In recent years there has been a lot of exposure around the practice of companies entering non-poaching pacts (see also here, here and here) to prevent their competitors from headhunting their staff. Aside from the legal issues, Fraser Hill takes a different perspective in his latest article and talks about the ethics behind using headhunters. Essentially he argues that there is no ethical dilema in companies headhunting from their competitors “because companies don’t own people”. Furthermore, he highlights the somewhat flawed perception that although it is unethical for corporations to headhunt directly from their competitors, the practice is condoned if it is performed by a third-party. He illustrates his point with the following example:

“In the criminal world, you’re still considered as bad as the person who pulled the trigger if you hired the hit man to do it. The person who hires the hit man can’t just stand there in court and say, “well I didn’t do it your honor, I paid this man to do it so it’s all his fault.” Isn’t the hirer just as guilty as the hitman himself because he ultimately instructed “the hit” in the first place?”

Mr. Zebra was the best damned IPX Engineer we’ve sourced in the past few years… Image: ornello_pics


I’ve always shared the belief that headhunting is a non-ethical issue, though I may be somewhat biased because I work in the industry. Having been on both sides of the fence as a employee and employer, in my opinion, nothing overrides the fact that if you have the opportunity to move to a better workplace (whether it be increased salary, better environment, better location, etc), your employer has no right to prevent you from having the freedom to choose where you want to work. This autonomy sits within the restraints of your legal obligations to abide by all non-compete clauses, respecting your previous employer’s right to protect their own IP, etc etc. Loyalty is earned and it’s a two way street. How much has each party invested into the employment agreement beyond the statutory requirement of remuneration for work?

Regardless of where you stand on the ethics of headhunting, he suggests that there are some strategies companies can adopt to reduce the likelihood of your staff wanting to leave:

  • Train the actual hiring managers how to interview and how to best represent your brand. Not just training, but sitting in on interviews and giving constructive feedback.
  • Having a structured end-to-end interview process in place where candidates aren’t faced with countless repeat interviews where too many people can’t reach a consensus on a hiring decision.
  • Having a clear and well-defined feedback policy for all candidates who come to interview with a service level agreement that hiring managers must adhere to in terms of providing feedback.
  • Having a first class onboarding process with adequate feedback channels to be able to track in real time, the effectiveness of them, and the satisfaction of the newly onboarded candidates.
  • Working with your own recruiters and suppliers to maintain accurate and up-to-date competitor salary and benefits information and leaning on the business to take action to maintain a competitive environment.


What are your thoughts on headhunting – do you consider it an ethical practice? What Google-like perks do you offer your staff to keep them happy? Share your thoughts below.

[See the full article on ERE]



5 Responses to “The Ethics of Headhunting and How to Mitigate it”

  1. Jordan Pearce says:

    I believe that competing for talent through headhunting is just as ethical as competing for customers through sales and marketing. Headhunting is a reality of today’s business landscape.

    Good article Ken.

  2. Hi, great article. I have a question though. Is phone sourcing unethical if you are fabricating a story to elicit information from a gatekeeper. I have been using this technique recently and it has worked very well for me. If it works, you can map entire departments with just a few phone calls.

    Under Irish law, where I work, fraud and deceit are criminal offences, where the accused makes a gain or causes a loss by his fraudulent or deceitful act. In this case, the “gain” is information, which undoubtedly has an economic value. So if I ring a gatekeeper, lie about who I am, and manage to get valuable information, have I committed a crime?

    • Thanks! I can’t really get into the legalities of lying to get valuable information as I’m not familiar with Irish law but given what you’ve said, it would appear that you’re walking a very fine line.

      To be honest the fabrication of a story to tell gatekeepers appear to be very subjective. Many take on a Kantian ethics style, which is absolute, and simply states that “lying is lying and it’s wrong”.

      Other more adept phone sourcers, like Maureen Sharib, justifies telling a white lie to gatekeepers by reasoning that she is actually helping the people she has sourced. She argues that by being on her long list (which she sells to her clients) she has made available to these prospects other opportunities for which to explore. More job options equate to more freedom and it provides them with more leverage as an employee.

      For me personally, I have fabricated stories for gatekeepers in the past and have yielded excellent results. However, while I was placing those calls I could never quite shake the guilty feeling I got that was slowly rising as the call progressed and I attained more names.

      It’s really up to you to draw the line in these morally gray areas but one good way to keep yourself in check is to place yourself in the other person’s shoe (the gatekeeper) and imagine how you would feel receiving one of your own calls. Would you feel cheated? If one of the names you’re revealing is your friend, are you helping them? Would it feel better if you didn’t know what the purpose of the call was? Don’t forget that these are also real people on the other end of the line.

      I hope that helps, let me know if you agree. Best of luck!

  3. maureen Sharib says:

    Ken – you’d be hard pressed to show me “justifying” telling white lies. What you wouldn’t be hard pressed to say is me saying that white lying goes on in the industry and each to their own but lying of any sort isn’t necessary in phone sourcing IF the phone sourcer knows how to communicate with a Gatekeeper.

    • Hi Maureen, I’m a little starstruck seeing you on my blog.

      I agree that communication with a gatekeeper is essential to eliciting information from them. It’s a personal thing but still get that niggling feeling whether I’m lying through omission or feeding them pretext. My preference is to identify some individuals in the organisation, have the gatekeeper put me forward to them and engage those individuals.

      If the gatekeeper is an EA, in my experience they normally want me to send them an email for them to forward on to whoever they are supporting. In that email, I just frame it as approaching them to pick their brains about the industry, get their thoughts on the role, who might be of interest to speak to, etc. The great majority would be able to read between the lines or at the very least would be willing to help. Then it’s a matter of scheduling in an appropriate time with the EA…

      If it’s the office manager or receptionist, I find that confidence (not arrogance) normally helps put them at ease to connect me. Barring that I can always fabricate their email and approach them directly or find other ways to connect with them.

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