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Chris Tan
Chris Tan



8 August 2023

How ethical are your executive search practices?

Issues of ethics permeate many aspects of executive search, but without a consistent regulatory framework we must recognise the role of non-structured ethical standards in maintaining the integrity of this discipline. How can we raise the bar?


At a glance:

  • Without a consistent regulatory framework there is a subjective element to setting the ethical framework for executive search.
  • Professionals in this field must seek the highest possible ethical standard to ensure the integrity of the search process.
  • Protecting the interests of both clients and candidates is paramount to achieving good outcomes with lasting value.

Executive search firms play a prominent role in the acquisition of talent and hold a unique position as gatekeeper, judge and trusted advisor within the recruitment process. The influence that naturally comes with this responsibility, makes ethics an important consideration for any practitioner in this field.

According to Chris Tan, Gerard Daniels Principal, executive search consultants, clients and candidates contend with ethics on a daily basis. “The range of decisions we make is diverse and can range from nuanced disclosure of information such as articulating culture or vision to more ethically complex issues,” he says.

Here we unpack the need for ethics in executive search and share some considerations for upholding the high standards this industry needs.

Why do we need ethics in executive search?

Clients expect a high level of honesty and ethicality from their executive search partner, because as diplomats within the recruitment process, there can be no trust or consultancy without it. High ethical standards are also important for safeguarding the behaviour and reputation of individual candidates, consultants and hiring organisations.

“Executive search partners deliver value by combining industry insight and experience, sound judgement and the ability to influence, but wielding this influence makes upholding ethical standards essential, and critical to the outcome of executive appointments,” says Chris.

“As consultant I mostly encounter ethically sound recruitment practices, but errors of judgement can still occur,” he continues. “Eager candidates may fail to disclose critical information or perhaps misrepresent a skill or experience without qualification. I’ve also seen client representatives not put their best foot forward in their management of the process to ensure the right candidate is appointed. While some of these behaviours are not illegal, they can be unethical, and they highlight the need as an industry, to raise the bar.”

Regulating ethics in executive search

Legally, some of the ethical standards and mechanisms that apply to other industries also apply to executive search – like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA), signed prior to the engagement of clients and potential candidates. Codes of Professional Practice have also been developed by peak bodies in some countries, but in contrast to professions like medicine and law, tight regulation across borders can be variable.

“Without a consistent regulatory framework, we must recognise the role of non-structured ethical standards in maintaining the integrity of this discipline,” says Chris. “As executive search consultants we must meet strict ethical standards when dealing with candidates’ personal information. While meeting our client obligation, we must also treat all parties with equal honesty, decency and respect. Values are often set at company level and manifested by the individual, and this is what defines a quality company clients and candidates want to partner with.”

Balancing the ethical commitment to clients and candidates

Most consultants strive to behave ethically, but there are times when the ethical course of action is not clear. Balancing the commercial commitment to clients with the need to manage the needs of candidates in an equally ethical way is an example of this complexity.

“With commercial agreements in place, consultants are entirely beholden to their client. This means vetting and presenting candidates with the right skills, attributes and cultural fit for each placement,” says Chris. “This commitment also requires the disclosure of all relevant information surrounding a candidate, but there can be a fine line between balancing the client obligation with doing the right thing by a candidate. This grey area complicates the process, but when it is ethically necessary to pass information on, consultants can still do so with decency and confidentiality.” 

In a similar manner, consultants have a moral obligation to not put a candidate in harm’s way. “Although a candidate may have the skillsets that a client is looking for, it is still important to ask whether it is the right move for this individual, and for their career,” Chris continues.

Transparency vs. diplomacy

On the surface, achieving transparency requires all pertinent information to be provided to clients and candidates. But in an environment where reputation and future relationships are paramount, this transparency must be tempered with sound judgement and delivered with diplomacy.

“To mitigate risk, clients need sufficient information to understand who they are hiring, while candidates need to gain an authentic perspective of the organisation they plan to join. When navigating these processes, there is as much need for diplomacy as transparency” says Chris.

“When weighing up the need for transparency and diplomacy, it’s less about whether to share information and more about how to articulate this information,” Chris continues. “For example, it’s generally not appropriate to divulge personal information, but if something is criminal or material to a candidate’s behaviour or performance, there is a requirement to pass that information on, provided the information could be considered public information. If something is known about a candidate which is only known through non-public means, it may be necessary for a consultant to have a careful and private conversation with the candidate. Despite the client obligation, the same rationale applies when communicating with candidates about the cultural nuances of the client organisation.”

Are clients and candidates also ethically responsible?

When executive appointments are made, the stakes are high, and Chris believes there is an equal ethical requirement for consultants, clients and candidates. “Candidates are responsible for sharing what they can, with as much honesty and transparency as is possible, and clients must also be accurate and forthcoming in the information that they provide,” he says.

“If a client discloses an inaccurate role description or financial position and we pass that onto to the candidate, our reputation is at risk and the client jeopardises their preferred candidate. Appointing the wrong person into a role, or placing a strong candidate into the wrong environment, will also result in commercial loss to the client, and have lasting repercussions for the candidate and their families,” Chris continues. “A high degree of integrity and emotional intelligence is therefore required from anyone connected to a search assignment, to ensure ethical choices are made and to safeguard the interests and reputation of all parties.”

Do your executive search practices align with your values and expectations? For an executive search delivered to the highest ethical standard, connect with Chris or talk to your local Gerard Daniels team.

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