What do you tell job Interviewers about your ethics?

The Line in the Sand

by Cheryl A. Wilson PMP, RMP, CCEP


What do you tell someone at a job interview if you quit your last job over an ethics issue?  First, how many of us would quit a job due to a situation that we find ourselves in that has crossed our ethical boundaries?  You must first determine your ethical threshold by asking yourself, “What does ethics mean to me?”  Do you have a definition of ethics in your personal and business life?

Ethics is about how we make decisions about what is right and what is wrong.  Organizations will not always make the right decision, in fact, speaking from a long line of employers, organizations often blur making the right decision because they are more concerned with the “bottom line” than with what is right.  In the September issue of Line in the Sand, we talked about situations that we could all face on our jobs that put us in the position to draw our ethical line in the sand.

There are times when there is no obvious right course of action upon first thought, but upon looking to our own definition of ethics and our ethics threshold, we can make a determination if we as employees should speak up, or quit over doing what we feel is wrong.   If we are faced with two or more choices, and we might not easily know which is right: we are faced with an ethical dilemma. Each choice may have some positive elements as well as some drawbacks. Neither is immediately and clearly the only right way.

How do we go about making these kinds of ethical choices? Often we make these kinds of decisions intuitively. If we have been brought up with some level of moral teachings about right and wrong we may just go with what feels right. Or, as suggested in the first paragraph, we use our moral compass we developed by looking at our ethical threshold.

When we are dealing in the business world with professional issues, we need to think more intentionally and carefully. In professional ethical dilemmas, we are accountable professionally as well as legally in our decisions. We need ways to communicate with our employers our ethical standards so we can come to a morally acceptable decision if we are ever (and you will be) in a situation where you do not agree with what your employer is doing. This is why we must have our ethical boundaries determined before we get into a situation to help us determine what to do.  We need to decide where the ethical boundary puts us at a point of intractability with our employer.

So the interrogative now becomes, how do we handle a job interview question of “why did you quit your job,” if we indeed did quit a previous position due to an ethical decision? How much detail do we provide?  First, know that you did what was right (you exercised your ethical prerogatives) and moved on.   Remember, talking negatively about a previous employer must be limited to just the facts or to the interviewer it may sound as you are airing your former company’s dirty laundry.  The extension is that the interviewer may assume you would do the same thing about your employment experience with them.

As an Ethics and Compliance professional, I have seen the circle of companies doing wrong and the wrongdoing coming out, either in the news from a whistle blower, or during an external audit.  Unethical behavior eventually tends to rise to the surface.  Your situation may not be the next Enron or WorldCom, but it happened to you. Also, note, if the wrongdoing was at a level that needs to be reported, there are regulators you can contact to report the misconduct. There is nothing wrong with being a whistle blower, but just not in your next job interview!

There are ways to discuss why you left a previous employer that will leave the employer’s alleged misconduct out of the discussion.  Again, remember reporting your former company’s wrongdoing is important and if it does cross into fraud or worse, should be done, but your future interview should not be the place to talk about your former employer’s wrongdoing.

Focus on the reason you are at the interview in the first place, to what you can do for this new company and what you personally would like to do for the company you are interested in.  Steer your conversation toward what you bring to the table for this employer.  What your strengths are and where they will enhance the employer’s needs.  When the question comes up about why you left, continue to stay on the positive note and know what you are going to say.  Perhaps look at other reasons you left your former position that are more in alignment with an interview such as: “we had philosophical differences on how the business should be managed so I decided to leave and look for a situation where I could use my strengths in a better way,” or “my previous employer and I did not see the future focus of the company in the same light.”

If the interviewer wants to discuss this further, professionally say… “I would rather not reveal my former company’s proprietary information” and leave it at that.   From there, concentrate on how you can enhance your potential new employer’s current business environment with your knowledge, skills, and capabilities.

The percentage of high performers changing jobs has risen in the past few decades.  It is more about what you offer to the employer and what they can offer you.  You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you so have your answers rehearsed and cogent realizing that why you left a previous employment is going to be the topic for any competent interviewer – do not get caught without a practiced response to this important question.


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