The Nexus of Ethics

By Linda Wasmer Andrews Aug 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, August 2005Many experts say a persons ethics on and off the job cant be separatedand there are ways to get a pretty clear picture of how a person really behaves.


You probably have heard it from co-workers: “What I do on my own time has nothing to do with my job. I draw a line between my personal life and what I do at work.”

If there is such a line between ethics on and off the job, though, it may be fainter than assumed. Consider, for example, Harry Stonecipher, who had to resign as CEO of Boeing last spring after having an extramarital affair with a Boeing executive. Although the affair had not compromised Boeing’s operational performance or financial condition, the company’s chairman said in a prepared statement, “the facts reflected poorly on Harry’s judgment and would impair his ability to lead the company.”

Clearly, top-tier executives should take note of Stonecipher’s spectacular fall. But what about the rest of us? Is there a relationship between personal ethics and business ethics, and, if so, what are its ramifications for hiring employees on every rung of the corporate ladder?

A number of ethicists and psychologists have begun challenging the cherished notion that we can keep our private selves and work selves separate. “We’d like to think there’s a crisp line that divides the behaviors we do outside of work and those we engage in at work,” says David Gebler, president of Working values, a business ethics and training company in Sharon, Mass. But Gebler and others say the line is growing increasingly blurry.

The relationship between private life and business life is not just an abstract philosophical issue. More companies, looking at recent high-profile corporate scandals, are searching for ways to avoid becoming the next front-page debacle. For HR professionals, that creates pressure to take a candidate’s ethics, both personal and business, into account when making decisions about hiring and promotion.

In a random survey of HR professionals conducted in May by the Society for Human Resource Management, more than four-fifths of 371 respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that organizations should take into account personal ethics and off-the-job behaviors when making hiring and promotion decisions. The online poll had a 5 percent margin of error.

“We certainly value family, religion and a hard-work ethic,” says Denise Noel, director of quality and human resources at Dayton Freight Lines, a freight carrier in Dayton, Ohio. But she acknowledges that “what you do outside of work, we would probably never know. From the HR perspective, it would be very difficult to ascertain those things.”

Yet there are clues—if you know where to look. Below, experts share their advice on using integrity interviews, background checks and personality tests to gauge the personal ethics of job candidates. First, though, what about the fundamental questions: Are personal ethics and business ethics really two sides of the same coin? Or are we comparing pennies and nickels?

Bedrooms and Boardrooms

Most of us would like to believe there’s at least some separation between work and home. “My own view is that one’s private life is private,” says Dick Mason, a business professor and director of the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I think that ought to be the prima-facie viewpoint.”

Mason, for one, doesn’t believe that private lapses such as cheating on a spouse necessarily indicate a greater propensity for cheating, lying and stealing on the job. “I’ve certainly seen a lot of very successful and, I think, quite ethical executives who appeared to have an infidelity in their personal lives,” says Mason. “As far as I was concerned, that was none of my business. And in those situations that I’m aware of, the personal infidelity hadn’t flowed over to affect their business life.”

However, “if you’re going to cheat on your wife, who are you not going to cheat on?” asks Robert Hogan, former chair of the psychology department at the University of Tulsa and president of Hogan Assessment Systems, based in Tulsa, Okla., and Jacksonville, Fla. “Every guy I know who fools around is also a liar and a cheat in other ways. You just can’t depend on them.”

Hogan is the author of over 200 scholarly books, chapters and articles as well as developer of the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), a widely used, business-oriented personality test. He says the research data are clear on one point: “If you get work colleagues or subordinates to describe a person, and then you get the spouse and neighbors to describe the person, they all see the same individual.”

When it comes to bad behavior, Hogan says there’s an intrinsic link between embezzling, on one hand, and marital infidelity, public drunkenness, traffic tickets, fighting, vandalism and not paying one’s personal bills, on the other. “All these things involve breaking the rules, and they’re all motivated by hostility toward or disregard for authority.”

