“Loose Lips Sink Ships”

As the pace of business picks up and an increasing number of practitioners are utilizing direct and indirect recruiting approaches to locate potentially qualified candidates, we would do well to remember the confidentiality slogan from World War I, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” Now this isn’t World War I and we aren’t talking about ships. However, we are talking about the careers of our recruits and relationships with our clients, both of which can be “sunk” by someone saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.

Historically, the ability to maintain confidentiality has been the standard for professional recruiters, a standard which should include their clients and candidates as well. This is particularly true when dealing with recruits who are currently employed and not actively seeking new positions. Recently, a call I received from an experienced recruiter underscores the importance of maintaining confidentiality.

The recruiter was working on a senior level search from a new client. In the process of conducting the search, he contacted an executive from one of his client’s chief competitors. After two in-depth telephone interviews with the recruiter, the targeted executive expressed concern that if he agreed to move forward with the process, the “word” could get out that he was interviewing with a competitor. Obviously, this would create difficulty with his present company. The recruit had good reason to be concerned since he held a high visibility position and was well known in the industry.

The recruit specifically asked for a confidentiality commitment from both the recruiter and his client before he would proceed with the process. That’s when the recruiter called me and asked how he should handle the situation, particularly with his client.

The first thing I did was to remind him of the following principle.


A person’s fear of loss is generally greater than their desire for gain.

This was both true and understandable considering the circumstances surrounding this recruit.

The recruiter did not want to make any assumptions about his client’s ability and willingness to maintain confidentiality. On the other hand, he did not want to panic his client, create undue concern about the motivations of the recruit, and most importantly, he did not want to insult his client by stating the obvious. For the recruiter these were all legitimate concerns.

Considering the situation from both the recruit’s as well as the recruiter’s perspective, I suggested he contact his client (a Group V.P.) and position the situation in a manner similar to the following (Mark is the client and Jim is the recruit).

“Mark, I have discussed with Jim your interest in meeting with him. Likewise, he is interested in meeting with you and learning more about the position and your goals for the group. However, he asked me to talk with you about the sensitivity of his present situation.”

“As you know, Jim did not seek us out, we initiated the contact. He currently holds a significant position where his performance has provided him substantial visibility within this sector of the industry. To date, you and I are the only two people who are aware that he is interested in meeting. Is that correct?” (Wait for the response. If it is anything but “yes,” you need to find out who else knows and what their involvement is with the process.)

“Considering his present situation, Jim has asked for a confidentiality commitment from both of us before moving forward with the process. If others need to be involved at this point, he request they agree to the same level of confidentiality.”

“I assured him that all of my dealings are handled in a confidential manner and that I would discuss his request with you. If your roles were reversed, I am confident you would want the same consideration.”

“Mark, do you consider Jim’s request to be reasonable under these circumstances?” (Wait for a response. If it is anything but “yes,” you need to ask, “why not?”)

“Good! Then our objective will be to maintain a closed-looped process, emphasizing confidentiality based on a ‘need to know’ requirement. Mark, will that work for you?” (Once again, wait for a positive response.)

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“Once your meeting with Jim has been concluded and if, as a result, there is sincere interest in proceeding, then we can discuss the specifics steps to take in order to complete the validation of our process while maintaining a reasonable level of confidentiality.”

“Mark, does Jim have your commitment as well as that of your company to proceed on this basis?” (Wait for a positive response.)

“Good! I will reassure Jim of our commitment. Now let’s discuss the logistics involved in getting the two of you together for a meeting. All right?”

The above scenario may appear simplistic. However, it amazes me how frequently recruiters fail to cover this subject with their clients. Granted, most enlightened employers will already know the importance of maintaining confidentiality. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to make certain, when dealing with a currently employed recruit, that we emphasize this point on every search for three primary reasons.

1. Loose lips can sink careers. Without a heightened consciousness, it is very easy for your client to causally mention the recruit’s name to someone who is not in the “loop” and does not have a “need to know.”

2. It allows you an opportunity to tighten-up the process and close the “loop,” while using role reversal to build proper insight. (“If your roles were reversed, I am confident you would want the same consideration.”)

3. It builds your credibility as a professional recruiter. After all, in most areas of life, confidentiality is a word and not a commitment. When it is a true commitment, it defines the individual as trustworthy, a necessary component for any long-term relationship.

Obviously, there is no way to guarantee human behavior even where there is a confidentiality commitment. However, by adding this step to your process, you help insure a higher level of confidentiality than might otherwise exist. This, in and by itself, has real value both in terms of perception and reality.

Therefore, remind yourself daily that “Loose lips sink ships.” Then, take a close look at your processes and make certain that giving and gaining confidentiality commitments is a cornerstone in your foundation as a professional recruiter.

As always, if you have questions or comments on this subject, just let me know.

Recipient of the Harold B. Nelson Award, Terry Petra is one of our industry's leading trainers and consultants. He has successfully conducted in-house programs for hundreds of search, placement, temporary staffing firms and industry groups across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, England, and South Africa. To learn more about his training products and services, including PETRA ON CALL, and BUSINESS VALUATION, visit www.tpetra.com. Terry can be reached at (651) 738-8561 or click to email him.


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