Practicing Ethics in Times of Change

Habit and tradition are useful in many ways. They make it much easier to know what to do and they subconsciously steer us along paths that have worked in the past but may not work so well anymore.

Recruiters, perhaps more than some other professionals, seem to be married to traditional practices. Most recruiters still require resumes, still feel they must have a face-to-face meeting with every candidate, and feel that traditional interviewing is still the best way to determine a candidate’s skills and organizational fit. They feel these things even when objective data shows them wrong because they are what everyone else does and because they are comfortable and expected practices.

Almost everyone involved with talent acquisition is facing pressure from hiring managers to find more qualified candidates. Recruiters are quick to grasp at any solution that offers hope of giving them access to better people. Hence, the rapid rise of niche job boards and referral and networking tools and greatly renewed interest in Internet searching and in “poaching” candidates.

At the same time, recruiters face pressure to source in ways that may be legal but not exactly ethical. Unclear situations are called ethical dilemmas because there is no obvious “right” answer. It tests ethical thinking when it is not clear whether a practice is wrong, such as willfully discrediting a company to make an employee feel that it would be best to move on.

Recruiters who use methods they know are deceitful or dishonest do no one a favor. They harm their employer’s reputation and sully their own. Recruiters who are not sure whether a practice is wrong might do well to put themselves in the shoes of the candidate or the manager on the other side. They might also look at all the options they have and ask which of them does more good than harm.

Good ethical practices treat all the parties concerned with dignity and respect and advance the values of the organization. In the long run, it is not important whether you “win” the candidate but whether you have done so with integrity and fairness.

Assuming you want to practice ethical recruiting, how can your organization meet its needs for talent? There are many practices that are ethical and that work. It is focusing on those, even if they take a bit longer or are more complex, that makes the difference.

Many of these practices do not require new search skills or more sophisticated online “hunting” methods, nor do they involve deceitful selling to candidates. There are many alternatives to unethical recruiting and to filling talent shortages.

Look Inside

Larger organizations have many talented, culturally aligned, and productive employees who would welcome an opportunity to do something different. Leading-edge firms such as Dell and Schlumberger have developed internal systems that allow recruiters to locate people with specific skills within the organization. The systems capture employees’ skills, performance history, education, and interests.

These employees are usually passive, not looking for an internal move, and not aware of the opportunity. Yet they are often eager to look at that opportunity once they are approached.

These systems also allow actively looking employees to add personal information or apply directly for posted positions. When there is a need to fill very highly specialized positions, internal people are frequently the best-qualified to do so with the least amount of training.

Short-Term Training and Coaching

Employees can be given skills more quickly than we think. Cisco, IBM, and countless other organizations have put together short-term, intensive training programs that enabled employees to gain new skills and become productive in a matter of weeks.

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This is often no longer than it takes to source, screen, interview, and hire a candidate from outside who, after being hired, still needs time to become productive and to learn the new culture.

e-Learning, mentoring, and coaching are all ways that employees can be given skills they need quickly while being productive.


Sometimes it is a good practice to let people rotate through several jobs so that they acquire at least some skills in many areas. This way they can be moved to fill gaps very quickly and with a minimum of additional education.

Rotations can be done frequently but on a short-term basis so that the impact on the employee’s current position is minimal. It just takes some creative thinking to make this work without much bother. Often they can be squeezed into slower times or offered when work tends to be less than normal.

Formal Development

Corporate universities are being established at a record pace to provide more formal education to current employees either to meet future anticipated needs or to strengthen employee skills to better meet current needs.

There are organizations with internal corporate training functions designed to provide employees for highly skilled or specialized jobs or for management and leadership positions. General Electric, IBM, HP, and Intel are leaders in making this a cornerstone of their people strategy.

Educating Hiring Managers

Times are changing, and managers need to understand the talent marketplace. It will be harder and harder to find qualified people over the next decade. For some jobs, including certain finance positions, nursing, and pharmacy jobs, as well as management positions, there will be a crisis. Even aggressive stealing and blatantly unethical practices will probably not meet the needs.

Managers must have a better understanding of these issues, and you as recruiters need to make the business case for managers approaching talent acquisition from a variety of ways, rather than to simply go outside to meet every need. Talent acquisition is getting more complicated and requires recruiters who are strategic talent advisors more than just order takers. The best recruiters do not need to use unethical practices because they have learned more options and have sold those internally.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


6 Comments on “Practicing Ethics in Times of Change

  1. Thanks from someone who would rather lose a deal than compromise personal ethics and integrity. Unfortunately, too many people don’t feel the same.

