I have a candidate for an open position and I will interview him in a few days. His résumé looks quite promising. However, his work experience lists two projects which are in a field of activity which I would consider unethical or at least ethically questionable.

I would be interested how he justifies working for them. However, whether or not this work can be considered unethical is highly debatable and borders on political views (which would be illegal to ask about in an interview).

Should I bring this up or would it be better for me to avoid this topic?

  • Hi limdaepl, I just removed that edit - it's more of a commentary and discussion than helping to focus the actual question. For that, chat is a much better medium. Hope this helps! Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – enderland Jun 2 '15 at 15:03

Short answer: Judge the person on their skills and experience; the industry they worked previously is irrelevant.

Have you thought that perhaps the person is looking for another job because they have a problem with that industry? I feel that to judge the person based on where they worked rather than what their capabilities are is somewhat discriminatory. Are they the best candidate based on skills and experience?

Really, if the skills in whatever industry translate well into the job you need them to do, then their previous industry is not really relevant.

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    I don't disagree, but there is a difference between choosing to take a job in a particular area and being born a certain way. That said, sometimes the choice is between keeping a roof over your head and working some place that you'd rather not. I think it's OK to ask about a candidate's experiences at their previous workplace, where you wouldn't ask "So, how do you like being gay?" – ColleenV Jun 1 '15 at 11:40
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    The other option is the person working in the "unethical industry" does not feel it is in any way unethical. The end result however is I feel the same. "Judge the person on their skills and experience; the industry they worked previously is irrelevant." – mlk Jun 1 '15 at 11:52
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    I'm not sure I understand this answer - you're saying it's not OK to judge a person's ability to perform a job based on their life choices? Sexual orientation, gender, skin color and so on are not choices people make. Working for an unethical company is a choice someone made, whether or not someone is ethical effects their trustworthiness and is definitely a strong indicator of whether or not I'd consider them for a job. – Benjamin Gruenbaum Jun 1 '15 at 15:28
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    @BenjaminGruenbaum Working for an unethical company is a choice someone made - but not necessarily - they could have been unaware, or been in circumstances that made it seem like they had no choice. The person also may have changed their mind with whether the company's ethics aligned with their own. I would imagine there are better questions to determine their current trustworthiness, rather than questioning about their past choices. – DoubleDouble Jun 1 '15 at 16:34
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    @DoubleDouble those are all good points - which is why I think asking about it in an interview is perfectly fine. I'm not saying you should decide not to hire someone because they worked for company X, but I think finding out whether or not they had an issue with it is valuable information for an interview. – Benjamin Gruenbaum Jun 1 '15 at 18:16

When you say you would consider something unethical or ethically questionable, and in the next sentence you say this is highly debatable and borderlines with political views, it sounds like this is just your personal, private opinion, and has nothing to do with the interests of your company, and that these projects are not unethical or ethically questionable in any objective way.

So if you want to bring this up, and the question is really just of a political nature, doing that would be totally unacceptable, and if I was the candidate, I wouldn't reply to that question, but would ask immediately to talk to your HR. It has nothing to do with the business, and with my ability to do the job, so you have no reason and no right to enquire about it.

  • I probably shouldn't have said "highly". What I meant is that a few people seem to be okay with it or even deem it necessary but most people (especially in my country) are against it. So no, this is not "just my opinion". – limdaepl Jun 1 '15 at 20:18
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    @limdaepl Unless said ethical problem is directly related to your company's business, or is overwhelmingly considered unethical bordering on illegal (i.e. actually unethical, not just ethically questionable from your perspective), then it seems to me you are putting yourself in a conflict of interest situation (and abusing your authority) by letting your own moral views influence your company's hiring process. If it's legitimately on-topic you can always ask, but do keep in mind it's an interview, not a trial, and you are not a vigilante nor the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. – Thomas Jun 1 '15 at 21:46

I think it depends what your concern is. Extreme example, but if their CV admits they used to work as a con-artist doing street hustles, then it would be legitimate for you to wonder whether they can be trusted with your clients even if they've done their time (assuming it's legal in their particular circumstances to consider their criminal record), or even if they weren't convicted due to lack of evidence.

If they worked as a lawyer for a firm that specialised in vexatious litigation, then you might be concerned they'll bring a gung-ho attitude to their new role that's out of character for your firm.

In each case, the thing to think/talk about is whether they will treat your clients honestly rather than trying to trick them, and whether they are excessively willing to bring unmerited legal actions. Avoid their ethical or political assessment of their former employment. Talk about their approach to the job they'll be doing, and how they've previously handled tasks similar to what will be required, and keep an eye out for them advocating shady practices. Don't make disavowing his previous line of work a condition for employment with you, just do enough to be confident that whatever it is about that line of work that conflicts with the requirements of this job, he knows not to bring it with him.

