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Behavioral Interview Questions About Ethics

January 23 • 7 Minute Read


Have you ever encountered an ethical issue in the workplace? If so, did it make you feel uneasy or awkward? This is a common occurrence in today’s business environment, and somthing organizations work hard to prevent. Violations of ethics can cost companies time and money and create public relations issues that may impact their reputation or even their ability to stay in business. This is why you will be asked questions about the topic of ethics at some point during an interview. Employers have learned that the best way to explore a candidate’s ethics is to use behavioral questions. This approach confirms the person has had to confront an ethical issue and provides details of their actions and the results they experienced.

This article will help you get ready for behavioral questions that help employers understand your ability to address ethical issues in the workplace. Knowing how to correctly respond to these types of questions will help you demonstrate your ability to help a company maintain its ethical standards and convince the interviewer you are the right candidate for the job.

Behavioral Questions

Questions about your ability to react to challenging ethical situations are a specific type of behavioral questions. Behavioral questions explore how you handled situations in your past positions and indicate what you will do when faced with similar challenges in the future. You can identify behavioral questions when the interviewer starts the question with something like, “Tell me about a time …” or” What steps did you take …”

Questions About Ethics

The best way hiring managers can learn about your ability to handle ethical issues is to ask you questions about your previous experiences. These questions require you to create a story and relate it in an organized and clear fashion. Interviewers will note the methods you used to address ethical issues, how effective they were, and what results you achieved. They hope to learn that you are effective at confronting and dealing with ethical issues and that your behavior will not compromise the company’s values or put them in jeopardy.

How to Answer Questions Related to Workplace Ethics

People are generally uncomfortable talking about ethical issues, even if they have never had to confront an ethical dilemma in the workplace. It is easier to discuss your background and the key points described in your resume. But if you anticipate and are prepared to answer questions about ethics, you will find it easy to respond to them during an interview.  In your preparation don’t forget to research the company’s workplace culture.  Here you will find additional training on where to look for this information.

Ethics-related behavioral questions can be best responded to by using the STAR format. This helps you organize your response by creating a story related to the question.

The STAR format uses the following framework:

Situation – Briefly describe a situation related to the question. Ensure the situation you use corresponds withthe interviewer’s question about an ethical dilemma or challenge you encountered.

Task – Summarize the task or goal you needed to achieve. Describe how you had to respond to an issue in an ethical manner that protected each individual’s rights while complying with the company’s policies.

Action – Talk about the actions you took to accomplish the task or goal. The actions should focus on the steps you took to appropriately resolve the ethical dilemma.

Results – Discuss the results you achieved and the impact they had on the organization. Illustrate how your choices and the actions you took maintained the company’s integrity and did not put them at risk.

When preparing for an interview, you should anticipate these types of questions and have your STAR stories ready. The stories you relate should be relevant to the position for which you are interviewing so they resonate with the hiring manager. Preparing your stories in advance and rehearsing them before the interview will give you confidence. It will also enable you to respond to the interviewer’s questions by providing compelling stories and communicating them clearly and expertly.

Ethics-Based Behavioral Questions 

Here are some examples of ethics-based behavioral questions you can anticipate during an interview, the rationale behind them, and an example of how you can respond to them.

Question: Tell me about a time when your manager or supervisor asked you to do something that conflicted with your personal ethics?

Explanation: If you’re a seasoned employee who has worked at more than one job, you’ve likely encountered a situation where you were asked to do something that made you uncomfortable. Even in the most ethical organizations, you will encounter people who have different values than you. This causes conflicts and sometimes requires you to make compromises. Admitting this to the interviewer and describing how you dealt with the conflict in an ethical manner will demonstrate your ability to do this when you run into similar situations going forward.

Example: “Every organization I have worked for has experienced an ethical dilemma due to differences in employee values. (Situation) An example of this was when one of my managers asked me to date an invoice two weeks later in order to provide the customer extra time to pay. (Task) Even though the consequence of this was minimal, I felt uncomfortable doing it and had to find a way to say no to my manager. (Action) I explained my discomfort with the situation and suggested that we date the invoice correctly while extending the customer’s payment terms. (Results) My manager admired my integrity and liked the solution I created to address the issue. We took the appropriate action which resulted in a timely payment from the client and additional business from them going forward.”

Question: Have you ever experienced a situation where your employer asked you to misrepresent information?

