Are Quotas a Morally Justifiable Action?
Workplace Violence on the Rise

Is it okay to “exaggerate” on a resumé or during an interview?

The Ethics of Looking for a Job

During the past few months I’ve counseled my students on job interviewing and have observed some behavior that concerns me. Most students know an outright lie is wrong such as overstating one’s GPA, making up jobs that do not exist, or falsifying recommendation letters. Some students draw the line there and do not think there is anything wrong with a little exaggeration. For example, being a lifeguard and describing the experience as “aquatic recreation management supervisor,” or citing supervisory experience when all it is was babysitting.

The problem with exaggeration is it misleads the potential interviewer about your experiences and you may be hired to do a job that you are not qualified to do. Sooner or later you will get caught in a situation where your employer will expect you to have meaningful experience in a field you know little about. Exaggerating on one’s CV or in an interview is also unethical because it is unfair to the interviewer and company interviewing you that is acting in good faith in giving you the opportunity. You, on the other hand, are pursuing your own interests, as you perceive them, and ignoring the interests of others. It sets a terrible tone for the way you may function in the workplace.

Here are two more situations I see very often with students.

Is it okay to accept a job offer and then retract it later if something “better” comes along?

This is a cardinal sin of job-hunting. You have given your promise and then reneged. How can you be trusted in the workplace? Going back on your word shows a lack of integrity. A person of integrity lives by ethical standards and does not make decisions without considering the consequences of actions. I can tell you from first-hand experience that firms share information, and you never know “who knows who.” Imagine if you accepted a second offer after backing out on the first, and then the two recruiters who know each other find out. It will put a permanent black mark on your record.

Should you interview for or accept a job with a long-term commitment when you have short-range future plans?

This may be a bit more complicated. It depends mainly on whether you have been up front about your plans. In other words what was your intent? Intent demonstrates ethicalness and sensitivity to others' interests. You cannot be a valued employee in the workplace without caring about others and being empathetic.

If you are looking for a job for a year or two and then plan to move on, it may be acceptable. In fact, the average person changes jobs every two years. You may even find you like where you are working and decide to stay longer. On the other hand, if you know you are moving out of town after a year and you take a job with a local firm knowing it has an expectation of a long-term commitment, then you are misleading the employer about your intentions. The  employer invests a great deal of time and money in you as a new employee to prepare you for a career. It shows a lack of responsibility to accept a job and then leave where those were your intentions from the get-go and not because the job is not working out.

Research has shown that college students tend to be unaware of their ethical options and to act egocentrically without understanding the implications of their behavior. My advice is to think through the consequences of your actions before you decide how to approach a job inquiry, interview, and after landing the job. You build a reputation for trust one day at a time, and it takes a long time to build that reputation but not very long to destroy it. Just ask Lance Armstrong.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 30, 2013