The Courage of Recruiters

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Recruiter Man

“The will and effort to face and deal with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful, when and because it is believed to be the morally or otherwise right thing to do, instead of withdrawing”—a decent definition of “courage”




“Courageous” describes U.S. Navy Seals under withering fire during a rescue mission, weakened cancer victims bravely fighting back (the tears), and little kids protecting other little kids from bigger bullies.  But “courageous recruiter”?  A Google search for “’courageous recruiter’” turned up exactly nine results. “Brave recruiter’” yielded more–190, but with huge redundancy caused by duplicate identical content on multiple sites. My rough guess is that there are no more than eight or so serious, comprehensible and unique references to recruiter “bravery” and “courage” out there.

But, despite the scarcity of online citations for courage under fire, recruiters frequently do require and display real courage, when “courage” is properly understood and not limited to the white-water rescue and smothering- hand- grenades-with-one’s-body kind of courageousness.

Of course, recruiter “bravery” and “courage” is not exactly the stuff of Tom Clancy novels or presidential presentations of the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Moreover, most of what has been identified online as recruiter courage isn’t any kind of bravery at all, as the following analyses will demonstrate. Does it get better if the search is for Google citations of “recruiter courage”? No. “Recruiter courage” yielded zero coherent results.

Nonetheless and indisputably, there are some instances in which the actions of a recruiter do merit the epithet “courageous”, when courage is construed as “the will and effort to face and deal with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult, or painful, when and because it is believed to be the morally or otherwise right thing to do, instead of withdrawing”.

The irony of “recruiter courage” is that much of what seems to be identified as their courage isn’t, while what really is recruiter courage is often unrecognized, unnoticed and under-appreciated.

Recruiterman: a Misunderstood Hero?

The germane and disappointing results of my Google search, distilled from a variety of sites, while excluding the redundant ones, amounted to no more than a handful, including these and my critiques. These should not be confused with real instances of recruiter courage:

  • “You’re the brave recruiter/HR Pro and you always give candid feedback to candidates.” Analysis: Not necessarily brave. You may simply be “doing your job” or following the workplace rules according to your understanding or instructions. Besides, in some instances, being candid, frank, or worse, blunt it could be a manifestation of indifference to a candidate’s feelings, or even of sadism, rather than of courage. Real recruiter courage is displayed in telling the truth because it’s the right thing to do, when there is some personal risk.

Is breaking bad news to a candidate different from a surgeon’s breaking bad news to the anxious family waiting for the patient who just died in the O.R.? If you think it is, then there is a chance you are being courageous when you do give the bad news, since doctors have no choice in such situations, while you do. Alternatively, if you think recruiters and surgeons face different situations, perhaps you merely grasp how much easier it is to hide the truth in the office than it is to hide the body on the table.

However, in many instances courage is just as or more likely to be evidenced in breaking or disobeying the job rules, e.g., when a combat pilot refuses to follow an order to bomb innocent civilians, because one rule, viz., “obey orders” clashes with another “don’t kill innocent civilians”. The real courage here inheres as much in daring to decide for oneself which of the rules has priority as it does in ultimately disobeying the one with the worst public consequences, rather than the one with the worst private ones, i.e., to disobey the order to bomb.

So, reversing the logic of job-related courage, it seems that for a recruiter, not doing one’s job and following its rules may be in various situations clear evidence of heroism—despite Hollywood’s persistent and predictable hero-worship of the gritty top-gun combat fighter pilot or cop who, in the midst of mayhem, is portrayed as “courageous” because he says, “just doin’ my job” and unquestioningly does it.

Accordingly, a recruiter may display courage in being candid if he or she is bucking the prevailing office policy. In this instance, that recruiter deserves kudos and praise as courageous not for “just doing my job”, but for “not doing my job”.

Apart from such maverick recruiter behavior, and the minuscule risk of getting a psychotic, homicidal reaction from a rejected candidate aside, being candid with candidates doesn’t require superhuman courage. Simple human compassion and courtesy will suffice.

  • It’s a brave recruiter who hires someone based purely on their CV.” Analysis: Again, not necessarily brave. Courage involves doing what is believed to be the right thing despite its being understood or perceived to be risky or painful. Otherwise, taking chances or courting pain is just dumb or ignorant—if the risks and the pain are badly underestimated. A recruiter who hires someone based purely on his or her CV, like a surfer trying to ride a shark, may simply be dumb or under-informed.

One caveat: Sometimes perceiving a situation as dangerous is not enough to be generally regarded as a test of courage, since overcoming a phobia about Chihuahuas won’t win you any medals, even though you may think one is deserved.

Hence the distinction between culturally-defined and personally-defined courage.  For example, telling a candidate the real reasons for rejection may be the norm in your office, but not for you; from the standpoint of office culture, you have not been courageous in telling the truth. But if it is psychologically very difficult, almost impossible for you to break bad news like that, doing so will have been personally courageous.

Obvious though this distinction is when once noted, it is rarely respected in public judgments about who is or isn’t courageous, e.g., in newspaper headlines or TV talk shows. Accordingly, just as you may actually be courageous but publicly unheralded as such, a U.S. Navy Seal may, conversely, have no such conception of himself as brave, in virtue of his confidence and preparation, despite the public acclaim. Nice state of mind and sense of preparedness to shoot for in the office too.

Self-Interest, Stupidity, Ignorance and Moral Fortitude: The Four Faces of “Courage”

These examples make it abundantly clear that whenever commending a recruiter for his or her courage, one question worth asking is whether his or her apparent courage is like what a child displays

  • While getting jabbed with a vaccine
  • Sticking his arm into a zoo’s polar bear cage
  • On a skateboard challenging and developing his skills on a challenging run
  • Protecting another child from a bigger bully.

The differences here are those between prudent self-interest, stupidity or ignorance, growth-promoting daring and genuine moral fortitude, respectively.

When you break bad news to a candidate or decline to take on a client who is unethical, your self-interest and the rules of the game, rather than your moral rules, may leave you no choice. Or your conscience may exact the same compliance from you, irrespective of the risk. Courage is to be proved by not just the action, but also in the understanding and the motives involved, i.e., in the character, psychological state and goals of the agent—even when the action is just, for as fight scenes in typical action movies suggest, sometimes we will do the just thing just because it’s exciting and in the pursuit of power, using the pursuit of justice as an excuse and a badge as permission. That’s fun, not courage.

Trait, State and Behavior

Hence, courage should be regarded as an attribute of character or psychological state, not simply of behavior. As Eric Fromm, renowned psychoanalyst insisted, there is a world of difference between behavioral traits and character traits. Behavior is often only an ambiguous hint of (un)ambiguous character, much as the welcoming smile of a used-car lot salesman can only suggest, but never prove good intentions or character.

To assume otherwise would be foolish, not courageous.

The Courage to Start vs. The Courage to Do

Finally, often, as much courage is require to take on a job, e.g., combat pilot, as is needed to follow the rules of that job once it has started. Likewise, for many recruiters, the true courage required may be shown in the first step into the profession, perhaps more than in subsequently following its rules, once hired or set up—especially for the few who choose to go it alone, as an independent recruiter.

What makes taking the independent route courageous is the will to gamble when the stakes are high and losing could really hurt, like a young skateboarder’s knee after a jarring fall—a gamble undertaken because it feels right, morally or for personal growth. Such high risk-high reward behavior is not only the hallmark and way of life of combat pilots, gamblers and independent recruiters.

It is the choice of every Recruiterman and Recruiterwoman when compelled to do the right thing, irrespective of the odds or the risks.

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).