Honesty in Recruiting: Corporate Asset or Quaint Throwaway?

Over the last few weeks, there has been fervent discussion (both at ERE and elsewhere) around the topic of ethics in recruiting as a result of Dr. John Sullivan’s recent article, “The Best Practices of the Most Aggressive Recruiting Department” (Part 1 and Part 2). The dialog around this topic is incredibly important to the integrity of our profession, which is why I felt compelled to be vocal. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dr. Sullivan, who I consider to be a thought leader in our industry. I simply disagree with him on this issue. There it is. First, let me say that I am not going to argue personal ethics (define) or morals (define) here. Though I believe that personal ethics fueled the fire of debate on the tactics that Dr. John calls “best practices,” these values are subjective, instilled over a period of many years, and very unlikely to be changed via one article. It’s like arguing religion or politics: The dialog may be interesting, but not particularly productive if your end goal is consensus. By delving into the realm of the highly personal, you get a lot of one-upmanship, finger pointing, and belittling ó not really the kind of material that advances our profession. I do think that personal ethics are important, but this isn’t the place for that discussion. Besides, what I have to say here applies to all of us regardless of our personal ethics. Aggressiveness and honesty are not mutually exclusive qualities; well, they don’t need to be anyway. There are some recruiting tactics described in Dr. Sullivan’s article that I believe are aggressive, honest, and worthy of the term “best practice.” It is those practices where candidates are misled or strong-armed, or where the prospect employer’s resources are utilized for the benefit of the company doing the recruiting, that I take issue with. All is not necessarily fair in the “war for talent.” Ultimately, if someone walks away from your company’s contact feeling that they have been misled, pressured to violate legal documents they have signed, or forced to waste their time or their company’s resources, there’s a problem ó and it doesn’t matter how you feel about it. Subterfuge just does not work in a reputation- or relationship-based industry like staffing. How Deceptive Recruiting Hurts Your Company What I want to talk about is company ethics, or what many would call “corporate values,” and their relevance and application to the work we do every day. Corporate values are attributes that define the codes of conduct put forth by a corporation. In short, they are what a company stands for. In marketing-speak, they are a brand promise. They say: “This is what you can expect from your interactions with my company.” Since corporate brands don’t exist in a vacuum, there is a direct correlation between a company’s values and all of its brands, including the employment brand. An employment brand promise includes not only expectations around an employee experience but also around a recruiting experience (a “recruiting brand” so to speak). If a company’s values talk about putting customers first, the values of staffing, too, should embody passion for its customers (i.e. candidates). At the very least, there should not be conflicting messages. One of the gold standards in the employment marketplace is Fortune Magazine’s Best Companies to Work For (rules of grammar aside). To understand the values of honesty and integrity, I decided to review the corporate websites of some of the companies on this list for evidence of inclusion of these themes within their stated corporate values. What I saw were consistent mentions of respect, integrity, and honesty as corporate values. Being myself an employee of Microsoft (#14 on the list among large companies), not only am I aware of our value statement, which includes “integrity and honesty,” but I’ve also witnessed a cultural commitment to making those values real in our workplace, demonstrated by both standards of conduct as well as inclusion of these themes in our interviewing competencies. Corporate culture is where the rubber meets the road with regard to company values. HR, including staffing (often a new employee’s first impression of corporate culture), is instrumental in setting the tone for the corporate culture and leading by example. Some companies may argue that deceptive recruiting tactics don’t harm anyone ó that their candidates like their creativity and their hiring managers say “go get ’em!.” The last time I checked, corporations were created to further the interest of shareholders, that is, to generate value. If hiring managers neglect a culture of integrity and encourage deceptive recruiting, they are being shortsighted and not performing their roles as stewards of shareholder value. Likewise, your interest in benefiting shareholders by hiring the best people for the company is not well served by engaging those candidates who applaud deception ó not to mention the impact on those candidates who silently decide not to engage because they don’t like the way you operate. In all of our actions, we should live by the following oath: “First do no harm to shareholders” (or “owners” if you work for a private company). Company values and employment brand are corporate assets (goodwill on the balance sheet) that are squandered by reckless recruiting practices. In this regard, they do indeed harm shareholders. If any of your candidates, customers, community members, employees, business partners, or shareholders find these actions distasteful, then the actions are damaging. When there is inconsistency between employee actions and a stated corporate value, it’s even worse. The corporate values are considered a sham; people will avoid doing business with the company. Just ask Enron. According to a report written by David Gebler at WorkingValues, “Enron had all of the elements found in comprehensive ethics and compliance programs: a code of ethics, a reporting system, as well as a training video on vision and values led by Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling.” Anyone else see the irony? Anyone else glad they weren’t a shareholder? How Deceptive Recruiting Hurts Your Career Simply put, recruiters are at risk of becoming the “used car salesmen” of the corporate ecosystem. I don’t buy into these kinds of stereotypes, but to ignore their impact is to bury your head in the sand. Perceived “shady” recruiting by a few of our fellow recruiters winds up making us all guilty by association (and gives us all the more reason to speak out). It’s an unfortunate reality. I run a fairly well-trafficked blog, and I hear time and again from disgruntled candidates (ever wonder where the “gruntled” people are?) about untrustworthy recruiters. I’ve heard it all. The result is that candidates want to avoid talking to them (the perceived shady recruiters), and they don’t really want to talk to the rest of us either (do the words “necessary evil” ring a bell?). It makes it that much harder for trustworthy recruiters to establish credibility with the people who are entrusting us to guide them through a major life decision. I also believe that each of us carries with us a personal brand promise. It’s what other people (candidates, co-workers, clients) can expect from their experience with each of us. This personal brand is transferable across employers. It’s a manifestation of your reputation as an individual. Unfortunately, your personal brand bears the effects of the stigma of your industry association. Given the impact of a few untrustworthy recruiters, the rest of us have to fight that much harder to establish trust and credibility for ourselves personally. Think about making a career change and having the hiring manager’s negative impression of recruiters keep you from even being considered. For you third-party recruiters, think about the clients you want to engage, for whom the word “headhunter” is an indictment. This is about your career. Not long ago, I took the opportunity to post my personal brand promise on my blog (in short: responsive and honest). It’s amazing how much goodwill that kind of statement generates with candidates and others. Every day I work to live up to that promise. The honesty part is compulsive, the responsiveness I have to work harder at. Do I think that makes me a better recruiter? Yes. Honesty is a best practice.

