Recruiter Code of Ethics: Ultimately Your Call? Part II

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Ethical Bottleneck II | Michael Moffa

Part II: a Comparison of ILC and ELC Ethics

Assume you are an independently-minded “internal locus of control” kind of recruiter and want to make up your own mind about right and wrong, good and evil, the permitted and the forbidden, and what’s fair and unfair. This means accepting only those rules, principles and injunctions that your own mind can independently validate, even if you haven’t independently formulated them yourself.

Since the most widely understood and accepted set of life-governing rules is the code embodied in the Ten Commandments, they make a good diagnostic search tool for finding your own center of professional and personal ethical control, i.e., whether you are an internal locus of control personality type when it comes to ethics, or an external locus of control type—“ILC” and “ELC” type, respectively (allowing that one might switch from one to the other, in a given kind of situation or specific situation, without always being a consistent “type”).

With neither evangelical nor blasphemous intent, we can examine the Ten Commandments to see how well they govern recruiting and how well they fare when evaluated from your professional perspective—especially if it is the perspective of a recruiter with an independent locus of control, i.e., how effective, complete, etc., a code they represent as profession guidance in addition to confirmation of your own private inner moral promptings. Here are the ten, expressed as simply, yet as accurately, as possible:

  1. Have no other gods: In recruiting, this means loyalty to the client or company when placing a candidate. A wise recruiter will observe this for at least pragmatic reasons—break this rule once and you may not have a chance to break it twice. Hence, one recruiter version of this first commandment is a principle of prudent self-interest, enforced and guided by external sanction. So score one for external locus of control. On the other hand, if loyalty is something you value as an end in itself, rather than as a means, you are more likely to accept this as an internalized rule.
  2. No carved, worshipped images of anything natural: In anthropological terms, this means no totem worship or idols, which, applied to recruiting, means no Sports Illustrated swim suit calendar on your desk. A brilliant former college roommate of mine who went on to become a department chairman at one of California’s and America’s most renowned universities was told in no uncertain terms to get rid of his bikini-babe calendar and to get used to being called “chairperson”. To the extent that you have to abide by similar codes or endure that kind of pressure, it will be pleasanter for you if you conform from inner conviction rather than from fear of being convicted by your peers.
  3. No name-taking in vain, i.e., no blasphemy: Yes, you don’t want to be overheard bad-mouthing the client. Again, is that because of the public consequences, such as humiliation (external locus of control) or private pangs of conscience (internal locus of control)? Notice how the distinction between internal and external locus of control very neatly corresponds to what anthropologists have identified as guilt vs. shame cultures.
  4. Honor your parents: Given the patriarchal underpinnings of the Ten Commandments, it makes sense that honoring parents is a good thing, at least to the extent that such respect is an extension, application and confirmation of divine paternal rule. Hence, the concept of parents as divine proxies maps nicely into honoring any proxy of the client, e.g., a department supervisor. So from the perspective of both the inner and external locus of control, this is likely to fit into your recruiter ethics very comfortably.
  5. Observe the Sabbath: This is perhaps the easiest commandment to comply with and the one that virtually all overworked recruiters will gladly follow, namely, take a break from the job at least one day a week. Good advice for good health and work-life balance. Since compliance with this commandment is likely to proceed from desire and inclination rather than from fear or a sense of duty, it nestles cozily in the minds of both the internal and external locus personality.
  6. Don’t kill: More sound advice, which includes an injunction against suicide. Hence, you Type-A personalities out there need to heed this one and not work yourselves to death. Clearly this injunction will resonate with ELC types in the office, with both types, in general.
  7. No adultery: Especially in the office, which would greatly complicate and probably impair your work performance, even if only with a colleague, rather than a candidate. Hence, from the external locus of control perspective, the risks are enough to elicit (near) compliance. From the ILC perspective, the independently minded may subscribe to the joke that says, “If infants enjoy infancy, why can’t adults enjoy adultery?” At that point, a clear divergence from the Mosaic Law appears.
  8. Don’t steal: This includes stealing other recruiters’ clients and candidates. The test for you is this: Would you be comfortable stealing clients and candidates if you could get away with it? If the answer is yes, you are, at least with respect to this issue, an ELC type.
  9. Don’t lie about your neighbor (no “false witness”): This presents one of the biggest loopholes in the Ten Commandments, since it allows you to lie to applicants and clients about anything, so long as you are not lying to one of them about the other, e.g., “This company hires only the best and provides rapid advancement.” Otherwise, you are free to lie to anyone about anything at all, just so long as you are not lying about a “neighbor”, or more broadly, someone else. So, from the ELC perspective, Number 9 is comparatively speaking a moral blank check. On the other hand, from the ILC perspective, it may seem too lax, unless you are an ILC type with the ethics of a social Darwinist, viz., “survival of the fittest…by whatever means”.
  10. Don’t covet: This means, as scripture declares, you “shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

This one, like Number 9, offers useful loopholes: Does it mean you shouldn’t want the kind of success, property and lifestyle your neighbor, client, boss or other recruiters have, or that you shouldn’t want to divest your neighbor of these? That’s the difference between a rule’s proscribing wanting to keep up with the Joneses and proscribing wanting to replace them or wanting to get their stuff (rather than wanting stuff that is only like their stuff). If you are an ELC recruiter, you will certainly be comfortable with at least wanting to keep up with your neighbor and the other Joneses, since, after all, isn’t that the American dream that most are chasing? On the other hand, if you are an ILC, or think about intentions more than consequences, you may still be very comfortable with imagining you have a right to want to keep up with (rather than keep) what the Joneses have—even if you will not, like some ELC recruiters, think of it as a duty or a delight.

The takeaway in all of this is that if you examine the Ten Commandments or any other code of ethics—including your professional code of ethics, there are only two possible ways that you can justify accepting it: on the basis of external considerations, such as external rewards, punishments, exhortations, pressure, etc., or on the basis of internal considerations, such as your own reasoning, your own interpretation of the code’s rules, principles or laws and your own cost-benefit assessment of the value of the code and its consequences. If you choose the ILC path, your independent reflections on any given code may lead to unexpected discoveries and perhaps even what deserves to be called moral and intellectual progress. It boils down to a choice between ethics based on well-pondered principles vs. ethics based on obedience—while allowing for the happy circumstance, from the HR department’s perspective of vested corporate interest, of professional ethics based on both.

Most importantly, irrespective of what the source of the code is, its genesis is never to be equated with its justification. The code is to be promoted or followed because it is right, not right because it is promoted and followed. This means that ultimately it’s your call—if you can factor in the tempting or unpleasant externalities without being overwhelmed by them.

Read more in Workplace Ethics

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).