Jobseekers Guide on How to Assess a Firm's Ethics

Whether seeking a career in public accounting, private industry or as a securities analyst, many job-seekers say the recent wave of accounting scandals has convinced them it's more important than ever to get a reading on the ethics of the hiring company or firm.

The search for answers has led job seekers to Internet message boards and other seemingly promising sources of information. But many still find it's just about impossible to uncover an employer's weak spots in advance. And the stakes have never been higher. Working for an unethical employer (or a business with a damaged reputation) can endanger your tenure, retirement savings and self-esteem. It can also impede your future job prospects by leaving a black mark on your resume.

Experts suggest that most companies and firms know enough to pay lip service to ethics. But implementation can be uneven, with the result that some individuals or offices may not effectively integrate the purported values into performance appraisals and compensation plans.

Questions For Employers

Pennsylvania State University's Linda Trevino suggested to the Wall Street Journal that job-seekers perform their own "ethics audit." Here are the probing questions she suggests a job-seeker might ask about a prospective employer:

  • Is there a formal code of ethics? How widely is it distributed? Is it reinforced in other formal ways such as through decision-making systems?
  • Are workers at all levels trained in ethical decision making? Are they also encouraged to take responsibility for their behavior or to question authority when asked to do something they consider wrong?
  • Do employees have formal channels available to make their concerns known confidentially? Is there a formal committee high in the organization that considers ethical issues?
  • Is misconduct disciplined swiftly and justly within the organization?
  • Is integrity emphasized to new employees?
  • How are senior managers perceived by subordinates in terms of their integrity? How do such leaders model ethics-related behavior?

Questions for Employees

Additional questions to ask of current or former employees from the Ethics Resource Center in Washington DC and the Ombudsman Association in Hillsborough, NJ:

  • When was the last time you received ethics training?
  • Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma on the job and who did you call?
  • Which executives at the company do employees admire most and why?
  • Do you have an ombuds program or other informal channels to discuss ethics issues?
  • Is there any reward system at the company for pointing out unethical behavior?
  • Can you characterize the company in terms of integrity and provide some examples?
  • Do you feel that senior management is held to a different ethical standard than other employees?
  • How are employees treated at the company?
  • Does the company place unreasonable expectations on employees?
  • What was your feeling about the company when you left?

(Sources for article: "Job Seekers Find it Isn't Easy to Research Employers' Ethics," Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2002 and "Gauge the Ethics Culture of Prospective Employers," Career Journal, WSJ.com.)

-Rosemary Schlank

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