Recruiter Ethics: “But What If Everybody Did That?”

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What happens if everybody does that?

EVERYBODY/Image: Michael Moffa

How Not to Think About Recruiter Ethics

Virtually all the rules in any code of ethics, including recruitment ethics,  seem to make sense from at least one perspective: consideration of the adverse consequences of not following them.

Example: “Thou shalt not lie to candidates or clients”—of course, thou shalt not. It’s a no-brainer. Look at what would happen if everyone did that, i.e., if all recruiters lied when it was convenient to, violating the rule “Thou shalt tell the truth to candidates or clients”.

“What Would Happen If Everybody….?”

The RCSA (Recruiting and Consulting Services Association) of New Zealand/Australia’s Code for Professional Conduct specifies, “Members must not knowingly.. make false statement(s) of material fact…”  Why not? The reasoning cited above is often invoked to explain why not, by noting “what would happen if everybody lied”.

Well, what would happen? Some moral philosophers argue that the entire edifice of recruiter-client-candidate-colleague confidence would collapse under the weight or prospect of endless lying by countless recruiters.  The result: frayed communications and moral anarchy. That’s what would happen, they say, “if everybody did that” or were even merely allowed to.

Not so fast, not necessarily. If the lying were only occasional and mostly undetected—which is probably the way things are, not much would happen that isn’t already happening. In formal game-theoretic terms, lying could be part of a “mixed strategy” of frequent honesty, occasional mendacity, and it could also be undetected.

Moreover, the “what if everybody did that?” approach is only as effective as the description of the action is clear. For example, notice that the RCSA code is restricted to prohibiting false statements of “material fact”. Ah, “material fact”. So presumably you can lie when you say to a client, “Nice tie.”—since that’s maybe not a material fact, even though it’s about, among other things, the tie’s material. What about, “Sorry, I have to take another call now”?  Is that a false statement about a material fact?

The Contradictions of Evil

This can suffice as an introduction to a very popular kind of moral thinking given by moral philosophers the tongue-twisting label “obedience rule-consequentialism”, namely, the idea that moral rules (as opposed to unique moral acts, which fall under something called “act consequentialism”) can be justified by an appeal to the consequences of their universal violation through disobedience, i.e., “what would happen if everybody did that?” or “what would happen if everybody were allowed to disobey that rule?”.

Ordinarily this challenge is offered to prove to others that something we are already sure is morally right, wrong or permissible is indeed so—much like convincing your wife that you needed that new set of golf clubs…for, er, business.

Since, like  some kinds of lying, theft—although surely uncommon in recruiting—serves the purpose of gaining an undeserved benefit, it is a useful illustration of the kind of moral and social unraveling that philosophers like Immanuel Kant have argued would occur if everybody did that.  Theft, the argument goes, is clearly wrong, because if everyone did that on a grand (-larceny) scale, viz., steal or rob, the resulting general sense of insecurity would preclude the efficient production of anything to be stolen—at least, eventually, as craftsmen, farmers, etc., fearful of pilferers and robbers would be driven to distraction and to less challenging climes or ways of making a living, e.g., by joining the ranks of thieves themselves.

As for occasional pilfering, if everybody stole something, rather than everything,  they wanted, the practical consequences would be less severe, e.g., ball-point pens would have to be replaced at your desk more frequently. Accordingly, being an occasional thief would be morally less reprehensible than being a full-time thief, since its collective consequences would not be so calamitous—a surprise argument for the moral superiority of part-time or temp work over full-time.

The clear implication of the philosopher’s argument is that as the logic of grand-scale theft works itself through the social or business community, theft, as a practice, destroys the preconditions for its own existence.  In technical terms, theft represents a “pragmatic contradiction”, since the practice would be self-defeating if everybody believed it isn’t and acted accordingly, viz., became a thief.

Likewise, in a recruiting environment, the argument goes, if recruiters could lie with impunity, it would be short-lived, since as the word spread that recruiters could lie without adverse consequences to themselves, they would soon be universally distrusted—even if, in fact, they never lie! Of course, no recruiter code would endorse lying or anything like it. But, it could completely fail to mention honesty. Release that brake and lying will accelerate to take us over the precipice.  Again, an implicit pragmatic contradiction.

Much more likely, however, is that professional codes will be silent about some of the practices that infuriate applicants most, e.g., pretending that the applicant who didn’t make the cut doesn’t exist, just like the response to his application that he desperately, but pointlessly waits for.

Result: A code that is silent about any duty to respond to all applicants will promote recruiter silence  by allowing it, until such thunderous silence becomes so widespread that applicants come to resent those who are supposed to be helping them. To which some recruiters will reply, “So what?”

The Moral Virtue of Abandoning Applicants

Such unfazed, unmoved and morally unconcerned recruiters may have a point: Notice that the consequences of ignoring applicants and their pleas for confirmation and closure does not lead to a paradoxically self-defeating demise of the application process, since applicants will continue to apply, no matter what—unlike the spread of theft to the point at which honest labor and production become pointless, making further thievery difficult and ultimately impossible.

No, quite the contrary: Knowing that they are likely to be totally ignored unless among the chosen few, many applicants—however resentful—are likely to redouble their efforts to submit fantastic resumes, line up even better references, reduce their salary expectations, etc., to get and hold the attention of a recruiter.

The irony of logic here is clear: The behavior of ignoring those desperate to know at least that their resumes have been received and expecting fair and courteous treatment—a neglectful practice that most people usually disapprove of unless responding is really far too difficult—is, according to its universalized consequences, not only not a bad thing, but is also a great thing.

