Employer Branding Talent Acquisition

9 DIY Headhunting Tips for Small Businesses

What do you do, as an in-house recruiter, when your favourite agencies have tried and failed to find suitable candidates for a key role? You might commission an executive search firm to run a headhunt, but that may not be feasible in a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) where costs might be prohibitive. Also, some hiring managers can be resistant.

“For God’s sake, it’s going to cost even more? How hard can it be to recruit someone?” is a common refrain. So, trapped in a slow-motion, no-win nightmare, how about starting an in-house search for passive candidates? This is not a route for the half-hearted, there’s a reason why agency headhunting fees are high, but never has there been a greater opportunity to do things differently in a recruitment industry still wedded to tradition. The benefits for your organisation can be significant.

  • Employer brand value. When it comes to selling this role, you know the culture, environment, challenges and opportunities first hand. If anyone can present your organization’s employer brand value well to a prospective candidate, it’s you.
  • Speed. When you approach a candidate, you’re more likely to get a hearing than an agency recruiter would. Consequently, any dialogue will run at a faster pace and to a much deeper level, saving everyone’s time.
  • Response. Going direct enables you to build trust and loyalty quickly. The likelihood of receiving a formal application from a good candidate will increase strongly.
  • Costs. Many of the online, social media and network tools you’ll need are freely available. Even the cost of accessing paid-for services can be minimised by paying monthly, not for the full year.
  • Competitiveness. Where there is a genuine shortage of quality candidates, working directly means you can be faster and more adaptable than third-party recruiters used by competitors.
  • Quality. Targeting passive candidates should enable you to hire a more able individual than you would get from sifting out the ‘least-worst’ applicant from active job seekers.
  • Risk. These are limited to your time and a small level of cost for access to services. When you get a result, you’ll be making considerable savings against budgets.
  • Investment. You’ll develop some new and very useful skills that will continue to benefit both you and your employer for the long haul.

Let’s start now…

Before you do anything, run a sanity check. Be brutally honest, at least with yourself – why hasn’t this role been filled? Is the hiring manager relentlessly waiting for that perfect candidate, or just not selling the opportunity well at interviews? Are the benefits, prospects or support unattractive? Is the company saddled with a poor reputation? If you’re going to be the solution, you need to own the problem.

  1. Define the role. Re-do this yourself from scratch and ensure you’ve got internal agreement. Specifically document the role scope, benefits, objectives, support and prospects.
  2. Find the value. Prospective candidates already have a job, so define the crux of both the opportunity and your employer brand value. Internally, make sure everyone stays on-message.
  3. Plan your time. Headhunting is a haul, not a sprint. If you allocate time each day to follow a process, you will deliver a result, but there are no short cuts.
  4. Establish the selection process. Ensure everyone agrees a new selection and interview process, to assess candidates individually. Agree target maximum CV and interview turnaround times. Now it’s time to start your search. Cast your net far and wide using all of the social media tools available. Be open about your search and chase referrals hard. When your first potential candidate hoves into view, your battle for that talent really begins.
  5. Aim carefully. You’ll get one shot only. Your first approach to a prospective candidate may well be via a LinkedIn message or an email. What will pique their interest and land a hook for you? Draw up a short, sharp, tailored enquiry that forms a strong pitch.
  6. Engage promptly. Speak to the candidate before requesting a CV or application, so that you can build appeal. Gauge whether there really is a practical fit and whether they’re genuinely interested, or just on an ego trip. Keep things light until they decide to formally apply.
  7. Be open. Geography, job titles, relative seniority, role scope, career support and the benefits structure can all be problems. You haven’t go time to waste, so find any barriers quickly and propose work-arounds before they become show-stoppers.
  8. Stay on plan. Outline the selection stages and timescales. At all costs, stick to them. Nothing discourages a passive candidate faster than getting the run-around from endless delays, an uncertain selection process or sudden changes in the role or benefits package.
  9. Keep rolling. When you get a great response from an excellent prospective candidate – do not stop searching. The role isn’t truly filled until they’ve turned up on the first day.

Getting on board?

Conducting a passive search requires determination and stamina, but the upsides are hugely attractive. I’ve trained dozens of people from SME companies to take on passive-candidate searches and not one has subsequently failed. The writing is on the wall, the bus is leaving traditional recruitment methods behind. The time for action is now and the only decision to make is – do you want to be onboard?

About the author: Jon Gregory is a writer and trainer on both job-hunting and candidate search and selection. He’s the editor of, an ambassador for National Careers Week and regularly serves as a Guardian Careers live Q&A expert panel member. Reach him on Twitter @letsfirewalk

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