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Special Edition
Deceptive Recruiting:
HR's Last Stand?
Job hunters, protect yourselves

Deceptive advertising, misleading phone calls and sales pitches, coercion, impersonation, and misrepresentation. Headhunters certainly use some sleazy methods to find new hires for their corporate clients, don't they?

But we're not talking about headhunters. We're talking about HR recruiters -- recruiters who work within corporations in the human resources (HR) department. Their job is to find and hire new employees for their companies. They do it by running advertisements; by conducting job fairs; by "sourcing" candidates through networks of contacts; and through outright deceit.

Deception Rebuked:
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The new "best practices": Lying and cheating
Welcome to the state-of-the-art practices of recruiting where the "strategy and approaches are so aggressive that most corporate recruiters would shy away from even trying them -- and would most likely argue that they stretch the so-called limits of ethics in recruiting."

Or perhaps they stretch the limits of so-called ethics in recruiting. Are ethics out the window in the HR profession? A recent case study about HR recruiting clearly promotes and applauds lying and cheating, and encourages the systematic use of deceit as a "best practice." Job hunters, protect yourselves. If you ever worried that a search for a new job would expose you to dangers and risks, you should be much more worried now.

A case study in bad behavior
The quote above is from a case study about Akron, Ohio-based FirstMerit Bank published on the Electronic Recruiting Exchange ( by Dr. John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University. Sullivan is the former "chief talent officer" for Agilent Technologies, the original part of Hewlett-Packard that was spun off in 1999 around the time Carly Fiorina took the helm. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, writes for HR journals, and is called "a well-known thought leader in HR."

In "The Best Practices of the Most Aggressive Recruiting Department: A case study of FirstMerit Bank and its world-class recruiting practices", Sullivan says, "After a six-month study, I have found [FirstMerit's] to be the best and most aggressive recruiting function anywhere in the world. Having advised more than 200 companies in over 23 countries, this is not a statement I make lightly." (See also Part 2 of Sullivan's report.)

FirstMerit Bank is Sullivan's example, not mine. I have no evidence of the bank's practices other than Sullivan's report. The issue at hand is not how one company behaves. The issue is how the HR profession -- and HR departments in the corporate world -- define "best practices." (It is interesting that FirstMerit's recruiting operation apparently is not considered a part of the HR department. But the HR jargon gives it away. People are "talent"; not hired but "acquired"; and the HR manager is the "director of talent acquisition". Take note, because these impersonal, de-humanizing terms seem to put distance between recruiters and their victims, just as the now-commonplace "human resources" often distances corporations from the real, live people they employ.)

As a leading voice of HR, Sullivan helps establish standards that can profoundly affect you as a job hunter. He talks about ethics, then teases the HR profession with the benefits of deceptive recruiting. So I call him on it: I do not accept deceptive recruiting practices as "best practices." It is not acceptable to lie and cheat in business, or to promote bad behavior by portraying it as clever and effective.

A challenge to the job hunter:
How to deal with deceptive recruiters

Job hunting is difficult. Interviews and job negotiations try the mind and the soul. Even seasoned executives sitting in the candidate chair can lose their bearings when they must judge the behavior of an interviewer -- and when a job offer hangs in the balance. What should you do when something seems amiss? Marcus Aurelius makes it very clear for us: "The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are."

Something is very wrong in HR and euphemisms cannot distract us from it. If we don't look lying and cheating in the face and call them what they are, we join the ranks of liars and cheats. There is no way to dress it up as "best practices." (Lest anyone think I have taken any quotes from Sullivan's report out of context, you can read the original document via the link above.)

Let's take a look at "the best" recruiting practices you may encounter as a job hunter today -- and I'll offer some suggestions about how you can deal with deceptive recruiters.

Deceptive job ads
After responding to an ad for a position, job hunters sometimes learn in the interview that the job isn't real. The ad was not on the up-and-up, with the result that the candidate's valuable time is wasted. According to Sullivan, FirstMerit's recruiting tactics include misleading advertising, which he rates a "best practice," going into surprising detail about how it's done:

"For example, if they are trying to hire commercial lenders, instead of placing an ad for a commercial lender, they take the indirect approach and place one for a lending assistant (a lending assistant works directly for a commercial lender)...lending assistants typically love to talk. So they use these job board responses to ask who the best lender is in the assistant's bank. They then take the best lending assistants to lunch and ask them to identify the very best commercial lenders they've ever worked for."

The unwitting applicant responds to an ad in good faith, devotes energy and enthusiasm to the application, and takes time off from work, only to be interviewed about candidates the recruiter is really looking for.

