What’s An Ethical Recruiter? Q&A w/ Citizen Kind’s Emma Osborne, Global Sustainability Talent Expert

12 Mins Read

The world around is changing. Because, the climate crisis. Throw in a two-year and counting pandemic and well, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. From extreme weather patterns to supply chain disruptions to green energy transitions to the rise of a generation of activist consumers, all aspects of daily life will never be the same. One facet of life that is changing drastically is work. Gen Zers are looking for companies with a mission. Companies that do good are attracting all the talent. Office workers are leaving their desks on masse in what some are calling ‘The Great Resignation‘. But why?

I wanted answers so I tapped Emma Osborne, founder of ethical recruitment agency Citizen Kind with my questions. Below, we chat about all the above and more, plus what exactly is an ethical recruiter, why companies are struggling to find talent and what the future of better hiring will look like.

What is Citizen Kind?

Citizen Kind is an ethical recruitment consultancy born out of my own frustration! Having spent my whole career working with companies whose reason for being was solely profit motivated, I felt unfulfilled and increasingly unhappy. In launching Citizen Kind, I wanted to give others who felt like me access to roles that are doing good in the world. I couldn’t resist the idea of how quickly things could change if we had the very best people working on the urgent challenges we now face as a planet, rather than figuring out how to improve Facebook’s algorithm or get billionaires into space!

Your website tagline is ‘careers for the eco conscious’. What exactly is ethical recruitment?

For us, it means working with companies who care about people, planet and profit equally. We work across many different industries; challenger brands in food and hospitality, media, events, technology, investment, and biotech across the alternative protein and materials space. With each role we work on, we assess the care and attention given to staff and the environmental impact of their existence. Our approach extends into our working practices, our decision making and our external partners – we support vegan businesses wherever they exist and hire vegan freelancers when required. We work remotely to reduce our carbon footprint and work in vegan restaurants and coffee shops when we do get together – the perfect excuse to sample all the yummy food on offer! In addition, we don’t use bots, spam our database, buy followers or rely heavily on FB, Instagram, etc –  and generally act mindfully, with transparency and are guided by the values published on our website for all to see! 

What makes for a good recruiter?

A good recruiter ought to be able to understand your business, your challenges, future goals and culture. A great recruiter will be widening your criteria, alerting you where there are opportunities in the market and consulting on how best to build your high performing teams, whilst helping you address internal conflicts as they arise.

From a candidate perspective, you really want to feel that you have been listened to and gained some value from time invested in talking to a recruiter. The saying, “if the service is free, then you are the product”, is so true. At Citizen Kind, we respect people’s time and offer feedback, market insight and advice at the end of all of our candidate interviews so regardless of whether or not we are responsible for matching that individual to a role, we help them navigate the job market and make sure their investment of time is returned.

From a company perspective, I truly believe to get the best out of working with a recruiter, investing in the relationship is key and exclusivity on roles makes for better delivery. The more they feel like an extension of your team, the better. And naturally, having one whose values mirror your own company values makes for harmonious hiring!

Every founder I speak to complains about how hard it is to find talent. Why is that? 

Lack of investment in building fresh talent pipelines combined with the effect of the pandemic. Where a nascent industry is growing they have to take talent from somewhere and for alternative protein, sustainability and biotech – they are choosing from industries who were already suffering from a lack of supply.

There is a gaping hole in the talent pool at the moment where 2 years ago everyone put hiring on hold as the pandemic (and uncertainty) struck. This has meant that for approx 12-18 months grads weren’t getting hired so now no one has 1-2 years experience. This forces companies to choose from people with little or no experience or pay more for someone with 3-4 years of experience. If you have 3-4 years of experience, suddenly you have lots to choose from and so salaries are going up. This pushes salaries up for the level above them as well and so the overall cost of hiring in higher now than it was in 2019. You either have to invest time and money in additional training, and resources to deliver it, or pay more in salary than you might previously have budgeted for.

The boom in alternative protein has seen an increase in the demand for candidates where there isn’t a pipeline so as a burgeoning industry they need to look to other similar industries. We already needed more scientists and the demand for those who work in STEM is not going away!

What are some conscious jobs that companies are desperate to fill?

The most urgent need that I see globally right now is for food scientists and anyone with a background in fermentation, fungi or micro-biology.

