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Benefit Client or Candidate?

DILEMMA:

I am a partner and one of the founders of an executive search firm. Our clients are the companies seeking an executive, since they are the ones who pay us. But we also develop many relationships with individuals who have the potential to fill the executive slots.

Recently, we had identified a great candidate for president of a Midwestern company, and we worked with our client on the terms of the offer including reimbursement for relocation. We told our client that one clause, not covering the real estate fees in the sale of the Florida home, would likely not be accepted by the candidate, since it was standard practice to cover this. But the client wanted to go forward without this coverage.

We presented the offer to the candidate and encouraged him to review it with his legal counsel. We were surprised when he came back and accepted the offer. We were not sure if he missed the clause, and wanted to point this out to the candidate because he was missing something important. But since our official customer was the company and not the candidate, we did nothing.

What is our ethical obligation to the best interests of our candidate?

An Executive Search Partner
Dallas, Texas

RESPONSE:

Great question! First of all, let me commend you for concern for both parties. This shows a high degree of ethical sensitivity.

I agree that your primary duty in this case is to honor your client’s wishes. Of course, this does not negate some level of obligation toward potential candidates for the position. In this case, I do think that your duties to the candidate have been met. In fact you even took the additional step of encouraging him review the offer with legal counsel to ensure good faith. If the information is out in the open, and he is encouraged to review it; the candidate should assume a proper level of responsibility.

I do think, however, that your work on behalf of client organization, does require maintaining good relationships with a field of potential candidates for positions. Thus, working to ensure the best interests of potential candidates often does merge with the best interests of the organizations that hire you to conduct searches. In this case, your client would not be well served by potential acrimony in the future employment relationship if, in fact, the potential candidate mistakenly accepts the offer. You could make this case to your client and see if they would support saying something further to the candidate. I do think, however, that your ethical obligation to the candidate has been met.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

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