Let's Count the Ways Your Recruitment Practices Are Unethical

May 6, 2015 at 12:00 PM Josh Anderson


Josh Anderson, currently Director of People at Ello and formerly of Sendgrid, Google, and Accenture, has encountered his fair share of ethical quandaries when it comes to engaging and acquiring talent. We sat down with Josh in hopes of learning how he approaches recruiting ethics, and wound up covering some real ground in regards to transparency, talent poaching, diversity, as well as some recruitment tactics he finds, shall we say, less than respectable. Read on to see how Josh has managed to navigate these sometimes murky waters throughout his illustrious career.

Entelo: Josh, we’ll start you off with a softball: what are some practices you see in the recruiting world that you think are unethical?

Josh: I would contend that the vast majority of ethical missteps in recruiting occur because of the tired old “get the hire” paradigm.  This could include misrepresenting the state or potential of the company or opportunity; dangling carrots or making unrealistic promises or guarantees; throwing money at someone to get them to sign on the line which is dotted; or any number of other scenarios with the ultimate objective of just getting someone hired.  The “get the hire” paradigm demonstrates two fundamental recruiting problems:  1) supply is often painfully scarce and the perception is that a hire (any hire) is better than no hire, and 2) there’s a perception that hires are the demonstrable benchmark of recruiting success.

What “get the hire” doesn’t achieve, necessarily, is quality.  In fact, often quite the contrary.  “Get the hire” is born from the Glengarry Glen Ross-style agency ethos that many recruiters inherit at some point in their careers.  (Let me preemptively caveat this by saying that, in my experience, most good recruiters have at some point in their careers worked for an agency, and I can name several agencies that are wonderful and buck the trend.)  Agencies are necessarily commission-driven third parties, who don’t require a vested interest in the long-term success of the teams they’re staffing.  From a purely pragmatic profit-motive perspective, the quality of the hire is inconsequential once a guarantee period has passed.

The problem is those same recruiters have difficulty shedding that “get the hire” mentality when they transition into corporate roles – they still perceive hires as the singular benchmark of their recruiting success.  Having come in-house from that world, I know how hard it is to shed that mentality, and I don’t slight agency (or former-agency) recruiters for it.  But in the end, forcing hires is probably the single biggest root cause for most recruiting-related ethical dilemmas.

To combat this, at SendGrid we measure the results (or success) of our recruiting team not by the number of hires they’ve made (which is itself rather impressive), but by the quality of those hires, as demonstrated by the performance and culture fit of those hires over time.

E: What are your thoughts on cold-calling candidates? I’ve heard a lot of engineers/designers don’t like it, but many recruiters swear by this tactic to get results.

J: I’ve worked in organizations, both corporate and agency, where cold-calling is still part of the fabric of the recruiting process.  While I agree it’s still the most productive way to actually get acknowledged by a candidate, it’s hardly the most productive way to ensure a positive candidate experience, or results.  In fact, in most cases it catches people off-guard, is off-putting and makes people feel uncomfortable or cornered.

I receive between five and ten cold calls every day, from sales people at agencies and vendors.  I’ve stopped answering my phone. I listen to, and usually ignore, five to ten voicemails per day.  That impacts my ability to do my job, and to answer the phone when someone I actually need to talk to – say, a candidate – calls me.  I have to imagine the same is true for technical talent.  Unwanted calls are oppressive and unproductive.

We live in our inboxes.  They are our to-do lists.  If someone is deliberately not responding to your emails, it’s unlikely that he is going to find your same pitch irresistibly charming and compelling on the phone.

E: How much of the company’s success or information do you share with prospective candidates? Transparency in general is great, but at what point is it too much?

J: (Almost) all of it.  I don’t believe in “too much information” unless it’s truly confidential ‘internal use’ competitive data.  Otherwise, I believe fundamentally in full disclosure as a best practice.  The benchmarks of our company culture are what we refer to as the Four H’s:  honest, hungry, humble and happy.  The first H, Honest, is a characteristic we hire against and embody: SendGrid is unusually transparent and forthcoming and, for that reason, has a uniquely well-informed and invested workforce, and a very low attrition rate.  I’ve found that sharing the good, the bad and the ugly throughout the interview process is the most effective way to hire well – it fosters relationships founded on mutual trust and respect from day one.  It also precludes someone from feeling duped when they become employees – one of the top reasons I’ve seen people leave companies shortly after joining them.  

