Analysis: Recruiters - time for stricter rules?

A top PR recruiter wants to stamp out ‘unethical’ behaviour in the sector. But does Emma Brierley have the support of her recruitment peers, asks Ian Hall

Emma Brierley, CEO of recruitment firm Xchangeteam, believes 'an increasing number of PR recruitment companies are applying a scattergun approach to obtaining fees, and sending CVs without regard for the compatibility of employer and employee' (PRWeek, 17 March). 

Brierley is calling for a code of practice specifically for PR recruiters – but opinion is divided as to whether this is either necessary or workable (see box).

Concern about PR recruitment 'cowboys' is long-standing: as far back as the early 1980s, The Foundry MD Lynn Beaumont, VMA Group MD Vicky Mann and PTH chairman Neville Price were among around 20 recruiters who met at a London hotel to discuss how to tackle the problem.

Similarly, a group convened to discuss the issue a couple of years ago – but again the debate came to nothing. On both occasions, plans for action were scuppered by doubts as to how a code could be policed.

Views differ as to whether unscrupulous operators are more prevalent today than when Beaumont et al sat down 20 years ago (there are certainly more recruiters, more agencies have 'preferred supplier lists', and the internet has increased operational speed). But all agree that bad practice still wastes time and creates confusion.

Bad behaviour
Ruchi Shah-Mehta, a freelance PRO, has experience of bad practice. 'Some will send your CV [to a potential employer] without your knowledge: it's quite frustrating and can be so embarrassing,' she says.

Ketchum has 13 recruitment companies on a preferred supplier list.

Cheryl Weeks, its HR administrator, is critical of some outside that list, saying: 'A lot of them just blast CVs through when they haven't read the job spec.'

Similarly, Claire Lewis, HR executive at Kaizo, reveals: 'On three separate occasions in the first three months of this year we have received CVs without the  candidates' knowledge.'

Claire Majendie is a senior consultant at Indigo Red. The former agency HR director says: 'I am quite shocked by the way some CVs are sent round the industry willy-nilly – and I know that candidates are, too.'

She adds: 'It seems that at times, recruiters are seen as pariahs of the industry – great when they get it right, a nuisance and expensive at other times. Perhaps a code would help us raise our game.'

Fresh Connect director Gary Hoult specialises in matchmaking for health and consumer PROs. 'Right now it is a candidate-led market, especially in healthcare, and recruitment agencies have to move fast if they get a good CV,' he says. 'PR companies will often go with the recruitment agency that got them the CV first, even if the recruitment agency had behaved unethically by not actually telling the candidate where the CV had even gone.'

Media Contacts senior manager Rupert Wallis adds: 'I went to visit the MD of a large PR agency recently to encourage him to cut down on the number of recruitment agencies he uses– around ten. He said he couldn't risk doing so as he is finding it so difficult to get quality candidates.'

Most PR recruitment companies are members of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which has its own code of practice – but some are not (there are various pre-conditions to signing up, such as your business needing to be at least one year old). Would the simplest solution not be to encourage all PR agencies and
in-house recruiters to only use REC-approved agencies? Or to encourage all recruiters to join the REC?

Wallis believes so. 'The REC has the powers to punish those in breach of its code and strip them of their membership. Sending CVs without approval would be one such breach,' he says.

Similarly, Dan Doherty, director at Cadence Market Strategy, argues: 'Brierley should focus her efforts within REC: the recruitment industry is well served by REC and there are many examples of sectoral groups working well within it.'

REC director of external relations Tom Hadley says the practices flagged up by Brierley are 'clearly banned' by his organisation's code. Cases can also be referred to the Department for Trade and Industry for potential government action.

PTH's Price points out: 'If people can prove unethical behaviour, they should complain to government and try and get the offender's licence taken away. It would be better if candidates themselves did this, rather than rival recruitment companies.'

Industry-wide solution
Hadley says he would be interested to know whether there is sufficient demand for a PR-specific 'sectoral group' within REC.

While encouraged by Hadley's comments, Brierley stresses: 'We don't want to bypass REC. But this is not an issue recruiters can address by acting in isolation. We want groups such as the PRCA to be involved because this affects the whole PR industry: we need to act together.'

Lorraine Barker, PR division head at Major Players, agrees, saying: 'A code of conduct would not work unless it was tied in to candidates and hiring organisations – it must have impact throughout the chain.'
The PRCA and CIPR are receptive to discussions. Indeed, PRCA director-general Patrick Barrow has already agreed a date (27 March) to sit down with Brierley.

Whether or not a code of conduct is eventually agreed, many believe a climate of survival-of-the-fittest will always prevail in the recruitment business, and the PR sector is no different.

One senior recruiter describes Brierley's concern as 'perhaps a storm in a teacup', believing cowboys will quickly go out of business.

Elsewhere, Dee Cayhill, head of the recently launched PR practice of Kendall Tarrant, argues: 'PR recruitment should be about following people's careers from the age of 20 to 60. It's not about making a quick buck. Those operating unethically will lose out in the long run.'

Almost all PROs want to change jobs at some point, and it is in nobody's interests for CVs to be hawked casually, or for entirely inappropriate matches to be convened.

So this is an issue that affects the entire industry. As Brierley argues: 'If PR agencies and in-house comms teams ignore bad practice – or even encourage it – the industry will get a raw deal and standards will fall.'

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