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by Krista Bradford (Originally published on ERE.net, the article has since been updated)
Whenever you are working on a candidate search, a number of potential candidates inevitably come up “missing in action.” A switchboard informs you the executive is no longer with the company. That’s often where the search for those executives ends.
Who has time to find them? And even if you wanted to track them down, how could you if they moved out of the state? How could you contact them if their phone number is unlisted?
The easiest way to draw a bead on the executive’s new location is to find who their executive assistant was and to ask that person for their former boss’s new contact information. If the secretary is unwilling to provide you with that information, have them get a message to that person to contact you.
Another method is to Google that executive’s name and former company. You can also search various news databases to pull up the announcement of where that executive landed. Adding the word “joins” to your search string typically does this trick, as that work is often used in news releases announcing that an executive has joined the executive team.
But if you strike out there, what’s a recruiter to do? Do what any detective would do: Search a skip-tracing database, or visit a skip-tracing portal. Skip tracers are services that track down people who’ve moved (skipped town) in order to avoid prosecution or to avoid paying their bills. These services provide stunningly identifying information to law firms, banks, and creditors, as well as insurance and government agencies.
But they also provide information to journalists who need to find sources to report the news. I became familiar with skip-tracing databases while working as an investigative reporter and television journalist. After founding my own investigative recruitment research business, I decided to use the databases to track elusive executives. Because these databases contain seriously identifying information that often includes social security numbers, a series of current and former addresses, and unlisted phone numbers, the average Joe isn’t allowed to subscribe. A business must demonstrate that it is indeed a legitimate business and that it will use the information for the greater good.
Try searching different combinations of information you may have: name and state, name and city, address and city, and address and zip code. You can also search by name and birth date or social security number.
Here are some steps to obtain more information:
    1. Obtain the executive’s middle initial. Whenever the executive’s name is somewhat common, I start my detective work by quickly locating a middle initial of the executive I am seeking. Why? Often, a skip-trace search will pull up hundreds of John Smiths in a state, but if you know you’re looking for John Q. Smith, you’ve just winnowed that list down to a handful of possibilities. Sometimes you can obtain a candidate’s middle initial by searching the Internet for corporate biographies or press releases. Sometimes you can find it in speaker biographies at conferences. SEC filings are also a good resource to check. Better yet, check out transcripts of testimony in court or before Congress. They’re often the most fertile sources of a middle initial, as it is standard protocol to cite a person’s full legal name in legal situations (the recent Microsoft antitrust lawsuit has been quite fruitful for my technology recruitment practice in that regard).
    2. Determine the last known state the person lived in. Usually, it’s the same state as the person’s last known employer.
    3. Log on to your skip-tracing database and try running name-state searches. Make sure you try various permutations of the person’s first name (Joe, Joseph, Joey, etc.). Start with the version that the person goes by most often. Try searching with and without the middle initial.
    4. When you pull up several people with the same name and state, use Google Maps to pinpoint the right executive. Common sense tells you if that person used to work for Company X in Texas, he had to live nearby. That could be in the same city, or at least in a suburban town within commuting distance of the office. So enter the former company office address into Google Maps. Then, one by one, enter the addresses of the five “John Q. Smith” listings you pulled up in Texas. Google Maps will compute how long the commute is for each of the five. If for some reason there are a couple of people within commuting distance, check the date of birth and do the math. If one of the John Qs is 92 years old, chances are he’s retired, and this isn’t your man. Or if the candidate you seek is a senior-level executive, but the database has a John Q listed who is just 25, again, eliminate him.
    5. Click through to find the current address. When you’ve narrowed the list down to the right executive, click on the old address. It will pull up every former address belonging to that person, including the current address. Bingo. You’ve just discovered where the executive is now living. If you’re still winnowing, the address list is a chronology of where the person has lived. So if you know your executive worked in New York before moving to Texas to join his former employer (and before becoming MIA), then you know your John Q has to show a New York address.
    6. Look up the right area code. Some services list a current phone number lacking the area code. (Use an area code lookup to make educated guesses by area.) I prefer to use Langenberg.com for this.
    7. Call the executive. If the number is out of order, don’t despair. Call directory assistance and ask for a listing for the executive now that you’ve located his or her new address. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the listing that way.
    8. If you can’t come up with the right phone number, send a letter to that address (or a business gift if he or she is a star candidate).
    9. If time is of the essence, use a service that can pull up the listings of neighbors. Simply contact them and ask if they have the executive’s home number or if they’re willing to carry a message to the executive. Tell them it is for a time-sensitive job opportunity.
    10. Contact their relatives. You may find names of people who’ve lived in the same household. This could include spouses and grown children, for example. If you’re still hitting the wall, try contacting them to find the executive.

If you give up trying to recruit a valuable executive when they turn up MIA, you’re missing a chance to close the search. I once tracked down a key AT&T executive who had just left the company and was contemplating various opportunities. His home number was unlisted. But by using a skip-trace database, we were able to pull his home number and recruit him as a marquis-name chief marketing officer for a best-of-breed New York startup. Investigative recruitment certainly has its rewards.