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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
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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 (erexchange.com)
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
- 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 --
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
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
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
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.
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'
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