I'm the Chief Economist at IDinsight. I've been somewhat surprised recently to see a number of very direct headhunting attempts from people in the EA community, directed at key staff members of our organization. This is not a one-off, this is attempts to recruit multiple staff from a number of hiring organizations. 

I understand that the recruitment of great staff is a key bottleneck for EA orgs, and that this has resulting in more resources being into headhunting. (For posts that discuss this issue, see here, here, and here.) But I would have though that this headhunting would be concentrated on less impactful organizations outside the EA community. Clearly, if a headhunter eases a bottleneck at a high-impact organization while creating a bottleneck at another equally high-impact organization, they are not having a positive effect. 

I wouldn't call IDinsight an EA organization, but we are certainly collaborative with the EA ecosystem, working closely with EA funders and high-impact implementation organizations in global health and development. We are a nonprofit dedicated to maximizing our social impact, and although I'm certainly biased I think we are in impactful organization. Perhaps headhunters targeting our staff feel that the roles they are recruiting for are much higher-impact than the roles people currently have at IDinsight, and I would respect their actions if this were the case. However, I would imagine that headhunters also are motivated to fill roles, and this would hinder them from accurately weighing the global impact of someone moving from job X to job Y. 

I do understand this is complicated. The decision to move jobs ultimately rests with the worker, not the headhunter, and I of course respect the decision of anyone to switch jobs. But I do think the EA community should be thinking strategically about how to maximize our headhunting resources for total global impact, as opposed to just impact for the organizations they are working for.  I wonder, are there any established norms or best-practices within the community? If not, I think it would make sense to develop some.   

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Habryka
1y137
70
0

Yes, I at least strongly support people reaching out to my staff about opportunities that they might be more excited about than working at Lightcone, and similarly I have openly approached other people working in the EA community at other organizations about working at Lightcone. I think the cooperative atmosphere between different organizations, and the trust that individuals are capable of making the best decisions for themselves on where they can have the best impact, is a thing I really like about the EA community.

Thanks for the comment- I understand where you are coming from, and see how this could go either ways. But I think I'd tend to disagree. I'm always happy  for people to be aware of other opportunities and consider them, but I think there's a difference when there are paid professionals targeting specific people to switch jobs. These professions tend to not just inform, but also convince. So in the situation of a job switch, you end up with a situation where the recruiting organization gains, the recruited organization loses, and  actual job-seeker perhaps gains but this isn't totally clear, depends on the amount that their decision was motivated by information vs convincing. And there's a deadweight loss from the salary of the headhunter.  Therefore, I think that the net effect of a headhunter could be positive or negative. Certainly it seems like they would have a higher impact if they recruited people from low-impact orgs to move to high-impact orgs. 

I don't know, this sounds to me like treating employees at EA organizations as children that have to be protected from "convincing misinformation". My employees are totally capable of handling headhunters trying to convince them, and I think most other people in EA are too. These people are not children, and it's not my right or job as an employer to protect them from harmful-to-me-seeming information, especially when I am obviously in a massive conflict of interest in regard to that information.

Perhaps obvious, but while I agree that your employer should not make it their business to protect you from misinformation of this kind, I still think that anyone who spread genuinely "convincing misinformation" would be doing something wrong and should stop.

(I'm not necessarily expecting people to agree on whether a given headhunting pitch is misinformation or not, but in cases where it is, that's obviously a problem.)

I feel like the original post was complaining about recruiting specifically as an injury to the current employer. If the claim is "EA orgs are lying during recruitment" that's a huge problem no matter where they are recruiting from.

DC
1y6
0
0

Wasn't part of the general objection early on to Leverage over them appearing to ~headhunt (I don't know details) from other orgs like MIRI? (That very well may not be part of your issues with them though?)

Indeed, I think that criticism (as well as the criticism that they recruited donors away from other organizations) was quite unjustified (and I contributed somewhat to it a few years ago).

I share the negative emotional reaction to headhunting candidates from ostensibly allied organisations -- it does inevitably feel like an adversarial move. Ultimately, though, I find it quite hard to justify this opposition intellectually.

The main effect of headhunting is to provide employees with information -- e.g. that they seem like a good fit for this exciting role they might not have known about (or considered applying to) otherwise. I support people making their own employment decisions on the basis of the best possible information, and (in most cases) oppose hiding information from people because it might cause them to make decisions we don't like.

