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Suppose you have a few early rounds of successful interviews with a company: they seem to like you, you seem to like them, and the position seems mutually interesting to both parties.

While the interview process is on-going, you are still doing due-diligence research and you come across information which raises concerns. In my case, the issues are ethical in nature and involve legal issues with the company from a few years ago.

Questions in this situation:

  1. How can I ask politely about the ethical concerns / legal issues, but also achieve two things at the same time: (a) not appearing confrontational or burning bridges, and (b) making it clear that I won't find HR-approved, watered-down, prepared statements to be convincing and need them to more candidly "level with me" about the realities of the issues.

  2. Currently I am in the middle of a take-home skills assessment project. I have already spent a number of hours on it. If I submit the solution the company may waste time evaluating it when, pending the ethical issues, there might be no way they could convince me it is OK to take the job. Should I just tell them now that I am not interested? I'm happy to leave the ethical questions out of it entirely, but I worry that if I don't give a reason for dropping out of the interview process, it will reflect badly and burn bridges. At the same time, I do not want to make up a different "reason" for ending the interviewing process.

  • Are you open to the possibility that there's a reasonable explanation (implied by #1) or have you already decided you don't want to work there (implied by #2)? No judgement -- just want to know which you're asking about. – Monica Cellio Oct 12 '14 at 21:20
  • @MonicaCellio That is a good question. I think the problem is: I am open-minded about the ethical issues. I could be convinced that the company has changed or that problem employees were removed. However, standard HR-approved / legalese canned answers would not be able to convince me. Only very candid discussion of what really happened could do so. And I think the company obviously won't offer that, and if so, then nothing they say could change my mind. And I'm really not sure how to ask them about it. – ely Oct 13 '14 at 15:59
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If the company ran into legal issues a few years ago, it is unlikely that you will find official statements from the company that are not just HR-approved but approved by their internal counsel.

And don't expect them to cite independent sources to you that are critical of the company's management unless they can simultaneously produce official statements that tell their spin on the events.

If you expect them to "candidly level with me" because you ask, then either you are very naive, you have an inflated sense of your own importance, or you don't realize that they don't talk that way to government officials, journalists, opposing counsel or even to each other internally. Because every word they say that can be quoted can be used against them in a court of law and they sure don't want to give ammunition to their internal whistle blowers.

If you come across as a potential whistle blower after the legal trouble they just went through, they'll probably spare themselves the headache of figuring out the risk level you bring in and get somebody else.

Having said that, it is fully legitimate of you to raise your concern about the legal issues the company faced and courteously i.e. no hint of accusation and no use of a prosecutorial tone, ask for links to OFFICIAL statements or documents stating the OFFICIAL from the company regarding the legal issues. That is, those links that you can't find on the company website. You can then compare the official position of the company with the news stories and make your own determination as to whether the company has responded adequately to your ethical concerns.

When making the request, you definitely want to come across as non-judgemental, open minded, willing to hear their side of the story and willing to make up your own mind and draw your own conclusions. And you definitely want to come across as someone who will not blame the employees of the firm as a group for the actions of a few - It is not only good sense not to assign collective guilt, it is also an act of compassion for the working stiffs of the company who had nothing to do with the saga of the company's legal issues including most likely, your interviewers.

  • Perhaps my question was worded very badly. I am asking about how to come across non-judgemental while at the same time communicating that I would be a bad fit in a company which is presented from speaking candidly about the realities of the implications of such issues. Your suggests that I should do that, which was already clear to me. I am asking about how to implement that advice. – ely Oct 12 '14 at 17:42
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    I dislike your presumptuous comments about the trilemma I must satisfy (naive, arrogant, or stupid). I'm coming from a perspective of having years of working experience in a highly regulated field, at a very bureaucratic company. I know plenty about the excuses that are used to cast everything into HR-approved language for legal reasons. I'm specifically seeking to suss that out during interviews and to avoid working again for a firm like that. I've never come across legal concerns like this before, which has added an additional layer of complexity to the decision making for me. – ely Oct 12 '14 at 17:44
  • For example, one thing I ask of any potential employer is for them to read excerpts from Moral Mazes and/or Peopleware and to explain how their company's management policies are human-affirming specifically with regard to the issues raised in those books. Many managers refuse to even read it and use it as a reason to rule me out -- which saves me a lot of time. – ely Oct 12 '14 at 17:46
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    Three options: 1. If the HR rep calls and you pick up, you simply say that you are pursuing other opportunities and that you are sorry but you have to cut the call short. Then you cut the call short; 2. If the HR person calls and you screen the call, send an email or leave a message way after hours stating that you are sorry but you are pursuing other opportunities - Thank them for the opportunity to interview; 3. If you get an email from the HR rep, simply email back that you are pursuing other opportunities - Thank them for the opportunity to interview. – Vietnhi Phuvan Oct 12 '14 at 18:28
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    Those last two comments actually represent pretty good advice which was exactly what I was seeking. Would you mind editing the answer to emphasize that stuff (I don't care if you want to leave in the other non sequitur stuff). It might be nice to remove the "naive/self-importance" thing though, since there can be legitimate reasons, expressed by eyes-wide-open-to-office-politics people, for expecting to get legit, candid feedback through a hiring process. You don't have to be naive or arrogant to genuinely believe that is how the system should work and to refuse to settle for less. – ely Oct 12 '14 at 18:34
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I'd go with "Hey, I heard about the business with Fillinda Blank a few years ago. I don't remember offhand how that turned out, and I'm sorta interested in how companies in our field handle that kind of issue. Would you happen to know where I could find your company's statement on that?"

