It’s catching

The use of headhunters to fill senior roles in
social care is on the increase but, asks Ruth Winchester, do
headhunter agencies compound or alleviate the recruitment

There can’t be a much bigger ego boost than
having a headhunter call you on a Monday morning to whisper that
your services may be urgently required elsewhere. The icing on the
cake is that there will probably be a big pay rise in it for

Not all of these clandestine approaches are
targeting the right person, however, as many are simply casting
about for a likely candidate. Yet most senior social services staff
will, at one time or another, have been approached by a recruitment
consultant with a specific brief. Indeed, the use of headhunters to
fill senior vacancies is now an established part of life.

London boroughs are having more than their
fair share of recruitment difficulties, including among senior
staff. Hence, it seems likely that a significant number of
directors in London boroughs are there by dint of the activities of
specialist recruitment agencies such as KPMG and
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

But when you consider that an appointment
through a headhunter costs between £20,000 and £30,000
(or about 33 per cent of the postholder’s salary) and that an
average stay of three to four years is considered “optimum” for a
director, you are looking at a surcharge of between £5,000 and
£10,000 per year on top of the initial wage bill. So can the
service provided by recruitment consultants really be described as
value for money?

The consultants, of course, would argue that
it is. Headhunters and employers agree that the number of talented,
visionary people wanting to become assistant directors and
directors of social services, or even to be involved in any senior
management, is dwindling. A few years ago a shortlist for a
director’s post would have five people on it. Now it is three, if
you are lucky. Even the traditional route up from assistant
director to director is beginning to falter, with many assistant
directors opting to stay put and avoid what they see is an
increasingly exposed ladder upwards.

Maggie Hennessy is senior manager, executive
search and selection, for PwC. She suggests that an already
difficult recruitment situation may be compounded by the attractive
opportunities being offered by the new regulatory bodies built by
the government. The General Social Care Council, National Care
Standards Commission, Social Care Institute for Excellence and Best
Value inspection teams have all drawn their share of bright,
ambitious people away from statutory and voluntary social care

“They either want to focus on the reason they
went into social work, or they are moving into the voluntary sector
or the new regulatory bodies,” says Hennessy.

This migration, she argues, is starting to
tell in the number and quality of applicants for senior posts.

Given that the number of fish in the pool is
getting smaller, headhunters are probably better at hooking them
than councils. Authorities with problems – bad joint reviews or
inspections, or appalling publicity following a child’s death, for
instance – understandably have difficulties in recruitment.
Headhunters can act as “salesmen” for a particular job, persuading
potential applicants that their mix of skills is exactly what is
needed. For ambitious people with determination, turning around a
troubled organisation is seen as a real challenge and can set the
seal on a high-flying career.

And, if you were wondering where all that
commission goes, good headhunters put potential applicants through
an exhaustive recruitment process. Initial search and selection
will often include a technical evaluation, looking at how well a
candidate knows the relevant procedures, legislation and statutory
requirements. Their management skills may also be assessed,
possibly with psychometric testing. All of this information is then
passed on to the employing organisation.

From a candidate’s point of view being
headhunted has a number of advantages. Anthony Douglas, executive
director of community services for Havering, suggests that good
headhunting firms can give candidates essential inside information.
“They can tell you the real story – or at least the good ones can,”
he suggests. “You’ll get far more than the basic information you
get in an application pack, and it’ll give you the bigger picture
and let you know what you might be letting yourself in for.”

But Douglas argues that one of the
preconceptions about headhunters – that they can negotiate vastly
inflated salaries for the chosen few – is not necessarily the case
in social care. “The truth is that employers are desperate for good
people. It is a seller’s market – people are already negotiating
better salaries for themselves.”

Headhunters can provide a useful service for
those who don’t have lofty ambitions. People are contacted as they
are plodding along in a regular, routine job without any urgent
desire to move on. They may be contemplating the water, but haven’t
yet stuck a toe in. A call from a recruitment consultant can give
them the confidence boost they need to start contemplating new

And headhunters may also provide the sort of
networking, career development advice and hard-nosed attitude that
many people within social care lack.

Unfortunately, for every organisation whose
£20,000 has just netted them a rare new recruit, another is
mourning the loss of a talented staff member and counting the cost
of replacing them.

While headhunters’ primary hunting ground is
among weak, unattractive and sick organisations, as the recruitment
crisis deepens ever more in social care it seems possible that most
senior posts in social care will involve the recruitment

But when the cost of recruiting a senior post
is at least equivalent to one front-line worker’s annual salary,
there have to be questions asked about value for money. In an
environment in which many front-line staff and first-line managers
are facing paltry pay and unpleasant working environments,
investing such vast amounts in senior people, who in all likelihood
will stay in the position for less than five years, may verge on
the distasteful.

Then there is the issue of equal
opportunities. Local authorities are under a duty to ensure
equality of opportunity in appointments, and the use of headhunters
seems inconsistent. As one director puts it: “The use of
headhunters allows the organisation to comply with equal
opportunities. Basically, they do the non-complying for you.”

Hennessy is quick to dispute this view. “We’d
strongly reject that,” she says. “Headhunting contributes to equal
opportunities. We do a lot of capacity-building – we make ourselves
visible and give talks to women’s groups and black managers’

While she denies that PwC engages in positive
discrimination (actively seeking people from ethnic minorities or
women to take up senior posts), she insists that headhunters can be
a positive influence for people who don’t fit the white male,
middle-class stereotype. And, she points out: “If people aren’t
around at junior level, they are not going to suddenly materialise
at assistant director level.”

In an increasingly competitive jobs market
headhunters may be the only way to attract sufficient high-calibre
interest in a post. But, Julia Ross, director of social services at
the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, argues that employers
should think long and hard about what they want before calling in
the sharp-shooters. “We need to understand what they’re about, and
to think what we need from them to get the best from them. We are
too often passive recipients.”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.