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. …