There is also a significant gap between the demand for sustainability professionals and the number available – we need more people who care about changing the future of the planet to switch into sustainability roles – either through their current company who will pay and support their transition or through self-education. I would love to see governments offer grants to individuals to study/transition their careers; could have been an easy solution for COP leaders to agree to implement but it didn’t even come up at the November conference from what I’ve seen and read.

Can companies legally request for a candidate to be vegan in a job posting?

In 2019, veganism became recognised as an ethical belief in a landmark case where an animal welfare charity had (secretly) invested pensions into an unethically aligned fund, contravening the wishes of their employees. Since then, companies can now request for a candidate to be vegan if it will have a direct bearing upon the role (i.e. it would be impossible for a non-vegan to do it). I would argue this to be the case for many of the Marketing, Brand and Creative roles we work on for vegan companies, where having deep knowledge, personal experience and ethical connection to the material will give huge competitive advantage. 

What are the major barriers standing in the way of better hiring?

The biggest is imagination! Recognising potential is a skill few hiring managers possess and even if they can, persuading others in the business that they should hire based on it, is largely a thankless task. Business owners in general want safe, predictable hires yet taking risks when hiring is one of the ways you can give your company an edge over the competition. Hiring great people is a two-way street and I see many companies viewing roles in their businesses as something the candidates should automatically want, without appreciating that the war for talent is real and raging harder than ever!

Selling the opportunity throughout the process, reducing the number of people involved and keeping to a timeframe are the best ways to be able to win great talent whilst also eliminating bias. Offering a remote, flexible policy around working from home options is appealing to candidates at all levels; data shows that whilst Gen Z are keen to socialise and connect at work again, and Gen X are less inclined; everyone wants the option.

How has the pandemic changed hiring?

The pandemic has created a hole in the workforce that will be felt for years to come, where you have had few, new entrants to the workforce. Those who did get a job will be unfamiliar with a corporate environment, commuting and the rhythms of a working day that the rest of us were used to pre-pandemic. The adjustment to the new working style adopted by companies keen to return to an office-based environment, will inevitably cause a reshuffle of talent and those wanting to keep their top talent, would be wise to consult and include them in the decision-making process.

What is the future of talent? Will tech play a bigger role?

The role of tech is an important one but has its limitations as anyone who has ever used a job board can attest! When it comes to something as important as your career, people value the human touch. As tech evolves, the possibility of bias in hiring can actually increase as highlighted by the various facial recognition blunders from the big tech firms. Ethics have to play a bigger role in shaping the future of tech and I’m not convinced that handing your career (or dating life!) over to Mark Zuckerberg and the Metaverse is going to work out well for anyone!

I believe that having a person managing your career will become an increasingly popular option, in the way that celebrities, models and actors have a talent agent who advises them on their career moves, and this is the model that Citizen Kind is moving towards. We want to champion the candidates we work with in the marketplace and make sure that they find a role which suits both their short term and long term objectives. In addition, I would like businesses to place more value on their staff and invest in them accordingly – both pre and post-hiring. For example, one practice I have seen is companies paying for the work done for a second interview which recognises the competitive landscape whilst acknowledging the additional demands on time for the applicant. I would be much more keen to work for a company who did that, if I were a candidate!

There’s much talk about what’s being dubbed ‘The Great Resignation.’ Why are people quitting en masse?

The relationship between employer and employee got tested during Covid and it’s no surprise to me that people recognised their opportunity and voted with their feet. For too long, companies have been stuck in the mindset that “you are lucky to work here” and haven’t been valuing their staff in meaningful ways. It is not enough to pay people a monthly salary – you need to invest in them. Those that do will win medium-to-long term, and those that don’t are already suffering the consequences, living in fear of platforms like Glassdoor. Hopefully the sudden need to be demonstrably looking after your employees will see attitudes change, however forcibly. I forecast companies with woeful sustainability reputations will up the compensation ante to try and persuade people to join, rather than change fundamentally, but this tactic will fail with Gen Z, for whom social acceptance is a higher priority than material gain. I think this is another fundamental shift we will see in the next decade where companies will need to exist beyond profit making, but also make a positive impact upon society. You can already see it in the efforts by the worst culprits – banking and oil and gas, and their green campaigns and initiatives. Greater balance is what is required between values, fulfilment, learning and achievement and more employee-centred workplaces are the future!

