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Handling Questions of Ethics From Job Candidates

July 1, 1998
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Christopher Norman, sitting before you in your office, seems to be a nice young man. His resume indicates he’s well qualified for the open position in your company and he answered your questions succinctly and with confidence. This is the last of a series of interviews and his references have checked out. You’re about to offer him the job, but before you do, you ask him the standard question you always pose to applicants.

"Chris, I know we’ve tried to answer all your questions about this position and our company. Are there others that have occurred to you throughout the interviewing process that you’d like to ask now?"

In your ten years of interviewing candidates for the company, not one prospective new hire has surprised you with an additional question. Christopher is no different. He accepts your offer and agrees to start in two weeks. That night, however, Christopher surprises his parents by his ambivalent attitude about accepting the new job.

"Dad, I know it’s a good offer, but I feel I missed a chance in the interview to ask the human resources manager some questions that were on my mind. I wasn’t sure if they were appropriate questions to ask, so I didn’t. But I sure wish I knew the answers before I begin work."

"Well, why don’t you ask me, son," his father replied. "Maybe I can be a sounding board about whether you should ask some more questions before you start there."

Ethics statements: guidelines or gospel?
"Okay, Dad. They gave me the company’s ‘Code of Conduct’ book to look at, but it doesn’t tell me if employees can be or have been fired for ethical violations. It’s not clear to me if employees are disciplined for making a wrong decision. For example, are there penalties, who imposes them and do violators get a second chance? My fraternity brother Dave started work at a big company last year and, because he used a discount coupon that one of the software vendors dropped off at the company, he was fired. He just didn’t ask anyone and went out and bought some software for himself with it. He honestly didn’t know he was doing anything wrong."

Chris’s father agreed that this was a ticklish matter. "Any other questions?"

"Well, I don’t know if the company is serious about some of the things it mentions in its Values Creed. I’m not sure I want to work for a company that has a double standard—one for the executives at the top and one for people at the bottom. My friend Susan is working for a major consumer products company. The company has a rule that says you can’t accept gifts from suppliers, customers or anyone—not even little gifts. But she works in marketing and sees that the company pays for senior executives from its vendors and customers to attend big golf tournaments. The company also sends out thousands of gifts at Christmas to everyone it does business with. That seems like a double standard to her, and to me, too."

Does culture support values?
"But that’s not the only thing," Christopher said, continuing. "We had a couple of graduates from our business school come back and talk to us about things they didn’t know before they accepted jobs but wanted to warn us about. One was the ‘hidden culture’ or unspoken rules at a company. These aren’t apparent to new hires, but they really influence the values and behavior of the place."

"Like what, son?"

"Like a culture of silence, for example. Everyone sees what’s going on but no one says anything. Or tolerating a vindictive boss because he or she has the power and the resources to make or break you. Or the fact that a company will make all kinds of promises when it hires you, but you won’t get promoted unless you have a degree in a certain subject or have attended the boss’s alma mater. How do you find these things out before you take the job and end up wasting a lot of time there?

"One of my friends who worked last summer in retailing gave me another ex-ample. Her boss asked her to go to a competitor’s store and write down what they were selling and at what price. My friend felt uncomfortable about it, but she didn’t know whether this was an accepted part of aggressive retailing or if this was unethical. She didn’t have anyone to ask. Nowhere in the company’s code of conduct does it mention what kind of action is appropriate to question and what isn’t.

"We learned in business ethics class that after Northrop got in trouble with the defense department for falsifying test results, its new ethics’ code specifically told employees they had a responsibility to challenge anything they questioned. And it was okay to challenge it over their boss’s heads. I don’t see anything like that in this code."

"I think that’s important, son. Any-thing else?"

Does ethical behavior outweigh results?
"Well, the HR manager told me we’d all have performance goals that we set with our manager, as well as quarterly appraisals. I understand that. But what I don’t know is how aggressively the company expects employees to act to achieve those goals. Will I get full credit if I try my best to meet the goals or are they really set in stone? I know companies have faced big ethical scandals because their sales representatives lied to customers to make a sale and get the commission, and other companies have bribed suppliers or stretched accounting rules to make their numbers. I don’t intend to do any of that, and if that’s the way people have to act to make their goals in the company, I’m not sure I even want to work there."

"Chris," his father said, "I think you have raised enough good questions that you should call the HR manager and make one more appointment before you start working there. If she thinks these are inappropriate questions, then I agree with you—you don’t want to work there."

What should HR do?
Christopher Norman will make an appointment to get his questions answered, but he’s an unusually thoughtful young man. Not all applicants will take the initiative, and in a time when the competition for outstanding candidates is fierce, human resources representatives may need to double their efforts and anticipate such questions.

While some might argue it’s the applicant’s duty, if not responsibility, to raise questions, it’s more likely that HR managers, experienced at interviewing techniques, will be comfortable addressing ethical concerns. We feel that HR should be proactive about encouraging applicants to think about ethics. For ex-ample, the interviewer might speak to the candidate along these lines:

"Chris, one area that I haven’t heard you raise any questions about is the subject of our company values and practices. I know you have our Code of Conduct book, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to emphasize how important our ethical culture is at this company. It’s something we’re all very proud of and we’ve worked hard to make sure that no employee has a single doubt, question or concern about the way we do business.

"You may not have any questions now, but I can guarantee you will have some in the future when a situation arises on the job or you hear about a problem at another company. Our ethics office is prepared to answer any kind of question and to help you sort out any situation you may be facing. In my experience, most employees do have questions and they’ve found that the ethics office is very responsive about getting back to them if their own supervisor can’t address the issue or isn’t available.

"Meanwhile, as you’re considering our offer, if you have any questions about how we treat employees, or how we meet our goals or anything at all, please feel free to call me. It’s a subject I’m happy to discuss at any time."

Workforce, July 1998, Vol. 77, No. 7, pp. 85-86.

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