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How to Tell if a Candidate is Ethical

Posted by Michael D. Haberman

candidate ethics

Almost all of us have had to make a decision at some point that challenges our morals. Whether it’s personal ethics, work ethics, or some other level – everyone has been faced with making a choice about what is the “right” thing or the “moral” thing to do. And many people realize that some choices they’ve made may have compromised their ethics or morals. It comes down to what level their ethical meter is set.

The Problem

Because people have different perspectives when it comes to ethics, the big question for companies that are hiring is not whether a person has ethics, but rather whether his or her level of ethics matches the level expected at the company. The old saying about “honor among thieves” indicates that even thieves have some level of expected ethics in their interactions. The problem becomes how to determine whether the person you’re considering hiring has the level of ethics you desire to maintain in your company.

There are a lot of online honesty tests available for the hiring market, geared to both lower-level and upper-level positions. Obviously, there are costs associated with these tests. Perhaps if you’re in a business in which either the nature of the work or the nature of the talent pool makes ethical or honesty violations particularly risky, you may want to consider using such tools.

The Interview

Most companies are not interested in using honesty tests in their hiring process. They want to rely on interview questions to help make the determination of which candidates have the ethics desired at their place of business. Unfortunately, traditional questions about ethics and honesty allow candidates to tell you what they would do in an imaginary situation, and they can make up an answer that has no basis in truth. A question such as “Would you be willing to miss a deadline if it meant compromising quality?” could be answered by the candidate based on what they perceive the interviewer wants to hear. They don’t require a truthful answer, and someone with a lower bar for ethical behavior is even more likely to lie convincingly. Luckily, there is a better alternative.

Behavioral Interviewing

Behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. This is especially true for behaviors such as honesty or acting ethically, since most people do not change these kinds of behaviors based on a whim. Naturally, there are always exceptions, but I think it is better to hedge your bets by focusing on the rule as opposed to the exceptions.

Questioning Ethics

There are many behavioral questions that can get at the existence or evidence of ethical behavior. The questions must depend on the job for which the person is being interviewed. You can start with something like, “Give me an example of a time when you have been late to work. Why were you late and what did you do about it?” It is unlikely that anyone is going to say, “I have never been late.” That is unrealistic and probably indicates that the person is lying to you. But if the response was more like, “I occasionally have to be late because of the distance I commute. I try to leave in plenty of time, but you never know about the traffic. If I see that I am going to be late, I quickly call in and give them a heads-up on my situation and give them my best estimate for when I will be there.” That answer rings true, and additionally tells you that the person is conscientious. If you would like a bit more detail, then you can explore the issue further. If they live their life always being late, then that gives you more information. Their behavior is neither good or bad, it is just a question of whether it matches with your requirements on what is acceptable or not.

Three Revealing Questions

Here are three questions I would suggest that you ask any candidate, to get the information you need to make a decision on whether someone has the level of ethics you require.

  1. Can you describe for me a time when you saw, or learned of, someone engaging in unethical behavior, such as theft or harassment? What was that behavior and how did you react to it?
  2. Can you describe a time when you felt it was necessary to cut some corners on the quality of a job because of some pressure, such as time or cost? What was the situation and how did you respond to that?
  3. Describe a time where you may have been pressured to cheat on a test or an expense report, or to overlook someone else’s behavior. What was the situation, and how did you handle it?

To me these three questions will tell you a great deal about the person sitting in front of you. With enough practice, you will be able to ask these questions with ease, and also to follow up with secondary questions to confirm the information you receive.

But, of course, there is always a dose of truth serum you could put into the drink you offer them. Or would that be unethical?

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About Michael D. Haberman

Author

Michael D. Haberman is Vice-President and co-founder of Omega HR Solutions, Inc., a consulting and services company offering complete Human Resources solutions. As the former founder and President of MDH Consulting, a Human Resources consulting firm, Mike has more than 35 years of experience in Human Resources, and he uses his broad-based background to help companies solve employee problems and deal with governmental compliance.

3 COMMENTS Join the discussion
  • Laura Wilson May, 11, 2015

    Determining whether you are talking to an honest person during the interview isn’t a reliable way of judging a candidate’s honesty. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a list of possible answers to different tricky questions on a job interview. If a person desires to get the job, they’ll know how to project an honest image; that is, if this image is really true.

  • Ashley S. May, 13, 2015

    Having honest people on a team is really energy-saving, especially if they are both honest and reliable. You can easily share responsibility with them and save your nerves, since you can trust them. I seriously think that honesty should be measured and rewarded with bonuses on a regular basis.

  • Julie Wright May, 14, 2015

    This is a nice practice, asking about being late. Honest confession and a desire to get rid of such a habit testify that the person might be a future multi-tasker. I knew people who handled a couple of tasks at once, but sometimes missed deadlines by an hour or two. With time, their ability to handle tasks without delays grew, and so did their professionalism.

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Guest May, 14, 2015