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Heather Hamilton is principal consultant at Whiz Bang Solutions, an employer brand consulting firm she founded in 2011, but is probably best known for her pioneering work in recruitment blogging starting in 2004. Today, she helps companies understand their brand, find their voice online, and develop the strategies, frameworks, training, and tools that will help them create meaningful connections with the talent they wish to hire.


6 Comments on “Honesty in Recruiting: Corporate Asset or Quaint Throwaway?

  1. Best anaylsis I have read in a while. I applaud you, Heather! We would all be better off if more folks took this simple, honest approach to everything they do.

    Thank you.

  2. Heather,
    Your article was well written and you made excellent points. I Enjoyed Reading. Thanks!!

    An interesting point you made was regarding personal ethics/best practices; In respect to what much has been discussed regarding Ethics if it were to be based upon Personal Ethics, then your statement ?this isn?t the place for discussion? would be absolutely correct.

    Business Ethics and Standards are pretty set in stone, there really isn?t a subjective or objective. Many industries and for sake of argument let us use Financial, have a governing and federal body that had created these code of ethics and standards, these ethics have been written and created, acknowledged and accepted for centuries.
    They have been revised over the years due to advancements in technology, and society, the verbiage tends to be more concise so that there is no misunderstanding, but all in all when one compares the revisions, they uphold the same principles ? Upholding and maintaining integrity, honesty, dignity, respect, values, and standards. They also specifically state abide by the all rules governing commerce by implementing responsibility to the public.

    These standards can be found in Any Trade Association in the World. They share the same functions, ideology and structure. When one reads Fortune, and see that a company is Number 1 or 500 Global Or National, regarding ethical values, one instinctively knows what is being considered. No matter what country one lives in.

    We in this industry also have code of ethics that go eons back. The recruiting industry to date has two very well know National Associations with Legislative orders, recognized by the government. Their Code of Conduct is very similar, and comes from the days of Lore. The same also holds true with H.R and SHRM.

