You will likely have an opportunity to work with a search firm at some point in your security career. Perhaps you will engage one to help you identify and hire top security talent for your organization. You may be contacted by one seeking candidates for security jobs they are trying to fill.

There are different dynamics to each of these relationships. Whether you are a hiring manager looking for a security recruitment partner or a security practitioner seeking your next role, a clear understanding of how to approach a firm in either capacity will maximize the value proposition when you select and engage with a firm.

Included in this article is basic information for both parties. Useable tips are offered and some myth debunking surrounding the search firm industry has been done. This is beneficial knowledge to have as you work with recruiters and human resource departments, both within your current organization and with those in the future.

I am often approached by candidates who feel they need to engage a search firm to represent them in their search for their next security job. This is not an accurate representation of the relationship between a search firm and a candidate. It appears to have roots in the old placement firm concept whereby an employment firm would take on candidates as clients for a fee.                                

Often there was an up-front fee sometimes in the thousands of dollars. There might also have been an agreement for the candidate to pay a percentage of his or her future salary as payment for locating a job for the candidate.

Companies like this are still out there, but they do not represent most search firm business models. If you are approached by an organization that tries to solicit a fee from you in return for their help to find you a job or connect you with their contacts, my advice would be to disengage and run.

 Today’s search firms are hired by and represent the employer. They are bound by the terms of contractual agreements whereby fees are paid by the employer to the search firm for some level of work surrounding recruitment of candidates.

Search firm agreements with employer organizations fall into four basic categories:

  • Fully Retained, whereby the employer will pay a fee based on a percentage of the candidate’s compensation. The payments are often made in three parts upon meeting certain benchmarks.
  • Container Agreement, whereby the employer will pay a fee based on a percentage of the candidate’s compensation; however, an agreed-upon fee is paid by the employer at the start of the search and the balance is paid only upon a successful conclusion to the search.
  • Contingency Agreement, in which the fee is only paid if the search firm is successful in finding a candidate who is then hired by the client. The fee due is normally based on the candidate’s guaranteed annual base cash salary.
  • Flat Fee, whereby the fee paid is likely based on some form of the position’s targeted compensation. This fee structure can be woven into any of the above three models.

Other elements often found in the agreements between search firms and hiring organizations can include:

  • A fee structure generally between 20 to 35 percent and based on compensation ranges for the position. Depending on the firm, this can be calculated on and include:
    • Base Annual Salary (In countries outside of the U.S. it is not uncommon to have this fee based on a 13-month salary);
    • Base Annual Salary & Target Annual Cash Bonus;
    • Total Projected Annual Compensation, including long-term incentives and the value of any sign-on bonuses such as cash or stock.
  • Administrative fees ranging from 10 to 15 percent are sometime added by firms.
  • Reimbursement of agreed-upon costs borne by the search firm. These can include travel and meal expenses, costs associated with direct advertising requested by the employer and costs associated with third-party assessments and evaluations used as a part of the recruitment process. Some firms add an additional overhead cost to what I believe should be pass-through expenses.
  • A candidate replacement guarantee. This generally covers any occasion under which the candidate leaves (or is asked to leave) during a specified period of time for causes other than unforeseen reductions in the work force not related to performance or behavior. These clauses typically range from 60 days to one year with the longer periods found in retained agreements.

A recent study of employers reported that only 37 percent utilize outside recruitment firms. This is across a wide range of industries and roles. I believe the number is much lower than that figure for recruitment of professional-level security roles, at only five percent.

Of the organizations that do engage a recruitment partner to assist in filling security jobs, they often have policies in place regarding the type of agreement that can be entered into depending of the level of the position, i.e. Vice President, Director or Manager.

Organizations sometimes dilute the value and effectiveness of partnering with a recruitment company by simultaneously entering into agreements with third party aggregators. The response to this is a feeding frenzy of transactional search firms submitting often identical candidates all at the same time. It’s common to see the same position in many locations across the internet when this is the case.

This approach is best suited for high-volume, high-turnover rate positions. If you see this recruitment philosophy in place for a security management role, it serves as an indicator of how the role is valued in that organization. This approach generally delivers the message to candidates that quantity is better than quality.

Several considerations for both candidates and hiring managers when engaging with a search firm include:

  1. Learn the about the reputation and ethical practices of both the search firm and the recruiters who work there.
  2. A very small number of firms specialize in corporate security recruitment. Determine the actual professional area(s) the firm does work in before sharing your information.
  3. Validate what the organization’s internal data handling procedures are and ask how they maintain the confidentiality of your information.
  4. As a candidate, be honest about your credentials and answer all questions in a straightforward manner. An ethical search firm will never submit a resume to their client that they know to be inaccurate.
  5. Keep your information current and factual. Omitting history that is easily verifiable through today’s very public, social media world makes you an unpresentable candidate and damages your personal brand.
  6. If you are contacted by a search firm regarding a position in which you have no interest, do not suggest the search firm pay you a finder’s fee for referring others.
  7. Should you reach the point in the recruitment cycle whereby the recruiter shares their client name with you, do not proceed to directly contact the employer. Attempting to bypass the contract in place between the search firm and their client is viewed as unethical behavior by both of those engaged parties and will likely make you ineligible for any consideration going forward.

From the candidate’s view, securing your next security job can be a long frustrating process. Your main obligation as a candidate is to be honest and straightforward in order to present yourself as the best, most placeable candidate for a position. Consistently seek out ethical recruitment companies and keep in mind their relationship to their clients.

From an employer perspective, hiring top security talent for your team can be a challenge. As a hiring manager, you need to understand how to best select and leverage a search firm to support your efforts. Ultimately, this knowledge will save you time, money and frustration and result in the best hire.