Protect yourself: Never agree to an interview until the employer confirms the title of the job you'll be talking about, the date the opening was created, the name and title of the manager you'd be working for, and the deadline for filling the position. Most HR recruiters will act appalled at your request for this information, saying it's confidential. Remember that you are about to invest several hours of your time to be interviewed, so insist on seeing a detailed copy of the job description before you agree to interview, and compare your interview to the documentation. This is a business transaction and you should expect both disclosure and good faith. If you believe a job has been misrepresented, politely but firmly insist on confirmation of the above information.

Impersonation and misrepresentation
Sullivan's "best practices" include using ruses and impersonating employees to raid a company. But these are recruiting practices that no good headhunter or corporate recruiter would even consider. (There are indeed headhunters who are just as guilty as some corporate recruiters.) Yet Sullivan applauds recruiters for crashing competitors' events to get at their employees.

"Some members of the recruiting team wandered through a competitor's offsite seminar wearing the competitor's lapel buttons. In addition to a goal of getting a hire (they succeeded), the primary goal was also to build morale and energize the recruiting team."

While a corporate lapel button is not the same as a name tag, the intent here is clear: recruiting through misrepresentation. Note that fooling people is coupled with the goal of promoting morale among the recruiters. This is a classic brainwashing technique used in gangs and in some sales operations: Behavior that's inappropriate in society at large is reinforced and promoted through celebration. Viewed with the critical lens of Marcus Aurelius, is this a morale-building sales technique, or simply bad behavior? But the real issue here is impersonation and misrepresentation, and there are no two ways about it. It's wrong.

Protect yourself: You may want to be recruited by a competitor. But if you encounter unethical recruiting techniques, you may find they lead to other deceptive HR practices and even wider corporate deceit. Before you excuse or rationalize deception, ask yourself what your expectations are. That clever recruiter who lied to gain your confidence is the person you will rely on for an accurate description of the company and job you are being recruited for. It's who will negotiate salary with you and write up the job offer. So beware who recruits you. Ask questions. Verify identities and judge before you trust.

Corporate security officers should take special note. Competitors who aggressively recruit new hires are one thing. But recruiters who impersonate your employees with the intent of inflicting damage on your company may raise legal questions. Sullivan says of FirstMerit's "director of talent acquisition" Michael Homula:

"Perhaps it is his training at West Point that enables him to take the concept of 'war for talent' and actually manage it as if acquiring talent away from other firms is a war, where the goal is to help your own firm and to hurt the enemy."

And on the flip side of this slug coin, companies should be very worried if their HR departments are engaging in "best practices" that involve impersonation and the intent to damage a competitor's business. More than one company has been held liable for unfair business practices related to illegal raiding of another's employees.

A kind of fraud
Headhunters and recruiters scour an industry in their search for good people. They will poke into all nooks and corners to identify sources of the best candidates. (Some headhunters are even known to look under rocks.) But legitimate recruiting stops where the next step might involve deception and any form of fraud.

Sullivan describes FirstMerit's methods for identifying "retail" candidates -- bank staffers who work behind the teller window and lending desk.

"They send recruiters out to all retail stores and watch who services the customer the best. Recruiters purchase merchandise and then look for salespeople who can effectively upsell more clothes. Next, they return the merchandise they bought to see how the targeted individuals handle it."

The line has been crossed -- and it's a line that a bank in the credit card business should know well. If a recruiter purchases goods knowing they will be returned, a store is subjected to unnecessary credit processing expenses, and to a form of shrinkage -- loss of inventory -- because goods are removed from the store under false pretenses. Losses include the cost of handling returned goods and their diminished value. It may not be illegal, but this is a kind of fraud that is unnecessary in recruiting; it is behavior that reduces recruiting to a kind of petty theft.

Sullivan admits it himself: These practices "stretch the so-called limits of ethics in recruiting." He implies there are no limits for the aggressive recruiter. But the limits are real, and so is responsibility for breaking them.

Protect yourself: Questionable recruiting practices can suck the unwitting job candidate into illegitimate activity. There's nothing wrong with cooperating with a recruiter who entices you with a better job. But if you cooperate with a recruiter whose behavior causes damage to your employer's business, you could get caught in the middle.

You can advance your career by changing employers, but remember to respect your old employer as you depart. Expect recruiters to respect everyone they deal with, or you might find no respect where they lead you.

Bribery and coercion
When is a job offer not just a job offer? When it is used to bribe or coerce you into providing information you might not want to share.

Imagine investing hours or days to interview with a company; coming to an agreement on salary and other terms; and being shown a job offer -- only to have it dangled out of reach until you deliver your friends to the company. Now, this might be some sort of perverted, last-minute test of your ethics during the interview process. But to Sullivan it is another "best practice." He's not saying that the recruiter should merely ask for friendly help with finding more candidates. Sullivan says the offer should be made contingent on giving up names:

"This process requires some finalist candidates to provide three names of top talent at their current firm (with phone numbers and an introduction 'to us from you') as a 'price' for their offer letter. The introductions must be made before the offer letter is given."

