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The ethical job hunter

Knowing right from wrong is key to the MBA job quest. Exaggerated résumés, misrepresented job offers are dishonest—and counterproductive

Publication: The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.

December 13, 2006

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rofessor Patrick E. Murphy is the C. R. Smith Co-Director for the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide at the Mendoza College of Business

In recent years, the ethics of running a business has garnered plenty of attention in the B-school classroom. But until now, MBA students rarely got a lesson on the rights and wrongs they themselves might commit while on the hunt for jobs. Patrick E. Murphy, the Smith co-director of the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide and professor of marketing at University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business helped create a manual, at www.ethicalbusiness.nd.edu, for students and recruiters that answers some of their questions about how to face certain dilemmas when looking for a job. Murphy encourages other schools and organizations to adapt the document to create their own set of guidelines.

Among the ethical proscriptions for job hunters, the manual lists:

•Misrepresenting background and skills (in a job interview or embellishing a résumé)
•Misrepresenting job-seeking status (e.g., number of offers)
•Accepting on-site interviews when not seriously considering the prospective employer

As for recruiters, the manual warns against:

•Using exploding job offers (failing to allow applicants to participate in the entire recruiting season, or giving applicants less than two weeks to decide at other times)
•Tying signing bonus to exploding job offer
•Using high-pressure interviewing tactics on campus or during firm visits

Murphy says students should consult lists of employers that magazines and newspapers put out to gain insight into companies and their culture.

He also suggests talking to those who already work at the company and taking the time to do some assessment of your own character. "You'll come out ahead in the whole process if you're more transparent and honest," Murphy says. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek.com reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

What motivated you to write this manual?

One, I've had some interchanges with students over the years who are saying, "Why can't I accept a job offer while waiting for a better one?" Also, I serve on the ethics resource center as an invited fellow and we did a larger study where we asked recruiters, "Do you bring up ethics in the recruiting process?" Only 1 person out of 20 said that he did.

These were recruiters from companies that were already associated with the ethics resource center. If these companies aren't asking, then the percentage [among other companies] has to be lower than that. Discussions I have had over the years with those in the career placement center at Notre Dame also contributed to my desire to raise the consciousness of students as well as recruiters.

What is the biggest ethical dilemma facing business students who are job hunting?

It tends to be somewhat dependent on the student and the company. One of my best MBA students is trying to decide among several job offers now. He called this one company he interned with and it said, "We'll sweeten the pot if you don't pursue this other company." I don't think that's unethical but it was a dilemma he had to face. Someone else who is having difficulty getting a job might be tempted to embellish things that he has done or try to make himself look better.

What are some of the benefits of being ethical?

You don't want to go to a future employer who thinks you can do things you may not be able to do. Everyone has his limitations. To me, the whole recruiting process is about finding the right match. The closer you can get the values of the individual, to the values of the company, the more likely you will have success.

Would you say business students today are more or less ethical than students 20 or 30 years ago?

I've taught for that long, and I would say that there's not a big difference. It's a more competitive world than it was 20 or 30 years ago, both for employees and employers. This high level of competition puts people at higher risk to be unethical.

What is your best advice for those who want to walk the straight and narrow?

Be patient and ethical. There is a job out there for every individual. You might have to interview with 15 companies to find it, but do not compromise or take a job that you don't think will make you happy.

What should schools or career centers be doing to help students be more ethical?

In our undergrad placement, students sign a contract saying that they'll show up for interviews, refrain from misleading potential employers, etc. Our school is not alone. There are a number of schools saying this is serious business. Students should be ethical and professional, and schools and organizations should let them know that those are the expectations.

What is the most important thing for students to keep in mind as they're job hunting?

Do your due diligence. Investigate companies before you go into the job search. Don't be afraid to ask a question or two about ethical policies. Try to get a sense of the corporate culture. Is it more dog eat dog? Is the only way to get ahead at the expense of someone else?

We all know there are organizations like that out there. More students can find out now than ever before because they have many resources on the Web. Also, talk to someone who is in the same role you would be in and see what kinds of issues they have and their level of satisfaction. That will go a long way to helping you make your decision.

What responsibility do recruiters have when it comes to ethics and the job search?

They, like students, need to do due diligence. If something looks too good to be true, it might be. Some interviewers ask people about an ethical dilemma or pose a situation they might run into at the company. There are ways to surface these ideas in a non-confrontational manner.

As one person put it to me, some employees do things that they think are helping the company that are unethical, illegal, or both. And it ends up costing the company a lot of money. There's also a self-serving aspect for the company, which wants to make sure it's getting honest, forthright people as they're coming in the door by checking references, making an extra call about people they are uncertain about, etc. Companies can't be afraid
to follow up on things.

What do you think the future holds for ethics and the job hunt?

My experience in recent years is that students are paying more attention to ethics in general, if we include corporate social responsibility or the environmental sustainability position of organizations. One of the pieces of the data that we report is that ethical reputation and caring for employees ranked fourth and fifth out of 14 attributes. We're not saying it's No. 1, but it's in the top set of things for which a number of students are looking.

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