Recruitment Ethics? What Are They? ….Really?

Recruiters like to talk about `Ethics`. Here I am, talking about them now. But what does it mean? What genuinely is `ethical recruitment`.

There are social recruiting commentators, LinkedIn discussions and my friends The IOR – who seem to converse recruitment ethics in one way – the candidate experience. It basically boils down to how you treat the candidate. The common complaint is “I never hear from the agency” So, attentive recruitment organisations will put in an automatic structure to ensure that all candidates are communicated with… when they aren’t selected.


Hmm, ok – that’s `nice` – but all it is doing is completing the rejection cycle. Doing stuff to please other recruiters, and occasional applicants.. Is that recruitment ethics? Is that really making a difference?

The other key area surrounding recruitment ethics is CV delivery. “Did the agency actually SPEAK to the candidate before sending the CV to the client? NO??!! – Call the ethics police!! – it’s a travesty!!”. OK, I hate the practice of CV sending without discussion with the potential match – but this is internal stuff again – pleasing other recruiters. Is this recruitment ethics? Is it really making a difference to the perception of the recruitment industry?

The overall answer to this, is no. Yes they are degrees of ethics. Yes they are nice administrative processes done well. But do they make a genuine difference to people getting jobs? Has anything genuinely been sacrificed, and set apart from other recruiters do – to make a shift in perception? Will the wave of candidate experience change, just because an agency plugged in an automated “regret to say” response to their application?

Ethics to me, in recruitment, are about putting the individual people involved first, ahead of economics – with crucial actions that make things actually happen for good – when normal business process cannot. 2011 has seen my business, CloudNine, do two such actions.

Case 1 – Ulrike Schultz 

Ulrike is a star. She made a name for herself and her job search, when she created the @TheLondonJob twitter handle and embarked on her aim to get her London job from Austria. She was interviewed in The Guardian, and I met her on her visit over here earlier in the summer – and set about looking for work for her. She networked well in her time here, and met many industry people, and secured an internship placement in London for Oct/Nov. In September an opportunity arose for a German speaking Account Exec with a client, and I spoke with Ulrike and instantly put her forward. She was a front runner from point one and we organised an interview for her. However when the MD of the client stepped in to explain he had met Ulrike at an event, and therefore couldn’t justify paying a fee for someone he was connected to – it created a stumbling block. Now, the typical recruiter action is to dig the heels in and fight for a fee, or withdraw the candidate. I knew I had made the introduction, I knew my potential fee was justified – but the client had their own agenda, and a justifiable observation, at least.

This was Ulrike’s dream job – and she was the perfect candidate. So the answer was to communicate with all and find a solution. And we did. I stepped aside and allowed Ulrike to dive in independently and get the job she was due, and I negotiated an arrangement with the client for future such scenarios.

Case 2 – Jules Jackson 

A very similar circumstance. Jules is an HR professional with a passion for Social Media. I met her at #TruLondon in September, and the crew there warmed to her a lot, and the #hirejules hashtag was in force!! She came and met JJ and myself not long after, and we loved her spirit, and knew she would make a great hire. In fact we named her an `Honorary CloudNine member`! We immediately put her forward to a Social Media Exec job at a client, and referred her again in October, when they posted a job for a Social Recruiter. To our frustration – this client had made this job one that they weren’t paying a fee for. Hard fast rule, they had options – they wouldn’t be using a recruitment agency.

But hold on, yes they had options – but Jules was the perfect person for this job? It was the ideal job for her? So, I yielded. I took the decision that I had earned many £1000’s from this client over the previous 18 months, and maybe it was my turn to give something back to them, and certainly not interrupt the opportunity of Jules’ dream job. With Jules’ agreement, I handed them her contact details. 2 weeks later, she had been offered the job. A happy client and candidate. Did we get a fee? No – but the action was appreciated on all sides.


Sometimes, the person comes first. That’s ethics. In recruitment we are at the crux of crucial career decisions. We are in it to make money – and these circumstances are exceptional the individual scenarios – but the `Ethics` comes from recognizing where people, and their career, becomes more important than a fee. A human and social business particularly has to recognise this. But even from the harder nose business angle, we also have to recognise the `loss leader` – the time to know when monetary income sacrifice in the short-term, can reap benefits in the longer term.

Many would say this is not always fair. CloudNine is a small business with comparatively minimal turnover compared to the £millions that the 2 clients each turnover each year. But doesn’t matter to Ulrike or Jules, does it?

That’s what recruitment ethics is about. It’s not about administration changes, it’s about making choices that affect individuals favourably, with a sacrifice to our own perfect scenario.  