Also, be sure that the issue relates to the job they're applying for. You say that you consider it ethically questionable, but more importantly does the employer they're applying to, as a distinct entity from you the interviewer, consider it ethically questionable? If you just happen to think that butchers are unethical because you're a vegetarian, that's not relevant to a job selling double-glazing. Next, be sure that what the candidate did poses a potential problem before going into it: treating the typist at an arms dealer who sells landmines differently from the typist at a kitten sanctuary, or asking them to justify their willingness to work there, is probably just prejudice.

All you're really doing then is to make sure he's "a good fit" to carry out the goals of this company, and do the job the way you think it should be done. Which is legitimate.

In some cases there could even be an obvious "poacher turned gamekeeper" scenario, like if the MPAA hired someone who formerly worked for Pirate Bay or vice-versa. In that case it would be strange not to talk about how they can apply their past experience on the other side of the argument.

Aside from this, if you have a potential PR issue on your hands ("Former concentration camp guard employed by State Department!", "CEO of LovelyFamilyCorp sold cluster bombs to Russia!") then their history genuinely is relevant even if it was legal at the time.

  • Exactly! If the company (image/representation) has an immediate problem with this, it is fair to ask. If it is just a personal problem (even if the person worked as a typist for the anti christ) - if it doesn't impact his performance it should not influence your judgement – Falco Jun 2 '15 at 11:59

They listed it on the CV, so it's a relevant avenue of inquiry, and their attitude to it may also be relevant.

Bear in mind that not all internships are paid and some people only take them to get a rung on the career ladder, and some are required by college courses or professional training, etc. Your interviewee may have felt trapped, either because of their financial situation or a desperate need to gain experience to be considered for paid employment.

That doesn't absolve them of moral responsibility but "unethical" is to some extent, a matter of personal perspective (one might, for example, regard unpaid internships as unethical). You don't state that what they did was illegal, or in breach of specific, professional ethics. In your case, perhaps even more so, because you note that:

whether or not this work can be considered unethical is highly debatable and borderlines with political views (which would be illegal to ask for in an interview)

If this is a case where they worked a campaign for a political candidate or campaign you don't support (or something like that) then well yes, they probably voted for them/it too and it's none of your business. You should restrict any questions to skills they learned, experience they gained, and so forth.

If the internship however relates to their professional field or your industry in some way: financial regulation or legal ethics or medical whatever, then there are questions that may be worth asking. So sit down with a pen and paper and list what you want to ask, and what sort of answers you could get (the second part is important to be sure you're not leading the interview into gray area yourself). Cross out any questions that you're not legally allowed to ask. Whether or not you're left with any questions to ask at the end, you've answered your own:

Should I bring this up or is this topic rather be avoided?

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    unpaid internships are highly unethical! – JamesRyan Jun 1 '15 at 14:27

It is very common and reasonable to ask why they left a position. Hopefully, for each of the jobs you have concerns about, they have a very good answer such that they objected to the work eventually.

In addition consider this question that I was once asked in an interview:

"Have you ever refused to do a piece of work?"

I was able to answer with an example where I was asked and refused to produce what I considered to be a fraudulent report. They were happy, I got the job offer.

This is a good question as it can give the candidate a chance to give an example of their moral boundaries. After all, there may have been worse projects that they refused to work on.

There are also bad answers they might give like they didn't like working on something or with someone which is equally useful to hear.

  • give the candidate a change to give an example? "change" or "chance"? – scaaahu Jun 2 '15 at 11:06
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    @scaaahu "chance" thanks – weston Jun 2 '15 at 11:08

These questions are exactly why most companies have sub-par talent.

You're focusing on an irrelevant issue. Companies are not ethical entities they exist to make money. There are lots of unethical companies that you aren't aware of. Will you ask every candidate if their previous employers were all ethical? How will you verify this information? Will you see a candidate as a job-hopper if they leave an unethical company after just a few months?

The candidate is all that matters. Is it possible for an ethical person to work for an un-ethical company? Yes. And how would you even judge the remorse of the candidate for working for one of these companies?

Is it possible for an un-ethical person to work for a very ethical company. Yes.

My final point is that if you work for a publicly-traded company you are the one who is behaving unethically. Your fiduciary duty to hire the talent that will create the most value for your shareholders. You have no way to judge the moral compass of an individual in an interview and therefore it is irrelevant to the process.

Any ethical issues with the candidate will probably come out during the reference check.

