Ethics Under Pressure, Part 2: “Dirty Staffing Laundry”

My son just turned four years old. I must say it’s an amazing thing to be a parent! My wife and I are doing the best we can to teach our son right from wrong, deceit from truth. Like most parents know, it’s a difficult, 24-hour job that’s always challenging. But despite my son’s innocence, somehow he always ends up teaching both his mother and me! He’s come up with some gold nuggets of wisdom that make me wonder: am I the teacher, or is he? Young children have always had a refreshingly pure perspective on life, the world, and on people in general. Their little hearts are still open and transparent to learning. They keep things simple and have a natural ability to quickly differentiate between right from wrong. They even remind parents of what is truly right from wrong. Indeed, a wise man once said that it was from the children that we could all learn! So what about us adults? In particular, we “professional” adults? Where did many of the business leaders we’re seeing on the evening news lately lose their ethical ways and go wrong? When did they become jaded, unethical, even criminal? Where could this malaise infecting our staffing industry have come from? What are the ethical “sins” of our industry that could stand changing, and even elimination all together? Airing Staffing’s Dirty Laundry Still not convinced that our industry can stand a reassessment of our ethics? Contemplate some of the items on this “dirty laundry” list: 1. Deceitful cold-calling. Many recruiters are in the habit of posing as people they’re not, or simply lying to get around “gatekeepers” (receptionists or secretaries) to reach particular people in the name of sales. These types of recruiters do not help the professionalism of our industry, and if anything are one example of what’s seriously wrong with it. Honestly, these recruiters might as well go put on their white vinyl shoes and sell used cars. 2. “Talent theft.” Some staffing agencies are notorious for “penetrating” companies via the “backdoor” to reach particular company employees to literally entice and steal them from specific organizations. Sometimes entire departments are wooed. More often than not, getting through the “backdoor” involves lying, stealing of phone lists, and knowingly violating that corporations policies on solicitations. In my opinion, this activity is no different than the felony of breaking and entering to steal a corporation’s very critical property. 3. Lazy candidate follow up and lack of full disclosure. This is a very common complaint against our profession. Recruiters are simply too lazy to develop a protocol for giving their candidates timely and courteous follow up regarding the status of their candidacy. Not providing your candidates cordial and timely disclosure is extremely unprofessional and simply irresponsible. An article by my fellow ERE author Andrew Ellis, Do Unto Others, addresses this problem beautifully, with six simple suggestions that all recruiters should utilize to improve on their candidate follow up and disclosure. 4. Deceitful overselling. No excuse for it whatsoever. How many times have we heard of recruiters overselling an opportunity to candidates or overselling clients regarding potential candidates? In either situation, I know my four-year-old son, in his pure wisdom would say, “That’s a lie, Daddy.” And he’d be right! It’s simply unethical for recruiters to force-fit a candidate into a situation that they already know will not be a good fit. The staffing profession must do a better job in representing candidates to clients ethically and honestly. That doesn’t mean ethics and honesty have to water-down the “sell” to their clients. Honesty can and should still be a sufficiently persuasive conversation to both candidates and clients alike. Besides, when candidates find out the opportunity is not what the recruiter outlined they often do not stay, at which point, the recruiter learns quickly that dishonesty is not only wrong but doesn’t pay either. Filling the same opportunity twice is not time or cost effective. I have even heard of some recruiters trained in some cutthroat agencies (so-called “body shops”) of altering resumes without anyone’s knowledge in an effort to close an interview. 5. Stealing temps. Like talent thieving, temp stealing is simply when recruiters knowingly steal and woo employees away from companies. But more specifically, “temp stealing” occurs when recruiters involved in placing contract workers leave their staffing firm and intentionally take all of their temporary workforce with them. According to the National Technical Services Association (NTSA), this is one the biggest complaints that they receive about our industry. Such practices can easily disrupt and devastate a staffing firm. 6. Dishonest timecards or invoicing. Do we even need to discuss this? I don’t know what it is about the human psyche, but when a recruiter, or any other worker, cannot even be honest regarding the hours worked, then truly this person has deeper problems than can be solved by reading this article. But I do believe that most recruiting professionals do aspire to improve upon their skills and ethics. I believe most are constantly seeking to do a better job performing for their internal and external clients. As such, I do not feel that dishonest timecards or invoicing is that prevalent in our industry. What I do think occurs I believe happens inadvertently by colleagues in our industry. The biggest problem in unethical invoicing is when contract or full-time recruiters bill for full-time work without putting in a full-time day. Too many staffing professionals are clock watchers; they take slightly longer lunches than they should, or perhaps arrive a bit late in the mornings and leave a bit earlier. This is something that could easily be inadvertent for some recruiters, even a simple case of overlooking what time it is. But I know that there are also too many recruiters that have made it a conscious habit to take 10 minutes here, 15 there, and maybe even an extra half hour on some occasions. This, dear colleagues, is also plain unethical, and tantamount to taking company money. I’m constantly called by many staffing managers with the request of assisting them in their efforts to make their recruiters into more time-sensitive, responsible, and ethical professionals. It’s a problem, friends. 