If you’ve been unemployed for a considerable amount of time, would you stretch the truth or lie, outright, to land a job?  Or if you’re an employer who has seen your revenues significantly decline these past few years, would you mislead your employees or cut legal corners to keep the lights on — and keep your company solvent?

Unfortunately, when times get tight, ethical issues get a lot cloudier than they do in “happy times” when it’s much easier to view such questions in noble, absolute terms.  This past week, in fact, the concept of “ethics” seems to be the issue that keeps swirling around with the various people and organizations I come across.  Over the last few days, I’ve had at least 8-10 interactions with people  centering around this topic, so I figured it might be instructive to pen some thoughts about it and share a few actual examples of the moral dilemmas currently being faced out there — and how difficult it’s become for many people, as well as a large number of organizations, to draw clear lines in this regard.

One initial example?  When engaging in a recent interview practice session with a senior marketing executive, I told him he was doing a marvelous job in all aspects of his presentation — EXCEPT for actually painting a picture of the great results he’d be able to achieve, if and when hired.  He’s talk about his past accomplishments at length, but never go in for the kill and make bold statements about the benefits he could achieve for his potential employer in the future.  When I pointed this out, his response was basically along the lines of “How can I make such aggressive claims and promises, in good conscience, not knowing enough of the situation to be 100% sure I can deliver them?”  Good point.  In return, though, I walked him through the argument you’ll find in my earlier blog article here, suggesting he might justify such claims by prefacing them with statements like “Given what you’ve shared so far, I’m convinced I’d be able to…” or “Based on my understanding of the situation, I’m confident I can…”

As you’ll read in that above article, my belief is that job hunters are at total liberty to make bold promises to employers, as long as they work within the context of the facts they have at their disposal.  And if a given employer chooses to hold off from sharing certain key facts and internal dynamics that might affect the candidate’s ability to perform the job, well, that’s on them — not the job hunter.

Ironically, just hours after I reminded this client that employers usually don’t operate in the spirit of full disclosure, I received the note below from another client of mine who recently accepted a brand-new job with a major Seattle company that shall remain nameless:

“Matt: I’ve cleared all the background stuff at XYZ Company and start on the 2nd of May.  I just found out a couple of interesting pieces of news about the job, however.  1) The hiring manager I interviewed with has been reassigned, so I’ll have a new boss after a week or so on the job; and 2) We’re moving to Kent for about 5 months (could probably be longer) after about a month on the job, instead of the Bellevue location closer to my home that was discussed throughout the interview process.”

Wow.  My client accepts the job offer, and before he’s even started, the company informs him that two MAJOR changes have taken place in terms of the situation he’s going to be walking into.  Is this unethical on the company’s part?  Or just business as usual?  I’d be tempted to write it off as the latter, except for the fact that I don’t believe two such significant developments could have occurred spontaneously, with no advance warning, mere days after my client accepted the offer.  I’d say it’s much more likely that the company in question knew this information, and chose to sit on it, throughout the interviewing process.  An unforgivable sin?  Nah, probably not.  But certainly not a shining example of a company dealing with applicants in good faith.

Want another example of ethical malfeasance in the market?  I received another note recently from an HR consultant I know, suggesting I steer people away from a certain local company (I’ll withhold the name to preserve her identity, not theirs) that turned out to be an even more malicious place of employ:

“Matt: I was so excited about being hired for an opportunity as an HR consultant for XYZ Corporation.  As it turned out, my boss was trying to entangle me in a vendor kickback scheme.  The vendor was from another country but his business was in NY.  From the first day I was being ‘groomed’ to go on record to bring in this vendor, but did not go for it.  By the last week, my boss felt like python coiled around me ready to break my back.  That was when I had to get out of there.  I made it known I was looking for another opportunity.  Now I’m back on unemployment in yet another job search.   For the past 18+ months they have been using employee payroll as their venture capital.  Paychecks have been delayed for as much as 4 months.  Commissions for sales people — well, I suspect that these are never paid, as they are insolvent and can’t pay their bills.  Health benefits get canceled every month and somehow they’ve quickly wired money to reinstate them.  I’m still trying to get paid from March and need several expense reimbursement checks for trips to Phoenix totaling over $6,000.  I will need to file a worker’s complaint with L&I and go to small claims court to try and get the expense money.”

Yikes.  It always kills me to hear these stories.  And while this is definitely an extreme example of a company operating with a cracked moral compass, you’ve still got to be careful and keep your guard up, knowing that many organizations, especially in this economy, are going to be pushing the envelope in terms of how they conduct themselves.

Now the BIG question, at least for the purposes of this article, is whether “two wrongs make a right” and whether this bad behavior on the behalf of some employers gives job hunters the liberty to basically throw morality out the window — and do whatever they need to survive and compete in this new economic climate.  Some people apparently believe so.  In fact, I recently received a fresh comment on a blog article I posted a number of months back, saying the following:

Matt: Good article on the ways that people can address a long unemployment gap, as that issue is so relevant in this economy.  You seemed to graze over the OTHER option, however, which is straight up lying.  No one wants to be put in that position where they have to lie.  But unfortunately, people gotta eat.  It’s desperate out there.  And yes, lying can get you caught, but what about calling your past employer your current employer?  Companies typically won’t contact current employers and if your previous employers (those before your current/last job) check out, could it work?  No one is advocating making up a degree or making up a job you don’t have, but perhaps expanding the years of your last job so as to appear you are still there is an option.

An interesting notion.  Although contrary to the commentor’s last statement, you actually don’t have to look very hard to discover that some people out there ARE advocating that job hunters lie their britches off to get ahead.  Check out the websites here and here if you haven’t previously come across them.  There’s a whole cottage industry springing up around the concept that job candidates should start playing fast and loose with the truth.

At the end of the day, what’s the right answer?  I’ll leave it up to each of you to weigh that issue for yourselves — and to evaluate the potential benefits and consequences, in this life and the next, of engaging in “situational ethics” to boost your career prospects.   I felt it was important to at least address this growing issue, however, and pass along a few tales from the front lines in terms of some of the ethical battles raging out there in the labor market right now.  As noted above, some companies seem to feel they have to mislead their employees, their customers, and everybody else they’re involved with in order to survive in these tough times.  And in return, more and more job seekers are being tempted to inflate or fabricate their qualifications in order to increase their odds of landing an interview.

Guess it is what it is.

How about the rest of you out there?  Any thoughts on this subject?  Or advice?  Or similar sordid tales you’d be willing to pass along for the rest of us to mull over and deliberate?