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If you are in an interview and the interviewer ask you "Describe a time your boss asked you to do something unethical and describe how you responded?", how do you answer this question while not being negative about the boss in question? I know that in an interview, you should never say anything negative about a past co-worker / boss, but I can't figure out how to navigate this one.

  • I wonder if that interview question translates to "tell us how you act when you're asked to do something that you don't want to do, for any reason." – The Muffin Man Oct 21 '15 at 21:03
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Contrary to some of the opinions expressed so far, I do not feel that them asking you about how you handled being asked to do something unethical shows a negative side of the organization you are interviewing with. I feel like it shows that they care about being an ethical organization, are aware that ethical situations may arise, and are interested in knowing if you are equipped to handle them. Here's how I would handle the question:

Do:

  • Assume the best about the company asking the question. Ethics is important to them. If you are concerned, as @Joe Strazzere is, that they are looking for people willing to bend their personal ethics, then ask a follow up question during the questions period at the end: "Can you tell me about an ethical situation at this company that was handled well recently?"
  • Think carefully about the different types of ethical situations that can occur before deciding that you have not faced one of consequence in your career. As @user2989297 pointed out, there are many, many forms this could have taken:

    • Selling someone something that they don't need (@user2989297)
    • Misrepresenting the progress of ongoing work
    • Asserting that there are no significant known flaws with a product when some exist
    • Presenting someone incomplete data to tilt a decision your way even though they prefer to see all relevant data (@user2989297)
    • Not alerting a client ahead of time that a work product would be late even though you have known it would be for weeks
    • So much more

    I am glad that @Joe Strazzere has not encountered a serious ethical dilemma in his work, but I agree with @user2989297 that encountering such situations is common, even with good people. I think it's good that the company is interested in your ability to react appropriately.

  • Especially value answers where a person asked something unethical of you without realizing it and you were able to reverse the situation. (enderland)

  • Take the opportunity in the answer that you give to briefly acknowledge that good people find themselves in difficult situations and that we all need to do our best to be prepared for them and help each other. This is related to enderland's point and can drive home that you are not trying to criticize your manager in your answer, but are instead focusing on your own ability to deal with ethical dilemmas.

Don't:

  • Make anything up. If you have been fortunate enough to not have an ethical situation worth sharing, then state how lucky you are and your appreciation of your previous workplace's values.
  • Imply that the company asking the question is doing so because they are an unethical workplace. I strongly disagree with @Joe Strazzere on his response to that point. That question is implicative and confrontational. If you asked that to me, I would be significantly put off.
  • @joe strazzere I'm a long-time lurker on Workplace and think most of your answers are great, so please don't be too put off by a brand new member strongly disagreeing with you, it was a bad coincidence :) Thanks for your quality help to others! – puzzlepiece87 Oct 21 '15 at 18:11
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    "Take the opportunity in the answer that you give to briefly acknowledge that good people find themselves in difficult situations and that we all need to do our best to be prepared for them and help each other." this is the missing link that I've been searching for. thank you! – Just_Some_Guy Oct 21 '15 at 18:11
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    I would remind everyone to remember that the Workplace has a "Be nice" policy. Please keep it professional and polite. – Jane S Oct 21 '15 at 23:31
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You brought the ethical conflict to your bosses attention, and provided an alternative course of action that was free of ethical conflict. Your manager was appreciative of your insight and implemented your course of action.

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    Bonus points if you point out to your manager an ethical implication they didn't realize, so then your manager doesn't even get the "blame." – enderland Oct 21 '15 at 17:05
  • @user2989297, while I definitely agree with your points, may I gently suggest dialing back the sarcasm from a 8 to maybe a 4? Again, I agree that it is implausible that someone that is established in their career has never encountered what I would consider to be an ethical dilemma, but reasonable people can disagree and Workplace has a positive vibe to it. – puzzlepiece87 Oct 21 '15 at 21:44
6

I work in Information Security and when hiring someone, I need to understand how she or he will react when faced with an unethical request. I do not use the exact question mentioned by the OP but slightly soften it by asking about a previous experience when faced with an unethical request.

