How to Conduct a Confidential Search

The What, Why, and How Behind the Confidential Search

by Tasia Allison

Confidential searches are popping up everywhere. They’re on the rise after business challenges continue to cripple organizations that didn’t have the right talent in the right seat. Organizations can only limp along for so long with an underperformer in a key role before they have to invest the time and resources to develop or replace that role. We always opt for development first, but what happens when you’ve done all the developing, coaching, feedback, and performance improvement plans? It’s time to replace. But what if that role is critical—and that role is mission-critical? Then, it’s time for a confidential search.

Confidential searches are like secret searches. A few individuals within your organization are aware the search is taking place, but the position is not posted publicly and is not shared internally. At times, the individual may be unaware a replacement search is underway. This is sensitive, but usually due in part, to that person’s behavior or performance. Typically, we see these all tied to critical roles like CFOs, Executives, HR leaders (although it can be any role). Here are a few common scenarios when to do a confidential search:

Involuntary Scenarios:

  1. Business continuity or mission-critical (the most common). This person owns a key piece of operations and though there is cause for termination, without “someone” in the role, there would be great risk or loss to the business. 
  2. Risk of loss of intellectual property.  Organizations may want to provide notice to individuals facing termination, but this could mean IP is unintentionally walked to the door too. Removing the window and exiting someone on the spot may preserve more IP. 
  3. Fear of a walkout. This may be a leader who is well adored who may “take” individuals with them. 
  4. The organization needs to maintain control of the narrative. If there’s a risk of gossip and half-truths or information needs to be protected.

Voluntary Scenarios

  1. Industry protection.
    Replacing a high-level executive at the peak of competition may raise questions with customers and clients, keeping it confidential can allow for a smoother transition. 
  2. Retirements.
    Having an overlap or a replacement day one can remove uncertainty for employees during the time it takes to complete the search and prevents additional exits of talent. 
  3. Medical replacements.
    This would be voluntary, but someone may wish to exit quietly due to personal medical reasons. They may have an illness they wish to keep private from the organization but are no longer able to continue in their role. 
  4. Mutual agreements.
    There’s a clear understanding with the person in the role that it’s time to move on. They may be aware of their gap in performance and know they aren’t the right fit anymore. This helps protect culture and allows that person time to find a new role too. 

What’s the best way to conduct a confidential search?

  1. Do your due diligence.
    Full assess if your employee really needs to be exited. We don’t recommend doing a confidential search as part of an exploratory business evaluation. It doesn’t hurt to understand the talent market better first but engaging with candidates when you aren’t serious can burn up your future pipeline. 
  2. Work with an executive search firm that specializes in confidential searches.
    In order to move candidates from curious to engaged in your search, you need a recruiter who can handle and reveal the delicate details while still protecting your organization. You don’t want to risk that on a novice recruiter. Jump right to the best in this scenario.
  3. Engage with passive candidates and headhunting.
    Posting a job, even if you list it confidential, can be risky. Chances are if you have someone underperforming or disengaged, they are also searching, and they may connect the dots on your job posting. And if you keep the job positing too ambiguous, candidates don’t engage, and you waste precious time and resources. Instead, stick to reaching out to your ideal candidates and network personally. 
  4. Utilize a Non-Disclosure agreement.
    If you’re working with an executive search firm, they are building mutual trust with candidates on your behalf, but they are also likely glazing over the details. In the final stages with a candidate, sign a mutual NDA and share all the details. This is the best way to start your onboarding process and lessen the risk of additional turnover. 
  5. Work quickly and candidly and ensure a positive candidate experience.
    Nothing burns your confidential search faster than a frustrated candidate. Leaving them hanging for weeks on end or without clear feedback can come back to haunt you. If you’ve ever wanted to ensure a positive experience for your candidates, now is certainly the time. 
  6. Have a plan.
    While confidential searches limit risk, this isn’t a “no risk” process. There is always risk the confidential search is blown. Have a plan ready to engage the employee and the organization. 

Curious about more information on a confidential search? Reach out to us, we’d love to discuss marketplace trends and more information.