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I currently work for the research arm of an economic consulting firm, and one of my colleagues suggested I transfer to the litigation arm of another consulting firm. I'm concerned, however, because the stereotype among economic researchers is that firms involved in litigation always find ways to make the data support their client's view in the litigation. This is even prevalent at my current firm, because the research arm holds this stereotype about the litigation arm of our own firm.

I'd like to obtain information about this in my interview with the other firm without coming across as someone who has pre-judged the firm (I haven't). I considered asking "what general policy should I follow if I analyze data and reach conclusions that work against our client?" or something similar, but it's sort of a catch22, because if they are honest and tell me this does happen, it's a problem, and if they're dishonest, they probably won't tell me.

In general, is there a diplomatic and effective way to discuss, in an interview, a company's ethical behavior/code of ethics in certain situations, or is this search best left to speaking with other people who have past experience with the firm (or a third method)?

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    There aren't any public records you can research? If this is your area of expertise, you should be able to spot a false claim. – user8365 Jun 23 '13 at 11:16
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    @JeffO Do you mean reports that the consulting firm has released to the public? Without the underlying information (data, records, emails, etc.), it's difficult to discern if claims are false, and much of this information is kept sensitive because it's involved in litigation. Furthermore, a firm could conceivably not publish negative information at all, so even if the data in the public record points to a claim, it doesn't mean it's sound. Plus, I only recently finished my undergraduate, so I don't have the technical background to evaluate every conclusion anyway, especially not without data. – John Bensin Jun 23 '13 at 17:20
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    "if they're dishonest, they probably won't tell me" -- but it also reduces the chance of them hiring you if you ask a series of questions where they know they're lying in order to give you the answer you seem to want. "Not a good fit, move on" might be a euphemism for, "would keep raising daft so-called ethical objects we don't agree with", but even so it's problem solved. At least, I assume the true goal isn't "find out whether they're ethical", it's "avoid working for someone unethical". – Steve Jessop Sep 24 '14 at 15:38
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    Also, almost all lawyers (and allied trades) are much more serious about their ethics than you'd imagine from stereotype. They might not do what you think they should do, but they're absolutely clear what the principles are by which they can decide what to do. So if the answer to your question is, "we note that the conclusions are not favourable, we choose not to enter them in evidence, and we look for favourable evidence" then you might not like it, but it's rigorously ethical. If that's what they do and it's legal then they'll probably be open that it's their rule of procedure. – Steve Jessop Sep 24 '14 at 15:42
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Executive Summary

At the end of the day, you have to decide where your ethical boundaries are personally, and ask a question that will get you a response that tests that boundary for this company.

Hypothetical Questions

Hypothetical questions are very useful because you can cater them to whatever your boundary is. If you are concerned about how the company handles differences between the client's request and the result of the company's research, you could ask:

Hypothetical question. A lucrative client is getting sued and wants us to defend them by proving X (which they insist is true). We perform research and it comes to conclusion Y. We check again with further research and come to conclusion Y again. How will our company bridge the gap between the client's conclusions and our own conclusions?

This is a very macro approach that discusses how the firm handles customer relations.

If your concern is less how the firm handles customers, and more how the firm handles researchers, you could try the above situation with a modified question:

What are my responsibilities as a researcher if my conclusion does not match that of the client?

Taking an Ethical Stance

I like hypothetical questions because they are open-ended and don't suggest which answer you want. However, they aren't for everyone.

If you are deadset on a certain ethical standard for the company or your work, you can address that specifically with a direct question during the interview.

If the conclusions of my research don't match what the client was expecting I don't feel comfortable adjusting the findings to match the client's request. Will that be a problem?

If that is too aggressive for you, you can tone it down slightly.

I believe strongly in separating the business-side of requests from the results of research. As a researcher, will I be expected to reach a conclusion independently of the customer request?

Ethical Relativity

At the end of the day, ethics are relative to how much a person can see. Take a simple case:

Researcher Angela comes to conclusion X.