If you phrase an opposition to headhunting as "don't make our staff aware of opportunities they might freely decide to pursue over their current job", I think it sounds a lot more dubious as an organisational philosophy for an ostensibly altruistic organisation -- it strongly suggests that management don't have their employees' best interests at heart.

Thanks for the comment- I see where you are coming from. As noted in a previous reply, I think a lot has to do with how much the headhunter informs vs convinces. There are a lot of parallels with advertising. Do we think that advertising performs a positive social function? Well, it could if it simply provides information about a new product and allows consumers to make more informed choices. But also the advertiser has incentives to increase sales, so why would we trust them to be truthful and have everyone's best interests at heart? Headhunters/recruiters have incentives to fill roles, so I don't think we should assume that they are playing a neutral, information-providing role. 

I don't know nearly enough about headhunting to say anything definitive. But if we think they're misleading -- rather than informing -- maybe the argument should be 'EA orgs shouldn't use headhunters' for the reasons you laid out in these comments. It feels counter productive from the orgs side to trick someone into a job they wouldn't have taken with full information (*especially* for a community trying to operate with integrity). 

That seems like a distinct point from 'EA orgs shouldn't poach from one another' (which is what it seemed like the post was about). In general, my prior is that norms should be the same for hiring the EA-employed and the non-EA-employed, whether that's using headhunting services or not.

Yeah, this also seems right to me. My experiences with headhunters in the broader world have been pretty bad, and many of them seemed pretty shady, so I would definitely dock an EA org a lot of points if I saw them reach out to people with deceptive marketing.

MHR
1y48
16
0

I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that even informal agreements against headhunting other EA organizations' employees would likely violate US antitrust law

Oh that's very interesting! I had no idea, seems relevant. Also not a lawyer, but I think that this would just apply to agreements not to hire others' employees, as opposed to an agreement not to aggressively recruit. 

I actually think there was a major lawsuit about agreements between organizations not to poach one another's employees. https://www.cnet.com/tech/tech-industry/apple-google-others-settle-anti-poaching-lawsuit-for-415-million/

Larks
1y43
23
0

Yes, we all benefit (on average, in expectation) etc. from a more efficient labour market, and an important part of that is ensuring that workers hear about relevant opportunities for them. Not everyone is constantly refreshing the 80k job board, and many jobs are never listed, so it makes sense to do direct headhunter outreach to potential hires. Organisations should focus on trying to retain talent by being as positively impactful as possible, and by offering an attractive working environment / compensation package, not by keeping their employees in the dark about their alternatives. 

Obviously recruiting people based on misleading information is bad, but that's true regardless of where you're recruiting from, and similarly it's bad to try to retain your current employees in misleading ways.

Hi Dan, I’m Luisa — I’ve been helping EA-aligned organizations find candidates for their open roles as part of my work at 80,000 Hours. I think there’s a good chance one of the direct outreach emails you’ve seen at IDinsight came from me, so I thought it’d be good to share a bit more about what kinds of headhunting we’re doing, and how we’re thinking about it. 

Briefly, 80,000 Hours is sometimes asked by hiring managers at EA-aligned orgs to recommend potential candidates for specific roles. Given we get to know lots of EA-aligned people through our programs, we think we’re pretty well-placed to help talented people find out about impactful roles they might be a good fit for (that they might not have been aware of otherwise).

This does sometimes include reaching out to people who already have jobs — sometimes at EA-aligned (and adjacent) organizations — to find out if they’re open to other roles, and if so, put some roles we think are especially impactful on their radar. 

We hope that the fact that we don’t have the same financial incentives as normal headhunters (who are paid when they get placements) means we’re able to act as a neutral-ish third party trying to think about which roles are extra-worth putting on more people’s radars. 

We recognize that there are potential downsides, like increasing costs to organizations that spend a year training a new hire, only to have that person leave for another org soon once they’ve skilled up. And we absolutely don’t endorse pushing people harder on switching jobs than they would endorse, or in any way misleading people. 

We hope this means we’re able to help create a better-working talent pipeline for orgs doing high-impact work, while minimizing the costs to orgs doing great work (like IDinsight!)


 

I think this is a good conversation to have. I broadly agree with the majority voice of the comments, that though it can be difficult and unfair to have your employees headhunted away from you after you invested in their development and planned around them being here, ultimately it seems better to allow it to happen because of the benefits to the employee and their new employer.

