Executive Search: Dealing with Confidential Hiring Processes

This is very common. You might see a posting that is confidential. 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. I can understand how you feel. However, there are several good reasons why a company might want to conduct a confidential search.

Let’s look at the reasons:

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 in the job for a few months, so they start a confidential search first, often with a search firm.

Unattractive Company: Another reason is that a particular organization might not have a great reputation and they don’t want that lackluster 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 confidentiality allows them the opportunity to create some mystery.

Highly Attractive Company: Some companies are naturally attractive to job seekers, because of the business they are in and getting resumes isn’t a problem. Think ski resorts and entertainment and sports companies as prime examples. 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.

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.

Do you want to play or not?

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.

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, you need to divulge something about yourself. It is in the hiring people’s best interests to get the best candidates. 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.

So, 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 enough enticing information about yourself that they are going to feel compelled to bring you into the process.

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.