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    "exactly why most companies have sub-par talent" -- I think that's a slight exaggeration. It's not as if there's a vast pool of unemployed evil geniuses, who could replace the sub-par people overnight if only they weren't being excluded from the workforce ;-) Most companies have sub-par talent for many reasons, including: hiring isn't a precise process; some people suck; the Peter Principle. Certainly prejudice at the haring stage makes it more imprecise, though. – Steve Jessop Jun 1 '15 at 14:03
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    Of course companies are ethical entities. It's not ethical for an ethical person to work for an unethical company. If you worked for a company that distributes revenge porn - you can bet on not passing an interview with me for that. Simply because I don't trust you as a person and I wouldn't trust you with the company's assets. – Benjamin Gruenbaum Jun 1 '15 at 15:24
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    Well, countries have business ethics laws, for example in the US the FCPA states that companies may not bribe officials of another country. I really want to avoid a "what is ethics" debate (had enough of those in philosophy class). I also resent your "anyone who's willing to warn the same seat year-after-year is probably not very talented or motivated, I know many talented and motivated engineers who moved once or twice in their entire career. – Benjamin Gruenbaum Jun 1 '15 at 15:33
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    Folks - take it to chat. – Philip Kendall Jun 1 '15 at 16:26
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    Hmmm...hired 87% of the time to a full-time position. What about that statement doesn't match mine? Jealous no, 30-40% above market rate barely covers the benefits from my full-time position. There's many reasons people prefer full-time over contract work, most notably, they want to be able to spend time with their family. That's kind of hard to do when your contract work takes you to different cities every year or two. I guess if you ignore the best interests of your kids then you can drag them to new schools to follow you but most people don't find that acceptable. – Dunk Jun 1 '15 at 16:44

Should I bring this up or is this topic rather be avoided?

First and foremost this is a personal question for you? Would you wish to hire such a person if he's perfectly fine with the projects/positions? And if not, do you have the discretion to make such a decision?

Just to give an extreme example: In the Netherlands we had a political active pro child sex group. By now they have been disbanded as too many of their leaders were caught with child porn, but it's perfectly possible that someone who worked for them would be looking for a job. Would I hire such a person even if their skills were a perfect match for what I need? Nope. Well, yes, if he would sincerely regret that period of his life or something, but in general the answer would be a definite no. Would my boss be fine with me not hiring such a person? Definitely yes as well. So yes, there are definitely cases where the industries where somebody worked are relevant.

Now, let's take a more gray area. Let's say someone worked for The Pirate Bay. I personally would not hire such a person for the simple reason that if such a person has no ethical qualms earning money in such a way I wouldn't trust them with my work and/or the companies money either. At the same time however I know that one of my bosses is/was an avid torrenter, so he could very well disagree. Personally I would be most likely to check with my boss whether he's all right with my assessment and if he's not then I would work it somehow out with him. In this specific case I wouldn't make a big deal out of it if he wished to still hire him, but lets say that we were still talking about the child sex case then I would quite simply refuse to be the one hiring him (and I might even refuse to work for a company hiring such a person).

  • Out of interest, would you distinguish between a senior officer who promoted the views and goals of these organisations you disagree with, vs. their janitor who just took a job keeping their building clean? – Steve Jessop Jun 1 '15 at 13:40
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    @SteveJessop Depends on the issue I guess and the extent they would need to be aware of what kind of company/group it is they are working for. E.g. a janitor could be entirely oblivious to it, but for example a secretary would not be. But for example I would definitely hear out the story from the secretaries side first, whilst someone openly promoting certain views I wouldn't even invite in for an actual interview (well, provided I have the discretion of such a decision). – David Mulder Jun 1 '15 at 13:55

You should ask them about their experience in those industries as part of the interview, not as part of an ethical interrogation.

You say that you feel that working in these industries is 'unethical', without knowing what his actual involvement was in the first place. Since you are interviewing him for a position at your company, you should ask him to clarify any questions you have about prior work experiences.

You should not, however, be a judge and arbiter on what is and is not ethical conduct. You don't know the circumstances for why this person took this job, and unless they are directly relevant to the position you're advertising, they are irrelevant to your interview.

You should know what duties and responsibilities this person had at any job they've had in the past. You should not let your own ethical feelings, especially ones you yourself identified as 'political' in nature, interfere with this person's interview. It would be unfair, discrimination, and depending on your state and national jurisdiction and the exact circumstances, it could even be illegal to base your decision on it.

If you think it IS relevant to the position, contact your HR department to find out if this is actually true. If they tell you it isn't, listen to them and do not let this person's personal choices in past professions affect your decision.


I assume this is a pointed question. You have a candidate whose CV you've spotted something you think is ethically interesting (let's put it that way). You are afraid that might make them a poor fit for your team. As somebody in charge of hiring, this is exactly the sort of thing you should be looking at.

Let's be careful, you should primarily be looking at, inspecting and probing their capabilities and experience, but protecting the existing team members is as important as the new hire.

And by extension, involve your team in the decision. I'd probably anonymise the data into generic roles (with no detail) and ask them what sort of people they want to work with.

And in your revised question, you also highlight an objective quality that's good to look for: mindfulness. This is all character stuff.

So when it comes to the interview, ask them about it, but remember you're trying to solicit their opinion and reasoning, not pick a fight with them. Leave your opinions outside and you might learn something.

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