Has anyone experienced similar events in recruitment – I hope there are more out there, that now and again, can exercise genuine ethics




8 thoughts on “Recruitment Ethics? What Are They? ….Really?

  1. “Completing the rejection cycle” is mostly just good manners and common sense (why annoy someone who might be perfect for a future role?).

    But there is an ethical component to it. Closing out candidates professionally is part of your role in representing your client, who is trusting you to be their ambassador in the market. If you’ve told me you’re sending my CV to Company X, and I never hear back, I’ll walk away with a poor impression of you AND of Company X.

    Well done for seeing the bigger picture with your clients, and helping out Jules and Ulrike.

  2. Thanks for the good comments Kate – Yes I agree wholeheartedly with your observations on the processes being in some way ethical too – but I would still regard them more as administrative efficiency and good branding awareness.

    My `slight` separation is in the example of a recruitment agency. Much of my agenda in life is to alter the perception of recruitment agencies – from being fee-driven, pound-hungry, box-tickers – to being people who make great stuff happen, in a business format. To be truly ethical, it takes more than just blanket-improved processes to retain professional reputation. It takes the separation from business efficiency and the needs of a jobseeker, and so often I have worked in scenarios where the recruitment fee has closed out a real career route – at the fault of both client and recruiter sides.

    Ethics in recruitment is about recognising that we are not playing monopoly with people’s careers, we are helping create them.

  3. Good post Steve. It raises some real questions and I’ll admit I may well have made different decisions about the 2 candidates. I’d like to think I would have been so generous. With 2 companies behaving so badly, would I have out the candidates first? Not sure. I hope you get what you deserve and that these two companies also get their just deserts. Interesting to hear what the candidates think – If you told them.

    The ethics of recruitment are challenging. I certainly don’t try to be “fair” because that’s so subjective. I tend to ask myself two questions:

    1. How would I deal with things if I were the candidate or client? I try to put myself in their shoes and see the world from their perspective to help me get some understanding.

    2. What would my worst boss do? – and then do the opposite!

    OK. I appreciate that’s not a hugely intellectual and deep approach, but it gets me out of most scrapes most of the time.

  4. The central function of professional recruitment, and the source of this predicament, is that we are in the business of selling information. The information which we have, has value in that particular moment in time, and we release this data when a client agrees to the fee we intend to charge. We are effectively holding the information, and therefore the candidate, to ransom. Many would say that this is unethical, or at the very least ungenerous. We could of course provide this service for no cost at all, and garner all the kudos points for doing so, but that would be charity, not business.

    I’m being too harsh (deliberately), because this is how many view the recruitment industry. Contractors see agencies as Shylock, who steal a large chunk of their hourly or daily rate, without recognising that they work for the agency, and the agency works for the client.

    There was a time in the 1980’s, when the Labour manifesto included plans to outlaw recruitment agencies, as they viewed it as a form of usury.

    There are, of course, instances when it is not only ethical, good business, or good karma to set aside our fee terms, when circumstances and awkward clients collide. In those cases, where no fee is possible, we must at the very least claim the credit and brownie points for doing a good turn. I’ve done it myself, but never considered it the ethical thing to do; merely the best practical option in the circumstances.

  5. Hey @corphandyman – thanks for the comments.
    I actually don’t think in either case, the company `behaved badly` – they were stating their own business case, and weren’t narky towards me at all. Digging our recruitment heels in, can sometimes be the failing of our industry – the unwillingness to reflect on the bigger picture, and make a decision that affects all positively in the shorter or longer term. I have made subsequent placements with both clients. If I’d have fought with my heels in? – I doubt this would have happened.

    I like your `putting myself in their shoes` bit. We need more of that in our industry.

  6. @Stephen – I love your last paragraph. Very true. This part has to managed very carefully, and yes I did. Of course.

    Totally agree that we are trading on `knowledge`. We know things about people they know, that they don’t know!! – that’s our privilege. Not always easy to explain that to clients – but’s it’s the fact.

    Thanks for the comments.

  7. This article is a load of crap.

    Would you walk into a shop, pick up a sweater, walk to the counter and say “I’ve got a similar one at home so I am taking this home without paying for it”?


  8. Ha – thanks Skeptical.
    Sweater versus A Person’s Employment Search? – comparative? I think not.

    The minute we continue to consider that job-seekers are the equivalent of products off shelves, is the minute we display the antipathy of recruitment ethics.

    It’s a people business that sometimes we get paid handsomely for. Sometimes we get paid £10k for what amounts to barely a days work. Other times we earn nothing for a months’ work.
    At the centre of it all, is a person, looking for a job. Sometimes we need to know when to step aside for the good of our own reputation and the opportunity of a great match where we cannot gain a fee.

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