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Why You’ll Regret Your Covert Search for a Key Hire

Co-authored by Bob Spence and Alec Broadfoot

Have you ever had an employee who you knew you needed to fire but you put it off because they were in such an important position that letting them go would be painful and costly? Sometimes when key leaders find themselves in this position, they will ask a recruiter to keep the search quiet because they don’t want the “problem employee” to get wind of it.

At VisionSpark, we sometimes get inquires about these “confidential searches,” where we are asked to conduct a search while the current person is still employed in their role — unaware that a search is underway for their position. We refuse these requests every time. Instead, we recommend having a conversation with the person currently employed in that role about the next steps — whether that is a termination (“36 hours of pain”), or changing roles, etc.

Why we don’t recommend confidential searches:

  • It reduces the quality of candidates who express interest 
  • The current leadership team, peers, and direct reports are not given the chance to have buy-in for the person in this role
  • There is only a small chance the new hire will succeed long-term 


I recently spoke with Bob Spence, who developed the five-step Choosing Winners™ System we use at VisionSpark. He told me about a prospective client who had contacted him in the past for a confidential search. During the course of our conversation, it became apparent that key leaders would benefit from a better understanding of why confidential searches are a losing proposition for everyone.

Here’s the story Bob shared with me, in his own words:

I told the business owner about our Choosing Winners™ Key Leader Search process, and he immediately asked me, “it sounds like you involve team members. Is that correct?” I explained that stakeholder involvement was a key component of our process. He then told me he needed to have a confidential search. 

“I am looking for a firm,” he said, “that will find me a new CFO so that I can fire my current CFO on Friday afternoon and have the new CFO in the office on the following Monday. It doesn’t sound like you can do that.”

I replied to him, “that’s right. However, why do you want to fire the CFO?”

“Because,” he began, “he is incompetent — lots of mistakes. I have to check everything he does. He is wasting my time and creating serious problems. That’s why I want to fire him.”

“Well then,”  I replied, “if he is so incompetent, why not fire him right now?”

“Who would do the work!” he exclaimed.  

His response summed it all up. (By the way, this business owner did find someone else willing to do his search, using the same confidential process he had used to hire his then-current CFO that he was so unhappy with. His new CFO lasted all of six months.)


Bob told me that — like VisionSpark — his firm has never and will never conduct a confidential search. Here are his reasons why:

Four Reasons NOT To Do A Confidential Search 

1. In a truly confidential search, the candidates don’t know who the client is.  This has a negative impact on the quality of candidates.

2. It is virtually impossible to keep a search totally secret.  Word will get out within the company, and it will create an uneasy feeling among the employees who will be wondering, “am I next?”

3. Ethics and integrity are critical to the success of a business.  Conducting a confidential search is not ethical and it in no way reflects integrity.  It also indicates that leadership is not committed to truthfulness and honesty.

4. Without stakeholder involvement, the prospects for a successful search are greatly diminished.  When a hire is made without stakeholder support, the odds of success are close to zero.


Bob’s advice for key leaders:

If you find yourself considering a confidential search, forget it. It’s a losing proposition all around. Instead, be a responsible leader and confront the situation. Deal directly with the poor performer and let them know they are being released, face-to-face.  And candidly, the business’ mentoring, coaching, and employee development processes really need to be reviewed if you are reaching the point of letting an employee go and then finding a replacement using covert methodology.


Stay tuned for a follow-up post featuring an interview with Alex Freytag of ProfitWorks. In it, we will discuss how to handle an under-performing employee and preventative steps you might take to avoid desperate situations, such as willingness to embrace the “36 hours of pain.”

Image credits: © Canva