08/14/2015 12:08 EDT | Updated 08/14/2016 05:59 EDT

5 Tips for Choosing an Ethical Employer

Business people shaking hands in office building
Dan Dalton via Getty Images
Business people shaking hands in office building

One of the most important ethical decisions most of us make is who to work for. You may think that your choice of employer will not affect your ethics, but this is unrealistic. When you work for a company that engages in unethical conduct, it is hard to survive without participating in or at least condoning that conduct.

So how do you choose a company that fits your ethics? Remember that a company that fits one person's ethics may not fit your ethics. Here are five tips for picking a company that fits your ethics.

1. Check the Value Proposition. Look at the products and services offered by the company and ask if they represent a good value to consumers. The most basic ethical responsibility of any company is to offer products and services that provide its customers good value. If an organization is not offering good value to its customers, it is unlikely to be otherwise ethical. When you think of highly admired companies such as Apple, GE, Nordstrom or Costco, all of them offer good value to their customers. And companies that offer good value to their customers tend to be prosperous enough to avoid relying on shady practices.

2. Assess the Employment Process. A key indicator of a company's ethics is how it treats individuals seeking employment. For some companies, the application process itself is demeaning -- waiting in line endlessly to submit an application that makes no sense. The message is that you, the applicant, do not matter. A job applicant is in a highly vulnerable position with no recourse for being demeaned. The company is showing you how it really feels about people. On the other hand, if the application and evaluation process is respectful, that is a good sign about the company's ethical commitment to people.

3. Study the Reward System. All companies say they are ethical since this is the right thing to say. But companies reward employees for the behaviors that the company really values. If the company rewards employees for performance no matter how it is achieved, that is exactly what it will get. The key to being a truly ethical company is putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to compensation. If a company's reward system focuses only on financially measured performance, don't expect a lot of time to be spent pondering the ethical implications of what the company does.

4. Ask What It Does. Ask if the activities of the company are consistent with your ethics. This may seem obvious, but you may blink at what the company does when you just want to find a job. Even if you get a job with a company whose main activities are inconsistent with your ethics, your ethical reservations will hold you back. While you may be able to move through the lower ranks, your reservations will show as you rise in the organization A vegetarian who goes to work for a meat packing company is bound to find trouble.

5. Listen to What It Says. There is no point in seeking employment with a company whose public positions are antagonistic to your core beliefs. You can't expect to work for a company that agrees with all of your beliefs. That might be nice, but it's not likely to happen. However, if a company's public commitments conflict in a serious way with your ethical beliefs, expect problems. If the company has taken a position against human involvement in global warming, it probably is not the right place for an environmentalist to work. Employees sometimes imagine that they can ignore a company's public positions, or even change them, but this is seldom true.

If you assess a company's ethics before you go to work for it, you are less likely to face a career-ending ethical conflict. Remember, once you choose to work for a company, you will find it hard to completely separate your ethics from the company's ethics. It is well worth the time to find an employer for whom you can work with a clear conscience.


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