Analyst Bert receives conclusions X, Y, and Z from the researchers, and creates analysis A.

Salesman Chris receives analysis A, and makes recommendations B and C to the customer.

If Angela reads Bert's analysis, she may find it unethical (especially if it puts a higher emphasis on Y and Z than her research in A). For Bert, he may find it perfectly ethical because he feels his analysis was appropriate in the situation.

On the other hand, Bert may feel that his Analysis A was misrepresented to the customer with recommendations B, and C. Chris on the other hand may think it was no problem, because given the customer relationship, he felt non-false B and C would go over better than going exactly with analysis A.

You have to decide how many "stages" of ethics are required to make you feel comfortable in the office. If the entire process needs to be ethical for you to be content, I strongly advise against picking any job which works for potentially guilty corporations.

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    Thank you for the advice, especially your phrasing of separating the business side from the research side. That's essentially my feeling as well, but I was having trouble putting it into words. – John Bensin Jun 24 '13 at 23:39
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How they handle these issues is a function of how they have constructed their business model:

  • Some are 100% independent. They perform the analysis. If it helps the client the client uses it. If it doesn't help the client, the client throws it away an hopes the other side doesn't come to the same conclusion. Sometimes the client can use this information to prepare counter arguments.
  • Some are focused on one particular viewpoint. The company believes that building strip malls everywhere will be great for the economy. People that want to build strip malls hire them to argue the benefits of strip malls.
  • Others are somewhere in between. They have an expertise not an opinion. If the client wants 5 ways this proposed strip mall is great they will tell them, if the client wants 5 ways this strip mall is bad they will tell them.

You need to dig and determine which type of company they are. Ask about recent cases based on different positions. One where you argued for X, one where you argued for the opposite for X, one where the client didn't like the analysis.

  • I'm embarrassed that, as an economic researcher, I didn't spend as much time as I should have thinking about the implications of each business model on the company's policies. – John Bensin Jun 24 '13 at 23:40
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Don't ask about policy, that is futile. You won't get usable information.

However you can construct a few stories with a conflict and can use that. Tell the story and ask what the company would do in the situation. If it sounds good, ask ahead, that what enforces it. Or switch to a variant where you discovered that some decision-maker failed to do that, and ask what can you do in the situation, where to turn, how to resolve, etc.

Probably you get a better picture. Though still can hit a gap between theory and practice.

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    That gap will be more like a chasm. Recall that Enron, Worldcom and a long list of others have insisted that they conducted business to the highest ethical standards until it became plainly obvious that they didn't. As an outsider, what you'll get is the sanitized-by-the-PR-department version. – Blrfl Jun 23 '13 at 13:02
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    the interviewer is an insider, and not from the PR department. And it's not very easy to make up stuff on the spot without collapsing. – Balog Pal Jun 23 '13 at 13:51
  • +1 for not asking about policy. Policy is frequently not followed and doesn't necessarily represent reality. – Underminer Dec 31 '18 at 17:17
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Act innocent. When you are actually at work and your client's paperwork makes him look bad, go to a senior and tell him "look, mister so-and-so is in deep trouble, I don't know if I can do anything for him." The senior will be compelled to give you advice and you can judge from his response what the policy is. Unfortunately, asking someone "hey, are you guys crooks?" isn't going to have a good ending for you, whether they are or not.

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    This implies that I only probe a company's ethics after taking the job, which for obvious reasons, isn't exactly an answer to the problem of finding out during the interview. Ideally I could find a rough sense of this information before leaving my current job, signing on with a new firm, etc. – John Bensin Jul 13 '13 at 22:06
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    Hi Juann, I'd suggest editing this to answer the question of how to determine company ethics before taking the job. Otherwise, you might consider removing it to help keep the site clean and avoid more downvotes. Good luck! :) – jmort253 Jul 14 '13 at 2:23

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