At the same time, I do want to acknowledge that there is a version of this behaviour that is a problem. To the extent that any headhunter is:

  • disrespectful of people's time by trying to involve them in processes that aren't suitable for or interesting to them,
  • persistent in the face of polite refusal from the employee in question,
  • in any aspect intentionally misleading or dishonest,

then I'm sure we'd all agree they were doing something wrong. It's harder to prevent this kind of behaviour, because it's often subjective when the line has been crossed, but I'd support a general understanding that if a headhunter does this kind of thing, then we hold both them and the organization they are hiring for responsible, perhaps privately at first and then publically if the behaviour persists. Anyone using recruiters or headhunters should feel under an obligation to ensure their agents are acting in ways consistent with their own values.

OP here. Thanks for all of the engagement with this post and for the varying opinions. People have brought up some important points on the benefits of headhunting (increased information, better outcomes for employees, overall better job matches, etc), and I agree with a lot of what is said.   After taking these into account and mulling what has been said, here's where I stand (subject to change):

  1. It's clearly ok for EA orgs to hire employees who work at other friendly orgs. Refusing to do so is illegal and I'd say also unethical. 
  2. I think it's ok if you work at an EA org and you know someone who might be a great fit for a role at your org, totally find to reach out to them and let them know. 
  3. It's not ok to use misinformation. I'll be clear that in the headhunting instances  I witnessed from EA orgs, I did not see any misinformation, and all communication was respectful. 
  4. I think recruiters and headhunters within the community should aim to inform rather than persuade recruits, which I do not think is the norm in the headhunting world. This can be a very fine line. The headhunting I witnessed was mostly in the "information" column, yet there was some stuff on the margin. For instance, I think a headhunter should be very careful about insinuate that they job they are recruiting for is higher impact than someone's current job. In one of the emails I saw, the recruiter did not explicitly say this, but it was implied (or at least that was my interpretation). I'm not sure if this was purposeful. 
  5. I think it would be a positive norm for friendly orgs to alert one another if they plan to headhunt, especially if reaching out to multiple people for a role. This allows the original org an opportunity to do what they can to ensure that the employee is having their needs met in the current job. This did happen in one of the instances of headhunting that IDinsight encountered, and it was appreciated.  
  6.  I think foundations/donor orgs have an extra layer of responsibility, as they wield a lot of power in the ecosystem, and in most cases pay more money than their grantees. When considering headhunting the staff of non-profits, they should be extra sure to follow best practices and ensure that they don't destabilize the orgs they are poaching from. I'm not saying they shouldn't recruit from NGOs, but I think they should be very careful about avoiding persuasion and alerting the recruitee orgs. 
  7. I think the bar for paid headhunters is even higher. For instance, if the EA Infrastructure Fund is going to fund headhunters for the EA ecosystem, I think that these headhunters should have a strong bias toward headhunting from lower-impact jobs. (Agreed this is not so easy to figure out what is high and low impact.) If they are instead just contributing to churn among high-impact orgs, I think they have an ambiguous amount of total social impact. Could be high if it increases information, improved job matches, improves employee satisfaction. But could be low if those positive elements are outweighed by switching costs of jobs and the cost of the headhunter themselves. 

I really appreciated this summary, and the thoughtfulness and epistemic care it implies. I agree with most of your takeaways here.

I think most of any remaining disagreements/bad-blood arising from "intra-impact" headhunting will come down to people's reactions to persuasion/hard-sells. I think this is a borderline case that I don't really know how to think about, which is distinct from (and a lot harder to adjudicate than) anything to do with misinformation.

I definitely feel like there's a dynamic where, if there's a culture of being careful/deferential/soft with your pitches, one person who comes in and is willing to make hard sells will extract a lot of benefits, in a way that feels a lot like defecting. This will also put pressure on everyone else to be more hard-sell-y, which probably has bad effects. OTOH, if someone really does honestly & reasonably think that a particular opportunity is exceptionally high-impact (in general, or for a particular individual), there's something to be said for outright saying that, and being willing to pay social costs to increase the chance of realising that impact. Someone being willing to hard-sell to you can also provide additional information about personal fit (in both directions) in a way that seems plausibly valuable.

I could go on, but I'm rambling. Suffice it to say that I have complicated feelings about a strong form of "explain, don't persuade" here. (I personally think I, and many people I know, generally sell too softly, which is probably influencing my takes here in a few different ways.)

For instance, I think a headhunter should be very careful about insinuate that they job they are recruiting for is higher impact than someone's current job. In one of the emails I saw, the recruiter did not explicitly say this, but it was implied (or at least that was my interpretation). I'm not sure if this was purposeful. 

