“The employer generally gets the employees the employer deserves,” to paraphrase oil business executive J. Paul Getty. If ethical behavior is part of the desired profile for each of our organization’s engineering and other personnel, then explicitly discuss ethics during the process of evaluating and interviewing prospective employees. That way you are much more likely to recruit, and later retain, the kind of personnel you want.
However, before considering ideas on how to identify ethically desirable personnel, let’s define ethics for use in professional and business activities. Over decades, I’ve seen many highly varied ethics definitions and collected some of them.
In my view, ethics is not something an ethical person has or is. Instead, it’s a process they use when faced, individually or in groups, with challenges involving conflicting values. Therefore, I offer this definition of ethics, distilled from many: The process we use to make value-laden decisions, beyond the law, in professional and business matters.
Discovering a Candidate’s Likely Approach to Ethics
For starters, somewhere during the interview, find out what ethics code or codes the candidate is subject to by virtue of membership in professional societies or because of holding professional license. Licensing boards typically adopt ethics codes and expect licensees to apply them. Ask for an example of when a code provision affected the candidate’s behavior.
As an aside, if I discover anywhere in the search process that the candidate is not an active member of a professional society and/or is not licensed or on that track, I would be very concerned because I want colleagues who give back, lead, and learn.
Notice that I suggested asking the candidate for a personal (actual) example of how a code provision affected his or her behavior. This is a behavioral or retrospective question, contrasted with a hypothetical or prospective question. The behavioral or retrospective question focuses on actual events and behaviors. This says more about a person than answers to hypothetical or prospective questions which look forward in an imaginary manner.
If you, the prospective employer, have a code, mention it. This will tell the prospect something about your organization's culture and the candidate’s response will tell your organization something about his or her values.
Share a current actual ethical challenge, while respecting confidentialities, and ask the candidate for his or her views on how to resolve it. While this is a somewhat hypothetical question, it provides a “real” ethical situation to stimulate discussion.
Frankly, I’ve had many opportunities to do the preceding while working in the business, government, and academic sectors, and regret that I didn’t do it more often. While I tried to exemplify ethical behavior, I could have more frequently discussed ethics codes when evaluating and interviewing job candidates.
The preceding “work in ethics” idea supports my overall colleague search approach. It is nicely expressed by editor and writer Paul Dickson who said “If you want a track team to win the high jump, you find one person who can jump seven feet, not seven people who can jump one foot.”
Inevitably, we and our personnel will face major ethical issues -- high bars. Let’s find team members who can meet the challenge.
My experience suggests that if you find candidates who “fit” your desired knowledge, skill, and attitudes profile, and meet your ethics expectations, offer them twenty percent above the current average salary. You will get one hundred percent more performance than the average employee.
You may say it costs too much to hire the “best” people, whether they are “best” in ethics, technical work, project management, marketing, research and development, etc. We hire them, they quickly learn, and then they leave. Some will.
But your long-term costs will be greater if you hire mediocre personnel, ethically or otherwise, and they stay.
Walesh, S. G. 2012. Engineering Your Future: The Professional Practice of Engineering. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.
I welcome opportunities to speak, teach, conduct workshops, and collaborate about any aspect of ethics. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 219-242-1704.
I’ve helped many engineering-oriented business, government, and academic organizations with education and training.
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