Choosing a human resources consultant
Choosing a human resources consultant

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Choosing a human resources consultant

5 Making a choice

If you are interviewing a shortlist of potential providers, the clearer you are in your own mind about what you require, the more effective your selection is likely to be. Given the size of the investment you are likely to be considering and its potential impact on the organisation, this selection process may be at least as significant as the selection of a senior manager, and you should invest appropriate effort in making your choice. You will want to think carefully about the process you wish to use for the ‘beauty parade’, and about the information it would be useful to give candidate consultancies beforehand, to enable their presentations to address issues of importance to you and in a way that is likely to be informative. If you are selecting the consultant, but are not the prime client, then there are clear advantages to involving the client in the process from the earliest possible stage.

A fast-growing area of HR consultancy in recent years has been coaching. Let us consider what is involved in choosing a consultant to work as a coach/mentor for a chief executive. You would clearly need to ensure that both parties felt they could work productively together, and that the HR director or other selector was convinced that the coach had the credibility and experience to be successful in the role.

In such a case the selection process might involve the following stages:

  1. Identify and specify the exact issue to be addressed with the CEO (e.g. this might include their management style)

  2. Identify consultancy firms who have experience of working successfully with top managers

  3. Ask these consultancies to indicate how they work in general terms, how they would approach the specific issue, and what they would charge

  4. Draw up a shortlist of two or three possible coaches on the basis of this information

  5. Interview the coaches on this shortlist and arranging for them to meet the CEO

  6. The CEO selects their preferred coach

  7. Give the chosen consultant a more in-depth briefing about the organisation and the issues, and arrange for them to have a much longer meeting with the CEO

  8. Go back to an earlier stage if at any point the HR personnel involved, the CEO or the consultant have reservations about the possible success of the relationship and/or assignment

  9. Once no reservations remain, draw up any necessary contractual arrangements, and arrange a first session.

This example makes clear that, as when selecting a new employee, you may need information on previous consultancy experience. Previous clients’ views about the consultants might often be useful, although in obtaining such views you would want to discuss similarities and differences between the two contexts, and strengths and weaknesses of the consultant as perceived by past clients. You would then need to filter this information through your knowledge of your own situation and your preferred ways of working. Consultants may be highly effective in some situations but unfitted to others.

The CIPD (2004), in its useful guide to Coaching and Buying Coaching Services, offers an example of a coaching profile form for use when selecting coaches. A link to this is provided from the CIPD website. You are strongly encouraged to look at it. With modifications, something similar might be used to select HR consultants more generally. In the CIPD version the right-hand column is blank, as it is designed to allow the client to detail the requirements specific to their circumstances. For convenience I have used the space for my own annotations (in italics).

Table 2: Example of a profile form for use when selecting consultants

AreaDesired requirements*
Previous coaching experienceObviously this would need to be altered to fit the expertise (e.g. pay, training, OD/change agency).
Relevant business/industry experienceWhat would count as ‘relevant’ would depend upon the circumstances.
Membership of professional bodies
Relevant experienceThe CIPD report suggests that an important point is also to check the consultant's understanding of the limits of their own expertise, although this is not featured as a separate area on the checklist.
Professional indemnity insurance
Qualities/personal attributes
Tools/techniques/modelsThe CIPD suggests that coaches should have an extensive ‘kit bag’ of tools and techniques from a wide range of theoretical backgrounds, as suggested above for HR consultants in general.
Source: CIPD (2004, p. 53)
* My comments added in italics.

Further important influences on your decision, particularly if you are seeking a consultant to work on a change project, where process consultancy would be likely to be important, might include:

  • the extent to which you feel the consultant understands your problem and its context

  • whether they have the necessary experience and expertise to be able to address it effectively

  • whether their way of working is appropriate for your organisation

  • whether you personally feel comfortable about working with the consultant (although perhaps not too comfortable – an important role of a consultant may be to challenge your way of thinking)

  • whether the consultant has any concerns about taking on the assignment (assuming they are open about these).

It is possible to gain a lot of free information from consultants through a tendering process. Consultancies will invest considerable effort in their bids, and even the unsuccessful may leave you with several useful ideas. Clearly, it would be unethical to set up a process merely for this purpose. Rejected consultants rightly feel sour about being ‘exploited’ in this way if no contract is eventually awarded (even if there was originally a genuine intent to award a contract). However, if the invitation to tender is genuine, it is sensible to design the process in a way that generates the maximum information about how the consultant would approach the problem. Indeed, it might be worth considering paying selected consultants to do a more detailed bid than you could otherwise expect in order to maximise the learning from this stage.


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