A moan about ‘Executive Search Firms’ and academic posts

Whenever university or research institutions create new positions, for example, due to retirements, people moving or expansion, the existing staff get quite excited. “Who can we recruit?”, “What fields do we want to grow our expertise in?”, “Where are we under-represented?”, “Who will we get on with?”, “Who will get on with us!”

It’s not hard to come up with a long list of stellar people that would be great additions to the hiring institution. After that, a few informal chats might be had to encourage people to apply (‘tapping-up’ in football-transfer speak), adverts will be placed, shortlisting and interviews will proceed, and at the end of it all, hopefully an appointment will be made that results in (i) a better department and, (ii) a happy appointee. It’s not that complicated – although discussions about who to appoint can be – and the process is driven by the members of the recruiting department.

At least, that is how it has seemed to work for most of my career in academia. However, there seems to be a new trend to involve third parties in the process. In the last year or so I have been approached about 5 times by ‘Executive Search Firms’ acting on behalf of universities and research institutes. They are contracted by the hiring body to identify candidates for the post, and then perform the search for them. “What’s wrong with that?”, you may ask? “They’re professionals, they do this kind of thing all the time. It frees up time for staff to get on with their teaching/research/admin/etc”.

I do have a problem with this trend though, for various reasons. The main one is how the process actually happens. The search firms typically cover a very broad remit (well outside of academia), and simply cannot have the appropriate expertise in whatever post is being filled. They recognise this, and so approach academics, asking them who would be appropriate for the post. In effect, they are asking us to do their job. Presumably the search firm charges the hiring institution a fairly hefty fee to find a candidate. Of course, none of this fee gets passed on to the experts providing the search firm with the information they need to make sensible recommendations. To my mind, this seems like a business model where there is only one winner – the search firm. I cannot believe that the hiring body gets better staff as a result of the process. The search firm are unaffected if the wrong person is appointed, and they may not bothered about appointing people from under-represented groups. I don’t believe it saves time either. As a community, we will spend just as much time thinking about suitable candidates (usually for a different institution than our own), than if there was no search firm involved. Financially it makes little sense. The money that Universities spend on search firms could surely be better deployed elsewhere – on labs, libraries, widening participation funds, subsidised field courses, pump-priming research grants, etc, etc.

The last time, I had a request to help  – ironically, it arrived while I was pondering this post, and looking through old emails at how many times I’d had these approaches – I tried a different kind of reply. I explained that I was grateful that the search firm recognised my expertise, and of course I was happy to help, but I would expect a consultation fee for my time and judgement. Of course, the response was entirely predictable – ‘I am not in a position with sufficient authority to engage you in such a contract’. The reality is that I’m not especially interested in doing this kind of thing, even for a fee. I did want to send a message though, that I thought it was wrong for a firm to expect that we give up our time to help them make a profit. If I had an approach directly from the hiring body, I wouldn’t hesitate to help and I wouldn’t expect any payment. I just resent the growth of what seems to be another business model that drains time and money from academia, but has no obvious benefits.  To me it seems analogous to dubious publication models that turn a tidy profit by exploiting the good will of academics.

I’d be interested in what others think about this. Perhaps I’m just being a grumpy old fart, who thinks change is bad. Perhaps there are benefits of using search firms that I’ve missed? For now though, I’m not going to help search firms, and I hope others share that view. I also hope that people in a position to decide whether to use search firms think twice before spending money (some of which will come from tuition fees) on them.

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