Headhunters have a much harder job in the age of #MeToo

The truth is out there.
The truth is out there.
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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The remit of executive search firms is simple, but not easy: Assemble a slate of qualified candidates for the job. Traditionally, head hunters filling C-suite roles considered things like experience, a record of accomplishment, and leadership ability when putting forward names of potential chief executives, chief financial officers, and the like.

But in the last year, search firms also have had to consider host of other qualities about prospective candidates. Are they abusive to employees? Do they have a problem keeping their hands to themselves? Are they likely to engage in inappropriate behavior? Are they jerks?

For the boards of corporations embarking on searches, these are not academic questions. CEOs and senior executives across a wide swath of industries are being terminated for issues related to personal behavior, and the cost in embarrassment and finances to companies is real. At CBS, for example, shares were downgraded July 31 by an analyst in part because of the potential damage to the company caused by sexual harassment allegations made against CEO Leslie Moonves.

Boards want as much certainty as possible about the people they hire, says Constantine Alexandrakis, who heads the Americas region for Russell Reynolds Associates, an international search firm.

“The heightened awareness is palpable around the table, from search firms to the lawyers drawing up contracts,” he says. (The same trend can also be seen in the world of corporate dealmaking, where “Weinstein clauses” are becoming a feature of merger and acquisition agreements, Bloomberg reports.)

When it comes to hiring executives, corporations typically will hire separate investigators to do deep background checks before an offer is made. But search firms also are being much more purposeful about probing into personality issues, Alexandrakis says.

That includes taking a fresh look  at qualities that might have been perceived as strengths not long ago. Boards are now sensitive to the rough edges that may accompany a forceful leadership style, says Jane Stevenson, who heads the CEO succession practice for Korn Ferry, a search and consulting firm.

Or, as Stevenson says she was told by the chairman of an Australian corporation, “Testosterone was something you looked for, and now it’s something you fear.”

Korn Ferry uses a variety of techniques to probe the personalities of executives, she says. Candidates are subjected to a full day of role playing, where they are subjected to various stresses and evaluated on how they respond. More subtly, Stevenson asks her female assistants to report back to her on how they’re treated by candidates when scheduling their interviews.

“You can gain a tremendous amount of insight by how they handle themselves,” she say. “Are they respectful? Or do they have a cutesy way about them, particularly if the woman is attractive? You learn a ton from that.”

But the most insight firms get is from being plugged into the industry gossip in the sectors where they do business. When executives are found to be abusive, it’s rarely a secret to people inside the industry, she says.

And that means boards are going to have to pass over candidates who might once have been promising but now raise too many red flags.