Interviewing is a Two-way Street
Joan Elise Dubinsky, Fellow, Rutland Institute of Ethics
Are you thinking about where you would like to work once you have graduated from Clemson? Of course, you are! Unless you already have a job waiting for you. Even if you are one of the lucky few, keep reading. For in the next few paragraphs, let me share with you some of the secrets for finding truly satisfying work.
Clemson University, August 2022
All the advice for job seekers that I have ever read focuses on what you have to offer and how well you will adapt to a potential new employer. Once you are on the job market, you are offering your labor and your time in exchange for something valuable in return. For most of us, that’s called a paycheck. This analysis is proceduralist, legalistic, and transactional. If you start feeling like a commodity in search of an advertising campaign, tell yourself that you are just being realistic.
If we think about the current way of finding employment we are promoting a kind of salesmanship. You have something to offer, and your immediate task is to sell yourself as the best possible candidate. Selling and buying, or submitting a job application and landing an interview, are transactional and determinative. The mutually agreed—but rarely spelled out—end point is negotiating a job offer or stopping the conversation at an earlier point. You, as seller of skills, and the potential employer, as buyer of your services, have a tacit agreement that through the interview and recruitment process you will each satisfy the other’s needs. It's a simple equation: Your labor plus time plus best efforts equals a paycheck with direct deposit.
Does this make anyone feel even a bit uncomfortable? I am. I find this type of analysis disheartening. And perhaps just a bit old fashioned. Your job search does not have to be quite so one-sided. Finding satisfying work should be a two-way street. Let’s think about how we can make that happen.
What are we missing? Are you no more than the total of your labor and time? To paraphrase the late Stephen Sondheim in his musical, A Little Night Music, we are seeking more than a pleasurable means to a measurable end.
As a job seeker, you are not for sale. You may choose to offer your time and attention, your skills, your creativity, and your entrepreneurship to a specific employer. In return, you expect to receive fair and decent compensation and to be respected as a whole person. Consider a partnership model rather than an economic equation that requires you to monetize everything that you bring to your career. I struggle to reduce all that we bring to our professional lives to something that can be merely bought and sold. Monetary value should not adequately describe your relationship to the organization where you invest yourself.
In other words, we are talking about a partnership. Partnerships are more personally and morally satisfying than the classic economic equation of labor plus time equals wages. Partnerships are more complex to achieve, and they do raise some ethical considerations. So, let’s see what we can do to untangle some of that complexity.
In a partnership, we describe the ethical values that form the foundation of our relationship. We make sure that our belief systems are clearly communicated. We welcome others to get to know us. We don’t hide our values and beliefs. We want to work with others—and especially other employees—whose core ethical values and beliefs overlap with ours.
Partnerships are transparent. The more clearly that mission, vision, values, and goals are articulated, the more likely that each member of that partnership will get on board. With understanding, we reach agreement relatively quickly and can proceed with getting the right things done. At a partnership, all policies are published and freely available. You never have to hunt to find the rules, the codes, or the guidelines.
Partnerships don’t hide critical or negative information. The best example that I know is the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, a global partnership and financing facility dedicated to eradicating these three deadly diseases. At the Global Fund, every document is published on its website, unless there is a specific determination from either the CEO or the Board to withhold a document from public scrutiny. It can take a while to find the information you need because of the sheer volume of materials that are available. With patience you will find it all—the good, bad, ugly, indifferent, disappointing, amazing, and uplifting.
Partnerships are committed to ethics and integrity. This commitment is more than lip service. Successful partnerships focus on ethical leadership because they know that tone from the top matters. Each of us models our own behavior—consciously or subconsciously—on the conduct of our immediate, line-of-sight boss. If executives, managers, supervisors, and team leaders accept that they are ethical role models, you will find a workplace culture that is trusting, accountable, and focused on integrity.
It’s a rare employer that embraces that its relationship with employees is that of partnership—not economics. However, there are many employers who have integrated aspects of this ideal into their own everyday culture. It’s your task to uncover whether a potential employer is more transactional or partnering in its relationships with its current and future employees.
As an interviewee, what can you do to uncover the real culture of an organization? Unless you have Sherlock Holmes on your side, you will need to do some detective work. And that’s why we say that interviewing is a two-way street. What can you ask and what can you look for as you are being interviewed? What is it that you need to know before you decide whether you want to continue with the recruitment process?
As you prepare for your next job interview, take this list of questions with you.
- The very best question you can ask—especially if time is short and you only get one question---is “What is it really like to work here?” Culture describes the unwritten and written norms of behavior that shape how we accomplish work, how we communicate, how we relate to each other, and ultimately who we are. Finding out what it’s like to work for a particular employer will reveal a list of adjectives that people use to describe their own workplace experiences. Are those adjectives more positive than negative? Can you see yourself working here in 5 years?
- The next question to ask is whether this organization has a code of ethics or code of conduct—and does the interviewer have a copy that she can lend you? Of course, a reputable and trustworthy organization should have a code of ethics and it should be fully and freely available. The real insight is whether your interviewer has a copy close at hand and will readily hand it to you or send a copy by email. Codes of ethics are just words if they are not used. An employee who uses the code of conduct to help make tough decisions will know where their copy is. And with luck, it’s a bit dog eared and marked with highlighting as we tend to do with important references that we use all the time.
- With luck you’ll have time for your third and final question. It is about commitment. All CEO’s will say that they are personally committed to the highest standards of ethics and compliance under the law. What does this really mean? Ethical business conduct requires action. You can ask your interviewer, “How do leaders at this company show their commitment to ethics? What do they do that tells you being ethical matters?”