You should probably ask this of the HR department's rep -- or, perhaps better, ask their PR department entirely outside the context of the interview! -- since unless the issue is DIRECTLY related to the job you're being hired for, the folks who are interviewing you probably won't have that info handy and won't be especially interested in looking it up for you.

I wouldn't worry about the political aspect of this so much as the risk of giving the impression that you aren't willing to do your own research.

As far as exiting the process, if you decide to do so: You don't have to give any reason. Just say "Thanks for your time, but I think I've found something that is a better fit for me" and leave it at that.

  • This issue is very directly related to the team I would work for, federal violations, and high ranking officials in the chain of management that I would report to who recently left the firm amidst legal issues around my main concerns. There have been a reasonable amount of news reports covering the issues and subsequent fallout. It is very related to exactly what I would do. – ely Oct 12 '14 at 17:51
  • I'm not saying you shouldn't exit. I'm saying that if you "don't want to burn bridges", don't strike the match. Just move on. – keshlam Oct 12 '14 at 17:54
  • I want to be careful that any reason I give is not a half-truth or whatever. I don't want to say I found something else (I haven't). I'm happy to say, "I just don't think it is a good fit for me." But in the past, when I say that, the manager has pressed back to ask me to give more specific details, and I feel at that point I couldn't do anything but either (a) explain the actual ethical problem and look bad, or (b) repeatedly refuse to say anything at all and also look bad. – ely Oct 12 '14 at 17:54
  • You have no obligation to give any reason. Declining to answer will not make you look bad. Of course the company would like to know the issue so they can improve their pitch... but that's their problem, not yours, and they know that. Alternatively, you can be honest while being respectful: "Look, I recently learned about X and it makes me uncomfortable. I'm sure things have improved since then, but I'm just not sure I want to associate myself with that reputation right now. Maybe next time around, after there's been a bit more history to show that the problem is corrected." – keshlam Oct 12 '14 at 18:01
  • I totally agree with your comment, except that in my experience people do hold it against you if you don't respond with a level of detail that satisfies them. Of course I am not obligated to -- I mean, I could also just absolutely never respond to them in any way starting right now. But some ways of doing that will result in a damaged reputation, and this firm in particular is well connected throughout the industry, so there is some non-trivial risk that a minor flippant opinion of someone in their hiring staff could actually cause me future job-search harm. – ely Oct 12 '14 at 18:19
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Summarizing your problem: There is a job that you are interested in and where you are well qualified. You found there are stories that some time ago there was seriously unethical behaviour at the company. If these stories are true and still relevant, you don't want the job. If the stories are false, or exaggerated, or if the company has cleaned up its act, you want the job.

Nobody, including that company, can blame you for not wanting to work for an unethical company (unless they are unethical, in which case they wouldn't want you - but that should be fine, right? ) If they were and are still acting unethical, then they obviously won't tell you. What you need to avoid is missing out on a job at a good company (and the company missing out on a good employee) because you don't handle the situation right.

You might just advise them that it is important to you that a company you work for has strong ethical principles and acts accordingly. Obviously they will agree :-) They might find out unexpectedly that you are not quite the right person for the job - in that case you know they weren't the right company for you, and you haven't lost anything.

  • This is a very clear statement of what problem I am facing. But I am also worried about wasting my own time and effort and the company's time and effort. The next steps would be to complete a take home project and then probably to go on-site for a day-long interview or more. That's quite a lot of time commitment all around given that even if I ask the ethical questions, the answers will be watered down and probably won't give me any new information to base my decision on. – ely Oct 13 '14 at 15:52
  • I don't want to be closed minded about the company, but based on the news reports of the unethical actions, it's hard to believe anything they say that comes from a PR/counsel-approved point of view will effect my thinking at all. – ely Oct 13 '14 at 15:52
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If you have ethical concerns about the company, you shouldn't be applying. There are quite a few companies that I would never apply for due to their involvement in supporting actions of the U.S. Government that I find reprehensible. I don't expect to get them to "level with me" about whether they knowingly committed crimes by their actions in a job interview.

You made your choice about whether or not you are willing to work for the company when / if you accept employment. I'm certain they have done due diligence on checking your background. You must do the same on theirs.

If you want a clear conscience, work for the Salvation Army. If you want to work for Raytheon, you need to make peace with what they do before you accept the job. If you want to control what a company does, you need to purchase large blocks of their shares.

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A job interview process is no more different than any other interview process to evaluate collaboration.

Some time ago, I worked for a company that had been bankrupt 2 years back, and bought by another investment company. I always appreciated clients asking: "I did a search on google for your company, and the first hit was 'Company X bankrupt.' What is up with that?". So at least let them tell their version of the story. They have every interest in being as frank with you as they legally can. If you join them, you will probably find out anyway. And of course, do this in person or over the phone, not in e-mail.

If, after their explanation, you cannot continue the interview process in good conscience, clearly explain that to them. You will not burn any bridges, but will be remembered for your professionalism.

As for the assignment, you have two options. Either you telephone them immediately, explaining that you would first like to talk about this either over the phone or in person (before wasting anyone's time with the assignment), or you make the assignment but bring up the legal issues when you hand it in.

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