Interviewing for Values ; Ending Up with a Job at an Unethical Firm Is No Fun. but the Risk Can Be Minimized by Giving Your Next Potential Boss an 'Ethics Audit.'

By Laurent Belsie writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

Interviewing for Values ; Ending Up with a Job at an Unethical Firm Is No Fun. but the Risk Can Be Minimized by Giving Your Next Potential Boss an 'Ethics Audit.'


Laurent Belsie writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Not long ago, consultant Frank Navran worked with a company that hung key words of its ethics code on banners inside its lobby. It was an impressive sight. So he asked one employee about the company's values.

"The what?" came the reply.

"What do the company's values stand for?" he asked again.

"Oh, you mean the banners. That's just for show," the employee assured him.

It's often hard these days to separate the trappings from the truth of corporate behavior. But in a period of expanding business scandal, that knack has become suddenly important - especially for the job seeker. Is there a way to avoid getting hired by the next Enron?

In most cases, yes, ethics experts say. Job applicants today not only can run prospective employers through an ethics audit, they should.

"You really have an obligation to do that," says Mr. Navran, principal consultant of the Ethics Resource Center, a nonprofit education and research organization in Washington, D.C. The last thing new employees should do is invest years in firms they don't believe in, he adds.

"With the Internet, there's just no excuse for not doing your homework," adds Vivian Weil, director of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. "The main point is to be on the alert - to realize you're interviewing the company as well as they're interviewing you."

Like any research project, an ethics audit begins with data. The wannabe employee should dig into at least three areas, ethics experts agree: a company's social responsibility record, its financial practices, and, especially, its culture. The place to start is online.

Any Web search engine will quickly reveal ethics challenges facing a major company. Activist groups are eager to highlight the best and worst corporate actors in their particular arena. Of course, people campaigning against cruelty to animals may have lots to say about a cosmetics concern but not even mention the firm you're interested in. So check with major social-responsibility investing groups for a broader look.

And don't forget the business press. Does the company show up on Fortune or Working Mother magazine's list of 100 best companies to work for? Did Business Ethics Magazine include it in its list of the "100 Best Corporate Citizens?"

Even if a potential employer doesn't make such lists, it's often not enough to write the company off.

"You have to realize that everyone has their point of view," says Mike Lawrence, executive vice president of Cone Inc., a Boston- based firm involved in cause-branding issues. "So a good company may end up on a bad list. A bad company may end up on a good list."

In fact, the most telling point may not be the company's particular ethical difficulty. "I don't think employees should look for companies that are completely unblemished - that's harder and harder to find," says David Eichberg, senior manager with Business for Social Responsibility, a business membership organization based in San Francisco. "If that company is called out on a particular issue, they should be looking at how the company is addressing that issue."

In several instances, ethics experts say, public disasters have forced companies to make far-reaching reforms.

At some point, however, it's time to quit reading and talk to people. And one of the fruitful encounters you can have is the face- to-face interview.

"An interview is a mutual process," says Mr. Navran of the Ethics Resource Center. So don't feel intimidated in asking lots of questions, such as: "What does this firm believe in? How does this firm's mission serve society? What are the priorities?"

"What you're trying to get at is the ethical attitudes of the people at the top," explains Rushworth Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics, a nonprofit organization promoting ethics, based in Camden, Maine.

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