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Ethics in Executive Search and Headhunting

In this section we review executive search and headhunting practices and their growth since the 1990s, with specific reference to ethical considerations.

Executive search and headhunting

The main reasons given by several authors for the growth of the executive search profession include the confidentiality, impartial evaluation and discreet attraction of talent (Beeson, 1965; Hunter, 1989; Meyer, 1995; Taylor, 1984). Others cite the high price paid by the organization when the wrong person is selected (Taylor, 1984), the specialized skills needed to hire the right person - their solid database and depth of search service provide a more effective and efficient way of identifying the right professional for a certain position (Breaugh, 2008; Finlay & Coverdill, 2000; Jones, 1995; Lee, 1997; Taylor, 1984) - and the objectivity that is brought to the selection process by a third party. Another reason is that companies may not have the time and availability to conduct their own searches, and therefore ask headhunters to help them handle the more demanding aspects of the task (Cronin, 1981; Rutledge, 1997; Taylor, 1984). Despite these possible advantages, from the point of view of the executive’s career success, headhunting seems to have unclear and inconsistent consequences (Clerkin & Lee, 2010; Hamori, 2010).

Overall, these factors have contributed to establishing headhunting as a powerful tool in many organizations, especially for global organizations and thus global talent (Lim & Chan, 2001). This practice is particularly focused on locating and recruiting elite talent, which some authors describe as workers occupying positions at the pinnacle of organizational hierarchies or specialist skilled roles (e.g., in the oil and gas industry, or the technology industry; Faulconbridge, Beaverstock, Hall & Hew, 2009).

Even with some reduction due to factors such as economic downturns (Stephen, 2002; Wells, 2003), executive recruitment continues to be one of the services most required by companies; and the higher the position in the organization’s hierarchy, the higher the probability of a company asking for these specialized services (Clark, 1992, Purkiss & Edlmair, 2005).

With the phenomenal growth and awareness of the executive search service worldwide, it became a central issue among professionals and academics to analyse more deeply the ethical conduct of search consultants. In the next section we discuss this matter further.

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