Is headhunting ethical?

Managed properly, direct sourcing helps organizations find excellent candidates and tap into the hidden job market

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

Direct sourcing candidates is how “headhunters” got their nickname. Calling a candidate at her desk and encouraging her to send a resumé in application for a specific vacancy is generally what separates headhunters from other types of agency recruiters.

While “headhunting” is generally the forte of agency recruiters, I've occasionally seen it used it as a means of sourcing candidates in an in-house recruitment environment.

Traditionally, however, many organizations preferred not to do too much direct sourcing themselves. They often left such “dirty work” to agency recruiters because it was easier to hide behind the agency when a competitor accused them of trying to poach top talent.

Social media and employee referral programs

Social media seems to be changing a lot of this because it’s much less intrusive to contact someone about a job via LinkedIn or Facebook than calling them at their desks. Also, many organizations have now set up employee referral programs — effectively turning their own employees into headhunters.

Yet, I still think there’s some value in the traditional phone call from a headhunter.

Candidates often feel flattered when a headhunter calls — more so than when they’re contacted through social media. Not everyone is on social media, and even if they are, privacy settings can make it difficult to find them.

Employee referral programs also have drawbacks, including the fact employees won’t always know all the best players. Referral programs can even make it easier for wrongfully dismissed candidates to sue for additional damages for inducement to leave an otherwise secure position.

How direct sourcing works

When I worked as an agency recruiter, we used to do a certain amount of direct sourcing of candidates. Normally, we would get someone’s name and contact information from a referral — or occasionally from a company directory.

People would sometimes ask us where we got their names, and as long as the person who referred them consented to be mentioned by name, we would divulge our sources. More often than not, however, the person who referred the candidate preferred to remain anonymous.

However, people were often suspicious of this. I believe they sometimes wondered if their bosses or colleagues had given us their names in an attempt to get rid of them.

That may sound a bit paranoid, but it can happen. One particularly humourous anecdote I heard about a candidate we worked with — a real high flier — illustrates this point.

In an interview, the candidate was asked, “To what do you attribute your rapid rise within the organization?” He then replied, “Every time a headhunter called, I would give him my manager's name.”

That's certainly one interesting and novel way to use headhunters to your advantage. Getting a call from a headhunter also helps you stay apprised of current opportunities — especially since many vacancies aren’t advertised.

For organizations, direct sourcing allows them to tap into the hidden job market. Candidates sourced this way are often highly sought after because employers prefer candidates who are reasonably content in their current roles and aren't necessarily actively pounding the pavement looking for work.

From the perspective of the organization being “headhunted,” however, one can easily understand their objections to having their best employees “poached” by the competition. Yet, an employee who is truly happy in her current role won't leave to go elsewhere — even if more money is offered.

This point underscores the need to put measures in place to actively retain and engage high performers. Otherwise, they may be ripe for picking by headhunters.

Guidelines for ethical direct sourcing

I’ve tried to make a case for how direct sourcing can benefit both candidates and employers alike. But headhunting should always be done in an ethical manner, bearing in mind the following:

•While it’s all right to actively target an employee of one of your competitors, it is unethical to try to decimate that organization’s workforce by repeatedly “raiding” them looking for candidates.

•If you’re going to go headhunting, you need to understand other organizations may do the same to you.

•Headhunters should never actively solicit candidates from their current clients — especially if the candidate in question was placed into that role by the same agency.

•Recruiters need to be careful not to oversell the position or make grandiose promises to candidates. Otherwise they could be on the hook for inducement damages in the event of a wrongful dismissal.

•Headhunters need to be willing to take no for an answer.

 Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit

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