Skill Shortages, Ethics, and Innovative Thinking

We all get so caught up in our own perspectives, careers, and day-to-day activities that we often don’t see alternatives to problem we face. Instead, we continue to follow traditional approaches, even when they are obviously inadequate. Almost everyone involved with talent acquisition is squirming under 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 the greatly renewed interest in Internet searching and “poaching” candidates. At the same time, recruiters face pressure to source in ways that may be legal, but not exactly ethical.

The recent discussions about ethics on ERE and on other various blogs are not encouraging. I do not believe in or advocate many of the practices that are being offered. All is not fair in war, as the Geneva Convention, the Nuremburg trails, and the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague demonstrate. It is easy to mark patently dishonest and deceitful practices as unethical; the real test comes in the “gray” areas. These are the areas where it is not clear if certain practices — such as willfully discrediting a company to make an employee feel that it would be best to move on — are wrong, and where our ethical thinking is tested.

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 if a practice is wrong or not 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.

So assuming you practice ethical recruiting, how can your organization meet its needs for talent? Conventional thinking about careers and a lack of imagination on the part of HR and recruiters is probably contributing to the perception that there is a growing lack of skilled talent available in the workforce. 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, educational background, and interests. These employees are usually passive; they’re not looking for an internal move and not aware of the opportunity. Yet they are often eager to take a look at that opportunity once they are approached. These systems also allow actively looking employees to add personal information or to 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

Many times 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 enable employees to gain new skills and become productive in a matter of weeks. 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 learn the new culture. E-learning, mentoring, and coaching are all ways that employees can be given skills they need quickly while being productive.


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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 with this comes the need for managers to better 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 simply going outside to meet every need. Talent acquisition is getting more complicated and requires recruiters, as I wrote last week, 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


5 Comments on “Skill Shortages, Ethics, and Innovative Thinking

  1. For many reasons, I have chosen to remain silent on the hysteria that surrounds discussions relates to poaching, ethics and sourcing candidates.

    I do however wish to say that it is a pleasure to read Kevin as he speaks to us from a perspective of sanity, reason and values that many seem to be lacking. Unfortunately, it is sad to have to point this out but what Kevin is really asking both recruiters as well as their organizations to do is to think; and from an organizational and leadership perspective, I do not expect to see much of this anytime soon because thinking is heavy lifting.

    Much of what I have read is embarrassing and makes me cringe. So may of us hope that recruiting will gain the respect necessary to become a viable and well thought of profession. I sincerely hope that those we need to make this happen are not reading some of what has been posted.

    Howard Adamsky

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

    ~~Kevin Wheeler

    ‘Important’ to whom? Certainly not to a client, unless, of course, it and its recruiter (and it would take both, wouldn’t it?) conspired to ‘win’ the candidate by knowingly misrepresenting job content, opportunities for growth, compensation, and so on.

    ‘Winning’ and ‘finding’ are discreet steps in the process of moving an A-Player onto a client’s workforce.

    When it comes to ?finding?, I will continue to penetrate target companies with whatever means prove effective and that my attorney advises me are defensible. Beyond this, I’ll leave the ‘ethics’ of sourcing to those with the inclination to concern themselves about such things (and none of my hiring managers are included in that group).

    As for ?winning?: I?ve been thumped hard by a number of clients over the years for disclosing their warts to prospective new employees. My response has always been: unless you, the client, enjoy redoing searches, it makes no sense to try to hide baggage that a candidate is going to discover through research, the interview process, or, in the worst-case scenario, within a few days of starting his or her new job.

    My clients expect me to quickly locate A players they can?t (or prefer not to try to) find on their own. They expect me to behave while doing so in a manner that results in lengthy retention and sustained top performance, and that insulates them from embarrassment and liability. Beyond that? well, for them, there is no ?beyond that?.

  3. Right on, Kevin!

    For those line recruiters struggling to find ethical ways of sourcing candidates, talk to those who do it with success and find out what they are doing. Feel free to contact me if I can help at all with some ideas.

    Great to see Kevin speaking up on this!


    PS: I don’t think the dialog harming our industry. I think it’s benefiting our industry by highlighting people who are doing things with honesty and integrity. Everybody already knew there were people who weren’t. People on both sides of the issue are easier to identify now and I’m actually grateful for that.

  4. Now Howard when you say:

    ‘For many reasons, I have chosen to remain silent on the hysteria that surrounds discussions relates to poaching, ethics and sourcing candidates’.

    Was it not you that posted one of the very first responses on this discussion and I repeat.

    John and Master?s article of today entitled ‘Recruiting, Ethics and Culture.’ is clearly John and Master at their very best and it is an outstanding piece of work. It is so good that I wish I wrote it myself!

    I am endlessly fascinated that organizations are unwilling to ‘steal’ the competition?s best players. The lack of desire to execute this critical aspect of building your business is laughable. (Not to mention the fact that you can?t steal an employee. If the competition has that concern, let their leadership build an organization that people are unwilling to leave as opposed to crying after they did!)

    Poaching from the competition has nothing to do with ethics. As the good doctor and Master point out, there is no place for socialism in business. There is a war out there and the competition is using real bullets; as such, the objective is to destroy the enemy, not to make nice to them!

    Also endlessly fascinating are the HR and recruiting people that pay search firms to steal from the competition. They explain it away by saying it gives them ?distance.? It gives them nothing other than the opportunity to write a check, play a fools game and demonstrate through modeling that they do not have the guts to lead by example. I can assure you that paying search fees gives you neither distance nor clean hands. Tell me, if I pay someone to punch you in the nose; is it really any different than if I punched you in the nose myself?

    If I were the CEO of an organization, it would be my objective to put the competition out of business; plain and simple. If you do not see things this way, you just do not get it.

    Just wondered 🙂

  5. Kevin,
    excellent Piece, I think I am going frame and put it on My wall.

    Like Heather Said, good job.

    Karen M

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