need to learn as an organisation why a certain individual is not right.” This avoids making the same mistake twice.

Curran argues that the candidates should be given feedback as well. “If you can get some good, hard, meaningful feedback from clients, we can coach candidates in the areas they were shown to be weak.” He says this helps develop long-term relationships because, particularly in HR recruitment, candidates often end up becoming the clients. “It’s a very network-led industry.”


Employers are seeking to cut costs in all areas, including recruitment. With consultants working on commission, there is inevitably a suspicion among some clients that the focus is on short-term gains rather than long-term suitability of candidates. Willis has a simple answer to this: “The way recruitment works is that we are paid for supplying candidates.” If they leave the job, for whatever reason, the client is free to go elsewhere, he adds.

Wiseman suggests both sides could benefit if some commission was withheld until a candidate has stayed with an organisation for a specified time. This would satisfy the client’s goals and encourage the development of a more long-term relationship.

Curran says fees should become a secondary issue once a strong relationship exists and the client understands exactly what they are buying. “What’s more important for them is the quality of the shortlist and the quality of candidate they ultimately appoint.” In a new relationship, consultants may offer discounts if a sufficient volume of vacancies are promised.

Lynn-Jones agrees that fees are of secondary importance when dealing with senior appointments, but says this is less true with higher volume, junior appointments. “Normally, we operate a ‘no placement, no fee’ system. The fee might be 18% to 20% of the replacement salary.” He adds that Wincanton has been able to significantly reduce fees during the recession because there are fewer vacancies for consultants to fill.

Lorna White, HR director for property firm Savills Commercial, says a willingness to be flexible is sometimes necessary. “If you’re going for a very bespoke role, you may have to agree terms because it is not easy to recruit. It’s going to take research and time to bring forward candidates.”

Comments are closed.