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Executive Search: Dealing with Confidential Hiring Processes


As a potential candidate in an executive search, you may find yourself in a confidential hiring process. That might be with a job posting that does not reveal the hiring company. You might also receive a call from a recruiter, or search firm one day to talk about an opportunity, but they will hold back on the company name. If this makes you nervous, I can understand how you feel. However, there are several good reasons why a company might want to conduct a confidential search.

What is a Confidential Search

A confidential search or a confidential hiring process is one where the hiring organization wants to be anonymous until a chosen time with the finalist or shortlist candidates.

Reasons for a Confidential Hiring Process

There are four reasons why the hiring company may require anonymity, or an executive recruiting firm may recommend having a confidential search.

Internal Incumbent

The most common reason is that someone might currently be occupying the job and not be aware that they are being replaced. This is a normal practice for senior roles where the organization can’t get by without someone on the job for a few months, so they start a confidential search first, often with a search firm.

Unattractive or Unknown Company

Another reason is that a particular organization might not have a great reputation and they don’t want that lacklustre reputation to screen out potentially strong candidates until they have a chance to sell them on their opportunity. Or, very often, an organization exists in a business that isn’t sexy, and for a particular search, they need to pull someone out of a higher-profile industry. Again, the confidential search process allows them the opportunity to create some mystery and draw in candidates that may otherwise have bowed out.

Highly Attractive Company

Some companies are naturally attractive to job seekers and getting resumes isn’t a problem. This can be a nice problem to have, but in a focused recruitment process, that popularity can also be noise. They want to find the best candidate for the job, and that popularity gets in the way of focusing on the right candidates. A confidential hiring process helps to reduce the noise.

Competitive Reasons

Here’s a secret. Job ads are an amazing competitive intelligence tool when you think about it. If a competitor pays attention, they can glean a lot of information about hiring rates, where the organization’s focus is, and when a company is moving in a new direction (which might be reflected in an ad). Here’s an example: A company might decide that they are interested in starting to look at acquiring smaller competitors, but they don’t have the M&A experience internally. So, they start a search, and of course, the core requirement for the job is going to be M&A experience. This is, in effect, an announcement of strategic direction in a job ad, unless it is confidential.

Making the Choice to be a Candidate in a Confidential Search

It is really your call whether you want to play or not.

If you don’t have any security risk issues because you are currently unemployed, or because your job search is public knowledge, then I think it is a no-brainer. The hiring company gets to set some of the rules in the search process, and you need to choose if you want to play along.

If you are currently employed, and are worried about confidentiality, then it is a guess.

  • Does it sound like your company? If yes, then tread carefully.

  • Does it sound like a competitor? Again, be careful.

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How to Manage Your Candidacy

If confidentiality is a legitimate concern for you, then there is an approach you can try. Let’s call it “give and get.”

In order to find out a bit more about the job opportunity, you need to divulge something about yourself. It is in the hiring people’s best interests to get the best candidates.

Related Reading: 12 Ways to be Credible When the Executive Recruiter Calls

If you aren’t a strong candidate, they aren’t going to tell you anything. If you are, they might give you enough information to keep you interested in the process.

So, the trick is to get them interested enough to make that concession.

You could phone, and explain your situation and a few points about your background (without names). Enough to demonstrate that you are strong candidate. You are intrigued by the posting, but want to make sure that it isn’t your current company you are applying to, and if it is a competitor, you would want to be careful. You could ask, “is it XYZ?” and you might get a response that will help you make your decision.

A second strategy is to apply, but obscure your current employer’s name and identity from your application, and perhaps your name as well. In the cover letter, you explain your situation, and that you are expressing preliminary interest on a confidential basis.

The trick with both of these techniques is that you have to provide them with enough enticing information about yourself that they are going to feel compelled to bring you into the process.

I highly recommend that you get clear on your competitive advantage.

Related Reading: 15 Sources of Professional Competitive Advantage | 6 Steps to Answering Why We Should Hire You

Just sending a cover letter, and not a resume is one way to go, but there is a high chance that it will get screened out. You need to remember that if you are nervous for no other reason than that it is a blind ad and you aren’t used to sharing your information, then you won’t get much cooperation. If you do go this route, be sure to put relevant solid experiences and accomplishments in your letter to get their attention.

If it is a search firm managing the search process, you can have some comfort that they are professionals, and used to dealing with people’s confidential information on a daily basis.

Lastly, of course you can choose not to apply.

It may not feel right, but it is a common, and reasonable practice and part of the hiring game.

Do you have a live opportunity? Learn more about executive candidate solutions.

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