Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Assessing for Ethics


by Anne Federwisch

Hiring employees who mesh with the ethical climate of an organization can be done efficiently and effectively by carefully honing the interviewing process, said Dan Prachar in a presentation to the Business and Organization Ethics Partnership.

Pracher, business development manager for Development Dimensions International, an international human resources firm, argued that an employee's ethics are largely "hard-wired stuff." The organization's culture can have an effect on an individual employee's ethics, he allowed, but it's important to carefully select people who will represent the company honorably.

Ask the right questions

The key to that selection is to ask potential employees questions about ethics that elicit descriptions of specific instances in which the candidate made value-based judgments, Pracher advised. "If you ask people behavior-based questions to have them give you constructs about how they go about making decisions, you will learn a whole lot." said Prachar. ? "The problem is, most companies simply don't ask."

Yet one of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior, he said. "My thoughts can predict my actions, my behaviors. So if you can get me to explain my thinking patterns, my beliefs, the value set that I'm coming from, you'll understand how I might behave."

Although past unethical behavior can be a predictor, Prachar stressed that people can and often do learn from their mistakes. In fact, he often asks applicants, "We've all done things that we have later regretted. Give me an example that falls into this category for you. How would have handled it differently?"

The technique he advocated to elicit behavior-based responses uses the STAR format, which requires respondents to answer questions by

  • describing specific Situations or Tasks

  • elaborating on their Actions in that situation and

  • explaining what the Results were


For example, to find out if applicants are customer-focused, a prospective employer might ask them to tell about a time a customer made an unreasonable request and what they did about it. "Don't settle for a general answer like, 'I'd do whatever it takes,'" Prachar advised.? "Push for a specific example that illustrates that point."

For instance, a good response might be, "I had a customer who had something break down and they said they needed the part immediately or business would suffer. But I didn't have the part [Situation or Task]. However, I knew that another customer across town had a spare part, so I got permission to borrow it, drove over there, and delivered it to the first customer [Action]. We kept a valued customer and minimized disruption to their business [Result].?

Other effective questions Prachar suggested using to assess for ethics include:

  • We are often confronted with the dilemma of having to choose between what is right and what is best for the company. Tell me about two examples where you faced this dilemma and how you handled it.

  • There are two philosophies about regulations and policies. One is that they are followed to the letter; the other is that they are just guidelines. What is your opinion?

  • How would you describe the ethics of your company? Which parts do you feel comfortable and uncomfortable about? Why?

  • Give me an example of an ethical decision you had to make on the job and what factors you considered in reaching this decision.

For sales candidates, Prachar recommended the following:

  • Sometimes our products are very close to, but not exactly what our customers are asking for. Tell me about a time when you were trying to make a sale and were in this situation.

  • Tell me about a time when you had to go against company procedure in order to get something done.

Launching into in-depth discussions with a jobseeker about his ethical constructs should only come after rapport has been established, Prachar emphasized, and requires frequent follow-up questions and comments from the interviewer. For example, use empathy statements to encourage people to talk. Empathy does not mean agreement, he said. 'I might say, '?I would have been frustrated, too.' I'm not saying, 'I'd act the way you acted,' but I'm demonstrating empathy, which is encouraging them to elaborate on their mindset and their actions.

Likewise, it's also important to maintain a candidate's self-esteem after confessions with a statement such as, "We've all dropped the ball in the past." "Remember," Prachar said, "You're not accusing. You're not assessing guilt. You're merely trying to objectively assess how this individual will fit in with your organization."

Gather Multiple Data Points

Finding an accurate fit requires asking for several examples. "You want to get multiple examples of behavior and follow up with probing questions to understand the thinking behind the behaviors," he said. "Anyone can come up with one good example of how they did the right thing. When you ask for two or three, what you begin to see is their consistency. Is their idea of what's good really good? I've seen great Answer 1's, questionable Answer 2's, and then really lousy Answer 3's.?

Prachar also suggested having multiple people question the person in separate interviews. Then all the interviewers should gather to reach a consensus on hiring by objectively comparing the results from their interviews, references, job simulations, resumes, etc. The extent of the interviews should be scaled to the level of the job-the more senior the position, the more in-depth the investigation.

In these conferences, Prachar noted, it is not enough to say, "I really think this person would fit in." The interviewer needs to back up that hunch with examples of specific responses the applicant gave, actions he or she took, and results that indicate a good fit with the company. "The more data you have, the far richer the decision you're going to make," he said.

Although assessing for ethics with this approach may take more time, planning, and effort than a typical interview, the results will be well worth it, Prachar said: "You're about to put someone on the payroll representing your organization. Their ethical lapses become your company's ethical lapses. Doesn't it behoove your organization to take a little more time, a little more effort to dig down a little deeper?"

Slides From This Presentation

Anne Federwisch is a freelance writer.

June 2006