7. Unethical contracts. Another practice that really maligns our profession is the matter of questionable contracts. I remember being called upon to do a retained and exclusive search for a “VP-level” executive for one client of mine. Just as we were ready to sign the search contract, the VP of HR asked me in passing, “How does your contract compare to these other contracts we’ve signed?” As a courtesy to her I offered to review the three contracts she was referring to. That evening, as I sat down to review these contracts, I found out that they were for the same search I was being requested to take on, and that they were also retained and exclusive. But the alarming difference was that all of these contracts?? mind you, from the “largest” and most “prestigious” executive search firms in the nation (believe me, you’ve heard of them)?? defined exclusivity as the right to invoice and collect for the complete placement fee even if the successfully hired candidate was sourced from somewhere outside of the given agency’s efforts. In other words, all three of these search firms were going to be paid for their complete search fee once the position was filled, regardless of where the executive was sourced! According to the contract, that’s how they defined exclusivity. I immediately called the VP of HR to explain to her the idiosyncrasies of the contracts and the tremendous expense her company was about to incur with them. As you might have expected, after she got over the initial shock of knowing that her company was now cornered into paying each of these “prestigious” executive search firms a tremendous “staffing bill,” her final reaction was understandably that of anger and disgust. Each of these search firms required payment of at least 30% of the hired executive’s yearly salary based on a projected average salary of at least $175,000, or a fee of $52,5000 in total for each search firm. It was not the amount of the contract that was astonishing, since we all know that 30% is common, but rather the contracts’ unwavering demand that the remainder of the search fee be paid despite the source of the hired executive. I ask all of you, how can this be ethical, professional, or fair? If I were contracted to build a building exclusively, and received a retainer of say 50% of my commission for the construction, and somehow or another somebody else completed my construction, would I have the audacity to bill the client the remainder of the 50% of my construction knowing I did not complete the work myself? No way! There is an alternative: I’d offer the client the opportunity to roll the retainer into another construction, or search, as it were. My personal work ethic has the pride of performance: If I did not do the job, I don’t deserve the payment. Nor would I solicit a contract that would violate this ethic. I’m not suggesting the need to return the retainers either, since indeed work was started. But at the very least, and in the spirit of client relations and ethical pay for performance standards, these search firms could at least roll the client retainers into another search. My client, in the end, paid $52,500 to each of the three firms, for a total of $157,500 for a candidate that was ultimately hired from a professional association that I sourced for them. No, I did not request my full fee, even though I successfully sourced the executive. It was a partial fee, but I did retain the remainder of their four search projects that year?? and those “prestigious” search firms lost a profitable and viable client. Who says ethics aren’t profitable? 8. Resume submission without candidate knowledge. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard of recruiters either inadvertently or intentionally submitting resumes to clients without the courtesy of speaking to the candidate first. This is about as clear a violation of privacy as you can commit against candidates. As recruiters we are responsible for maintaining a covenant of privacy and confidentiality with the private information that our candidates provide. Anything else is clearly a violation of a candidate’s rights to full disclosure and privacy. Here’s another problem with this practice: if a recruiter submits a candidate’s resume to four companies and another recruiter submits the same resume to the same clients without having conferred with the candidate, the companies will often have quite a difficult time in determining who was first. Who was the candidate working with? It’s simply a very unwise, and in my opinion, unethical practice. More often than not, companies that receive duplicate resumes from different agencies or contract recruiters will not even consider that resume for the position. Fern Heyman, the senior advisor of staffing to our executive search firm says, “I’ve trained my recruiters to not even consider duplicated resumes. It tells me that one of those agencies has a major ‘disconnect’ with its candidates and is likely not doing the best job in screening the candidate.” According to Ms. Heyman, “It gets worse. Some of the candidates tell us that agencies are telling them that only their recruiting firm has an exclusive with the client, and that the candidate will not be able to enter that targeted company the candidate desires without working with that particular recruiter’s firm. They’re basically lying to candidates, and I find this truly disturbing and not fitting of a professional service.” Conclusion Well, I promised in my last article that I would get down to some of the nitty-gritty grime that unfortunately has reared its ugly head in our industry. I think I’ve done that. However negative or nasty some of these things may have sounded, they need to be discussed, talked about, and in my hope changed. And that’s the challenge for all of us in the staffing profession. The more unprofessional activity we eliminate and the more we shut the door on those that are hell-bent on practicing unethical recruiting, the more likely that, together, we’ll be able to successfully increase the professionalism and critical regard that our fine industry deserves. Having the important responsibility as the builders and managers of the business world’s people, don’t you think we need to stand back and take a child’s fresh, innocent, and honest self-assessment, and ask: Where are we going wrong? What can and must we change? I think so! Kids say the darndest things, but they sure make you think! In the next article I’ll discuss the root of unethical practices, some practical solutions for our industry, and the profitable benefits or ethical professionalism in our industry. I’ll be happy to field any questions you may have. Until then, I’m Martin de’Campo, signing off…

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