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Executive search, headhunting and ethical values

The Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) offers guidance to its members on their conduct (Bettleyon & Weston, 1986). Several standards of excellence have been developed in line with its code of professional practice. According to the AESC, the values aligned with executive search practices are:

  • 1 Integrity: Above all, headhunters should maintain open communication, strong and mutual commitment and a transparent purpose of the assignment and inherent expectations and obligations with their clients, candidates and other interested parties.
  • 2 Excellence: Headhunters should focus on providing a high-quality service and using rigorous, results-focused methodologies. Furthermore, they should have a full understanding of their client’s business and industry, challenges and opportunities, and economic and cultural environment, as well as the position description and search strategy.
  • 3 Objectivity. Professionals should serve as trusted advisers, exercising independent and objective judgement in identifying and evaluating the field of candidates, and communicate openly when, in their opinion, clients should consider modifying their specifications or approach.
  • 4 Diversity and inclusion: Consultants should provide leadership to clients to benefit from the advantages of diversity and inclusion, and assist them in the successful integration and development of talent and help them to build a culture of inclusion.
  • 5 Confidentiality: Client relationships are built on a foundation of trust; therefore, these professionals should protect confidential information concerning both clients and candidates and share any client and candidate information on a strictly need-to-know only basis.
  • 6 Avoiding conflicts of interest: Headhunters have an obligation to avoid conflicts of interest with their clients and should refuse an assignment where such conflicts exist. The AESC adds that they should not accept gifts of a material nature that could influence their impartiality.

The literature presents some ethical values associated with the executive search and headhunting practice.

Off-limits guarantee Headhunters have an ethical obligation to inform their client of the off-limit constraints as long as such information is relevant for the client to decide whether to engage the headhunter (Mele & Roig, 1995). This guarantee is for a limited period only (usually 1-2 years) and the search firm is free to do business in other industries if it so desires, but this drawback should not be used as an excuse for not offering the off-limit guarantee (Lim & Chan, 2001).

Gather adequate and accurate job vacancy data It is the headhunter’s responsibility to define the job vacancy accurately for the job candidate, so that the candidate has sufficient information to make a choice (Lim & Chan, 2001). The headhunter must not only provide accurate information, such as job requirements and the social and organizational environments that will affect the job candidate’s performance (Jenn, 1994; Mele & Roig, 1995), but also help the candidate to examine whether the job fits their profile. However, as Lim and Chan (2001) point out, a search consultant with low ethical values may not provide sufficient information to the candidate and accept a search assignment even when the chances of success are limited (McCreary, 1997).

Information collection and provision Both the candidate and client organization have a right to receive sufficient information about the job vacancy. An unethical headhunter may, however, deceive the candidate into accepting a job by withholding critical information, such as the risks involved in the new job (Mele & Roig, 1995). Failure to inform is unethical because it is a direct violation of the principle of truthfulness, which demands that the headhunter maintains a high level of trust and accurate information regarding all the parties involved (Lim & Chan, 2001). The absence of important information may lead to costly mistakes when the candidate is unable to perform well on the job (Mele & Roig, 1995; Whitney, 1969).

Adequate evaluation of the candidate It is critical that headhunters conduct an in-depth assessment of the candidate (background and current performance) as well as evaluate the compatibility between the candidate’s work style and personality and the client organization’s corporate culture. Thus, an ethical headhunter will conduct a thorough search for all relevant information; failure to do so may lead to their presenting unqualified professionals to the client organizations (Lim & Chan, 2001; Mele & Roig, 1995).

Use of confidential information According to Lim and Chan (2001) the main concern with the use of confidential information is its possible unauthorized use for purposes beyond the process of recruitment. Headhunters who maintain a high ethical standard are usually able to assess the potential damage of the search and recognize that candidates have the right to choose their employer and job position (Mele & Roig, 1995).

Harm to the candidate’s employer An ethical headhunter should always consider the potential harm of approaching an employee in another organization, especially if it is clear this may have have profound consequences, such as bankruptcy or a drastic drop in profitability and sales (Lim & Chan, 2001).

Despite the convergence of perspectives regarding ethical values in executive search firms, it is important to consider research that challenges the universal application of these standards. Surveys conducted in the UK show that more than one third of respondents

(employers) have had bad experiences with executive search consultants, mainly when they proposed unqualified candidates and their failure to honour agreements (Nash, 1989). In the United States, many client organizations have expressed dissatisfaction with the di screpancies between what they received and what they were promised (Adshead, 1990; Smith & Sussman, 1990). Others state that recruiters have been found to be unduly opportunistic about their prospects of recruiting a candidate and less concerned with maintaining a high level of ethical conduct throughout the process (Smith & Sussman, 1990).

Lim and Chan (2001) developed a systematic research of 65 search consultant firms which agreed to participate in their study in order to understand whether the unethical headhunting practices reported in the literature were representative of the overall headhunting industry. The results show that headhunters generally adhere to most of the ethical values and were more ethically inclined than expected.

Based on this literature, we can conclude that headhunting remains popular and that standards of ethical practice may not be too dissimilar from internal organizational practices. However, further research is needed to analyse the current ethical position of headhunting in the search and selection industry, especially the direct impact of these practices on potential candidates, employees and organizations.

Clerkin and Lee (2010) conclude that when search firms initiated contacts with potential candidates these were usually closely associated with career success. On the other hand, when the contact was initiated by candidates looking for a new job opportunity, firms seemed to make a potentially negative association, as they assumed that such candidates must be unsuccessful professionals.

This bias is just one example of candidates’ experiences. Bias that influences the decisionmaking process and relationships between professionals leading to different outcomes can be the difference between finding a successful job position and being excluded or underevaluated. These concerns should lead us to discuss the ethics underlying these practices more thoroughly.

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