Honesty in Recruiting: Corporate Asset or Quaint Throwaway?

I wrote an article  (linked here with a discussion section and in full text below) that is published today on the Electronic Recruiting Exchange (for those not in recruiting, it's a portal for those of us that are with articles, discussion groups, blogs and other stuff). Anyway, thought I would share my article here since I think what I have to say could be applied to many other functional areas within a corporation. And also because I am really passionate about this topic. What? Me, with an opinion? I know! Anyway, here it is:

Honesty in Recruiting: Corporate Asset or Quaint Throwaway?

Corporate values and employment brand in aggressive and honest recruiting strategies

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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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.

Heather Hamilton is the staffing programs manager for marketing and finance talent acquisition at Microsoft. In her current role, Heather is responsible for creating and driving strategies to bring the industry's best marketing talent to the company. She is an industry leader and requested speaker on the topics of candidate outreach and community building, which include blogging and Internet recruiting. Heather's blogging activities have created press interests including interviews with the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and FastCompany. Heather has worked in staffing for 11 years and has been with Microsoft for six years in a variety of staffing roles.

Comments (11)

  1. Brad says:

    What has happened to your blog format?

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    i changed it

  3. Paul says:

    Excellent article, Heather. You are an outstanding writer – a talent not often appreciated in HR I would guess.

    You clearly have strong opinions about lots of things, and express them consistently, which makes me question why you would soften your edge around the question of personal ethics. (You describe them as subjective, as if there was not a very clear line between honest and dishonest).

    Corporate ethics as evidenced by actions come from personal ethics and core values. You can’t decide these sorts of things at the time of action – they are instinctual actions and reactions based on personal ethics. There is an excellent description of why this is the case in the book "Value Shift" by Lynn Paine. It’s kind of like exercise – if you haven’t consistently worked out and kept yourself in shape, it will be very hard to suddenly decide to compete in a triathlon. And, if your core values and personal ethics are ambiguous, it will be very hard to do the right thing when faced with a challenging business problem. The pressure to do the wrong thing can be enormous, and if you haven’t already worked out where the line is in your own mind, the chances are, you will cross it by default.

    As you pointed out, Enron voiced many of the right words, but the individuals mouthing the words didn’t believe them personally, and probably encouraged exactly the opposite in the people working for them. Leaders must possess a strong personal moral compass, because even though every individual is different and has a different view of where the line is (that doesn’t make it subjective, just fluid), most employees will model the behaviors of those who write their paychecks.

    Perhaps you don’t want to presume to judge the ethics of Dr. Sullivan or of FirstMerit or of other recruiters you may know who have employed these tactics, or who would turn a blind eye to others doing it so as not to stir up a professional hornet’s nest. But don’t we have to call a spade a spade if your goal is to encourage honesty and integrity? There can’t be equivocation about what honesty and integrity are if we expect people to behave that way.

    I think in this case, you put your finger on it. This isn’t about being aggressive (which is the "polite" or "business positive" way of describing how these recruiters behaved) it is about misleading, deceiving, manipulating and/or coercing people using the power over dispensing employment. It is the use of deception and the abuse of unequal power that makes it personally unethical (you also rightly point out that it doesn’t matter how the person doing it perceives their intent – it is how the person on the receiving end perceives it).

    I think that what you desribe as "applying to all of us regardless of our personal ethics" draws attention to this point. The other side will not agree that it applies to them because they do not subscribe to your personal ethics. If one believes that the end justifies the means, or that deception or manipulation of power are OK to exercise in one situation, you will believe it is equally OK in another. (e.g. "Sleep with me if you want this promotion".)

    Although I am the first to admit that I don’t always do what I believe that I should and live up to my own personal ethical standards, knowing that, acknowledging that and struggling with that are part of personal ethics too. I wouldn’t defend a weak moral judgment just because I made it. What troubles me about Mssrs. Sullivan et al is that they not only defend it, they promote bad behavior as being righteous, and good for business. He goes so far in some of his rebuttal responses to other readers of his article as to suggest that ethics has no place in business. It is war, plain and simple, and whatever is necessary to "win" is what you should do.

    Have I misunderstood what you meant by not arguing about "personal ethics"? Although I agree with pretty much everything else you said, I don’t see how you can have this debate without agreeing on what is ethically right and how you implement that personally.

