The inside track

So we talk a lot about ethics in HR and recruitment, and rightly so.  Ethical behaviour should be at our core in business, whatever area we work in (whether it is, or isn’t, is another matter). At the same time, we’ve heard a lot recently about social mobility, the way in which connections at work and in industry can be used to help people with the right contacts progress more quickly than others. It goes without saying, that doesn’t seem fair.

But a couple of questions have been running through my head recently and I wanted to test them out. Those of us who are connected with others, either through formal or informal networks, will often come up against others asking about or applying for opportunities that we may have within our organisations, or for third party recruiters, that we are working on. What are the ethics that apply here?

If someone you knew, a friend or acquaintance, applied for a role. What would be the appropriate thing to do?

Do you accept that they are just another candidate and let the best person win.  Is it ever acceptable to help them understand the role and the organisation more than other candidates? I’m not talking about giving them a heads up on specific interview questions, or giving them privileged information that would provide them with a significant advantage, or even giving them a job just because you know them. But is it ok to coach them on the areas that they might be asked about, or the subjects that they might specifically want to think about or mention? Does it make a difference whether you are personally part of the recruitment process yourself?

I’ve had people from my team apply for jobs in the past and I’ve spent significant time coaching them for the selection process. I’ve talked to them about the approach they might want to take and the issues that they might want to address.  I’ve seen that as part of helping them develop and progress their careers within the organisation, but in reality it could be seen as giving them an unnatural advantage. Somehow, because they were internal, this seemed to be deemed acceptable.

Does it really matter whether they are an internal or an external candidate? If you could give someone you knew and valued the inside track, would you do so? And is that ok?

Should we be seen to be whiter than white or, as I expect, are there shades of grey?


  1. Perry Timms · April 4, 2012

    What an interesting situation here. I like to think the morality of this is catered for by people’s resourcefulness. You may have coached your internal candidate (which is a really magnanimous gesture preparing them to leave your team) but who’s to say all the other candidates externally haven’t had the same from their manager? And even tapped into hypnosis techniques, some zen meditation and a little tai-chi to prepare them? When people walk into that assessment centre or interview room it’s down to them to perform. Coaching helps them to identify which buttons to press but in the heat of the assessment they have to actually press them. Your conscience – IMHO – is clear, your morality unquestioned and your ethics clean as a whistle. Nice blog.

    • Neil · May 31, 2012

      Thanks Perry…..I guess it is an interesting moral quandary.

  2. Graeme Holiday · April 4, 2012

    I echo Perry’s thoughts – it’s how the world works, it’s how it’s always worked and it will be ever thus. If anything, I think we’re obliged to help colleagues, friends and those whose skills we value, if we’re in a position to do so. As Perry points out, it’s down to the individual to perform and take advantage of the coaching once the interview process begins.

    I would rest easy – and yes, nice blog.

    • Neil · May 31, 2012

      You think we’re obliged? I think I agree.

  3. megp · April 5, 2012

    I think that the internal/external dilemma is interesting. As an internal candidate, they will have relationships, access and information that an external person won’t have and that’s just how it is, However, if introducing an external person, I have always handed over the interview process and decision making process to others. Whilst I didn’t enjoy all aspects of my HR career (eg whilst I make my own sausages at home, I refuse to at work) I did feel that it compelled me to operate with a high level of integrity and subsequently I learned to be reflexive about my motivations, choices and actions. I wonder – the act of thinking about it and recognising that there may be grey areas to navigate through is in itself the reassurance that it’s OK!

    • Neil · May 31, 2012

      I agree in terms of passing the decision making process over. I think that is a line that can’t be crossed.

  4. Michael · April 11, 2012

    I am often asked by my clients to include direct, personal friends or other ‘known’ applicants in external searches. My customers do it for a number of reasons, not least their lack of time – but creating a level playing field is also one of the more important ones. It also protect them from damaging a good relationship if the applicant is unsuccessful – they can always blame me!

    However I do not believe they ask me to do this based on decisions relating to ethics. Managers making significant or important hires (I guess this means all of them) do so on the understanding that there own success or failure could be dictated by the quality of the hire. Consequently they do not want their decisions to be clouded by personal feelings.

    Naturally many many companies do end up hiring through informal networks and always will do so. This is particularly true in the media and creative industries where skills for successful leaders are ‘softer’. I have spent many years working with companies trying to convince them of the logic of designing recruitment processes that allow personal contacts and referrals to be properly benchmarked against the best unknown candidates while having enough rigour and assessment to accurately predict which applicant will be most successful.

    To be clear, I don’t think it is in any way specifically unethical to hire your mates or acquaintances… but it might not make the most business sense!

    I think the biggest threat posed by ‘personal network’ hiring (often encouraged by corporate employee referral schemes) is in diversity. Let’s take ad agencies for example that often have managers hiring mid and junior level staff through their mates, siblings, university and school connections. The managers themselves are very stretched and certainly not experienced recruiters and inevitably there is little selective rigour. Often this results in the personal relationship being the clincher. These businesses can very quickly lose any diversity at all … and again, bad for business.

    • Neil · May 31, 2012

      Michael – I totally agree on your point about diversity….that is a big risk.

  5. Michael · April 11, 2012

    PS – I just realised I didn’t make clear that I include internal candidates in my explanation.

  6. ChrisM · April 13, 2012

    Not everyone takes the trouble to create and then maintain a network of good contacts. Those who do can reap the benefits and I think that is completely justifiable. If someone makes the effort to maintain good quality contacts with people, they deserve the advantages that can bring.

    Those who don’t take the time and trouble to network can lose out and I think that is down to them. I have no hesitation in helping people I network with to be competitive candidates. It’s good to be in contact with people who are motivated to develop their careers and achieve their goals.

    • Neil · May 31, 2012

      So networks build competitive advantage? I think they do, yes.

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