Anti-headhunter to the rescue

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He comes in the shape of Anti-Headhunting.com, and his mission is to train the staff of investment banks and other companies to combat the most aggressive techniques employed by some headhunters.

Headhunters use various ruses to discover the identities of staff at a company and to make contact with them.

One example, given by Paul Sampson, chief executive of Anti-Headhunting.com, is an offer of Marks & Spencer vouchers worth hundreds of pounds to personal assistants, in return for a company's internal phone directory. Another trick is a phone call from a headhunter pretending to be someone's gynaecologist. This is clever, he says, because a secretary is likely to be too embarrassed to ask questions and will put the caller straight through.

Anti-Headhunting.com, a division of David Charles Consulting, is expanding into Britain after setting up three years ago in Germany. Its clients in the latter country include Deutsche Bank, DGZ Bank, Julius Baer and Frankfurter Volks Bank.

Sampson's team itself employs some of the tricks of headhunters to probe weaknesses in the defences of client companies. Often, he says, the team manages to get a long list of staff names after just a couple of phone calls. 'We attack them as if we were the information thieves,' he says. 'We also give them 'a day in the life of a headhunter'. We reverse roles to teach them exactly what a headhunter's agenda is.'

Secretaries, personal assistants and other frontline staff are given training in how to recognise and deal with headhunters who pose as journalists or as employees from other branches of the same company. 'We help companies protect their intellectual capital from outside influences. It is really the reverse of headhunting,' says Sampson.

Anti-Headhunting.com estimates that, in the financial services sector, it costs between 10,000 and 30,000 (€16,000 and €48,000) to replace junior-level staff, and significantly more for senior staff.

Gerald Gross, human resources manager of Eurohypo, Deutsche Bank's mortgage division in Germany, says: 'Employees, and particularly secretaries, were handing out names and numbers to all sorts of callers. They now receive training (from David Charles Consulting) to raise their awareness.'

Headhunters argue that most of them do not rely on underhand techniques in the first place. They say that the service they provide - helping to put the right people into the right jobs - is nothing to be ashamed of and benefits the financial services industry as a whole.

Simon Kamal, senior managing partner at Napier Scott Executive Search, dismisses the whole idea of an anti-headhunter. 'I wish them luck but they do not affect us in any shape or form,' he says.

'The entry barriers for headhunters are low and we do get tarnished by unprofessional fee-grabbing headhunters. But headhunting is about relationships, which take years to establish. We bring people and companies together who want to be together. It adds value to both the companies and the people, and so helps the economic cycle.'

Good headhunting does not involve cold calling and mass acquisition of CVs, says Kamal. In any case, he believes, if employees wish to leave their company they will do so anyway. But Sampson argues that headhunters do not really have employees' best interests at heart. Far from getting the highest possible salary package for them, he says, more often than not they will try to snare a candidate for the cheapest price possible.

Senior staff - those most likely to be poached - are given this advice as part of Anti-Headhunting.com's training courses. They are also warned that they do not necessarily get offered the best fit in terms of the job itself, particularly in cases where their name has been acquired by accident or through cold calling.

Richard Moule, senior manager of Anti-Headhunting.com, says: 'People need to know the tricks to be able to deal with headhunters on a level playing field. Companies also need to create a more transparent and open environment, where employees can discuss the topic freely, without it being taboo. We get these discussion forums going.'

Headhunters create job market fluidity, but it is the tactics they use that disrupt business processes, Moule says. 'We want to help reduce the amount of calls and companies' time they waste and to lessen the impact they have on individuals' career choices.'

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