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Job search ethics: The good, the bad, and the ugly

It’s tough to write about ethics. There’s always a chance that I’ll sound like I’m preaching, which isn’t a great style for a columnist. And I’ve had my own job market infractions, so I’m not squeaky clean. But it’s an important topic, so here we go. The bottom line is that there’s a good way to handle certain elements of the job search, a bad way—and an ugly, dirty way. Follow the lessons in these examples to keep clean.

My introduction to job search ethics

When I got out of college, I couldn’t find work in my desired field, so I took what I thought would be a short stint working completely out of my area with the first company that would hire me. Turns out, I did well and, a few years later, had headhunters contacting me with opportunities to move into management. I was so intrigued about one of these jobs that I threw my hat in the ring and started waiting for the call. And waiting. And then, a couple of weeks later, I did the stupidest thing possible. (Remember, I hadn’t even heard back from the employer.)

I was having an after-work beer with my boss, and the conversation turned to how I was feeling about my job. For some reason, I decided to share with him that I’d been “talking to XYZ competitor.” I puffed up my chest and spoke about how excited I was to be in the running there.

Why I wasn’t fired immediately, I have no idea. Instead, my boss picked up the phone and got the story from his friend who worked at that competitor. He learned that I was at the bottom of a pile of resumes that some headhunter had submitted to them speculatively. “Zero interest, too few years of experience” is what I recall hearing.

My lesson? Exaggeration in any form is a deal-killer when it comes to new jobs, or to career progress in an existing job. Get known for puffery and it will haunt you until the day you leave that company.

Come clean

In the job search, ethics can begin to go south with resumes and CVs. Ethical considerations aside, there’s a good chance you’ll get caught if you “customize” your CV beyond the truth. There are now so many false dates of employment and accomplishments that employers must hire external reference checkers who verify the information on a resume and, in some cases, speak to those who can validate these claims. So, the only approach to take when writing your CV is to be honest, with nothing omitted and nothing massaged.

A fully ethical CV does not mask over short stays by using the “years only” approach (“2012 to 2014”). When you are interviewed, you’ll be asked exactly how long that period of education or employment was. Wouldn’t it be better to show “December 2012 to January 2014” from the start? Never give an employer any reason to assume that you’ve manipulated the information on your CV.

It goes without saying that adding unearned degrees is unethical—but what about deleting a degree? Some scientists think that dropping the Ph.D. from their CV can make them more marketable for the many bachelor's- and master's-level jobs that are out there. Not so fast, a human resources contact warned me. “That’s cause for dismissal. You must be completely truthful, and that includes deletion of jobs or education as well as fabricating those that didn’t exist.”

Don’t inflate the numbers

When a prospective employer asks you for your current income, it makes sense to give a high number so that you get a generous offer, right? Wrong. Not only is doing so unethical, but you can end up shooting yourself in the foot.

I was reminded of this a few years ago, when an employer I was working with asked my candidate to provide a statement of his current earnings. The candidate provided an Excel spreadsheet showing the complete package with all the benefits. It was presented well, and some of the items could be validated by what my client and I knew about that employer’s benefits. So I set to work on getting the offer fine-tuned and as attractive as I could.

Unfortunately for my candidate, he opted to play one organization against the other by flashing the offer letter to his manager in hopes of getting a counter-offer. What he didn’t realize was that the two bosses had previously worked together and had played handball regularly over the years. The existing boss called up the prospective boss and said, “Hey, trying to steal my people, eh?” Soon the conversation led to a reveal of the candidate’s real salary—nearly $40,000 below what he had listed. In one swift move, that person had his offer retracted from one company and lost credibility with his present firm. It was career suicide.

As a postdoc or graduate student, you won’t have all that much to disclose initially about income. Just remember not to shoot a salary figure to anyone without disclosing the fact that you also get benefits such as travel to meetings or insurance of one kind or another. Anything that has value should be brought up at the same time.

But don’t confuse the question about your present earnings with the completely unethical question from an employer about what you’d expect to earn at the new job. There, you need to be careful what you say to put yourself in strong negotiating position.

Your word is your bond

You got an offer! Congratulations! The question now is whether it is ethical to say “yes” while still remaining open to other jobs. I, and many hiring managers I’ve spoken with, believe the answer is no. Accepting one job, verbally or in written form, and then going to other interviews or remaining open to other offers will not be seen as acting faithful to your earlier commitment. It is the highest of ethical breaches.

Some younger folks seem to disagree with me about this. The way we interpret these things can change with time and with our culture, and some matters of ethics are up to interpretation.

Still, there are some basic aspects of what is perceived as ethical and unethical in the job market, and you’ll long be respected and rise in your field if you can take a stance on matters like these while you are early in your career. Follow them through as you grow and you’ll become one of those who will always be sought after.

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