What? This is the primary thing that I want other organizations to argue for when trying to recruit me or others away from my job. I really don't understand why this point is here. Impact is the primary basis on which I might switch jobs, and so of course a headhunter should try to give me information and convince me that another job would be higher impact.

By "very careful", I mean they shouldn't make the case that their org is higher-impact than the current org unless they are damn sure. And this is an extremely difficult judgement call to make, when comparing two organizations whose mission is social impact.  Given that impact is integral to an EA's worldview, it would be a pretty incendiary accusation for a headhunter to make the case that org X is higher-impact than org Y, so someone should switch jobs.  It's one thing to make this case if hiring someone away from Exxon, but another to make the case within a community of arguably impactful organizations. I think these kinds of tactics have potential to cause major rifts within the community so should be avoided. 

For what it's worth, I also share the intuitive aversion. Reading Habryka's comment, I'm not sure that the aversion would stand up to reflection. But I could imagine it doing so after I thought more about it, e.g., if poaching employees would lead to unequal or loopsided mentoring or hiring costs, or if headhunters were paid per person and not less for people from organizations which are already doing valuable work.

Yeah, I think the strongest arguments against headhunting is training/cultural-onboarding costs. 

I do think there is a thing where hiring someone right out of college is often net-negative, but if you train them, they become net-positive after a year or two. I think it would suck to invest so much in training someone, just for them to walk away to an organization that offered a better experience because they had to spend fewer resources training others.

I do think it makes sense to have norms here. At Lightcone we have some norms that if you do accept an offer after a 3-month trial period that you do really try to make things work out for 2 years, though if you find something that seems genuinely more impactful you should do it (and the organization would encourage you to go and do it).

Just to add, the fact that it sucks to invest in people and have them leave could lead long-term to organizations being less keen to invest in people in the first place, which would be ultimately bad for both employers and employees. That said, within the EA community, training someone and then watching them leave is less of a dead loss than it would be at a for-profit firm, because there's a pretty good chance that they're going to go do something that you're also in favour of, even if it's not the thing you chose to work on yourself. I've actually heard the funding pitch before of "you should fund us because we hire people previously unknown to the EA community and many of them go on to be hired by OpenPhil or etc. and cite their experience with us as helpful for that".

I agree with you that the right way to deal with this is via flexible informal norms.

I don't so much recommend more rigid / coercive / formal tools, but probably among the least bad of them I've seen is "here is a starting bonus, but if you leave before your first year or so, you have to pay it back", or guaranteed pay rises after certain periods of time, etc.

First,

 I've been somewhat surprised recently to see a number of very direct headhunting attempts from people in the EA community, directed at key staff members of our organization. This is not a one-off, this is attempts to recruit multiple staff from a number of hiring organizations. 


This is useful information to know! Thanks for sharing it. I just want to send good vibes for "if you see something you see is weird, lean towards transparency."

My personal intuition is that it's good to have a culture where people are politely, and perhaps  lightly, headhunted. 

However, there definitely could be more issues here:

  1. It seems bad if some groups/orgs get highly targeted. This can create an uncomfortable situation if not handled well.
  2. It's hard to be polite. I could easily imagine recruiters being pushy or rude. 

I imagine that perhaps in this case at least, some orgs used similar logic to target IDinsight (lots of great talent and training, but work seems less directly aligned for specific EA goals), but didn't realize how many others were doing it. 

I'd recommend messaging the Community Health team at CEA to get a bit of coordination. Or just directly send an email to the various orgs flagging the issue. I imagine they might well be able to find a more reasonable solution. 

I'm nervous that readers might conflate "the specific situation of IDInsight, which we still know little about, is justified" with, "it's generally good to have more headhunting". I mostly agree with the latter, but can't say much on the former. 

I think a lot of the disagreements in the comments is coming down to different conceptions of headhunting. Dan, you refer to targeting/specific/direct outreach to particular individuals, but that doesn't seem the crucial difference, its in the intent, tone and incentives.

"Hey X person, you're doing a great job at your current job. You might be totally happy at your current job, but I thought I'd flag this cool new opportunity that seems really impactful - happy to discuss why it might be a good fit" seems fine. 

Giving a hard sell, strongly denigrating the current employer or being strongly incentivised for switches (eg paid a commission) seems way less fine.

Left unspoken? EA needs more head hunting aimed at senior non-EAs.

