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The Basics of Search Ethics

Each time I meet with a prospective client, I bring and/or electronically share an agenda.  One of the topics listed is Ethics (actually Ethical Standards).  It never fails to provoke conversation.  It is an area that is often not discussed (or even thought of by the prospective client) until there is a question (i.e. - problem).  What is on my agenda? 

Ethical Standards

The first two topics listed under Ethical Standards are:

  • Off-Limits
  • Dual/Parallel Processing

 They look simple.  But each is complex and rarely fully understood.  Ethics in Recruiting . . . . . . let’s start to break the topic down:


The definition is simple.  If an executive search firm is retained to conduct a search for an organization, “Off Limits” means the search firm cannot call into that organization (the client) to source people (recruit people from the organization and place them elsewhere).  But what are the rules of Off Limits?  This question is what is rarely, if ever,  brought up. 

  • Does the search firm even have an Off Limits rule or policy? 
  • For how long – 3 months?  6 months?  1 year?  2 years?
  • How about the person placed – are they Off Limits for a longer period of time?
  • What location or function?  Is the entire company Off Limits?  Is only the function or location of the search Off Limits?
  • What about company subsidiaries?

To put this issue in clear terms, imagine you are the President of a company that retained an executive search firm to find a key leader on your executive team.  The placement is successful, but that same firm recruits another member of your team and places them elsewhere.  This search firm just received a search fee from you – and along the way, an introduction to who you as President thought was good within the organization.  The simple question – is this fair?

There is no single standard in the industry.  Each search firm makes their own rules about this.  If you are the client, what do YOU want the Off Limits rule to be? 


The definition of this term is when a search firm is recommending the same candidate for two different searches.  The situation – the search firm is working on two or more similar searches.  A candidate could fit either opening.  That candidate is presented for both.  While this is great for the candidate and possibly for the search firm, the client is not being fully represented – and it is the client that is paying for the service. 

While less likely to happen with smaller, boutique retained search firms, this is very common with contingent firms.  This can also be common with firms that specialize by functional area, larger firms OR firms that have multiple offices. 

Again, as with Off Limits, there is no single industry standard. 


The conversation these ethical topics (and others) instigate are important in assuring the client and search firm are in full agreement relating to candidate, client and search management.  These are questions worth answering and topics worth discussing – up front. 

There are other topics under this Ethics in Recruiting umbrella that I will address in further Blogs.  In the meantime, let’s openly discuss this area.