No matter what they call it, few people enjoy the task of firing, separating or laying off an employee. This is especially true when they have been critical to the business’s success.

Such executives often have a valuable network and specialized skills that are hard to find in another qualified candidate. Often, the separation can be very sensitive, taking much planning and discretion.

Reasons for secrecy during an executive search

A Harvard Business Review article provides a window into options for handling the challenge.

The author, executive recruiter Adam Dean insists secrecy is essential. If the executive learns their time is short, they may find ways to undermine their successor or influence the hiring decision to put their own tenure in the best light versus putting the company on the best footing going forward.

If a competing company learns of the change, they may look for weaknesses or spread rumors that chaos plagues the operation, with the change in leadership soon confirming the rumor. All this could poison the hiring pool.

Factors making secrecy hard to maintain

Understanding the needs of the job takes probing conversations with internal team members and external clients. Candidates for the position and people who can shed light on their work are also resources. Each jeopardizes secrecy with every conversation.

An executive with specialized skills, networks and experience may know much of the talent pool personally, as well as their bosses, employees, friends, lawyers, spouses, children and their children’s teachers.

Selected strategies for preventing leaks

The Harvard Business Review article provides a list of hints for keeping an executive search secret, together with extensive and colorful anecdotes. Some of the strategies include:

  • Requiring bulletproof non-disclosure agreements that establish all information is confidential, including company, incumbent and compensation
  • Doing as much networking and interviewing as possible without revealing more leadership skills sought, the industry and role
  • Keeping the search committee to four people to limit leaks while providing some diversity of views
  • Using no email except to send password-protected, untitled, rigorous candidate assessments

The author also recommends being unafraid to use seemingly extreme measures, like holding meetings at hotel conference rooms under fake identities and fictional company names.