Lessons from the Ethics Panel at ER Expo

In my time in the recruiting space, I have learned that there is one topic that routinely incites the masses: ethics in recruiting. The recent “Ethics in Recruiting” panel at the ER Expo in San Diego was an enlightening experience that will set the stage for years of discussion and debate in our industry. The Players The first panel on ethics in recruiting at ERE consisted of:

  • David Gebler, a noted and respected ethics expert and president of Working Values.
  • Heather Hamilton, staffing programs manager at Microsoft, and a former staffing firm recruiter. As you may recall, Heather put out a very well-written opinion piece about the topic.
  • Michael Homula, director of talent acquisition at Quicken Loans and a former staffing-firm recruiter who was cited in recent articles on aggressive recruiting tactics — and the only staffing director I know who reports to the CEO.
  • Jeff Hunter, an industry veteran and current director of talent technology at Electronic Arts, who has also published strong and well-articulated opinions on the subject of ethics.
  • …and me, Dave Lefkow, a former staffing-firm recruiter, recruiting manager, industry consultant (the genius who forgot his wallet in Seattle but somehow made it to San Diego with no ID). In the past, I’ve vehemently defended ERE’s right to publish materials on inflammatory ethics-related topics.

Even though it was the last topic on the agenda, the room was packed with roughly 200 people. And despite some opinions to the contrary, I believe we had a diversity of backgrounds — three former staffing-firm recruiters, industry veterans, a current staffing director, a staffing programs manager, and a technology director. Notably missing ó and I’m sure ERE learned from this experience, being the first panel on this topic — was a current third-party recruiter. Audience participation in the discussion was highly encouraged, although I would estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the audience consisted of in-house recruiters. It’s also worth noting that we did not position ourselves as ethics experts, but just participants in the community discussion around this topic.

Launching the Panel

David Gebler opened by discussing what ethics are and are not. Ethics are not to be confused with morals. Instead, they are a set of standards that guide our behavior. To illustrate this point, he gave the example of the mafia as an organization with structured ethics but few morals. In the mafia, there are very clearly defined standards and guidelines for behavior related to stakeholders (although there are few when dealing with people outside of this circle). Simply because they have ethics does not make them moral, however — quite the contrary. David also warned of the danger of not defining where boundaries are, as demonstrated by Enron and WorldCom. Contrary to what you may assume, ethical lapses are not always examples of bad people doing bad things. Very often, environments are created that allow and sometimes encourage good people to behave badly. That’s how small problems can multiply into big ones. The steroids scandal in baseball also shows that not defining or operationalizing ethical guidelines to reduce gray areas can have negative consequences.

The Discussion

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All of the panelists were in agreement that the conversation we are having on ethics in recruiting is long overdue. Publicly, there was very little disagreement among all of the participants in the discussion (audience or panel). There seemed to be universal agreement that lying to get information was not ethical, potentially illegal in some cases, and not behavior that was encouraged ó although there were participants that admitted doing this in the past. In retrospect, I realize that not everyone really agrees on these topics, in principle or in practice. For various reasons, I don’t think that anyone in the audience or on the panel felt comfortable publicly admitting to things like ruse tactics. It’s quite possible that some of their private opinions and activities might tell a different story. After the panel, one attendee said he was emailing his team during the discussion ó and they responded that employing some of the disputed tactics were what they did every day. So here’s a possible suggestion for the next panel to broaden the discussion: Invite an individual or two to the panel who will go on record advocating controversial tactics, or have people anonymously and privately record their feelings to discuss with the panel. While David Gebler was responsible for moderating the panel, there was very active audience discussion. Some of the highlights from the discussion:

  • Heather Hamilton and Michael Homula agreeing on something!
  • Michael Homula defending his record but admitting mistakes.
  • Steve Fogarty at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide on a third-party recruiter working for a competing PR firm, who told the receptionist that he needed to speak with the biopharma PR team about a potential RFP, and when connected, immediately discussed job opportunities. We didn’t hear the end of that story; hopefully, Steve can comment at the end of this article on the actions taken by the employees and the net result for that recruiter.
  • Where ethics stop and bad taste begins.
  • Whether an industry-wide set of ethical guidelines would help or hurt the industry.
  • Recruiting from partners, or even just asking them if they know people.
  • Nancy Gray-Starkebaum of NGS Talent brought up a very interesting point: Is it disingenuous for us to slap non-competes on our own employees, but recruit directly from competitors who don’t have non-competes?
  • CEOs who call third-party recruiters or name-gatherers to “do their dirty work” ó the work that they see as unethical for their own recruiters to do.
  • Much talk about the effect of deceptive tactics on a company’s employer brand and a recruiter’s reputation.

I sincerely hope that we on the panel gave people different and interesting perspectives on these important issues. I could give you the actual opinions we had on each of the topics above, but I won’t for a simple reason: I don’t think it should be up to others to tell you the difference between right and wrong or good and bad behavior in your recruiting efforts or your organization. As David Gebler aptly pointed out, ethics involve making value decisions between positive and negative outcomes as they relate to your unique situation.

My Final Takeaways

As we speed towards an innovation-driven economy where attracting and maximizing the return on human capital is a business imperative, recruiting is assuming a much more visible and important position in most organizations. As such, this is an ideal time to rethink the core values that guide our recruiting teams’ behaviors. I applaud ERE for bringing the ethics issue to the fore, and hope that more people begin the exercise of defining their boundaries as a result. As a point of reference, I asked how many people in the 200-person audience had defined a clear set of ethical guidelines for their recruiting staff: I counted three people who raised their hands. The conversation on ethics in recruiting has clearly just begun.

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (www.talentsparkconsulting.com), a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.