The Science of Misbehavior

Indeed, a vast body of research shows that there are unifying themes in people’s behavior—or misbehavior, as the case may be. Psychologically speaking, a trait is a broad personality disposition that is relatively consistent across situations and generally stable over time. For the past 40 years, Marvin Zuckerman, a professor emeritus in the psychology department at the University of Delaware, has been studying something he calls the sensation-seeking trait. People who score high in this trait tend to act impulsively without thinking. They’re driven to seek excitement and new experiences, and they’re often willing to take risks in order to satisfy those needs.

Research has shown a strong association between behaviors such as substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and compulsive gambling. “It’s the sensation-seeking trait that underlies many of these activities,” says Zuckerman. Whether and how the trait is expressed at work depends on the situation. Zuckerman says that some sensation seekers choose jobs that offer enough variety to satisfy their need for change. Others bottle up their sensation-seeking tendencies at work, but let rip as soon as they get home. And still others who also have antisocial tendencies—in other words, an unwillingness or inability to conform to the accepted standards of society—get their kicks through criminal activities, including corporate crime. Explains Zuckerman, “Most high-sensation seekers are not antisocial, but almost all people with antisocial personalities are high-sensation seekers.”

Taken to a pathological extreme, a lifelong pattern of misbehavior may be a sign of a condition known as antisocial personality disorder. Dr. Donald Black, a psychiatry professor at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and author of Bad Boys, Bad Men: Confronting Antisocial Personality Disorder (Oxford University Press, 1999), says between 2 percent and 3 percent of U.S. adults fall into this category. Some are in jail or on welfare, but others are sitting in boardrooms. As Black puts it in his book, “Antisocials are not just muggers, rapists and violent assailants. They sometimes are embezzlers, tax evaders, fraudulent businessmen, corrupt stock brokers and conniving attorneys.”

Black has done research in which he looked up people decades after they were first diagnosed as being antisocial. “Most of them were still getting in trouble,” says Black. “They remained severely impacted by their antisocial personality disorder even into their 70s and 80s.” Black notes that their problems tended to extend across all spheres of life, including “their marriage, their finances and their work.”

Insight Through Interviews

The bottom line: It would probably be very useful to know what a person is like both at work and at home before making a job offer, especially if it’s a high-profile or sensitive position. The catch, as any HR professional knows, is that you’re not allowed to ask job candidates many of the most obvious questions. The legal restrictions on what you can ask are intended to prevent discrimination and protect individual privacy. But they pose a challenge for HR professionals who want to gauge the fit between an individual’s ethical standards and those of the company.

For example, even if your company defines personal ethics in terms of “family values,” you still shouldn’t ask prospective employees about their marital or parental status. And even if your employer defines personal morality in religious terms, you should still steer clear of any questions about a job candidate’s religion.

“A lot of behavior that an academic or a philosopher might rely upon [in assessing a person’s character] is just illegal to rely upon in a hiring situation,” says Lester Rosen, president and CEO of Employment Screening Resources, a pre-employment screening firm in Novato, Calif.

What assessment options remain? One of the best is the integrity interview, says William Byham, who has a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology and is chairman and CEO of Development Dimensions International, an HR training and consulting firm in Bridgeville, Pa. This type of employment interview is composed of carefully selected, open-ended questions. The interviewer first asks the job candidate about past ethical behavior, on the assumption that it’s the best predictor of future conduct. The interviewer then asks probing follow-up questions to illuminate the thinking behind the reported behavior.

As a practical matter, Byham says, most integrity interviews include about three questions, which would add about 45 minutes to the standard interview process. Ideally, two or three people would conduct the interview. Byham recommends staying away from hypothetical questions, which lend themselves to facile, hypothetical answers. Instead, he advises asking about things people have actually done when faced with a work-related ethical dilemma.

