Companies & Industries

Recruiters: 'Rusing' Their Way to the Top


Using a legal cousin to the investigative practice of pretexting, headhunters lie about who they are to get through to the boss

If you remember the boardroom spying scandal that former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Chairwoman Patricia Dunn found herself in about a year ago, you may recall how an illegal investigative practice known as "pretexting" was revealed as a tool of identity theft.

Private investigators working for the company to expose the source of boardroom media leaks were alleged to have engaged in pretexting by using the Social Security numbers of board directors, HP employees, and even journalists who cover the company to obtain phone records and other data they believed would lead them to the mole (BusinessWeek writer Peter Burrows was among those pretexted).

When the plot became public, Dunn resigned, the authorities moved in, and she and three others—former HP ethics chief Kevin Hunsaker and two private investigators—were facing felony charges. Those charges ultimately were dropped, but not before HP's reputation was badly bruised and the practice of pretexting was revealed.

Everybody Does It

While perhaps not as serious as pretexing, another form of identity fraud has for many years been an essential practice of many unscrupulous corporate headhunters. And perhaps because it has been so effective for those who use it, its perpetrators continue to go unscathed despite calls by leaders in their own profession to stop engaging in it.

I was reminded of this lingering blight on the reputation of today's executive search consultants during a recent public forum. An executive recruiter very casually acknowledged that his firm engages in a practice known as "rusing," along with a variety of legitimate candidate sourcing techniques such as searching the Web and mining subscription databases.

In the high-stakes world of corporate headhunting, rusing is supposedly forbidden. It's a deceptive practice in which executive recruiters and/or their candidate sourcing agents assume an alias when making a call to a potential management recruit, most often to convince a gatekeeper—an executive assistant or company telephone operator—that their call to a senior corporate leader is personal, confidential, and/or urgent in nature.

Ruse Via E-Mail

Once the corporate superstar is on the phone, these headhunters reveal their true identity and begin their scripted pitch to persuade the individual to consider what is always described as an especially compelling, extremely lucrative career move.

If confronted about the identity that had been given to a secretary, the headhunter might say the phone lines were crossed or that the urgency and secretive nature of their own work forbade them to describe honestly the purpose of their call. (Given the increasing reliance on e-mail and instant messaging, you can bet the unscrupulous are crafting phony or trumped-up electronic dispatches to prompt an assistant to send such messages instantly to the boss's PDA.)

Headhunters have been known to assume the identities of lawyers, journalists, and even family members just to have their talent sourcing calls patched through. Some simply outsource this requisite first step in the search process to independent researchers when their own considerable networks can't raise enough specifically qualified candidates to satisfy the search assignment.

It's Your Lawyer

The internal staffing departments of some companies—completely unbeknownst to their company's own legal eagles—have also effectively turned a blind eye to the practice of rusing by engaging independent researchers and not investing sufficient time in understanding how some among them routinely resort to rusing to gather candidate profiles and contact information.

A headhunter once confided that her firm regularly hires unemployed actors to assume false identities to, among other things, get through to a potential management recruit. And I know of another headhunting firm that simply (and quite legally) changed its name, in part so that it would sound so much like a law firm that most of its candidate sourcing calls get put through.

There is also a practice, used by people who aren't in the business of executive recruiting, involving the merchandising of corporate phone lists, org charts, and other illegally obtained or retained information that can lubricate the management search process. Some headhunters have told me over the years that they simply couldn't get their jobs done without engaging in at least some occasional rusing.

Don't Talk to Liars

But most often, executive search consultants have described the process as despicable, dishonest, and unbecoming of a dignified corporate leadership recruiter. And executive search associations specifically include rusing as a practice that runs counter to their membership bylaws.

Candidate research is the critical first step that has long provided the foundation of the executive recruiting process. The sourcing of potential job candidates deserves an honest and ethical approach, given the incredible influence headhunters and recruitment researchers hold over corporate management succession and individual executive careers. There's no guarantee that every one of them sees it that way.

That's why it's especially important for companies that engage external management recruiters to conduct their own due diligence about how those recruiters do candidate sourcing and market research. It's also why any self-respecting executive should immediately dismiss the overtures—however seemingly alluring—of any corporate headhunter who had to lie about his or her identity to make the connection.

Joseph Daniel McCool is a writer, speaker, and advisor on executive recruiting and management succession best practices. He writes Headhunter Confidential for businessweek.com/managing/.

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