When is the last time an employer quoted you a price for a job offer? Note that Sullivan says it's a requirement. As a headhunter, I know that people feel awkward about referring their co-workers. But I can only imagine their reactions if I withheld a job offer until they coughed up those names and phone numbers.

Protect yourself: When you interview for a job in good faith, you are not obliged to divulge information about your co-workers or your current employer. The practice Sullivan touts is simply wrong, and it is even more troubling when the board of directors acknowledges and supports it.

"The recruiting team was so effective in convincing the CEO of the business value of great recruiting that he invited the director of talent acquisition to present the firm's recruiting strategy in front of the shareholders at the annual shareholders meeting. By any standard, this was a landmark event in recruiting."

It may also be a landmark in disestablishing "plausible deniability" on the part of the board of directors. When a candidate encounters such coercion, the best negotiating tactic is one that quickly leads out the door.

Work without pay
But the problem of coercion in the job interview appears to be endemic at this "best practices" company. Candidates for recruiting jobs are subjected to it, too.

"As part of the assessment process before recruiters are hired, FirstMerit gives candidates for recruiting positions an actual assignment to identify the names of six good tellers and to select the two best from that list. The results of this real-life simulation are used both to fill actual teller positions as well as to assess how good the recruiter really is."

Ask The Headhunter readers are familiar with my advice to "do the job to win the job." But they also know my cautions about not getting suckered. Requiring a job candidate to do free work as part of the interview process is an underhanded practice.

Protect yourself: If an employer asks you to show how you'll do the job, don't balk. Instead, outline a plan for how you would do the work accurately, efficiently, and profitably -- but stop short of divulging so much information that you're giving the solution away. This proves your value and enhances your desirability, as well as your negotiating edge. But needless to say, you should think twice if any company suggests that you should actually work for free before being hired. See this practice for what it is: the sign of a cheesy company.

Hell-bent for sales
It is not ironic or coincidental that in its August, 2005 edition, Fast Company magazine headlines the story Why We Hate HR -- a devastating attack on the human resources profession and the personnel function in corporations. Trends in HR have become controversial even in the mainstream business media, and the Fast Company article attacks the failure of credibility in HR.

While there are stand-out HR people working hard to improve the state of their business, the sad fact is that HR as a whole has put itself in a precarious position. When a prominent industry spokesman like Sullivan promotes questionable practices as "the best," it sends a signal that HR is desperately making a last stand in an effort to be relevant. Sullivan's article is steeped in a trendy idea: HR must behave like a profit center and justify its existence in profit-oriented terms.

This may be a noble cause. Sullivan's article and a follow-up ("Part 2: Best practices, metrics used, and future plans at FirstMerit") make many important and valid observations and suggestions. Among them:

  • Hiring should be a profit-building activity
  • Recruiting should be part of the corporate culture
  • Hiring needs should be established early
  • Recruitment and hiring require better metrics
  • Recruiters must be trained and developed more effectively

But Sullivan seems to lose sight of his objective and apparently gets blinded by sales bravado, suggesting that HR is hell-bent for sales.

This is what the entire HR community should be worried about, and it's a reminder to job candidates of the importance of due diligence before accepting an offer or an interview. In trying to fly with the big boys of management -- the people who directly produce revenue and profit -- HR is skidding off the runway. Sullivan's best methods, if not his intent, depend on highly aggressive techniques that the sales profession abandoned long ago as unethical and ineffective. Sullivan is re-casting the HR recruiter as a foot-in-the-door salesperson who will do anything to close a deal. And this concept of the recruiter is a big part of why we hate HR.

Just as rogue salespeople can destroy a company's reputation and business, so it seems to be going for HR. In this view of HR's future, ethics are expendable, to be replaced with a sales tally board where recruiters rack up deals, high-five one another, and bleat "Woo-hoo! We're the best!"

Ironically, the stereotypical sleazy behavior that is ascribed to the headhunting business is becoming de rigueur in HR recruiting circles. While good headhunters promote ethical behavior and higher standards within their ranks, HR appears eager to become the new bad boy of recruiting.

HR's search for profitability -- and for credibility in the boardroom -- seems to be running amuck. Misrepresentation, overly-clever advertising, high-pressure and coercive pitches, and a war-like culture that aims for a "zero sum" outcome should produce concern in HR -- not praise.

Eating HR's dog food in the corporate suite
Sullivan talks about the importance of aligning the recruitment function with core business goals, but this is a blade that cuts two ways.

"The team established a company-wide process to align recruiting processes (identification, acquisition, interview and selection process) with critical corporate business processes."

