Through a recruiter, I interviewed for a company 3 months ago. I followed up, and was told they would know more the following week. I never heard from the recruiter again, regarding this position. Last week, I was approached directly by the company, who said they were no longer working with the recruiter, and wanted to hire me directly. What is the ethical thing to do here? I do want to take the job.
Follow the company's procedure. If something blows up, that's between them and the recruiter. You don't owe anything to the recruiter - he either dumped you or he put you on ice three months ago. You haven't heard from him in three months, so take a hint: you don't owe him anything.
The company told you that they are no longer working with the recruiter. Do you want to take them at their word, or do you have your own intelligence gathering capability on their relationship with the recruiter?
As I said, take them at their word and work with them. If anything blows up,it will blow up in their face not yours - Not that I expect anything untoward to happen based on the data you provided in your post.
Caveat: Someone earlier commented that "Prior to being submitted to companies with any recruiter most reputable companies will have you sign a document that is an agreement to be represented by the contracting company. Part of that agreement is a provision that you agree not to solicit the company directly or accept offers of work directly for a period of time (usually 6 to 12 months) after termination of the business agreement. You do not know if this is in effect, your answer is dangerous. Even if it is not in effect there are protections for contracting companies, most of which disadvantage the worker."
Personally, I have yet to even see let alone sign such a contract, and I have had recruiters calling me for about 15 years. However, if you have signed such a contract - and you remember on your own that you signed it, then you need to go over that contract and look for the time at which you are no longer bound in any way by the terms of this contract. You are liable for anything you sign. Also rake your brain for anything that implies an implied agreement between you and the recruiter. Most recruiters (and yes, some forget) do tell me that I can't contact a prospective employer that they introduced me to on my own - I can live with that as a matter of elementary fairness to the person I am doing business with.
@annabel, you have asked about the ethical concerns at play here. Long time readers of the workplace will know i love the ethics tag, and about asking ethics-based questions in general.
You also mention you want the job, but that isn't the point here.
@Vietnhi's answer is the kind of cynical, world weary response that gets you the job, and possibly a hiring bonus. As an ethical person, this is tangential to the issue at stake.
@Diego's answer is much closer to the mark. You should phone the recruiter, and also possibly the police - a crime might have been committed. Note that recruiter's typically view human beings as commodities. So don't expect to be well treated by the recruiter, unless the recruiter has a different job for you. Given it is three months, they probably don't.
The curious thing about ethics is that it has moved away from modernist (ie objective) thinking. Modernist thinking is, paradoxically, the kind of thinking we normally associate with "ethics". Rorty & Baumann argue that objectivism is disastrous, and that it lead to a lot of problems in the first half of the 1900's. "Post-modernism" is a term thrown around a lot, and hard to capture, but think of the ethical philosophy of Tyrion in GoT and you're on the right track.
You might want to brush up on your Kant. By his universiality principle, if everybody were to start going behind external recruiter's backs in hiring people, there would be no more external recruiters - a result I feel most people would be happy with. However, that is a bit utilitarian, so we would also be running with Mill's idea that the majority make the rules, and a small amount of happiness by the majority outweighs extreme levels of unhappiness in the minority (represented by external recruiters). There are very real problems with this line of thought.
Hume argued that morality is really a form of expression. So should someone say (as @Diego does) that you ought to tell the recruiter, what that person is really saying is that they subjectively feel you should do that, and that they will disapprove of any actions to the contrary. You must, then, look inside yourself to work out how much you want the approval of @Diego. Ayer takes it on step further, arguing that @Diego is just expressing feelings. In this view, @Diego could have equally (and more concisely) simply written "recruiters YAY".
Perhaps you might find comfort in Sartre's existentialism. We are largely free to make our own decisions - but must live with the consequences of them. This is typically a bit cold, and runs close to (but not with) Hobbes' tres depressing arguments around the social contract.