Hi! I have absolutely no expertise in this, but it seems long-term good to maximize the quality of matches between employers and employees. So, formally, I suppose I disagree with the statement:

Clearly, if a headhunter eases a bottleneck at a high-impact organization while creating a bottleneck at another equally high-impact organization, they are not having a positive effect.

If an employee takes a job at another org, presumably they expect it to be a better match for them going forward. I'd count that as a positive effect, assuming (on average) it increases their effectiveness, decreases their chances of burnout, etc. Even if its just for money or location, its hard to know what intra-household bargains have been made to do EA-work, etc.

There might also be positive general equilibrium effects: An expectation of a robust EA job market (with job-to-job transitions) increased my willingness to leave a non-EA job (academia) and enter this ecosystem. I would have been more hesitant had I felt there was a norm against hiring from other orgs. Though I'll flag that I'm not confident I accurately understand the term 'head-hunting' here, as opposed to recruiting, as opposed to hiring. In any case, a strong 'no head-hunting/recruiting' norm seems like it would weakly pressure orgs not to hire from other orgs (since they wouldn't want to be seen as recruiting from other orgs). 

I get that there are costs associated with re-hiring, re-training, and re-integrating that would be avoided if the original org just directly hires from the non-EA-employed camp. Maybe I'm underestimating these! My uninformed guess is that they are small relative to the benefits of increasing match quality. 

Curious about others thoughts on this though! Thanks for writing it.

Good points- I take back my earlier "Clearly..." statement, and agree it needs to also include utility gains for the worker in the calculation. 

Just to clarify, I wouldn't be advocating that orgs don't hire from peer orgs. Of course, post jobs, make them widely known, take and consider applications from all place. But I think it's different to spend money on dedicated staff to directly target and aggressively recruit staff from friendly orgs within your ecosystem. 

Here's a related thought that I'm curious for people's views on: if org X has a reputation for being good at interviewing and hiring candidates, and org Y is hiring for a similar role, and org Y says to candidates "if you have an offer from X then we'll hire you with no further process", or similarly "if you work or have worked at X, we know you're good and don't need to assess you ourselves". This can feel like org Y is misappropriating the products of org X's work and expertise finding and assessing good people. Is this unethical?

My inclination is to say something similar to the replies to this headhunting post: it sucks to have this happen to you, but trying to prevent it in a heavy-handed way would be worse, so it seems better to just be aware of the phenomenon and be mindful of how you are benefiting from the work of others. (And again, the dynamic is different in for-profit organizations in competition with each other vs. non-profits with at least some amount of goal alignment.)

Thanks for this post, Dan. I work in headhunting for EA orgs, so please read these comments with that in mind!

  • I'd echo Ozzie's comment on transparency, and I'd want orgs to push back on me if they think what I'm doing is overstepping the mark into something like 'aggressive persuasion'.
  • (Naturally) I don't see my role like that, and whilst I wouldn't claim that I perfectly calculate the global impact of every potential job switch when considering reaching out to someone, nor is it a simple case of following a short-term financial incentive. Even from a purely selfish headhunter's perspective, I don't think a strategy of heavy convincing in order to fill a role would be productive in anything but the very short term.
  • I certainly consider the downsides for the potential losing employer if that employer's an EA or adjacent org. This is especially so if they haven't been there long, and/or would be making a  sideways move rather than advancing their career.
  • That said, I wouldn't want to rule out approaching employees of EA or adjacent orgs, to include extolling the virtues of the hiring org as I understand them. That sort of 'convincing' seems legitimate to me. As Habryka points out, people are capable of considering offers and incentives hiring organisations and headhunters might have, and host orgs are capable of counter-convincing.
  • So it seems to me that the key issue is what counts as legitimate or otherwise - obviously deception is wrong, but I'm not sure it's easy to draw the line between 'providing information' and 'convincing'. Do you have specific suggestions? I want to make sure I get this right, so would be keen to discuss with you - my email is tom@activesearch.org. 
  • FWIW, I agree that it's better to hire from outside of EA where possible, and I'm especially excited about bringing more mid-career talent into the community from 'outside'. What makes this difficult is that hiring managers often want to see evidence of 'value alignment' or 'cultural fit', one proxy for which is often 'working at an EA/adjacent org'.  EA-specific knowledge can also be helpful in a lot of roles. People already connected to this space are also much likelier to understand and be motivated to work on the weird causes that EA orgs pursue.

Thanks again for your post, and I look forward to hearing from you if you'd like to discuss further.

I haven't come across any headhunters for EA orgs before. What % of people you approach would you say work for an EA-affiliated org already?

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