What was the most difficult ethical decision you've ever had to make in your career or during your education, and what was the outcome?

Why Ask This Question?

The millennials were affected by a number of historic events in their lifetimes: September 11, the Iraq War, the Columbine High School tragedy, and, in the workplace, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. If that last one doesn't register quite as high as the first few mentioned, its effects are certainly felt in the office.

Millennials are known for being a ''corrective generation, committed to bettering the environment, strongly responding to sexual harassment in schools and at work, and ending corporate greed and corruption. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, also known as ''SOX,'' has mandated codes of conduct and workplace ethics statements in publicly traded companies that require ongoing training and certification as well as disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. And this workplace ethics standard has found its way into private and not-for-profit institutions as well, which makes this question fair game for the younger generation.

Analyzing the Response

Some of the more astute candidates may have answers right off the bat to your initial inquiry, but others may need a little prompting, like this: ''Ethics in the workplace has to do with sexual harassment, discrimination, and even potential violence in the workplace. Have you been involved in any of those types of events?'' If you're still getting a clueless look back from the candidate, ask: Has anyone ever asked you to speak off the record at work, and if so, have you granted that request?''

A typical answer may be, ''Sure. People have asked me to talk off the record on more than one occasion. Is that an ethical issue?'' And your response might be, ''It certainly could be. We all respect others' privacy, but when it comes to maintaining workplace confidences, how do you know when it's best not to say anything versus when you have an obligation to disclose the information to your supervisor and to the company?''

This will generally trigger a conversation about workplace sensitivity levels, confidentiality, loyalty, and the like. Remembering that this generation has grown up sharing private information on personal Web pages that grant access to invited'' friends, the conversation could easily turn toward matters of corporate confidentiality and nondisclosure as follows:

"Mary, if someone asks you to talk off the record and you grant their request, what if they tell you that they're being harassed by their supervisor? Do you have an obligation to disclose that to the company or not?''

Similarly,

''If someone makes an off-handed remark that they're feeling like they want to take one of their hunting rifles and 'do some justice' back in the office, how would you respond in terms of being torn between protecting their confidence and sharing that potential threat with management?''

''Finally, what if a coworker said that he wanted to post internal company information to a corporate gossip blog because he was very dissatisfied with the way management handled a particular issue? Would you feel compelled to say something to management in advance, or would you simply let it be?''

These aren't meant to be easy questions, and younger candidates may often assume that you're looking for them to be more concerned about others' privacy rather risking being seen as a disloyal snitch. However, younger workers, because of their tech-savvies and penchant for sharing personal feelings via electronic means, may indeed jeopardize your company's interests if they're not sensitized to these matters both during the interview and during the initial on-boarding process in orientation.

Before letting the candidate ponder these challenging questions too deeply, this gives you a good opportunity to jump right in and outline your expectations:

"Mary, I'm not asking you these questions to make you uncomfortable. However, I know that these very issues typically come up in the workplace as well as in corporate ethics training seminars and that most people have had some sort of experience with them, either firsthand or as an observer.

"I want to be clear about this as it's a very important workplace expectation here: In our company, we ask that employees do not engage in public blogging about confidential matters. In addition, if someone were feeling harassed or discriminated against, we would expect their fellow workers to help them by letting management know about the problem, under the assumption that people are sometimes afraid to get help for themselves for fear of retaliation. Simply stated, if we don't know about it, we can't fix it. Same thing with the gun example: We take potential threats, whether direct or veiled, very seriously and always want to provide our workers with a safe environment, even if that means meeting with an employee who made a flippant comment for a laugh.

"If you were to accept a position with our company, we'd want you to know in advance of your starting with us how strongly we feel about helping others and ensuring safety in the workplace. It's all about corporate responsibility and good citizenship. These values are simply too important for us not to address in the initial candidate screening process.

"Oh, by the way, the next time a coworker asks you to speak off the record about something at work, tell the individual, 'Maybe. As long as it doesn't have to do with harassment, discrimination, potential violence, or some other conflict of interest with the company, then you're free to talk away to your heart's content. Otherwise, I'm afraid I won't be able to keep it confidential.' See how it works now?''

And once again, you'll have provided candidates with quite a gift: workplace training and sensitivity to real-life issues that could very well happen to them in the office. You'll have addressed your corporate expectations of honesty and confidentiality, while demonstrating your commitment to ethics and corporate responsibility. Now that's a question geared toward the millennial generation's heart!

 
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