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Job Applicants Should Ask about Potential Employers' Ethics

The mailbag contains a terrific question about how an outsider may assess the ethical culture of a company. This is prompted by my perhaps overly simplistic advice that the best way to avoid vexing ethical issues is to pick an ethical company. The questioner recognizes, however, that a company's ethical culture may not be apparent to a job applicant. Accordingly, I have encouraged job applicants--particularly general counsel hopefuls--to use the interview process to conduct this critical diligence.

This advice has evoked two understandable responses. First, some have recoiled at the idea of discussing ethics in an interview setting when such questions may seem odd, probing, uncomfortable or suggestive of a problem. I accept that raising ethics and integrity during an interview may be uncomfortable and perhaps should be left for just before you sign an offer letter. However, if you are unwilling to have a dialogue about the ethical culture of a company, then you may find yourself forging through a muddle of ethical dilemmas that threaten your career and, as we have unfortunately witnessed, your liberty.

I will allow that this integrity diligence may be partially undertaken by questioning third parties. Indeed, you should be seeking guidance from external auditors, law firms, previous employees and the like. Nothing, however, will be as insightful as looking in your prospective business partner's eyes while assessing whether you should entrust your career to that person.

The second response to my advice has been about the specific questions that should be asked. Here are some ideas:

Tell me about an ethical dilemma you faced at this company and how it
was resolved.

This question is designed to assess the individual's honesty. Surely, everyone has managed some type of ethical issue. Statements to the contrary reflect a reluctance to engage on this critical topic, a red flag. Moreover, the methodology by which ethical issues are resolved within a company is also telling.

How do you expect me to handle ethical issues?

Don't assume that your prospective business partner grasps your code of conduct, but understanding how your boss would like you to proceed may shine a light on the ethical culture. Remember, few corporate constituents are governed by rules of professional responsibility analogous to ours; this is a great time to begin the education of your business partner as to what is expected of you pursuant to our code.

What is the process for resolution of matters addressed to the ethics hotline?

This question represents an opportunity to determine whether the senior executives of a company appreciate the need for such a critical compliance tool. If they do not take an interest in this process, then real questions arise as to whether an open and ethical environment is in place.

How can the legal department support an ethical culture here?

This is a loaded question but a response equally loaded with platitudes (or something self-serving like "by keeping me out of jail") is a red flag that cannot be ignored.

How does this company ensure that its employees act with integrity?

Is the corporate expectation of ethical conduct embedded in a company's processes (i.e., is it rewarded as part of the company's performance review process)? Has an employee been terminated or disciplined for acting unethically? Is integrity relegated to a few lines of the company's standards of business conduct?

I hope that these questions inspire you to use the interview process wisely to conduct necessary diligence. Your career deserves it.

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