Is Executive Search really torture?

We recently conducted a search for a senior level professional, and when the search was completed, we had to reject the final candidates that didn’t get the job. One of the rejected candidates called me a few weeks later to discuss why he didn’t get the job and to get some general feedback on the process. He said that he had reflected on the process and had come to a conclusion; he had changed his mind about executive search consultants.

Hoping, that he meant it positively I asked what had changed his mind? He told me that he had a standard joke with some of his friends from his MBA class that is going through a recruitment process was almost like an act of torture.

We discussed this further, and he told me some of the stories that he – and some of his friends – had experienced in recruitment processes. And to be honest, I have seen and heard many things in the past almost 15 years in this industry, but I was quite surprised and disappointed. He didn’t mention any names, and even if he had, I wouldn’t reveal them. But in the past few weeks I have reflected on this and boiled it down to five different major problems you can experience as a candidate in an executive search process:

Lack of information in the process

Perhaps the least scandalous, but probably the most common problem. The situation is often; a search firm has contacted the candidate and taken an interest in the position. But then the feedback and information are slow and unclear during the process. The candidate doesn’t receive proper information before the first interview, and the information on the role and the company are limited, and the consultant or researcher doesn’t get back as agreed.

As a candidate, you might feel that you don’t want to push it too much to risk losing the chemistry between you and the executive search consultant. And although it’s always a good idea to consider your communication style, I believe that most consultants are rather open to receive several gentle reminders. Even if the feedback is that there is no news, they will get back when there is. Sometimes it is easier to get through to the researcher than to the consultant. Try different channels, both phone, e-mail, etc.

Unethical interviews

Interviewing candidates is a skill itself. I don’t expect line managers who rarely employ new team members to master this skill in any way. But an executive search consultant is expected to learn these skills – both in technique and in ethics. Some of the stories I have heard over the years are mind-blowing. Questions that are illegal due to discrimination, questions of private character that has nothing to do with the job but rather to see if the consultant can intimidate the candidate.

It goes without saying – an interview needs to be more than just a casual conversation where you exchange small-talk. But in my experience, an interview can still be conducted in a positive atmosphere and at the same time ensure just as much relevant information as the 3rd-degree interrogation or especially the waterboarding treatment. In some cases, receiving more relevant information makes it easier to identify the most suitable candidate. If you feel you are being treated unethical or discriminated in interviews, I would suggest you tell this straight to the consultant. In the case where there is a more senior partner or similar in the search firm, discuss it with them too. Depending on the seriousness, I would also consider contacting the consultant’s client. The client is probably not too keen on candidates being poorly treated in their name. But make sure that the critique is factual. It can be a risky approach if it’s a grey zone. But if you feel you have been treated poorly, always let it be heard.

Unethical reference taking

Some executive search firms take references on potential candidates before they even have the candidate in the process, creating rumours about a person who might not even be interested in changing jobs. I don’t mean consultants asking around in their network about strong potential candidates – getting recommendations is a massive part of true and thorough executive search. What I mean is asking around about a named person and a specific role – without permission. In my opinion, it is unethical, to say the least.

If you find out that’s what happened? Swear a lot! Get angry! Count to 100! And then make sure you let the executive search company know as well as everyone you discuss executive search with, how you feel and why it is simply not ok. In my opinion, it’s not much different than schoolyard gossiping.

Poor feedback on tests and assessments and rejections

Many candidates, unfortunately, has been through it. Filling out tests and assessments without receiving any feedback. Sometimes even when they ask for it. And many times, after being through tests, assessments, interviews, case studies and more interviews with the client – the candidate gets rejected without further explanation. Simply not good enough. To be honest, there are often tiny details making the difference in securing the job for someone and rejection for another. Professional executive search firms should always attempt to give as much constructive feedback as possible, so that you as a rejected candidate at least gain valuable lessons and development points.

There are ethical standards to live up to and even legal standards. First thing is unsurprisingly confidentiality. Test results and such are never disclosed to anyone else than the agreed client. And the results are deleted according to legislation and agreement with the candidate.
Regarding the feedback, everyone is entitled to a good and thorough feedback on any test and assessment. Either by phone or in person.
Some candidates have gone through so many tests and assessments that they know their results by heart, and if they can see that nothing is different from usual, they prefer no feedback. I think that is fine, but the offer for a full feedback should always be there.
If you didn’t get feedback, even when you have asked for it, I would suggest contacting the company that has developed the test. The search firm is certified (hopefully) in the testing tools and is then obligated to live up to the ethical standards also meaning that you can expect an accurate feedback.
If you don’t receive any relevant feedback on your rejection, I suggest that you always ask for it. It may be small differences, but it could be good for you to know. Ask for the executive search consultant’s honest opinion. If you get it, it could be valuable information for the future.


Another issue many candidates experience when in contact with executive search companies is arrogance. Now, I do believe this is hard to define. People will experience this very different and some may even interpret a legit and correct rejection as arrogant. Nevertheless, it is one of the problems that we hear most of regarding the executive search industry. And not only to candidates but even towards clients.

The Solution to this is easy… Stay away from those arrogant people and companies. How you deal with the arrogant person in front of you, probably depends on who you are. If you get angry, sad, or if you ignore it. But nevertheless, there is no need to have such negativity in your life. Just my opinion.
So, as I wrote earlier, the candidate that called me, told me he had changed his mind about executive search consultants. He said he felt that we took him seriously as a candidate and that we “walked the extra mile” to give constructive and personal feedback. To be honest, it made my day. It is the best feedback we can get.
If you have poor experiences, you are naturally most welcome to share it in the comments field. But I hope you will refrain from mentioning any specific companies or consultants. My goal was not to point fingers at anyone particular, hoping that the industry I’m in collectively pulls itself together and treat people with respect and care. We are not perfect ourselves. But we strive to be.

I hope it goes without saying, that we are not condoning waterboarding.

One thought on “Is Executive Search really torture?

  1. Dinesh Kapadia

    It’s great to hear that the candidate had a positive experience with the executive search consultant and felt that they were taken seriously and given constructive feedback. It shows the impact that a respectful and caring approach can have on a candidate’s perception of the executive search process. The author’s goal of promoting a more respectful and caring approach within the industry is commendable and will hopefully lead to better experiences for candidates and companies alike.

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