Would you get engaged to marry a person who you met only through one or two video conference sessions?

You would be crazy.

That is exactly what an increasing number of top-tier executive search firms are asking their clients to accept. With increasing frequency, some name brand recruiters are relying on videoconference interviews – and in some cases only telephone calls – to make a critical decision concerning which candidates they plan to submit for client consideration.

I find this alarming.

The central problem with the executive search process is that it requires a client – and the candidate – to make life-changing, career-changing decisions based on three or four face-to-face meetings. Historically, this meant a face-to-face interview with the firm’s engagement partner following several telephone screening interviews with search associates and then one or two site interviews with the client.

At its best, the executive search process is a somewhat risky business when you consider the myriad of professional/organizational, and personality issues, as well as the enormous financial risks, that surround the selection process. It is about cramming a massive exchange of information into a relatively short, defined process and, in the end, coming up with a correct assessment.

Executive search is anything but a scientific process. Oh yes, there are firms with a boatload of tests they ask you to take, psychologists they ask you to meet, impressive and comparative graphs they create. And these can be useful tools. However, at the end of the day, executive search is no more a science than a high stakes poker game. In fact, you could make the argument that executive search is really a black art. Success will always be based on sound, experienced judgment and good information.

As a search partner with more than 10 years of senior level search experience, I have always felt executive search is best described as the process of getting married after four or five dates. Now that is risky. In marriage, as in search, the only way to mitigate the risks is through the exchange of information and the evaluation of leadership style, attitudes, values and a thorough vetting of past performance which is the best predictor of future success.

Let’s focus on the importance of information for a minute. Information about the client – and about the candidate – is at the heart of the process. The quality of the information is critical to a successful search.

Candidates need clients to make full disclosure – the good, the bad and the ugly. Every organization has those charactertistics. Clients need recruiters who will drill deep into a candidate’s background, evaluating credentials, background issues and past performance to provide in-depth dossiers. Without a robust exchange of information, the search process is flawed.

Following several recent HealthCare Voice blogs, I have talked with increasing numbers of candidates who are eager to share their experiences (and frustrations) concerning executive recruiters. There is a recurring theme: candidates say that they get minimal information about the client, their challenges and opportunities, and almost nothing about performance expectations or the cultural DNA of the organization. Let’s be honest, it is hard to describe these issues as well as the community in a 7 to 12 page document which seems to be the average these days.

At JohnMarch Partners, the average length of our Position Prospectus varies from 24 to 60 pages, depending on the complexity of the engagement. We do not want our candidates to be surprised or feel sandbagged.

With an increasing number of horror stories in which the recruiter, the client, or both, withheld important information that was material to the decision to accept an employment offer, candidates are justified with their concerns over this lack of disclosure.

And now the alarming trend: candidates say that more and more, their contact with recruiters is limited to the telephone or one or two videoconference sessions. For senior level executive assignments, this is a very bad practice that will result in an increasing number of bad matches.

The real cost of an executive level mis-hire has been estimated at 100 times the candidate’s annual salary. That can be a staggering financial loss for a client organization. If using videoconference interviews is about saving money, then someone is being penny wise and pound foolish. Or is this trend of videoconferencing candidate interviews more for the convenience of the recruiter? Is the search process becoming more about candidate inventory and filling client orders? Where does judgment fit in that formula?

I am not anti-technology. JohnMarch Partners was one of the first firms to use videoconference technology in the early 1990s when searching for clinical physicians. There is no question that technology is a great thing. It can contribute to the search process. But technology cannot replace the all important face-to-face interview between a well prepared search consultant and a potential recommended candidate. A probing two or three hour interview by the engagement partner is as much about the nuance of a candidate’s responses and reactions as are his or her answers to the questions. You simply cannot achieve that level of insight through videoconferencing.

Make no mistake, the engagement partner’s interview is critical in deciding which candidates should be submitted to the client for their review. Here is a more personal way to look at this practice: using videoconference interviews to select candidates is like seeing your new grandchild for the first time. You are delighted for the picture but there is absolutely no substitute for the experience of holding that grandchild for the first time.

When a client pays the recruiter a fee that is equal to one-third of the successful candidate’s first year cash compensation, they are entitled to every advantage, every bit of value that a search firm can deliver. A convenience for the search consultant should not be a factor.

Videoconferencing the key interviews in lieu of meeting the candidate personally is a poor substitute for good recruiting.

Or for deciding who to marry.

John G. Self, Chairman of JohnMarch Partners, is the Firm’s senior client advisor. He is a former investigative reporter and crime writer for a major daily newspaper. Candidates and clients say he is one of the most thorough executive recruiters working in the healthcare industry.