I expect a few possible answers:

  • I have never been faced with such a request, do not know what to do, but I would
    • follow the policies in place
    • and/or ask my manager
  • I have faced the case and this is how I dealt with it ...

These are good answers (providing that the way it was handled is correct).

A somehow worse answer is a blank stare. This means that that person does not know how to deal with such a request, which may or may not be an issue depending on the circumstances.

There are also terribly wrong answers: someone giving details (company, names) of a specific case.

An important point to keep in mind is that some functions are faced with requests which are questionable but without the requester having malicious intent. They just may not be aware that some activities are unethical (or unlawful). Being on the receiving side means that you have to have good reflexes to protect yourself, the company and the requester.

3

I would ask if potential bosses should be included, because this question is about one of the most unethical things I would have been asked to do.

1

There are various degrees of ethics in the workplace. For me, I would refuse to answer this question even if nothing unethical happened since it would imply incompetent work place.

For one, I would ask if they meant unethical in the sense of lying about finances, time worked, or any other monetary / benefiting unearned gains. If this was the case, then the next logical question would be if you reported it to the proper authorities and if not, why?

The secondary ethical concern area would be within the team itself. Does your team cut corners making the project to finish it on time? Did you disregard safety protocols such as that on medical devices to make it work?

Otherwise, any other ethical question sounds petty in nature and sounds like he's asking this to see if you talk bad about your former boss.

Edit: Reading your comments and so forth it seems like you're asking if you should make up a story about ethics? How is that ethical? You do know you don't have to answer every question with a long story, right? Just say, "At my previous employer, I was never faced with any ethical considerations. Next question, please?" If they continue to pressure you to "answer" this question, then it sounds like they want to test if you make something up when pressured. It could be they're testing you because they themselves faced ethical problems where people were pressured to answer questions and only made them up later.

  • Another person who is saying they have never dealt with ethics in the workplace. Have you never worked retail? You were never pressured to sell an old person ridiculously more than they needed? You've never been pressured to withhold information to bring a sale/project to a close? You've never been pressured to say/document that you did something you didn't actually do? – user2989297 Oct 21 '15 at 17:27
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    I wouldn't make anything up... what I'm getting from this is that its probably better to doge this type of question rather then attempt to take it head on; because A:) as previously mentioned, I can't think of anything that isn't petty, B:) I'm not going to fabricate an answer to an ethics question. – Just_Some_Guy Oct 21 '15 at 17:32
  • @Just_Some_Guy Well, I guess that works. You rationalize ethical violations away as "petty", which is probably about what they are trying to determine with the question. So, it would be better for you to be evasive at a loss of points than to explain that you are complicit in ethical violations/ do not resolve ethical conflicts at a greater loss of points. – user2989297 Oct 21 '15 at 17:38
  • @user2989297 (personal attacks about my and anyone else s character aside), how does one describe one of those minor offences ( that were handled and dealt with appropriately when they occurred) without sounding like a 'tattle tale'? You know that you handled the situation appropriately at the time, but how do communicate this with an interviewer and keep it in a positive light without saying anything negative about the person who asked you this unethical request? I see the points your making, I just can't figure out how this should be worded. – Just_Some_Guy Oct 21 '15 at 17:46
  • @user2989297 Ok, I get it now. I think I may have been overthinking this. Just give one of those situations (that I previously referenced as petty believing the interviewers would not want to hear about it), and focus on what my thought process and the resolution I reached was instead of the unethical action itself. in focusing on my actions to resolve it, the answer stays positive instead of being a negative event from my past. – Just_Some_Guy Oct 21 '15 at 18:07
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I was once asked in a job interview to describe a time where my boss (at a previous employment) asked me to do something unethical, and how I handled it.

That interview question - asking me to report on unethical behaviour of a previous employer - is very unethical, so I told them that their question was unethical, and I would handle it by telling them it was unethical instead of reporting anything unethical that I may or may not have encountered in my past, and that I would hope that was a good answer to their unethical interview question.

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    Did that get you the job? Seems extremely evasive and combative. – user2989297 Oct 21 '15 at 19:36

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