Jenni Nelson: The "Geneva Convention" on Headhunting

We keep hearing that we are fighting a “War for Talent”. So when it comes to headhunting, all is fair in love and war, right? Do we need ethics?

At the recent ATCSourcEvent I facilitated an ‘unconference’ on just this topic. As a group, we were tasked with coming up with a list of ‘ethical guidelines’ for headhunting. I call it ‘the Geneva Convention’ on headhunting.

It was a lively discussion, to say the least. The fact is that people have different ideas on what is ethical and what isn’t. This is what we came up with:

  1. Protect your company’s brand. This isn’t about ethics in itself, but more about “think about how your actions may impact how your company is viewed by potential candidates and/or clients”
  2. Protect your own brand. 
  3. No blatant lies to gatekeepers. I love the inclusion of ‘blatant’ in this one. So when is a lie a lie? Is it ok if you don’t get caught? Again, I guess this goes back to protecting your company’s brand and your own personal integrity. 
  4. Don’t pose as someone else to get past the gatekeeper. This is really a corollary to point 3. 
  5. It is ok to use information that is available in the public domain, but not information that has been acquired illegitimately.

As we were in a conference centre, there were a number of conferences run by other organisations being held at the venue. One of the agency recruiters said that she went for a walk at lunch-time and took photos of attendee lists that were on display at the other conferences. This created a huge discussion on whether it was ethical or not. We didn’t come to a conclusion either way.

Then the discussion took a sideways turn when someone commented that the fact that clients and internal recruiters often give their roles out to multiple agencies, drives poor behavior in the industry. There were internal and agency recruiters in the room. Here are some more guidelines that spilled out from this discussion (not really headhunting guidelines, but worth a mention):

  1. Companies (internal recruiters) to treat agencies fairly when it comes to candidate ownership. Who owns the candidate? It depends on the company’s policy regarding how long the candidate needs to be on their database before ‘ownership’ is released. This leads to the next guideline.
  2. Ensure the ‘rules of engagement’ between agencies and internal recruiters are understood, well communicated and upheld. So if you give a role out exclusively, make sure it really is exclusive. This makes perfect sense – it gives the agency recruiter more reason to pull out all stops to fill the role as their reputation is on the line – ultimately you will get a better service. And if you have a rule around ‘candidate ownership’, make sure that the agency recruiter really understands that rule and be fair about how you implement it.

So, is there room for ethics in headhunting? My opinion is “yes”. It is about protecting your brand and your company’s brand, but it is also about living by your own personal integrity.

Jenni Nelson is Principal Consultant at Insidejob. We run training programs targeting internal and agency recruiters. For more information about our training programs please refer to our website:

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