The Ethics of Recruiting

Recruiting has a fairly bad reputation. It is often spoken of as a profession where people stretch the truth, promise what they cannot deliver, and act only in self-interest with candidates. Candidates tell stories about recruiters who were initially friendly and helpful, promising them assistance in negotiating for a position, and who then quickly ignored them when the client did not express interest. Some recruiters tell candidates the offer is “in the mail” or that the hiring manager has decided to make them an offer, only for the candidate to find out later that no offer is coming. Others badger candidates into revealing private information or ask candidates to give them the names and even email addresses of senior-level executives or other key persons in their organization. In most cases the behaviors are not illegal, but they cause candidates to look at an organization as an institution that cannot be trusted. The fact is, most recruiters are ethical. But we all must take care to ask ourselves what ethical recruiting looks like. We need to know what the proper ethics for recruiting are, how an organization or an individual establishes values around recruiting, and how to determine what ethical recruiting might look like. Where Ethical Issues Occur There are specific areas in recruiting where most ethical issues arise. These include how a position is represented to a candidate, how candidates are located, and how interviews are conducted. Unlike the medical or legal profession, there are no generally accepted values or ethical guidelines for recruiters. Some organizations have established their own guidelines and may even publish those on their websites. Written guidelines may help us do the right thing, but even without them there are some behaviors that we would call more ethical than others. Before we lay out some guidelines for ethical recruiting, let’s define more tightly what we mean by values and ethics. What Are Values and Ethics? Dr. Tom Shanks, an ethicist at Santa Clara University in California, provides the following definitions. Values are the deeply held beliefs that guide attitudes, actions, and the practical choices we make. Ethics, while similar, are the specific standards and principles for how we ought to act. Ethics define our moral rights and duties, and involve a commitment to doing the right thing. Ethics are not religion or feelings. Neither are ethics laws or legal requirements. In all aspects of our lives, the ground floor is the legal one. First of all, we must follow the laws. By that measure, we need to recruit fairly and make sure that no one is adversely impacted by the practices we follow. We cannot discriminate, ask candidates personal information that has no bearing on the job, and so on. But following these laws is not enough. Ethical Decisions We all find ourselves having to make decisions all the time. Should you tell a candidate that the organization is doing poorly financially? Should you disclose that the hiring manager has a very high turnover rate, and that you have helped her fill this position several times over the past few years? Should you call a company and misrepresent yourself to get the name or position of a key potential recruit? Should you use the proprietary email list you are offered by a candidate? Should you misrepresent the position in the discussion with a candidate by stretching the scope or authority that the position will have? The list of these situations or ethical dilemmas could go on and on. I am sure each of you could provide me with a dozen of these, but the real issue is how you go about deciding what to do. Tom Shanks has developed the following process, which you’ll find very helpful in guiding your own ethical decision-making.

  1. Start by following the law. As mentioned above, at the base of any action there has to be a legal foundation. However, many recruiting issues are far removed from the law. Some issues are in the gray area of the law ó actions that, while not absolutely illegal, are ambiguous. In those cases, the remaining steps in these guidelines can help you.
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  3. Learn all you can about the situation and put yourself in the shoes of all the stakeholders. What will your action do to each of them? Ask yourself what each person has at stake in the process.
  4. List and then evaluate your most likely courses of action. There will most likely be two or more possible ways you could act, and choosing the right one is often not easy. The following questions can help guide your decision-making:
    • Which action will cause more good than harm to all the stakeholders?
    • Which action treats everyone with dignity and respect and upholds the candidate’s rights?
    • Which is fair and satisfies your duties?
    • Which is best for the organization as a whole?
    • Which decision will best advance the values of your organization?
  5. Decide and test. Whose interests are you satisfying and why? Does your reasoning stand up? Always talk over an ethical decision with someone you trust and can confide in. Ask yourself what would happen if the decision became the universal one and everyone else were doing it. Would someone be hurt by your decision? Would someone who was hurt by the decision at least understand your reasoning? You can even think through how you would explain and justify your decision to someone close to you ó perhaps your spouse or mother or father. Would they understand and agree with your decision?
  6. Finally, make your decision, act and then follow up on your decision. Ask yourself after the decision is made whether or not the result was what you expected. Ask yourself how others reacted to the decision and whether all the stakeholders felt the decision was good.

Ethical decision-making is not black and white. In many cases, we are deciding between two actions that are both almost equally “right.” The essential requirement is to talk about the issues you run into with others in our profession. Work through appropriate actions with your colleagues and be the one to start the dialogue. In the end, all of us in recruiting have to ask ourselves whether we are being true to our own core values and beliefs; whether we do more good to ourselves, our candidates, and our clients than harm; and whether we are acting fairly and treating others with respect. Acting and thinking ethically is not always easy or without ambiguity. But acting ethically is the only way to build and maintain your reputation and integrity ó which are the central ingredients to long-term success.

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


4 Comments on “The Ethics of Recruiting

  1. Absolutely excellent article! Ethics seems to be a huge struggle for recruiters in the field of Agriculture.
    We as a company have a set standard of ethics and we abide by them in all areas. We are not the biggest – that’s OK, we know we provide an outstanding service to both our customers – candidates and hiring entities. We can sleep at night and look both our clients in the face after a placement.
    Georgia A. Weaver
    AG-Personnel Unlimited, Inc.

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