Explanation: It is not uncommon for organizations to slightly misrepresent information about their products, services, or business operations. Normally, the information is altered slightly to present a better image of the company and prevent issues with its customers, suppliers, or employees. Typically, the consequences of these misrepresentations are minor. However, they are still violations of ethical behavior. When answering this question, you should be honest and acknowledge why this is wrong and describe how you would take steps to avoid doing it if hired by the employer.

Example: “Since I work in sales, I’m often directed by my employer to misrepresent the features and benefits of our products, delivery times, and warranty claims. Although their intentions are not malicious and they are simply trying to enhance the organization’s image, I am uneasy when asked to do this. In one case, we were running behind on our deliveries. However, I was directed to quote standard delivery times to new clients. I didn’t agree with this and felt that being honest with the client would be better than explaining late deliveries. I discussed this with my co-workers, and they agreed. We met with our manager and shared our opinions. She recognized the long-term benefits and instructed us to quote accurate delivery times to our clients. While we lost a few orders, most of the clients understood and accepted the delayed deliveries. Because they appreciated our honesty, they became long-term customers and did a great deal of business with us.

Question: Have you ever witnessed a co-worker doing something unethical? How did you react?

Explanation: How we react when we witness an associate doing something unethical is a key indicator of our integrity. It also reveals how we will behave when encountering a similar situation in a new job. While employers don’t expect their employees to be informants, they do expect them to take appropriate action when they encounter unethical behavior. You should be able to relate a story of how you dealt with this in a previous position.

Example: “In my last job, I noticed one of my fellow employees was taking an extra-long lunch break. The impact of this was that other employees had to handle their calls and cover for them until they returned. This was impacting the entire department’s productivity. Rather than complain to our manager, several of the employees invited the worker who was taking long lunches for coffee and explained the situation. They didn’t realize it was a problem. Once they became aware of it, they agreed to return from lunch on time, which they did. A simple conversation resolved the issue.”

Question: Tell me about a time when you violated a company policy, and it was discovered. What happened?

Explanation: Even the most honest employee will sometimes violate a company policy, either on purpose or without knowing it. Normally, these incidents are minor and have small impacts on the organization. However, once discovered, the employee’s manager is required to take action. The nature of these incidents and the results will indicate the ethics of both the organization and the individuals involved. When answering this question, make sure you are honest and describe the lessons learned.

Example: “When working for my previous employer, I unknowingly violated a company policy regarding using my computer to send personal emails. I only did it a couple of times and didn’t think it was a big deal. However, when my manager discovered it, they had to take action. They explained the policy and its purpose and suggested that I either use my phone or bring a tablet to work and only send emails during my breaks. This satisfied the company requirements and enabled me to stay on top of my email during the workday.”

Question: Can you describe some of the methods you used in your last job to maintain compliance with relevant laws and ethical standards?

Explanation: Regardless of the job you perform, you must understand the relevant rules, policies, laws, and ethical standards. You should have methodologies in place which enable you to adhere to them effortlessly.  When describing such methodologies, you should try to use ones relevant to the position for which you are interviewing.

Example: “Since I work in the healthcare industry, there are a great many rules, regulations, policies, and ethics I am required to adhere to which include HIPAA, safety and cleanliness regulations, and many others. In my last job, I was required to attend periodic training that reinforced the rules and regulations, provided updated information on the organization’s policies, and gave me methodologies to stay compliant with all of them. In addition to the training, I carried a card summarizing the most critical ones which I reviewed daily. If a violation occurred, it was immediately addressed by my supervisor to prevent it from recurring. Together, these methods kept me compliant and provided a safe work environment for both the people I interacted with and me.”

Additional Ethics Questions

Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision that you felt would result in negative public reaction.

When was the last time you encountered an issue you thought mighthave been unlawful or not in accordance with professional principles?

Can you describe a situation when you had to do something in a more complicated way to adhere to proper professional standards? 

Tell me about a situation when you believed something was not in compliance with professional ethics and the steps you took to deal with it.

Have you ever experienced a situation in which a valued customer behaved in an unethical manner?

Can you provide an example of an incident which you believe compromised workplace ethics? 

In your last job, what was the most common violation of the company’s code of ethics? How did you react when you witnessed this?

Have you ever been required to take a course or attend training in business ethics? What caused this?

Have you ever encountered a serious issue of an ethics violation in past positions? What happened, and how did you handle it?

Has a boss ever asked you to lie for them, and if so, what did you do?

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