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Do Recruiters Need a Code of Ethics?

Two business people shaking hands in front of a group of people.

​Low-level recruiting jobs can be among the toughest in HR. Practitioners are under extreme pressure to fill clients' positions. That pressure can tempt recruiters to make some less-than-ethical choices.

Occasionally, recruiters charge job-seekers for their services. Some mislead applicants about openings or about their chances of getting a job. They might post fake job descriptions or fabricate a relationship with an employer. Some recruiters misuse applicants' personal information.

Most recruiters behave ethically, knowing that their reputation and their company's brand are on the line, said Joe Shaker Jr., president of Oak Park, Ill.-based Shaker Recruitment Marketing. "They're selling the organization."

But for some external recruiters attempting to beat their competitors, "there's a tremendous temptation to be unethical," said Kevin Wheeler, founder and president of the Future of Talent Institute, a think tank in Fremont, Calif.

"You'll hear about the good, the bad and the ugly," said Wanda Parker, president of The HealthField Alliance, a physician recruiting and consulting firm in Danbury, Conn. She is also president of the National Association of Physician Recruiters (NAPR), which is based in Altamonte Springs, Fla. "There are some recruiters who cut all kinds of corners and will do whatever they can to make a buck."

"It's very much like the Wild West," said Fred Coon, founder, chairman and CEO of Stewart, Cooper & Coon, a human capital strategies firm based in Phoenix. "It's a free-for-all."

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Fake Job Descriptions Common

Stacey A. Gordon experienced an ethical lapse first-hand. Gordon, who is now CEO of Rework Work, a diversity strategy and consulting firm in Los Angeles, once took a job with an external recruiter.

"It was common practice to create a fake job description and post it in order to get candidates to apply, even though the job didn't exist," she recalled. She said the agency would justify the practice by saying, "We have so many clients that this type of job will pop up."

During her brief tenure there, "I would think, 'There's no way I'm going to do these types of activities.' But some people don't care; they just want to make the money."

To stem those behaviors, some leaders wonder if the recruiting field needs its own licensing and ethics code. There are voluntary certifications such as the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP, and SHRM has created a code of ethics for the overall HR profession.

Some segments of the recruiting world have adopted such codes. The Association of Talent Acquisition Professionals recently rolled out a set of guidelines for recruiting integrity, as has  the National Association of Executive Recruiters and the American Staffing Association. The Brussels-based World Employment Confederation has a code of conduct.

A code of ethics for the recruiting industry as a whole "has been a topic of conversation for a long time," Wheeler said. "No one questions the fact that there should be some sort of ethical practices in recruiting. The real question for most people in recruiting is: How can you have a really enforceable code?"

He said that if some recruiters adhere to a code of ethics and others don't, the latter group might have an advantage.

Investigating Physician Recruiters

When recruiting firms join the NAPR, they sign a statement saying that they reviewed the association's code of ethics and promise to abide by it. These firms are encouraged to share the code with their employees, according to Parker.

If someone objects to a practice by a physician recruiter who is not an NAPR member, the association can't take action. However, if a complaint is filed against a member firm, it is reviewed by the association president and ethics chair and can be investigated. The ethics committee will decide whether to sanction the company, such as through a letter of reprimand or through suspension or expulsion from the association.

Stewart, Cooper & Coon produced its own code of ethics, and Coon would like to see other recruiting firms do the same. "It's the right thing to do," he said. These companies "need to internalize their own code of ethics and decide what's relevant and valuable to them."

"There needs to be proper training" about best practices in recruiting, said Michele Capra, talent acquisition leader with global organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry. "Organizations should make sure that recruiters have the tools they need to be successful when those situations arise."

Wheeler said the best way to prompt recruiters to adopt a code of ethics is "to raise awareness and public knowledge of the profession. Right now, candidates have no idea what's acceptable and not acceptable." For job seekers and the companies using recruiting firms, he added, "I think it's really a matter of education."

Shaker said that job candidates mistreated by recruiters can go to Glassdoor and other websites and give their recruiters bad reviews, which should put pressure on them to act ethically. "The transparency is now there."

Gordon said that recruiters "should be accountable to candidates in the same way that retailers have to abide by bait-and-switch consumer protection legislation." She said she hopes that recruiters recognize that good ethics is good business.

Often, recruiters will have a gut feeling about whether a particular practice is ethical, Capra said. "If you get that feeling that something is not right, you are probably correct."

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.


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