The Recruiter Code of Ethics: Moses vs. Socrates

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MOS(OCRAT)ES | Michael Moffa

“Hey, I’m just doing my job!”—remark of paparazzo arrested, fined and released in 2007 for trespassing to take nude photos of an unnamed star

The professional arsonist builds vacant lots for money.”—Jimmy Breslin

If you, as a recruiter, are asked, “Are you a professional?”, you are virtually certain to not only say “yes” but to say it proudly. But if you are asked what it means, like any of the hapless foils set up and engaged by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues when asked a tough question such as, “What is justice?”, you may get stuck.

When, in Plato’s Republic, Polemarchus suggests to Socrates that “justice is giving every man what he is owed”, Socrates replies, “Of course ..(this) doesn’t mean that I should return weapons to a man who is out of his mind; and yet a thing held in trust is a sort of debt owed.”

It’s that kind of getting stuck—at least initially.

You may say that being a proud professional recruiter means, as a minimum, adhering to the ethics of the profession. But then, the examples of the “professional ethics” of the  invasive, law-breaking paparazzo, the professional arsonist, the even more extreme example of professional and ruthless and cruel banana republic military mercenaries and mob hit-men amply demonstrate that conforming to the ethics of a profession is not a sufficient basis for pride, complacency or ethical conduct.

If the possibility that codes of ethics can be unethical is not yet apparent to you, the ambiguity and the ethical implications of the phrase “bank job” should suffice to demonstrate it.

Right Because Rules, or Rules Because Right?

The critical consideration regarding professional ethics is not whether you abide by them, but whether, by broader ethical standards to which you do or should subscribe, the professional code is itself indeed ethically well-grounded.

To see this, compare whatever recruiter code of ethics you follow and the Ten Commandments presented by that other moral gadfly, Moses: Are they commanded because they are right, or right because they are commanded? If you claim they are commanded because they are right, you must have some moral or ethical criterion of rightness that is independent of their being compulsory and the say-so of Moses or anyone higher up. That means you don’t need to be told what is right or what to do.

In that case, the commandments (or rules in a recruiter code of ethics) are personally unnecessary, since they merely consolidate what you previously and independently have recognized and justified as right. If they did not, would you still accept them? Accept them or reject them—either way, the burden of judgment and the freedom of choice remain yours, and only yours. On this analysis, the locus of your moral self-control is existentially internal, not theologically external.

On the other hand, if the commandments promulgated by Moses (or your professional rules) are alleged to be right because they are commanded (by God, some regulatory body or by peer pressure), they are stripped of all moral force, irrespective of whatever physical, coercive force backs them up, e.g., threats of eternal Hell fire, ostracism from the tribe, or firing in this life.

No “Ought” from an “Is”

This is because, as ethics profs ceaselessly remind their students, “You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.” The fact that anything is commanded can never prove it morally ought to be commanded, since all kinds of evil can be commanded, e.g., “Kill all the first-born males”. Likewise, even if the “law of the jungle” and “survival of the fittest” do prevail in the jungle or the office, it doesn’t follow that they should or morally must.

As part of your professional code of conduct, acceptance or rejection of the values of moral Darwinism or the Ten Commandments cannot be justified by the facts of natural Darwinism or by the fact that the commandments have been commanded.

It’s Really All Your Call

Note how, in any situation not covered by what you understand to be the formal recruiter code of ethics, e.g., whether it is OK to date or accept a gift from a candidate, your own personal ethics will have to fill that vacuum. The point being made here is that, whether you realize it or not, your own independently-formulated personal ethics are the ultimate and sole arbiter of not only such off-code, unregulated behavior, but also of the rest of your professional, as well as personal codes of conduct, and, as a natural consequence, of your actions.

The most that can be expected of a formal recruiter code of ethics is that it lets you know that your values are welcome in this profession and that others are not. In other words, any “official” recruiter code of ethics as ethics only validates your own independently formulated values, rather than define them.

Given that the mere existence of an explicit or tacit code of conduct for recruiters is not sufficient to assure it is the or a right code, you will have to decide whether to make your broader conscience determine your professional ethics, rather than vice versa (i.e., having the official professional code determine your conscience).

Taking on Socrates

So imagine that you are locking horns of dilemmas with Socrates and are trying to explain what you understand being professional means, at least in terms of following a professional code of ethics. Here’s how it might go:

Socrates: “Pray tell, what does it mean to be ‘a professional’?”

Recruiter: “Being a professional at least means adhering to the code of my profession.”

Socrates: “Then it must be asked whether you accept the code because it is right, or whether it is right because you accept it.”

Recruiter: “What’s the difference?”

Socrates: “In the former instance, you ultimately decide what is right or wrong and, on that basis, judge whether the code is a right one; in the latter, the code decides and you obey. It is the difference between moral examination and moral obedience.”

Recruiter: “I accept the code because I believe it is right.”

Socrates: “In that case, if the code conforms to your values, rather than vice versa, why would you need a recruiter code of ethics? Your own values would suffice.”

Recruiter: “To assure our clientele that our ethical standards are high and to serve notice to any and all who would be recruiters that these are the ones to be upheld and to notify all who hold such values that they are welcome to join our professional ranks.”

Socrates: “Then, how do you assure your clientele that you or any other recruiter does in fact conform to the code? The existence of a code of ethics does not by itself guarantee that it will be followed. The publication of a recruiter code of ethics in no way guarantees recruiter ethical behavior.”

Recruiter: “Wherever possible, sanctions against those who violate the code should be imposed to deter or punish recruiters who breach it.”

Socrates: “If such proposed sanctions are accepted, doesn’t the code of ethics become a code of prudence—a professional survival guide to protecting your self-interest, rather than a professional ethical guide to virtuous behavior? Would that not mean that ‘code of ethics’ is a misnomer and a misrepresentation of what in fact is nothing more than a ‘code of survival’? It seems that your code of ‘oughts’ is really only a code of ‘is’s, in that it implies what will happen to you if you violate it, not what should happen to you as just punishment for doing so.”

Recruiter: “From the standpoint of common sense, a ‘code of ethics’ is just like a legal code: You break the law, you take your punishment. Whether the rules, regulations and principles are also the right moral ones is something to be hoped for—even though admittedly not something that can somehow be guaranteed to anyone’s or everyone’s satisfaction.”

Socrates: “So, you are saying that you see a recruiter code of ethics as actually being a recruiter code—period, comprising rules, commandments and survival tips?”

Recruiter: “Yes.”

Socrates: “Then, tell me, why not simply call it that—a ‘Recruiter’s Code”? Since adding ‘of Ethics’ is at best a high-sounding distraction and at worst a deceptive contradiction, why not omit that embellishment?”

Recruiter: “It’s wiser to leave it as it is.”

Socrates: “And precisely what do you mean by ‘wiser’?”….

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).