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
"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
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
In most cases, yes, ethics experts say. Job applicants today not
only can run prospective employers through an ethics audit, they
"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
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-
"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. "You can learn a lot by going into a
company and asking - 'Do you have a code of ethics?' - and watching
carefully the response and body language that you get."
Although most major corporations have a code of ethics, the
importance of such codes varies wildly. If the interviewer
hesitates, goes rummaging around to try to find a copy of the code,
that's a good indication that the company doesn't place the code at
the core of its culture, Mr. Kidder says. On the other hand, if the
interviewer pulls out a dog-eared copy close at hand, that's
probably a good sign, he adds.
In a 2000 survey, the Ethics Resource Center found that 92
percent of employees of large corporations felt loyalty to their
company if it had a complete ethics program in place. That's
substantially higher than the 73 percent who felt the same way
towards companies that had only a set of ethics standards.
While employees should feel free to ask lots of questions, they
should do so tactfully, warns Keith Greene, director of
organizational programs at the Society for Human Resource
Management, which represents human resources professionals.
"Are you ethical?" won't elicit a useful response, he says. But
an employee who begins by saying something along the lines of "I'm
really concerned that the organization I work for fits with my
ethical perceptions" can introduce a string of key questions. What
is the composition of the board of directors? How are these
"As a prospective employer, if I'm asked that question, I'm going
to say to myself: 'Here's an individual who wants to make a truly
educated decision," says Mr. Greene of the Alexandria, Va.,
Don't just rely on the interview. Try to pick up the feel of the
place. What are the employees talking about in the cafeteria? How
organized or informal does the workplace look? "You want to nose
around," says Peter D. Kinder, president of KLD Research &
Analytics, the Boston consulting firm that created the social-
responsibility Domini index. "If there's a convenience store next
door, ask the convenience store owner what he thinks of the people
who work at the company."
Get candid assessments from current workers by hanging around the
parking lot at closing time, Greene suggests. And don't overlook
Internet news groups, where you can troll for current and former
These steps will go a long way toward avoiding working for a
company that will embarrass you - or lay you off because of scandal -
down the road. But they can't eliminate all the risk. Companies such
as Enron fooled even social responsibility investment experts.
"If you're talking about something like an Enron situation or a
WorldCom situation, there's really very little a potential employee
can do" to spot trouble, says John Warren, associate general counsel
of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, a professional
membership organization based in Austin, Texas. But "from talking to
people in the industry, you can get a sense of the corporate
And that might be enough to send up a red flag. In the end, "you
have to go with your gut," says Mr. Kinder of KLD, "and never go
against your gut."
Websites help put boss under an ethics microscope
Before a face-to-face interview with a prospective employer, use
the Internet to conduct an ethics audit of the company. Any good
search engine will find big controversies the company has stumbled
into. Then use these sites to dig deeper:
* Business Ethics Magazine (www.business-ethics.com) lists the
100 Best Corporate Citizens for 2002.
* Business for Social Responsibility (www.bsr.org/Meta/
MemberList.cfm) lists many of its members. If your prospective
employer is on the list, it means the company is at least interested
in exploring ethical issues.
* Calvert Group (www.calvert.com) posts a social index, which
profiles companies that have passed its criteria and produce safe,
beneficial products with integrity and attention to employees and
* Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions (www.iit.edu/
departments/csep) contains hundreds of codes of ethics online. Click
on "Codes of Ethics Online" to see if your company is listed.
* Domini 400 Social Index (www.domini.com/dsi400) lists companies
that uphold certain social-responsibility standards, including
commitment to the environment, employee diversity, charity, and
human rights. Of course, no list is perfect. The venerable Domini
400 included Enron at one point.
* Fortune magazine (www.fortune.com/lists/bestcompanies) ranks
every year the 100 best companies to work for.
* Working Mother magazine (www.workingwoman.com) ranks the best
100 companies for women who balance career and children. (c)
Copyright 2002. The Christian Science Monitor