For example: “Have you ever had to bend the rules or exaggerate a little bit when trying to make a sale?” Once the job candidate replies, the interviewer can probe with additional questions such as, “Can you give me another example?” Since the questions focus on work-related behavior, though, they give only an indirect indication of what the person might be like outside the office.

To get a better-rounded picture of the whole person, “we almost always try to engage someone at least once outside of the office setting,” says Diane Malanowski, senior vice president of HR at SchoolNet, an educational software company in New York. Malanowski says you can pick up a multitude of clues about a person’s character by simply having a restaurant meal together. “You’ll see how they interact with the waiter or the people sitting at adjacent tables. I sometimes say, ‘Gee, how much of a tip do you think we should leave?’ Then, based on whatever percentage they suggest, I ask why. I want to see how they make those decisions. A lot of it bears on how they view the world in a more general sense.”

Checking the Records

Background checks also can reveal a lot about a person’s character, says Julie Burwell, SPHR, an HR generalist at the Lexington, Ky., headquarters of printer manufacturer Lexmark International. “I think that an individual’s basic character is constant to a large degree in all areas of his or her life,” she says. According to Burwell, types of bad behavior outside of work that should be red flags for employers include resume dishonesty, violent acts or threats, and illegal activities. As a result, verification of prior employment and credentials, a criminal record background check, and pre-employment drug testing can all provide valuable insights into a prospective employee’s ethical makeup.

As with interviews, you need to make sure you stay within legal bounds. Even if you turn up a criminal record, for instance, you can’t automatically deny employment. “An employer needs a business justification not to hire based upon a criminal past,” says Rosen, author of The Safe Hiring Manual: The Complete Guide to Keeping Criminals, Terrorists and Imposters Out of Your Workplace (Facts on Demand, 2004).

Within legal limits, though, a background check can provide a useful glimpse into a person’s past conduct both inside and outside the workplace. Rosen says, “It shows whether you’re hiring a person who has demonstrated that, given the right opportunity and means, he or she can be tempted to suffer a moral breach.”

A more controversial tactic is the use of credit reports. While behaviors ranging from compulsive gambling to substance abuse could lead to a high debt level or shaky payment history, so could a serious illness or a divorce. Because of such variables, Rosen says, the information in an employment credit report “is really only a valid predictor of job performance for jobs in which people handle money. Unless the employer can articulate a clear connection between what’s in a credit report and the actual job, the credit report could be viewed as an invasion of privacy and potentially discriminatory.”

Yet another way of assessing character is through the use of personality assessments, which look at broad dimensions of personality that may be related to an array of problem behaviors in various settings. For example, the HPI includes scales designed to measure seven dimensions of personality. These scales have been validated through extensive research correlating them with other validated tests, peer ratings and measures of workplace performance. Hogan says the “prudence” scale is the one most directly related to ethics, both in the workplace and elsewhere. He maintains that people with low scores on this scale have an increased tendency to “lie, cheat, steal, drink, fight, fornicate and generally carry on.”

At Dayton Freight Lines, Noel says they give the HPI to all prospective employees, from dockworkers and truck drivers to dispatchers and managers. If you’re considering similar testing for your job candidates, be sure to choose a test that has been adequately evaluated to show its utility and reliability.

Says Hogan: “The good tests are the ones for which there are solid, dependable data linking scores on the test to performance on the job”—an attribute known as validity. The HPI, for example, has been used in over 400 validity studies.

As with other employment screening methods, it’s critical to understand the legal limits on the use of such tests in your state. Also, the test should be reviewed to make sure the questions don’t violate job applicants’ privacy rights.

Why go to all this trouble? “I do think that employees who cross the line in their personal life—whether it’s an affair or cheating on their personal income taxes or whatever—usually can’t stop there,” says Dave Stein, an executive coach from Mahopac, N.Y. “It’s a personal trait that will negatively impact their professional career—if not today or next week, then next year or the year afterward.”

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M., who has specialized in health and psychology issues for two decades.
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