    One thing I would like to add: You say, ‘Recruiters who use methods they know are deceitful or dishonest do no one a favor. They harm their employer’s reputation and sully their own.’ You didn’t mention that they also harm the reputation of recruiters in general. Sadly, recruiters are the used car salesmen of the professional services world in the opinion of many with whom I have spoken.

  2. ‘In the long run, it is not important whether you ‘win’ the candidate but whether you have done so with integrity and fairness.’


    It’s tiresome to repeat this, but I’ve never – not once, ever – in 30 years had a client inquire how I had sourced, recruited, or closed a candidate on their behalf. They’re either not curious, or they’d rather not know. You pick.

    What my clients DO care about is whether anything we did to bring this star to the table will generate any blowback. Did we ask the candidate to violate a non-compete? Did we misrepresent the job, thereby creating unrealistic expectations that will contribute to quick turnover? Did we exaggerate the candidate’s skills, experience, values or credentials, thereby setting the new hire up for failure? And so on.

    And therein, perhaps, lies the intersection of ‘ethics’ and the requirement to deliver.

    One day, I hope to see a photograph of a SEAL team posing with the severed head of Osama Bin Laden. If I ever do, they last thing I’ll be asking myself is, ‘How did they do that?’

  3. I usually find value in the author’s articles, but here he seems to be saying to Corporate America, ‘Hey, recruit from within to avoid getting the gutter with recruiters.’

    We’ve had endless ethics discussion in this forum. Presenting opportunities truthfully to those of character who may find them a match cannot possibly be unethical. Non-competes can be dealt with, bought out, whatever, if parties agree. Competitors do not have any sort of hold on employees in an at-will status. It is when the parties involved do not disclose or lie about the opportunity and their ability to play ball that things go south. This is not exclusive to recruiters, and the vast majority of recruiters do not practice this way, for they know they would be sitting in the soup line.

  4. This is such a subjective topic, which is illustrated by the posted reviews to this article. There are many aspects involved in being an effective recruiter and the truly good ones are able to keep equal focus on both thier client’s and their candidate’s needs and truly care that they are met. Unfortunately, there are many out there that let that focus get out of balance (on either side), in order to close the deal and get on to the next one, which is why I agree with Rob’s comment that recruiters are thought of as a used car salesman. I know that doesn’t apply to alot of people reading this but I am sure you will agree that when contacting a new prospect, the first (and biggest) objection you have to overcome is that stigma, and more importantly have them belive you. I recently wrote a blog that included some references to this topic, and if you are interested, you can find it at

  5. I enjoyed Kevin Wheeler’s article, and could hardly agree more that integrity should ALWAYS be the overriding consideration in how we do business. His final point, ‘The best recruiters do not need to use unethical practices’ is right on the money. I would even go one step further – not only should recruiters understand they do not need to resort to unethical practices, they should know intuitively that they are better served by not doing so.

    I have always considered what I do (and how I do it) to be highly professional and one of the most valuable resources or services a company can have. A not insignificant part of my role encompasses the spread of goodwill and positive PR. The reasons are so obvious they hardly need to be stated. It’s good for me and it’s good for my client.

    Yet our profession will never escape the comparison to used car salesmen as long as agencies encourage their people to get the interview at all costs (usually in order to gain points for some weekly or monthly prize); run MPCs every which way and with little or no regard for the candidate’s best interests; cold call making claims they cannot possibly substantiate when they are pushed for detail; use candidate references and ‘where have you interviewed – who did you talk to?’ purely as a source of more business; lie! Yes, unfortunately they do that, too. These fools, and yes they are fools, just never understand the power of honesty. In the end I try to console myself, as I shake my head in disbelief, with the thought that they simply make me look better. But in reality we all suffer as a result.

    Worse still, having returned to the UK after many years in the business in the US, I have found more shoddy business occuring here than I ever encountered in the States. I wish it was ‘only’ bad practices, but sadly it goes beyond that. Too bad there is no body to which flagrant dishonesty and corruption could be reported, and lead to people being struck off.

    Even with that option, given how difficult it is for doctors to remove their own, no doubt there would be the same closing of ranks in search and recruitment, too. It’s a pity, because right now the only thing that acts as a clean broom is a good recession. Unfortunately recessions impact many of the good, hardworking professionals as well, so let’s hope the subprime repercussions won’t be so severe after all.

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