The hunt for talent

Should your firm invest in headhunting services? Here’s why you might want to consider it for your next hire.

When you’re recruiting top talent, time is of the essence. “So the best thing is to go to people who know people,” says Karine Gorecki, vice-president of human resources at BNP Paribas Canada. That’s why, when she’s looking to fill a position, Gorecki first searches the internal network of BNP with the help of the company’s HR department and if she comes up short, she turns to an outside recruiter, a.k.a. a headhunter. The group, with offices in Montreal and Toronto, has increased its staff from 175 to 450 over the past three years. To meet their ever-growing staffing needs, they rely on internal mobility and headhunters.

There’s plenty going on at Kerosene, a Montreal-based finance and accounting recruitment firm. According to Francis Pallascio, a professional accountant and the managing partner, activity in his firm’s sector is strong. “A person can have all the requisite qualifications on paper or on LinkedIn, but what counts is personality. Our clients are looking for stable, inquisitive and dynamic candidates with great people skills.” But how can you tell whether a potential hire has these qualities? “By talking to them over the phone initially, and then in person or via Skype if the candidate is abroad. We assess their potential, and only recommend candidates we can vouch for.”

But how do headhunters find the right hire for their clients? For a start, they can search their databases, which house thousands of resumés. But Pallascio admits that while databases are useful for networking, they’re not great for finding that rare gem of an employee. “The types we’re looking for are usually employed, satisfied with their current position or too busy to look for a new one,” he says. When headhunters recruit, they revisit prospective hires they’ve been coaching — in some cases, the candidates needed to develop specific competencies — or browse LinkedIn and other sites, and search for people in similar positions at competitors.

“Unlike employers, recruiters have lots of flexibility and can contact anyone, anywhere they want, at firms such as PwC or EY, for example, which have an unwritten nonpoaching rule — I don’t recruit from you, you don’t recruit from me,” explains Gregory Delrue, a senior manager at Evolution Recruitment, another Montreal-based recruitment firm that specializes in finance and accounting placements. Headhunters have no compunction about recruiting from these firms, especially since they may have contacts in the organization who can give them leads. In addition, they guarantee candidate and client confidentiality.

One of the only rules is never to recruit someone who works for a client, or you risk losing that client. This explains why mid-level management recruiters regard the Big Four as a huge talent pool since it is difficult for them to land many recruitment contracts with these firms.

Once a fish is on the hook, the recruiter has to reel it in. “The key is finding out what matters most to the candidate,” Pallascio says. “Is the candidate looking for new challenges, a higher salary, or a better quality of life?” Delrue adds, “In large firms, accountants are often assigned very specific tasks. But many would like more variety.”


While there are few recruitment firms for executive and board positions, they aren’t short on work or resources. With 46 offices around the world, Russell Reynolds Associates is one of the top three executive-search firms. Montreal managing director Brigitte Simard says that the agency works with large companies as well as SMEs with a minimum market value of $100 million. “An accountant specializing in the industrial sector is much easier to find than a CFO with knowledge of Asia and Europe and a specific industry. That’s where our firm’s network comes into play,” she says.

Simard and her colleagues believe in the importance of communication when it comes to finding the right recruit. “A client might be looking for a bilingual Canadian candidate, but may revise its expectations if we find the best profiles among unilingual anglophones working in the US, with higher-than-expected salary requirements.”

According to Delrue, trust is critical. “Headhunters have to be honest with their clients. They need to understand the challenges of the job to avoid overselling the position, or the candidate for that matter — otherwise it’s a sure fail.”

Recruiters should always be discreet, never rushing prospective candidates. “Brigitte Simard was the first headhunter to believe in me. She had success in making this challenge at Sun Life appealing to me,” says Isabelle Hudson. The businesswoman was persuaded to leave ad agency Marketel for Sun Life Financial, where she now serves as executive chair, Quebec, and senior vice-president, client solutions. “I then used Simard’s help to identify key talents in the market while I built my team. Her advice was invaluable,” she says. Good recruiters know their candidates and coach them throughout their careers. But they’re also very familiar with the client company’s culture and aware of future challenges.


Most recruiters charge 18% to 25% of a position’s annual salary or a flat fee for their services. But firms such as Russell Reynolds or Boyden and Odgers Berndtson command fees between 30% and 40% or a flat fee. This partly explains why, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many large companies chose to reduce their recruiting costs by creating in-house recruitment positions, separate from HR.

Delrue says LinkedIn has really hurt headhunters. Recruitment firms contend that, although the profiles posted don’t reveal much about the personalities of potential candidates, their names are no longer a best-kept secret. The Big Four have capitalized on this and have a huge LinkedIn presence. In early May, for example, they boasted more than 1,200 posts for positions to be filled in Canada.

MNP, which has 3,000 employees in Canada, uses LinkedIn as a primary source for low- to mid-level positions. It uses headhunters for executive-level searching or after in-house recruiters have spent months searching for the right low- to mid-level candidate to no avail. But this common practice is criticized by recruiters, who are often hired by panicked employers to help them with positions that are much more difficult to fill after they have been posted extensively using powerful job search engines such as Neuvoo or Indeed. Employers can waste a lot of time and money (as revealed by the online Bad Hire Calculator, powered by Toronto-based Clarity Recruitment) and face business risk exposure, particularly where their finances are concerned.

Employees at MNP are also asked to do their part by sifting through their own network of contacts. And if their search is successful, they can receive a hefty bonus.

Marie-Andrée Gauthier, senior director of human capital at MNP, has witnessed the change in recruitment tactics. “Today there are so many eager headhunters in the market. After seeing job postings on our site, some recruiters don’t hesitate to submit resumés without even telling the candidates.” The reason for this abundance of recruiters is that there is no mandatory training. Anyone can be a recruiter, including CPAs who pride themselves on having a great network.

BNP Paribas Canada has adopted a hybrid approach. “A consultant will come to our offices occasionally as a preferred recruiter,” says Gorecki. “She is the one who decides whether or not we should use a headhunter. Sure, LinkedIn is an option but, honestly, it’s a little outdated and it’s still just a network of contacts.”

Simard doesn’t mince words when it comes to LinkedIn and similar online networks. “LinkedIn is a useful place to start communication, but don’t set your hopes on it to fill a strategic position, just as an HR manager of a major corporation can’t interview the future CEO who will become the manager’s boss. Our strength is that we’re businesspeople, not HR people.”