Apr 27, 2020

Six steps to a successful ‘confidential replacement search’

Trade SecretBy Paul Pompeo

One of the more interesting trends I’ve recently noticed in the search world is an increase in the number of “confidential replacement searches.” As a norm, discretion is important in the world of executive search, but that level of discretion rockets upward with a confidential replacement assignment.

So what exactly is a confidential replacement search? It is a search where a company seeks to replace an incumbent in a role and have a new person in place and ready to go when notifying the current position holder of the change. Oftentimes, these are used when a company views the position as too important to leave vacant for a period of time.

These searches can occur for a variety of reasons—sometimes there may be an ethical issue; other times a competence issue. If the person being replaced is new to the company, it could be because they weren’t a cultural fit. Often the person being replaced is moved to another, hopefully more suitable, role within the organization. In some cases, however, the plan is to release the person as soon as the replacement is ready to start.

Regardless of the reason, confidential replacements require an extra degree of sensitivity to ensure the person being replaced does not hear about it through the grapevine instead of from their manager. To that end, here are six steps to help ensure your confidential replacement search is a successful one.

1. Stealth and expedience.

Time is an important factor. You certainly want to exercise due diligence, but a confidential search has similarities to a Navy SEAL mission in some respects—the work needs to be completed as quickly as possible, yet effectively and successfully. Try to keep the process to no more than three or four interviews. Minimize the players involved in the interview. If you need to include more people, try to bring them in at the very last stage.

2. Ask an expert.

A recruiting firm can provide a middleman/woman so candidates are not immediately connected to your company, which can help maintain confidentiality. Using a firm that is deeply niched in your industry can also be helpful. No matter how skilled or well-known, a firm that does not have relationships in and substantial knowledge of your industry can accidentally do harm by unwittingly answering candidates’ questions. For example, a combination of questions about product niche, company location, age and/or size can identify your company to a candidate without the recruiting firm ever realizing it.

3. Options are always a good thing.

Having more than one candidate in your final interview stage is almost an essential ingredient in a confidential search. If you initially speak with four to six pre-screened candidates, you should still have at least two or three candidates in play as you move to the second interview step. Keep candidates moving concurrently to each next step in your process. The goal, particularly with a confidential replacement project, is to end up at the final interview with two candidates. If your first candidate doesn’t accept or pan out, you will have another candidate of equal or similar stature and experience/quality. Try at all costs to avoid getting to the end of a confidential replacement search and having to start over. If that happens, the chance to keep things under wraps reduces substantially.

4. Avoid the grapevine.

While word of mouth can work for some searches, you certainly don’t want to use this technique on a project where confidentiality is essential. If you hear of a name of someone from another company who may be a fit, don’t ask around about the person. First, if the the candidate is currently employed, you risk causing them to lose their job, which could also have legal ramifications for you. Second, our niches of lighting, electrical, controls and IoT are close-knit. Once you begin to ask around, people will intuit that you are probably interested in the candidate. Just as people who “ask for a friend” are often known to be asking about themselves, you probably won’t be fooling anyone if you ask around about a specific individual.

5. The red herring.

Talking about the position as a “created” one versus as a “replacement” with a lack of specifics in the early stages of the interview process can help prevent a seasoned industry professional from connecting the dots. Revealing the specific position and reason for the opening at the final stage can help keep the process a covert one.

6. Non-disclosure agreement.

Is having a candidate sign an NDA before an interview foolproof? No. But it’s a powerful indicator regarding
the seriousness of your search process. Additionally, the legal aspect will help make your candidates cautious about sharing anything about their interview experience with others.


Paul Pompeo

Paul Pompeo

Paul Pompeo is president of The Pompeo Group (www.pompeo.com), an executive recruiting firm in the lighting, IoT, electrical and energy... More info »