    Individuals (like Enron) can state personal ethics are subjective. Well in a personal realm of life, yes that is true, what you do, feel or say is truly up to you, you will deal with the consequences on a personal level.

    Fortunately the Same does not go for business. The Actions of 1 individual will ultimately hurt many others, whether they are employees, clients, share holders and even the general public via the Economy. We saw this with Tyco, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, MCI, Enron, and the fall of the stock market and by industry reputation (lawyers for eg).

    Accordingly, it is important to discuss this information here. It is important to recognize that there is a difference. Not turn a blind eye, hold our head down and think ?oh for the shame of it?. It is our civil duty to educate the less informed, encourage those who may know better, and make EVERY solid effort to enforce a civic responsibility to our industry and the people we serve.

    So again I say thanks for the very well written article. You did an excellent job. Keep spreading the word.

  3. Nancy-Good to hear from you. THanks for the nice words.

    Karen-I didn’t say that personal ethics weren’t important, just that there is no way that we are going to all come to agreement and frankly, that my article was on a different subject. Despite rules and regulations, personal ethics cannot be mandated. We all make decisions everday about what is right for us individually. You seem to be on a mission to change peoples’ personal ethics. That’s not my interest. I would rather people understand their actions in light of the effect on their business. Having said that am I telling people to go out and exercise ‘bad ethics’? No. I’m just not preaching to them what their personal ethics should be. Not my place nor anyone else’s. My opinion.

  4. My apologies Heather,
    Actually I did not assume that you were against ethics in Any way… Quite the opposite!!! And I really did enjoy your article. I felt you presented ethics in Business extremely well!

    If you review, you will see that the statements I made were that there is a difference in Personal Ethics and Business Ethics.

    Re my being on a mission to change Peoples Personal Standards, values and ethics As I said earlier – Frankly Heather, I really don’t give a darn what a person does in their personal life, as long as it does not affect or infringe on me, my family, friends or the defenseless ? they will have to live with their consequences.

    But as I said earlier, and Like you even stated, one must be responsible and have high standards in business; one person?s behavior can be responsible for the outcome and downfall for thousands. (Enron)

    You also brought up Fortune, which is an internationally recognized magazine. The standard they utilize to rate a company on Ethics was not based upon the personal belief of one human being, and one country. It was based upon the Universal Code of Business Conduct, which we all can subconsciously relate to when we read that article.

    Last and not least, am I on a mission to see stronger ethics, values and morals in this industry.. You DARN straight I am.. I am not embarrassed to say that!!! And frankly you must be interested as well, or why did you take the time to write your article, blogs, or listen and care about what candidates have said to you!

    It is unfortunate that my concerns for THIS INDUSTRY and Business is taken as a personal Affront. As I have said time and time again, NOT ONCE, have I directed MY personal opinions on this FORUM to any ONE person. NOR have I named NAMES nor pointed Fingers Directly. If I have mentioned a Name, it is with a Question?
    So If individuals are feeling that I am then maybe they have something they feel they have to defend. And I mean that to all individuals who have directly informed me that I am breaking the law, or causing harm to others?

    I will not apologize for being a loud voice in regards to this topic. It concerns Way too many people, and I don?t only mean recruiters. It affects me personally, this behavior affects people I have come to know, people I don?t know, people I care about, and this industry.

    So if I have to keep standing on the flag top, yelling my head off, I will do so until changes are made.

    Heather, I do like the way you have presented yourself, and the things you have stated.. Nancy said it well, and it Truly was one of the best articles written out there. You wrote it from the heart! I am doing the same, speaking from My heart!!

  5. Honesty & ethics will always ‘enjoy the last laugh’!

    Though there has not been any formal research into this as far as I know, it’s my firm belief based on some anecdotal evidence that dishonest people will never be able to be succesful at ‘referral hiring’, even when serious referral rewards are on the table!

    Same applies to people who believe that courtesy, kindness and chivalry are old-fashioned and optional for their daily conduct…

    Perhaps we will in due course sponsor some more formal research into this matter, but I bet that the ‘passive recruiters’ in our personal networks are generally not just well connected people but also people perceived to be adhering to high ethical standards and kind as well.


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