Got a problem employee? Need a way to get rid of him that is smooth, fast, cheap, and virtually pain free? Here is an idea: Call up your executive headhunter and offer him a new head.

Apparently, a lot of companies are doing just that with their problem employees -- or so says David Abrams of Gray Systems Group, an executive search firm in Boston. "Many times, clients find that the quickest and most painless [solution to a bad hire is] to ask us to give the individual a call." According to Abrams, Gray Systems can often place the employee in another of its client companies -- provided, of course, that the person is qualified for the job. "I can't recommend anyone who is in any way incompetent," he says.

Granted, all this involves some subterfuge. Abrams admits that, when he calls the employee, he often claims to have been referred by a "friend who knows your situation." The employee is usually so grateful, says Abrams, that he doesn't even ask who the friend might be.

Abrams also accents the positive in presenting the candidate to the new company. "We might say his firm is expanding a bit more rapidly than he would be comfortable with, or that he's got a sound track record but just made a mistake in entering his present situation." Most companies seem to buy this explanation, he says, as witnessed by the fact that he places "at least a third" of his charges "You've got to understand -- everybody has made a bad hire at one time or another," Abrams says." In dynamic, high-tech fields, where many people have five jobs in five years, companies are usually pretty sophisticated about these things."

In the end, moreover, everybody benefits, according to Abrams. The old employer solves a personnel problem, the new employer solves a hiring problem, and the employee solves a career problem. Indeed, Abrams says that, to date, every person he has placed in this manner has been successful on the new job.

If the bill were sent to the old employer, this would be an everyday outplacement service. Instead, it is. . . well, what is it? "I don't know," Abrams muses "It's just a service that clients request from time to time, and therefore, as part of servicing the company, we do it."

Others in the recruitment business, however, have no trouble finding something to call it. "Unsavory" is one description, along with "unprofessional and "unethical." "I have never heard of such a thing," says Bill Gould, managing director of Gould & McCoy Inc. in New York City, and executive vice-president of, and spokesman for, the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC). "It just wouldn't fly with anyone in our association. It's not honest business.

The problem, according to critics, is that the practice involves an undisclosed conflict of interest. After all, for whom is the recruiter really working? The old firm? The employee? Or the company that is paying the bill? Indeed, the Code of Ethics of the AESC (to which Abrams does not belong) explicitly forbids its members from recruiting within a client company for two years following completion of a search assignment, "unless the [search] firm and the client agree in writing to an exception." By the same token, critics say that the new company should know exactly how the headhunter came in contact with the employee.

But "even if the [headhunter] does fully explain things, there are going to lie lots of questions raised," says Jim Kennedy, publisher of Executive Recruiter News, an industry newsletter. "His clients are going to start wondering if he's going to raid them, too. He's switched his loyalties, you see He started representing both companies and individuals, and I don't think you can work both sides of the street and stay ethical."

Abrams dismisses the criticisms. It is absurd, he says, to suggest that he is "raiding" the original employer. Without the latter's cooperation, "how would I get the guy's name, his department, and his home phone number?" He also insists that the practice is far more common than his critics admit. He himself has been approached "a dozen or two dozen times" in the past three years. "In fact, it just happened again last week, so I know I can't be the only one doing this. There has to be a demand for this service."

As for the matter of ethics, he says that it is all in the eye of the beholder. "I believe the highest ethic is servicing your client as best you can."