Sarah Cabral is a senior scholar for business ethics with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.
Is it possible to test for ethical behavior during the interview process? This question produced a lively conversation when recently posed to the Leadership and Business Ethics Advisory Council of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
There are many reasons to be cynical regarding both the legality and effectiveness of any kind of ethics test. The legality of a test for ethical behavior is likely to be challenged, because if the test has a disparate impact on certain groups of people, then it will not hold up. If questions related to ethical behavior are posed to previous employers, they may be understandably dodged. Labor laws in some states allow employees to sue their former employers if they provide false or unsolicited information to prospective employers that prevent them from being hired.
Questions about how an applicant ethically managed herself could potentially be avoided out of a desire to stick to obviously true or false statements (Looking at What’s Behind Unethical Behavior). Anecdotally, it was noted in the council meeting that sometimes those who talk about integrity or ethics the most during an interview can end up being one of the worst actors in a company.
However, there was general agreement that simply asking questions related to ethics in the interview process will indicate who is willing to engage in conversations about ethics and who is overly confident. Of course, everyone is likely to respond affirmatively to the direct question, “Are you ethical?” Therefore, questions must be open ended. The following prompt will require an applicant to reference personal experience:
“Give me an example of a time you faced an ethical dilemma and describe how you handled it.”
If the interviewee says that she has never faced an ethical dilemma, then that is concerning for it indicates a blindness to the reality that moral judgements are unavoidable. According to Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center, by asking how the applicant handled the situation, the interviewer can learn if she took action and what corporate resources she utilized in addressing the issue.
Asking questions related to ethics also signals to the prospective employee that ethics are important to the company. Conversely, interviewers can attempt to uncover whether or not ethics are important to the applicant by asking:
“What do you think about our core values?” and “How do our core values compare with those of your previous company?”
The answer will indicate whether the applicant researched this information prior to the interview. The response will also tell the interviewer if and how the interviewee was engaged with the core values of her previous company, if they even made an impression.
Additional strategies that can be used to determine the ethical behavior of an applicant involve using LinkedIn to find mutual connections in order to get an “off-the-record” perspective and building ethical questions into case studies used during the interview process.
The risk that unethical employees pose to a corporation justify the inclusion of a few good questions related to ethics in the interview process.