What is the major value-add of a recruiter? Why not just look for jobs from your personal network & friends?

From a candidate perspective, using a (good!) recruiter is a no brainer! It’s free and they can offer you a unique helicopter perspective of the market and how you could fit into it; given your skills and experience, dreams and ambitions. They negotiate your salary and give you support throughout the recruitment process – both guidance and invaluable feedback. No awkwardness with friends required and you can feel sure that you have got all the information you need to make an informed decision, from an unbiased source.

In addition, you will benefit from receiving feedback throughout the interview process and a window into how you compare with others, how well you match their criteria and what they aren’t sure about can help eventually secure you the role. Not to mention, the support and encouragement we give! Women apply for 20% fewer jobs than their male counterparts so by working with a recruiter, candidates can  outsource some of that decision-making to an expert.

How much have DEI concerns impacted recruitment over the past few years? Are companies just virtue signalling or do you believe things are really changing?

I’m pleased to report that younger leaders are prioritising Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in their hiring in a very intentional way so things are definitely changing. The labour market is incredibly tight at the moment and companies are forced to cast wider nets than they usually would. We work with lots of startups in growth stage where the resources for training are limited which has the knock on effect of reducing their ability to hire based on transferable skills, and instead lean more towards “cookie cutter” recruitment tactics. We encourage leaders to hire on skills, competencies, potential and values – the rest can be learned!

In my view, Gen Z is going to completely upend Talent. They want to work for companies with a mission. What do you think?

Gen Z are already starting to change how companies behave. Their insistence upon fair working practices, mental health prioritisation and diversity, equity and inclusion and voting with their feet when it comes to choosing where to focus their careers, has woken some companies, (and in some cases, whole industries!) up to the need for change. They are obsessed with authenticity and can sniff out greenwashing at 20 paces.

Smart businesses will realise that in order to continue to grow their companies, they will need to identify their values and lead with them, not only in their hiring campaigns but in their culture, their systems, their policies and in their branding. They will need to live and breathe them in everything they do and use them as a foundation their employees can look to, to anticipate their future needs and to create a positive environment where innovation and creativity can thrive.

I have spoken publicly a few times about the fact that bigger companies need to instate Chief Sustainability Officers that are directly accountable to the CEO – sustainability should not be siloed.  Do you agree? 

I totally agree. If something is strategically critical to business performance, then it deserves to be given a place on the board. Companies who adopt this approach now, will be the ones who win the war for talent in the long term. Sustainability needs to be adopted into the framework of measuring success from every department; which is impossible to achieve without board-level engagement and approval.

What should HR folks be focused on over the next 12-18 months?

If I were in HR, I would be looking to work with mission-aligned partners who can help support my company’s hiring efforts and build pipelines of talent for current and future needs. 

I would be finding out about how other companies are approaching the return to office working and assessing the impact of more change on my team’s mental health and physical well being, and looking to come up with a compromise that will suit all needs.

I would definitely be planning corporate get-togethers to bring people together in a physical space to forge those bonds and connection beyond the screens we have all got so used to. I would be looking to see how to integrate the brand values into the corporate day-to-day running of the business and working with senior execs to help me implement those changes. I would be creating initiatives such as Vegan Leaders, which brings together vegans in Fortune 500 companies and help make workplaces more compassionate and inclusive.

What’s next for Citizen Kind? What’s your 10 year plan?

It’s an exciting time for us as we are now turning our heads stateside and will be launching our physical presence in NYC in the summer. We are going to be working closer with candidates to help them work out the best next step for them, rather than the obvious one. With more senior level, commercial opportunities opening up, it’s a great time for people to be able to take advantage of the appetite for hiring mission-aligned talent. We want to be THE recruitment partner of choice for anyone working in the alternative protein, sustainability and ethical tech fields.

Our pandemic pivot saw us add management consultancy, sales and marketing strategy, sales training and executive coaching to our client offering and I’m sure these will continue to be in demand given the need for organisations to adapt quickly to an ever-changing landscape. In 10 years time, we will have a physical presence across APAC, North and South America, and Europe with a team of mission-driven experts supporting our value-aligned clients in creating a better world for us all. Anyone wanting to create a life legacy to be proud of can get in touch to discover the wealth of opportunities that are open to them, receive personal coaching and career advice and be supported in making the move.


Lead image courtesy Emma Osborne.

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