Working with a Search Firm: Frequently Asked Questions

Category: Search Process

How do I work with a search firm?
For retained or contingency search firms the easiest way is to apply for a position the firm has posted. Be sure to bookmark, follow, and/or frequently visit the firm’s website to keep up to date with their openings.

How do I work with the consultant managing the search?
The search consultant managing the process will have detailed information about the institution and position – and can be a font of information. The consultant will be a primary contact for you throughout the search, and smart candidates will take the opportunity to call and discuss key elements of the position, if there are any behind-the-scene issues, and candidate characteristics the institution is particularly looking for. The consultant can also answer any process-related questions.

Do I have to pay to work with a search firm?
No, retained search firms in higher education get paid by the institution. Ethical search firms that are representing clients do not accept fees from candidates.

Can I participate in two or more searches with the same firm at the same time?
Yes and no. It is rare that a search firm will have two searches that are exactly alike and at identical institutions. So as a candidate we anticipate that you will have given significant consideration to the type of institution, institutional mission, size and profile of the institution, geographic location, and scope of responsibilities that you are seeking in your next professional move. If you are interested in being a vice president and are applying for every vice president position that you see this is not helpful and if the search firm is handling two similar vice president positions and you have applied for both there will be significant questions put to you about your interest in the position and whether you have done your due diligence about each of the positions. Ultimately, the search consultant must decide if you have made a compelling case about your interest in a particular position.

What if I am in a search with other firms?
The search consultant will generally ask you if you are participating in other searches and you should let the consultant leading the search know that you are participating in other searches, regardless of whether it is being managed by another firm or by an institution. Remember, the search consultant is working for the institution but there is not a compelling reason to obfuscate your current status in another search – and the consultant can also help you navigate any pinch points.

I am a candidate in several searches and am about to get an offer from my dream job. What do I do?
Immediately notify the search consultant that you are about to get an offer. As soon as you think you are going to be offered your dream job, you should either inform the other institutions that you are withdrawing from their searches or at least let them know that an offer is pending. Why? Because the institution and/or search firm has invested a lot of time in your candidacy. By not informing them of an offer, you’re holding a slot that could be open to another candidate, making it difficult for the firm and the institution to proceed clearly forward with the search.

I was offered an interview on campus but had to cancel due to an emergency. The institution was very accommodating, but when I went to reschedule they were not able find a time that I could get to campus. Can they withdraw the offer of an interview?
Yes, an institution may withdraw the offer of an interview at any time. They are under no obligation to bring you to campus. If your timeline doesn’t match theirs, then you may be out of luck. Don’t take this personally as there are searches on very specific schedules and these things sometimes happen.

I have an offer for a position but am waiting for another offer from a position that I would prefer. What do I tell the first institution?
Honesty is always the best policy, but this can be delicate. If you can find out the decision timeline from the “preferred” position, you can ask for a tiny bit time to give your decision to the institution that has made the offer. Be careful, though. You don’t want the original offer to be rescinded or withdrawn which it could be if you take too much time or are not clearly communicating with the offering institution.

I have already accepted a position, and then my dream offer comes through. Can I tell the first institution that I am breaking my contract to accept the other position?
While you can do anything, making that decision could be a death knell to your career. Most professionals consider such behavior to be highly unethical – and that reputation will follow you. When an offer is accepted it should be with the knowledge that you will stay in that position for a reasonable length of time, and, depending on the level of job (entry-level, mid-level, senior, executive) you should plan on staying put for a significant amount of time.

Can an offer be rescinded/withdrawn?
Yes. If an offer has been made to you and you are negotiating salary or items related to the position (paid time off, title, job responsibilities, time off for external commitments, professional development funds, etc.), the employer/institution has every right to withdraw the offer. They may do so for a number of reasons–you may be asking for too much, or they may believe that you’re being too demanding, making them wonder how you will act when you start the job. References, background checks, and other vetting processes will happen at the end of the search, and if issues arise that might also have an impact. If you believe something will show up in a background check, it is best to discuss that with the search consultant or Human Resources earlier in the search.

Is the institution obligated to pay me anything?
No, you are not entitled to any payment or compensation when an offer is withdrawn.

Ellen Heffernan

President - Spelman Johnson

Ellen Heffernan graduated from Smith College with a B.A. in economics and government. She joined Spelman Johnson in 1996, after a ten-year career in higher education that included positions at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a national speaker and writer on topics related to recruiting and professional development in higher education and serves as faculty for several national higher education association professional development programs. Ellen also currently serves on the executive board of the National Association of Executive Recruiters.