Best Practices: Right Questions Key to Hiring for Ethics

Whether a corporation operates in an ethical manner rests ultimately with its people. Despite what culture is modeled or compliance is mandated, choices made by individuals will make the difference.

There is legitimate debate whether the right combination of ethical principles and creative business leadership can be coached after a person is hired. So how do we predict human behavior and hire only those who will act responsibly, with the bigger ethical picture in mind?

Employee selection is continuously being refined in hopes of finding the right method of predictable assessment. Costly and often unreliable psychometric testing and personality batteries are at one end of the spectrum and the old “gut feel” is at the other. But the majority of selection decisions are made somewhere in the middle.

So how does a manager determine whether a prospective employee will make choices that reflect the company’s ethical principles? There are numerous batteries of behavioral interviewing questions available, designed to ask the prospect how they handled business situations in the past. However, the most important aspect is often ignored: what is the ethical behavior you desire? If your hiring managers are unclear on what the specific desired behaviors are, then logically it is unlikely they will effectively screen for them.

So, can your leadership adequately describe a situation a person might face in your business and what the optimal decision would be to uphold the ethics of the corporation? Then can you assess the prospect’s answer to that question and what the gaps between the two may be? Fully outlining the desired ethical behavior, and communicating it to those who make hiring decisions, is essential to ensuring that you will hire the person who will reflect your company ethics.

Once the ideal is defined, an approach that can work well in the interview is the use of forced choice questions. For example, I was recently interviewing and the subject of compliance came up. The individual made some comments about employment law compliance and how important it was. At this point, I could have assumed that compliance is the same as ethics, and move on, feeling secure on that issue. However, I believe that compliance is only one part of ethical values. So I probed deeper. It was when I asked a forced choice question that the real depth began to emerge.

I asked which of the two following situations would he rather see as a leader: (1) a culture that sanitized the workplace to ensure there were no possible violations of employment laws, such as Title VII violations, but in doing so stifled the creativity and potential of employees, or (2) a culture which fostered open communication, teamwork, and empowerment at the risk of some potential violations? It’s not so easy to answer in quick sound bites when faced with a real life question: how could I balance business results and foster an open environment that drives performance, while maintaining ethical standards? The manner in which the question was answered and the specific language used created a wealth of insight into the prospective employee’s thought process.

The key is to pay attention to the thought process itself and not just the conclusion. It is this current thought process that is more valuable than the specifics they may have experienced in the past. What factors are considered? Does the individual understand how to balance what may appear to be conflicting priorities? What is the underlying baseline worldview? How will a person respond to an unforeseen set of circumstances? Will the response be based on a predictable set of principles? Can they explain the principles they will follow even when the external results may look different?

Another critical and often overlooked factor is how the interview itself is conducted. An essential objective is creating an open and friendly environment that will relax the applicant. Too often applicants stay in “formal mode” throughout and never express what they really feel. Open and friendly banter—as opposed to a formal and stiff question-and-answer session—tends to reveal what a person really believes and not just what he or she may think you want to hear.

While there are as many approaches to the hiring process as there are managers and applicants, a few key changes in the process can greatly improve the ability to effectively select people who will uphold your corporate ethics and improve your business results.

Michael Erisman has been a human resources leader for General Electric, Pepsi, and Qwest, and is currently a Vice President for Human Resources with H & R Block in Kansas City, MO.