The demand for AI-based personnel searches in the executive search sector is growing. As the technology develops and becomes more sophisticated, new areas of application are also emerging. „The software is becoming increasingly intelligent and can provide excellent support to executive search consultants,“ says Thorsten Brunsemann, Client Partner at InterSearch Executive Consultants in Frankfurt. He sees great future potential for his industry, but also recognizes some obstacles that still need to be overcome.

The current role of AI in recruiting

In the future, artificial intelligence will be able to accurately predict a person’s willingness to change jobs. Even today, the algorithms of popular professional social networks are able to assess how open their users are to being approached by recruiters. This evaluation is based, among other things, on how often the user has switched jobs in the past, how long they have been with their current employer, and how they interact with job advertisements on the platform. In executive search, AI is already being used for research and information gathering, where it identifies and pre-selects suitable candidates. This saves time in the search process and, ideally, increases the application rate, allowing consultants to focus more on the interpersonal aspects of a search.

Human expertise remains crucial

As much as AI can support the search process in the early stages: Human expertise and empathy still take precedence in personnel decisions. Specifically, this means that AI will never have the final say. „Human expertise, the consultant remains the central decision-maker,“ says Brunsemann. The consultant will also remain the one responsible for individually approaching candidates. „We have a clear leadership and skills shortage, especially areas such as cyber security, IT and, since the Corona pandemic, even HR. The idea that you have to fight your way through masses of suitable candidates no longer reflects reality. Rather, it consists of very few candidates whom consultants have to get interested in their client’s company or project,“ he explains. This is also the reason why chatbots are rarely used in the executive search process – candidates need to be in contact with the consultant as directly as possible.

Communication takes place between two people

Communication with candidates needs to always happen at eye level. This is particularly true when dealing with experts and executives, and generally in search processes at the executive level: AI is no longer helpful as soon as it gets to the stage of personal contact. „Consultants must be part of the community themselves and understand it in depth. They need to recognize which companies and projects are really interesting for the candidates in this community and how they can address them individually. Currently, artificial intelligence cannot fill this role,“ Brunsemann explains. “The personal network of consultants and the recommendations of their contacts are still indispensable. In my experience, candidates are 100 percent open to talking when there is a connection through mutual acquaintances, because trust is still a big factor in career decisions,“ Brunsemann says. In these cases, the candidate’s willingness to switch jobs also tends to be in the upper third, and the professional qualifications are often a very good fit. Obviously, client management is not something you can outsource to an AI either.

Many clients have no awareness of AI, but management acceptance is increasing

„Acceptance for AI-supported search processes is on the rise among managers,“ Brunsemann says. Yet, many clients are still unfamiliar with the topic and especially the distinction between recruiting automation, robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning, algorithms and artificial intelligence, he says. Especially in the so-called „old economy“, there is currently little awareness and also little demand for AI-supported searches. However, clients in all industries want speed and quality. This expectation actually presupposes the use of AI in the initial search process.

The challenges of data protection compliance

There are other hurdles to overcome as well, Brunsemann says: „Data protection, which is so vital for recruiters’ relationships of trust with clients and candidates, can also theoretically limit AI-based tools,“ notes Brunsemann. But technology is actually always a few steps ahead of the regulations and finds new ways to collect data in compliance with the GDPR. Among other things, there will be more technical opt-in solutions for explicit consent in the future.

AI is not infallible and needs trained users

AI is not infallible, especially in the early stages, and often has trouble correctly identifying terminology and keywords. „A good example is the buzzword risk management. The term is used completely differently in the health care, insurance and financial services industries. Recruiters need to understand these search terms in order to be able to send the AI on the right path. They also need the necessary technical expertise to do so. An additional challenge is that most AI developers are not necessarily experts in recruiting,“ says Brunsemann.

The Future of AI in Executive Search

Many executive search firms are currently in the middle of a learning process when it comes to artificial intelligence. We still need to create acceptance for the use of AI, especially among long-term employees. Young recruiters are already further along, but then again, they need to understand how fundamental empathy, expertise and communication are for excellent executive search. Brunsemann adds: „Our own candidates express to us that they expect to be working with AI-supported processes. Therefore, the use of artificial intelligence is also an attraction factor for an executive firm’s own employees and, above all, for up-and-coming talent.“