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    Paul-because 1) you can’t get consensus on personal ethics, 2) people feel very strongly about them, especially having theirs come into question and 3) I have no formal training in ethics and don’t feel qualified to speak as an *authority* on the topic. Personal ethics, which you are portraying as black and white, are really shades of gray (some people feel that eating meet is wrong, I don’t. Some people use "ethics" to justify political view points that I find to be unpalatable). It wasn’t a question of whether personal ethics are important (as I mentioned in the article). After seeing people freak out on the ERE discussion board on this topic (finger pointing, arguments based on religion), I felt I could make a business case for honesty in recruiting. Simply, I chose a different topic than "personal ethics". If you feel strongly about it, send me an e-mail and I’ll give you the contact info of the editorial person at ERE and maybe you can submit an article. Please don’t make assumptions as to *why* I didn’t cover personal ethics though. It’s as simple as I stated above.I do have personal ethics. I’m content with others judging by my actions. Where they came from and why is personal and not something I feel like I need to share to justify my perspective. If others want to get into that mudpit, that’s fine. Not me. The business case for honesty in recruiting is what I wanted to explain.

  5. Eric Scott says:


    Love your principled stance. And, in the world of branding, you’re doing great as a recruiter.

    My one nit in all this is the disconnect between your brand and that of MSFTs. When Balmer faces down ugly incidents involving ‘talent’, e.g. recent recruiting war w/Google in China, one has to wonder how your personal ethics and ways of doing business synch up w/the leadership of MSFT!


  6. Paul says:

    I wasn’t questioning your personal ethics. That is very clear from your posts. What I probably didn’t say very well was that I don’t think you can separate the ‘what’ from the ‘how’.

    We absolutely agree that the business case for honesty is pretty clear. But ethics and morality is different from personal values (which vary much more widely, and would cover the ‘eating meat’ issue). The basic moral principles are pretty much the same in all world religions as well as in a secular domain, and the list of things is quite small.

    For example, codes of ethics are surprisingly identical in organizations from the Boy Scouts to the US Marines to Christianity to Buddhists. Integrity and honesty show up on everyone’s list – the only differences are in ranking. There is a good book by Rushworth Kidder (How Good People Make Tough Choices) that documents this universality. I suspect if you don’t see a consensus on this, it is because the terms aren’t properly defined.

    But if people don’t subscribe to these ethics personally, they certainly won’t in business either. That’s why I think personal ethics goes hand-in-hand with an honesty-is-the-best-policy practice in the workplace.

    I did read the exchanges on ERE and you are right. The accusatory finger-pointing was not going to win either side over, but only serve to harden positions. But, how can you tell Dr. Sullivan that he was documenting worst practices, not best practices, without a vehement disagreement?

    In any case, I would echo others that I’ve seen post on your blog – you are a beacon of goodness in a sea of badness. You have a strong sense of right and wrong, a personal brand that you represent consistently, you are responsive and you care. Any two of those would distinguish you from at least half of your peers.

  7. HeatherLeigh says:

    Eric-I really don’t want to go into my take on legal issues, for obvious reasons. Let’s just say that I’m very "in synch". I wouldn’t work here if I wasn’t.

    Paul-I agree that personal ethics and honesty at work go hand-in-hand. But if someone chooses to be dishonest in their personal lives but follows the rules/codes at work, there’s not mucn a company can say about it. I was limiting the scope of the article I was writing because I felt more equipped to make a case based on the business than on ethics. Thanks for the nice things you say. I wasn’t joking about you contacting ERE to write an article on personal ethics (I assume you are in the industry, I could be wrong). You should do it. It’s just a different approach to the same problem, as you state. Think about it (if you are brave) ; )

  8. Heather, Hope you are doing well! 🙂 I miss my recruiting friends in the NorthWest. Will i see you next week in Boston? Thanks for bringing up (& covering well) ETHICS … it’s VERY important that we (as an industry) address & fix this virus. People who Ruse are liars & shouldn’t get paid for "research". Period.

  9. tod says:

    Heather – That was an interesting read, even for those of us outside the recruiting world. You did a fine job in articulating your thoughts and position. Thanks for sharing.

    Oh, and as Paul put it, you definitely are a "beacon of goodness." I constantly refer people to your blog not only for HR/recruiting stuff, but just for plain good reading about Microsoft and our culture.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    Thanks Tod…that’s nice of you to say. I told my manager he needs to start referring to me as a "beacon of goodness" and he wasn’t buying it. I told him "your beaconness" would suffice..still no-go. Dang!

  11. T Raja says:

    Corporate and ethical values especially in Asia is needed to ensure a free and fair trade level playing field.

    The US certification programs addresses a much needed requirement for the coporate community in Asia. Due to the spread and the coverage your blogs and its links will provide a useful vehicle and hence the request to post.

    In more ways than one we will co-operate as after the training the search services will be next – for some executives who are certified to be placed in more meaningful positions.

    I look forward to all your help.

    Thank you.

    T Rajagopal

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