Hence, it can be plausibly argued that it’s ethically permissible and indeed laudable to ignore most applicants at every step of the recruitment process, because it will raise resume standards and increase the odds of any given candidate’s being hired, given that a lower expected salary may be stated in the competition for a recruiter’s attention, which would make the candidate all the more attractive.

Spartan Moral Logic

Historically, such a case of demonstrating that something everybody deems bad would actually be good if everybody in fact did it has at least one notable precedent: At one point, the ancient city-state of Sparta decriminalized theft, on the grounds that if a Spartan couldn’t safeguard his own personal property and home, he would be unable to protect Sparta from invaders. A Spartan youth caught stealing was shamed and punished not for committing theft, but for bungling it by getting caught.

Hence, the toughening of the Spartan spirit through daily tests of vigilance and strength answered the otherwise rhetorical question, “What would happen if everybody were allowed to steal?” The Spartan answer: “We’d win.” Or so they believed, until they vanished, along with their peculiar code, which also seemed to feature their own peculiarly self-serving version of the utilitarian principle, the “greatest good for the greatest number”—namely, “the greatest good for the smaller number”, the latter being the Spartan’s credo, at least in their battles against the numerically vastly superior Persians under Xerxes at Thermopylae and in their dealings with their much larger slave population of Helots.

The Spartan and general universalization principle (“UP”, for short) at it’s simplest is that if the  practical, factual consequences of everyone’s doing X would be (un)acceptable or (un)desirable, the behavior is therefore morally (un)acceptable or (in)correct.  What the Spartans showed is that while most of the rest of us consider theft patently wrong, it actually passes this moral “utilitarian” test with flying Spartan battle colors, to the degree that it did test and forge the mettle of the Spartan warrior and his family.

At least, it passed that test as a reckoning of imagined consequences (as opposed to actual consequences, which are, in long run and in the infinite chain of them in practice  only probable, If not unforeseeable).

Down with the UP

So, far from being a test that proves something we intuitively thing is wrong is indeed wrong, the UP test can, it seems, also prove something we think is wrong is actually right. Given the inconsistent outcomes using this test, it’s not going to help you make moral decisions or to decide whether you can break one of the (un)spoken rules of the recruiter trade—even if “just this once”—unless you blindly and rigidly adhere to the principle.  On the other hand, if our moral intuitions always pass the test, the UP would be  completely and always redundant and therefore unnecessary. Either way, it appears to be a problematic test.

Actually, the “what if everybody did that?” test is an even bigger flop, with an even bigger problem: The UP makes virtually everything good seem bad. For example, you are recruiting someone who wants to be a full-time software engineering manager. Being morally meticulous, you apply the UP: “Hmmm….now, what would happen if everyone did that, i.e., if everyone became a software engineering manager?”

Obviously, many of us would probably starve since no one would become a full-time farmer. Most of us would have worse health care, since no one would be a full-time physician. Of course, there would probably be less public transportation available to your clients’ offices, since there would be no taxi or bus drivers, no train conductors, etc. Life would at least inch toward, if not grind to, a halt and an end.

Does that mean it is your duty to NOT hire a full-time software-engineering manager? Of course not. To see how ludicrous the “what if everybody did that?” rule is, consider an applicant who merely says she wants to work in Chicago. How is she likely to react if you pause, muse and then reply, “Well, sorry, ethically I can’t do that—place you in Chicago, because what would happen if everybody worked in Chicago? Seven billion people working in Chicago?! The infrastructure would collapse in one day and starvation and riots would set in two days later—not to mention the sinkholes that would appear under all that weight.”

One more nail in the UP coffin:  Actions that have no apparent moral import or dimension can be confused with those that do, if the UP is posited as a test of ethics. For example, is brushing your teeth after every meal an ethical action? Well, what would happen if everyone did that? Maybe zero cavities and plummeting incomes for dentists. Does that make (not) tooth-brushing a moral imperative? Morally permissible? More generally, how does the UP distinguish what is an ethically neutral or permissible action from those that are moral/immoral, obligatory/forbidden or ethical/unethical? (There are answers, but mostly of interest only to professional philosophers who are going to argue about them in any case.)

So, “what would happen if everybody did that?” cannot provide much, if any, moral or even practical guidance, e.g., “Should I take a taxi or a bus? What would happen if everybody took a bus? A taxi?” Pointless question.

UP+: Variations on a Bad Theme

OK. So what about variants of the UP—call them “UP+” e.g., “What would happen if no one did that?”, or “What would happen if not everyone did that?”

“What would happen if no one did that?” is just the reworded flip-side of “What would happen if everyone did that?”, and so requires no special, separate discussion. For example, “What would happen if no one refrained from stealing?” is merely a rewording of “What would happen if everyone stole?” Whatever the moral implications of the latter formulation are, those of the former are identical. Hence, asking “what would happen if no one replied to a passed-over applicant?” is no different from asking “what would happen if everyone ignored all passed-over applicants?”

Finally, “What would happen if not everyone did that?” means either “what would happen if no one did that?”—which has just been dealt with, or it means “what would happen if some people did that?” If it is the latter, we already know the answer in the vast majority of cases, since given any human action, the probability that at least one person has done it is almost 100%, e.g., “What would happen if some recruiters ignored passed-over applicants?” What would happen is what in fact happens every day.

One Last Chance

Given these lines of reasoning and while giving the UP one last chance, I will ask whether you had a moral obligation to become familiar with the UP by reading this article. To answer that, I have to ask the second question, “What would happen if everybody became familiar with the UP by reading this article?”

Answer: The UP would be used to prove that it shouldn’t.

Read more in Business 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).