EDITORIAL: Market forces, not headhunting rules

Headhunters are like footballers' agents. They attract applause and condemnation in almost equal measure. The best offer wise counsel and will always act in the best interests of those they are charged with protecting and seeking top employment for, safe in the knowledge that their integrity will invariably lead to further business. The worst are parasites, trying to foist indifferent talent on a market they will do their best to destablilise to keep themselves in work.

No surprise, then, that the ad industry should display such ambivalence towards those it commissions to find the round pegs for its round holes.

No surprise also that some cynicism will greet the proposal by the headhunter Gary Stolkin for an IPA-approved code of practice to which his company and others would be signatories. There should be more flexibility on commission levels and headhunters should be more limited in the time they can claim a placement fee, he says. All very sensible, although sceptics might wonder whether such altruism has something to do with the knock-on effect that the ad recession is having on headhunters' business.

On the face of it, there's a persuasive case to be made for introducing some ground rules into headhunting activity. There's no proper government regulation of it and anybody can set up in business as a headhunter with no experience necessary. Little wonder that the explosion of such operations has brought abuse in its wake and encouraged the practice of showering CVs on agencies like confetti.

Heads of client services can be e-mailed up to a dozen unsolicited CVs a day from headhunters.

With the average IPA member agency spending about £124,000 a year on recruitment, anything that can help keep costs at a sensible level has to be a good thing. Whether or not a code of practice is the best way of achieving it is a moot point. What's to stop headhunters sticking to the code while times are bad and ignoring it when the economy recovers?

Better to let market forces prevail. Agencies value the contribution of the best headhunters in carrying out preliminary interviews and negotiating remuneration packages. They will continually place briefs with the companies that do this well and ignore those which are lazy and complacent. Rather than preoccupying themselves with a code of practice, agencies and headhunters might be better off agreeing the fine print of any contractual agreements between them from the outset. If an agency doesn't fancy the terms it can always walk away.

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