Nietzsche's attack on morality might swat away your concerns. Effectively, he suggests that while there is a lot of work building a foundation for morality, the question "does morality exist?" remains unexplored. Think of it as we might well spend our days proving the existence of the spaghetti monster, but does the spaghetti monster exist?
Foucalt goes further, and along with other post-marxists argues that the the powerful have created a viewpoint for examining the world, and a language around it - that utterly supports their own position, at the detriment of yours. Anyone who even challenges the notions that the system is based on is immediately decried as mad, because the entrenchment of the system into our lives is so complete. This has been achieved, they argue, by the supplication of religion, schools, the media and so on. As a example of how successful thos has been, if you live in a capitalist society, what were your immediate feelings towards the "post marxist" term above, and does all the above just sound like "hippy nonsense" to you?
Nussbaum suggests that men, and a male focus on systems, is what created the idea of "ethics" at all. That it is an utterly male invention, with no real use outside of being an interesting logic-puzzle.
Going forward on this, you might be interested in S.H.E, which is sane, humane and ecological. The rough argument here is that women might provide a more balanced viewpoint to the almost starkly black &white viewpoints typically thrown around by men.
In the end, discussion is all rather Socratic. While Socrates might well postulate that continuous questioning is the finest way to gather knowledge, can ethics be gathered by questions and discussions? Is ethics just the feeling you get when you "did something right or wrong", no different from fullness after a meal, or happiness when reading a pleasing book?
As a final note, I leave you with Protagoras, who said
Man is the measure of all things
Excusing the rather gender-specific terminology, the answer then was always with you, and it is for you to decide the "goodness" of it. I would myself take @Vietnhi's position, were I you (I must note I am not you).
If you must dwell on something, I suggest it be why you needed help in determining your own moral compass, whether a moral compass made up of other's viewpoints is truly your own, and should you care about a moral compass that isn't yours?
Note that I am not a proper philosopher in any intellectual of the word, and that at the moment of writing this I am both figuratively and literally an armchair philosopher. Do not take these musings as a workable summary of more than 2,000 years of truly excellent thought by supremely exceptional people.
Edit: I had missed a crucial point: The recruiter didn't follow through.
In such circumstances, my hunch is that the recruiter has forfeit his rights on the contract, effectively leaving you free of any moral obligations towards him.
Original answer, assuming the recruiter did follow through:
Contact the recruiter and tell him, that would be the ethical thing to do.
There are three parties involved here: You, your recruiter and the Company. If the three of you agreed to do business together ( as you implicitly did when you interviewed with the company through the recruiter ), then you are all morally binded together. The ensemble didn't work out as expected, you didn't get the job offer and the recruiter walked out.
Suddenly, three months later, one of the parties wants to start the very same businnes with one of the others, excluding the third one.
At this point you have two options:
- Play along, ignoring the third party, and end your business with the only party you need at this time. The most probable outcome of this scenario is that you get your work, the company "saves" on finder's fee and the recruiter is cheated out of his rightfull share of the bussines.
- Contact the recruiter and tell him. There are several plausible outcomes:
- They are telling the truth, the recruiter is happy with this and you get your job (we don't know their agreement, it may come out that they pay him in advance regardless of the result).
- They no longer work with that recruiter, but still owe him a finder's fee. In this case you have uncovered a wrongdoing.
- They no longer work with that recruiter, and after three months they are not contractually forced to pay him. Morally they still owe him his share, as he did the job he was hired for. This is a bit gray area, I tend to think that even if the letter of the contract was honored, the meaning was not and this is a form of cheating.
- They are still working with him, and they are lying to both you and him.
In the end, whether if they are telling the truth of lying, your only morally acceptable option here is calling the recruiter to tell him what is happening and involving him again in the three party business. Remember, you agreed to do business with BOTH of them, you must honour that commitment.
As this is a question about ethics I shouldn't mention it, but I think is clear that you would probably loose the job. I know what I would do, and I also know that if I was the recruiter that received that phone call I would make my top priority to find you a good job.
P.S.: You should also consider the possibility that this is some sort of test. I've never heard of something like this but you never know.