Now that we know what the "best recruiting practices" are, what does this tell the investor or the customer about how FirstMerit conducts its core business? If recruiting is a "war" that accepts ethical casualties and is aligned with critical business processes, can we reasonably surmise that FirstMerit treats customers and vendors like it treats candidates and competitors? This is not a rhetorical question, but an important test of corporate ethics. Is this the direction in which HR wants to take the corporation?

It is said that a company must be ready to eat its own dog food. What HR does, all executive management is accountable for. If I were the head of FirstMerit's public relations department, I'd be worried about what's in the bowl. If I were on the board of directors, I'd be calling someone on the carpet.

HR at risk
It's a shame that a report that includes some good ideas urges the HR community to adopt deceitful recruiting methods. I have no direct evidence of FirstMerit's practices. I don't even care that FirstMerit is the apple of Sullivan's eye. What matters is that Sullivan defines a set of "best practices" as a new standard for all HR to aspire to -- and these practices are rotten.

The bullshit is so thick that Sullivan, director Homula, and the bank itself seem to be mired in the public relations crud they have brewed for the HR community:

"He also offers half-day clinics, one-on-one role playing exercises with recruiters on such topics as 'getting around gatekeepers without ruses or lies'..."
"His aggressive, business-like approach is a breath of fresh air and is the benchmark standard for others to learn from."

There is nothing business-like here; just a bad smell. I know a lot of people who work in HR. The best are creating standards built on integrity and a healthy competitive spirit with the intent to contribute to the overall growth of the industries they work in. (I can say the same about the best headhunters.) Their recruiting methods are aggressive, but they are honest. Their methods reflect larger company policies about management practices and ethics. They value their reputations -- among their peers and among their competitors.

Dr. Sullivan's article leaves little doubt as to the ethics behind his "best practices in recruiting." Ethics are lacking. My conclusion is simple. Such trends put HR at risk, both as a profession and as a corporate function. If Sullivan and his ilk have established the new standard, then HR will fall when the board of directors gets crucified for bad behavior.

Let me make this clear. My intent is not to indict HR as a whole, but to point out a very troubling trend that the profession should be very concerned about. Likewise, my comments as a headhunter do not imply that I defend headhunters who are guilty of the same practices described here. But this case study brings to the fore a trend that HR must confront, or lose its credibility among the professional communities from which it recruits.

Thus we come to the question, Is the battered HR profession making a last stand on a quagmire of deceit? If HR redefines recruiting as a high-pressure sales operation free of "the so-called limits of ethics" in its drive to become a kind of profit center, then I think all of HR is sunk. Certainly not all employers behave this way. It's up to the real leaders of HR -- who may not be recognized yet -- to stand up and assert their policies.

Innovation: "Hotdog" recruiters?
Sullivan illuminates many problems that are eating away at HR. He even offers good tips to solve some of them. But somewhere along the line while preparing his case study, he seems to have lost his way. I'm impressed with Sullivan's "best" recruiters -- but not favorably. That's the nicest thing I can say.

My first concern is for job hunters: the person trying to select a good company and the candidate sitting in a job interview. If companies want to recruit and hire good people, then they must be good themselves. And job hunters must confront and reject bad practices that conspire to lower the standards of business.

I cannot resist letting Sullivan have some of the last words here. He offers advice to FirstMerit's Homula about even "better" recruitment practices:

"For example, an innovative approach [Homula] once used should be tried, where he set up a 'free hotdog stand' with a large banner offering free hot dogs immediately outside and in easy view of a target firm's office building. The goal was to draw out employees and to eventually recruit them. As others catch up, FirstMerit must continue to innovate."

This kind of sophomoric sales palaver reveals just how far astray HR is going. If innovation is a hotdog stand, and if best practices can be improved with such "better practices," then HR recruiting is beyond repair. Job candidates don't need hotdogs any more than companies need more hotdog recruiters. 

"My final key learning from this case study is that this degree of boldness would never be tolerated at 99% of firms."

I can only hope that's true, or candidates won't need to pass muster, just the mustard. (Sorry, but I can't resist joining in the clever word play.)

"So I can only credit the CEO, the senior leadership team, and their VP of HR for leading and supporting this award winning and amazing effort. My hat is off to each of you!"

And I take my hat off to any HR professional who stands up and gives Dr. Sullivan and FirstMerit a big raspberry, thereby bringing some credibility back to a profession that desperately needs a lot more of it.

Protect yourself
Every job hunter, at every level, must walk with both eyes open. Look recruiters in the face and know their behaviors for what they are. Request and expect full disclosure from employers, and insist on high ethical standards and practices from companies you deal with. If you encounter recruiting practices -- and people -- that trouble your spirit, walk away. To do otherwise is to risk your own reputation and career.

I welcome your comments on this important topic. Please feel free to drop me a note.

[Update: Don't miss this collection of Readers' Comments!]

Nick Corcodilos
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