Ask an Ethicist: Representing yourself honestly in an interview

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In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: How should I respond to questions from an employer about future plans if my future plans are outside of the scope of the company or organization?  How should I respond to questions from an employer about legal infractions if I have committed some infractions?

An ethicist responds:

What is in a name? Your name essentially represents your brand. For many of us, the name that we carry is important to us, and this is why you want to represent your brand honestly throughout the interview process. There are a number of scenarios that can arise throughout the process that will force us to make ethical decisions about how to embody our brand in the most honest manner without hurting our chances of attaining employment. 

Future plans

Employers are looking for future employees whose brand aligns with their vision. So, how can you respond honestly to questions about your future plans if they are outside the scope of the company or organization? This can be a tricky question to answer, and one that requires some ethical consideration. Some of the concerns students have revolve around not wanting to seem as if they do not really want the position, to a fear of being too ambitious during the interview process and risk overselling their abilities. What the interviewer is really trying to do is understand the vision you have of yourself for the future and how well it aligns with goals of the company. The interviewer can also use this question as a barometer to assess your commitment to the profession. 

Another common concern you might have is what happens if you disclose your future plans to pursue a master’s degree within the next year or two? The competitive nature of the job market causes employers to look for any red flags that could give them a reason to not hire you. If employers view you as a potential employee who does not express long term interest in growing with the company, they may prefer to select a candidate who does. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find out the reason you were not hired for a specific position because employers rarely share this information with interviewees. However, if you believe that you have been overlooked for a position because of a certain interview response, I recommend you to go Career Services to get an additional perspective on your experience during the interview process.  There are a number of ways to respond to interview questions and if you don’t get feedback from the employer, speaking with someone at Career Services can help you assess the situation and follow up. Applicants must also consider that employers may not want to invest the time and energy to ingratiate new employees into a position when there is a chance they will leave as soon as a more attractive opportunity comes along. However, to some employers they might see this as an ambitious move that will help to advance your career within their company, and in that case, disclosing this information could be beneficial.

Ethically, failure to disclose this information could potentially harm your professional relationship with this employer, and could affect any recommendations or endorsements you might need from them in the future.  For instance, if you know that the position you are applying for is looking for a long-term hire, it could be considered unethical to continue on in the process knowing that your stay on the job will be short-term. By not disclosing this information, you are taking away time and resources from the employer and possibly taking away opportunities from other candidates who would be a better fit.

Employers are looking for a specific brand of employees, those who they believe will best represent their brand as an employer. Therefore, it is important to weigh all possible outcomes when it comes to answering questions about your future and what ethical implications they might carry.

Legal infractions

Remember, you are representing your brand, so even if you have had legal infractions in the past, it is important to know your options so that you can broach this topic in an honest and ethical manner. Employers may or may not ask you about your arrest record on an application or in an interview as it depends on the state in which you live; in some states it is illegal for employers to ask about or consider arrests that did not lead to convictions. Nolo provides a state-by-state nationwide reference list for each state’s laws in regard to the use of arrests and convictions in the hiring process. A conviction means that you have been declared guilty of a crime by a court or that you plead guilty to a crime. An arrest means you were taken into custody by police and held temporarily.

Employers only have the right to refuse to hire people because of a criminal record if it is related to the job. On the other hand, employers who refuse to hire someone because of a criminal record that is unrelated to the job may be in violation of racial discrimination laws. According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), refusal to hire applicants because of their criminal record can be a form of racial discrimination because, statistically, African-Americans and Hispanics are arrested and convicted at much higher rates than Whites.

The bottom line is if you live in a state that does not have a law that prohibits employers from asking about arrests, you must be honest and truthful in your response. If the employer does a background check, they are likely to find out about the arrests anyway, so it would be in your best interest to be upfront rather than get caught in a lie. The employer cannot refuse to hire you because of the arrest, but they can fire you because of the lie. If your state does have a law that prohibits employers from asking about arrests that did not lead to convictions, there are several ways to respond. From an ethical standpoint you could refuse to answer the question but this could hinder your chances of getting the job, and can viewed as dishonest. A lawful way to answer this question would be to leave out any arrests that did not lead to convictions. If you have an arrest record, it would be best to consult with your attorney about your legal rights during the hiring process for your state.

Remember it is your brand at stake, so represent.

Saleem Clarke is an interim career counselor at Penn State Career Services. He is also a doctoral candidate in Counselor Education at Penn State, and was formerly a middle school teacher.

Have a question? Submit it here.

Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. 


Saleem Clarke is an interim career counselor at Penn State Career Services.  He is also a PhD candidate in Counselor Education at Penn State, and was formerly a middle school teacher.  Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated March 13, 2017