Asking a good question as a path to ethical conduct

by Jeffrey M. Kaplan

The late Nobel Laureate in physics Isidor I. Rabi once said: ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist!”

Employment-related questions

In The Road to Character, David Brooks notes that he once met an employer who asked every job applicant: “Describe a time when you told the truth and it hurt you.’”  This is, to my mind, a very good C&E-related question, as it can help identify those who practice, as well as preach, ethical behavior. It also reminds those asking the questions about the importance of C&E to the organization.  

A frequently used variation on this question is: “Describe an ethical challenge you’ve faced and how you dealt with it.”’  

And another approach is to present the interviewee with a hypothetical ethics quandary and to ask how she would deal with it.

(Of course in doing this the questioner should make it clear that she is not asking for confidential information about any other company.) 

This practice has several benefits:

– It helps the employer determine whether ethics is a strength or weakness for the candidate, which could impact the decision of whether to hire her.

– It sends a message to employment candidates that C&E is important to the company, which hopefully they will remember if they get the job.

– It sends a message within the company generally – and particularly to those who conduct the interviews – that C&E is important to the company.

I also believe the inquiry should be a two-way street, meaning employees should also ask C&E questions of their prospective employers.  This might be a question about the C&E program generally: Is it strong?  Is the tone at the top healthy?  Or how does the workforce generally view C&E?

Another approach is to ask prospective employees about risks of misconduct in the company’s industry.  Even where a company seems ethical, one might want to do extra due diligence if the company’s competitors as well as others with whom they deal (customers, suppliers and others)  are routinely engaging in inappropriate activities.

Also, the questions – whether posed by the candidate or employer – should vary by position, at least for higher-ups.  Certainly this would be true with interviews of board members, and maybe others near “the top.”

Finally, there are many other topics the candidates might ask about but one should not be seen as conducting an investigation. A balance should be struck.

Surveys

Of course, employment interviews are not the only setting in which it is important to ask good C&E-related questions. Another is employee engagement surveys, in which one commonly sees questions about relative comfort in reporting violations and perceptions of the ethicality of the organization’s management.

These are good topics for questions, and I think every company that fields an employee engagement survey should use them. But my favorite question of this sort  comes from a survey conducted by the Economist which measured respondents’ perception of the need for ethical flexibility to advance one’s career within an organization.  What I particularly like about this question is the focus on flexibility – which may be easier for respondents to admit to than asking outright about their engaging in ethical transgressions.

Audits

Yet another setting for asking C&E questions is the compliance audit. While most of what is done in C&E audits revolves around document reviews, interviewing employees can be part of the picture as well. Among the topics that should be considered for such questioning: Does the interviewee think that the company’s training is effective? In addition to producing useful information about training itself, posing this question may make it easier for employees to identify concerns about risks and actual violations. I.e., like the question above about ethical “flexibility,” questions about C&E training may offer a “soft” way of approaching a “hard” topic.

Moreover, questions about training can be asked not only in audits but as part of (and typically at the end of) the training itself.  One possibility here is to ask whether after the training the employee now feels that she understands how the company’s compliance program applies to her job – again, a variation on the “soft” question approach.

Exit interviews

Finding the right question can also be important in developing a C&E-component to a company’s exit interview template. Options include general culture questions, such as how do you rate our company as a values and ethics driven employer – with an opportunity to say why; specific questions about key aspects of the program, such as whether the departing employee understood all the options for reporting concerns; and, of course, asking whether the employee was aware of any unreported concerns.

I should stress that this post is not intended to cover the whole world of asking C&E-related questions.  Among the areas not addressed: the importance of Q&A in codes of conduct and approaches to asking questions in risk assessments.

Finally, to an extraordinary degree, boards of directors can have the power to impact a C&E program simply by asking the right questions. Here (on page 2 of the PDF) is an article which offers not actual questions but topics that boards can turn into questions in overseeing their respective companies’ C&E programs.

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