Honesty in Recruiting: Corporate Asset or Quaint Throwaway?

Sep 14, 2005

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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