E: Thoughts on building a team of recruiters that are primarily contractors? Some companies leverage this heavily (Microsoft, Amazon) whereas others avoid this.

J: Building an on-demand recruiting workforce that can expand and contract to satisfy the ever-changing hiring demand of a large organization can be an effective way to hire at-scale.  It can also be soulless and impersonal.  Having a transient team of contractors doesn’t foster a recruiting workforce that is invested in the brand, culture and success of the company, but it is a necessary evil that can hardly be avoided for companies with enormous, constantly shifting hiring needs.  It is also – for better or worse – the way that larger organizations distill recruiting talent:  starting with a big pool of recruiters from a wide array of backgrounds, and seeing who emerges as the strongest, fastest and most capable over the course of the contract term.

The short answer:  I’ll try to avoid it.  Until I can’t avoid it.

E: How do you approach the diversity issue in recruiting in the most ethical way possible? For example, how do you balance gender and minority representation with finding the right people for the roles?

J: It begins with truly caring about diversity, and injecting recruiting resources (time, effort, money, people) into places where diverse talent exists.  We have an Inclusion and Diversity Specialist on our HR team, whose job is not to recruit against aggressive targets, but instead to ensure that SendGrid is well represented – involved and participating in dialogues – among diverse groups.  It’s not a check-in-the-box for us; we, as an organization, have a passionate and genuine interest in diversity and inclusion that extends well outside our organization.

You never want to compromise finding and hiring the right person; it’s not about profiling or setting targets.  It’s about having genuine and authentic representation and interests in diverse places:  sponsoring, posting, hosting and presenting among groups, conferences, meetups and websites that promote gender, minority and LGBT diversity.  It requires having community ambassadors who embody the company culture and values, who make efforts to seek out talent in unique and diverse places.

If your company is truly invested in diversity, it follows that it will attract diverse people.  People know when a company’s diversity efforts are meaningful and sincere, versus disingenuous and quota-driven.  The difference is a genuine interest and investment in, and passion for, diversity.    

E: Poaching from specific companies/teams: any issues with this or is it acceptable in the recruiting space?

J: Recruiting is, in most markets, a hyper-competitive occupation.  Qualified people in many industries, like technology, are in very high demand and extremely limited supply.  In economic terms, there’s a labor shortage, or “insufficiency in the labor force.”  As such, many recruiters are in a rather precarious position:  they have intense demands for very scarce resources.

One of the first questions recruiters typically ask a hiring manager when launching a new search is, “are there any companies I should be targeting?” which immediately invokes the ethical dilemma:  is it wrong to deliberately do something that has the potential to negatively impact the success of another organization?  That’s the nature of free enterprise, right?  Well, yes, but…

“Poaching” or “targeting” can be a gamble, both for the recruiter and the company he or she represents.  It sets an us-vs.-them precedent that can compromise partnerships, customers, executive and board relationships, and a company’s reputation, and it can significantly impact the trajectory of both companies over time.  Of course, equally unethical (and illegal?) is the converse:  no-hiring pacts (see this article – Pixar, Lucasfilm, Apple and Google, have all been embroiled in lawsuits over handshake agreements to not hire each other’s people).

The short answer:  “poaching” is near-sighted.  It might fill seats, but at what cost?  A much more strategic and sustainable approach is to form meaningful relationships with recruiting peers across a city or industry (or both).  Meet regularly to talk about best practices, challenges and opportunities for collaboration.  Think of ways to work together to attract more relevant talent to your geographic area.  Try to build a community of practice rather than a hyper-competitive, cutthroat and divisive industry.  Share the wealth and proliferate good will.  Doing the right thing (almost) always pays dividends.

Inevitably, recruiting involves hiring from competitors in the talent market but, as a best practice, I do my best to avoid concertedly poaching from or actively targeting other companies. Call it karma.

  Group Demo