New leaders will face ethical dilemmas throughout their careers. Defined as decisions that require you to make a choice about right or wrong, ethical dilemmas can be challenging for the new leader. Let me share an experience I faced early in career and how it influenced my leadership journey.
As the leader of a recruiting team responsible for identifying and recommending individuals for entry level para-professional positions I gave the final approval for a candidate to interview with a client. A client was interested in hiring an administrative assistant (AA) for the manager of the credit department. The credit manager had only recently been hired by the client with whom we were working. The search was taking a considerable amount of time.
After reviewing hundreds of resumes, conducting pre-screening interviews and testing of applicants, a team recruiter came across the perfect candidate. The candidate had the right skill set, experience, and aptitude for the position. This candidate was working at the time and wanted to make a change to a better position. Because the candidate was working and did not want her current employer to know about her job search, she requested a weekend or evening appointment schedule. The candidate lived in Chicago and the position was in the northern suburbs.
The pre-screening interview and testing occurred on Saturday. The following Monday the recruiter reported that she was very impressed with the candidate and wanted to review the candidate’s credentials with the credit manager. After reviewing the candidate’s application, resume, aptitude test scores, and notes from the pre-screen interview, the credit manager was very excited about the applicant and expressed his interest in bringing the candidate in for an interview with him.
With the understanding that the candidate would have to come on a Saturday, due to her current working situation the credit manager agreed to interview on a Saturday. The appointment was arranged through the recruiter. The following Monday, the recruiter called the credit manager to get some feedback on how the interview went. The only feedback the credit manager had was that the applicant lived to far (in Chicago) and he thought she would have issues getting to work in the suburbs.
The recruiter was stunned. The recruiter at this point did not know what to make of this situation. She had never encountered a situation like this one. Therefore, she felt it best to evaluate the situation with me. The recruiter had concrete feelings concerning this issue. She felt and was sure there were some underlying reasons why this manager had changed his mind over the course of the interview, and we decided to find out what they were. The only prominent issues the recruiter confided in me that could relate to the change in attitude from the manager was the applicant was an African American female.
My role in this situation was to assess the situation, make a determining decision about how to handle and resolve it. The ethical dilemma I was facing, was do I speak out on this issue or be silent and just let it go? Should we address the manager’s issues with working with other ethnicities or perpetrate the status quo of making hiring decisions based on stereotypes and beliefs? Do we open the company to possible lawsuit action due to discriminatory hiring practices or diminish those possibilities? Did this manager overstep legal bounds in regard to questions you can legally ask in an interview?
Part 2 Questions and responses
#1. How would you define the problem if you stood on the other side of the fence? Play devil’s advocate and see what comes up that you did not see at first?
The manager in this case was new to the company. I’m sure he was concerned about his reputation and wanted to be careful that he brought on the “right” person for the job. Another factor was his lack of knowledge on working with other ethnic groups such as African American’s. By hiring a person of color, he would be putting himself in a situation he was unfamiliar with and out of his comfort zone. Although this candidate looked good on paper, in reality he was letting stereotypes rule his decision. He would rather hire someone from his culture and feel safe than someone he was not familiar with, with excellent credentials.
#2. What is your intention in making this decision? What do you want to see happen here?
I wanted to see the best person hired for the job and minimize liability for the company. I also wanted to send a message to my employee (the recruiter) and the company that ethically we have certain responsibilities to set the tone for our hiring practices, our organizational culture. Plus, I have a responsibility to support my employee in their professional decisions if they are ethically correct. In addition, as a leader, you are also responsible to teach and I felt in this situation as part of my job, this was a teaching experience for my subordinate. My recruiter wanted to see this person hired and in understanding the situation, I also saw this as the best solution. Getting that accomplished was the issue.
#3. Who could your decision or action injure?
At the time of this incident, my career could have been injured as well as the credit manager. In my case, I am an African American woman without that much influence in this organization. I needed the support of my superior, the VP of HR in making the decision that the manager needed to hire the best applicant. It was the ethical and lawful thing to do. The injury to the manager was his reputation in trying to make a name for himself in a new organization. There were office rumors concerning issues around him being a minority as a member of the LGBT community. At the time of this incident, that could have been a potential career suicide issue for him. Unfortunately, he was not applying that same paradigm to his own hiring situation.
#4. Are you confident that your position will be as valid much later as it is now? In other words, will your decision withstand the test of time?
This case happened in the mid to late 1980’s. At that time, African Americans were in the workplace, however, rumblings of diversity were just starting to hit organizations. There was an untold rule in hiring African Americans where those hired usually fit some form of standards in physical appearance which was considered professionally acceptable.
My decision to make sure this candidate was hired today would be recognized as “good business sense” as well as the ethnical thing to do, in addition to protecting the organization from liability.
#5. Could you disclose without qualm your decision to your boss, the board of directors, your family, or society as a whole?
During the time of this incident my boss, the VP of HR, was a Caucasian woman who was very progressive. She also was fighting a battle of being accepted as a female executive within the predominantly male business world. It was her that I turned to for support in confronting the manager with our decision that this candidate would be hired as his AA. At the time, I would consider myself, and many others may have to, a maverick. In being a maverick and African American, rocking the boat could have been professional suicide for my career. But I have always be one to try and pave the way.
#6 What is the symbolic potential of your action if understood the way you intend it to be? If misunderstood?
I do not believe that the message or meaning we were trying to project to this manager ever got across to him. In the outcome of this issue, the manager was subjected to going against all he knew in his personal worldview and in the world of business. He was basically forced to take on the task of working with someone whether he liked it or not. But the employee turned out to be everything and more than he could have hoped for in an administrative assistant and what my recruiter had seen in the candidate. Plus, her reputation of being the most capable AA in the bank also was a learning curve for all that she interacted with. Learning to judge a person, not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character was very adept here.
Part 3 Recommended resolution
In resolving this problem, I knew what my decision was, but I also knew I needed it to be taken to my superior to get her buy-in. To confront this manager on these issues I knew there was a need for backup. The manager was White and even though he was new, he was still part of the male dominated business group. And in the hierarchy of that group, I was low man on the totem pole.
I explained to my manager, the recruiter’s and I collaborative decision in taking the stands that this was the best candidate for the job and should be hired. With her support, the recruiter and myself held a meeting with the manager, explained our decision about the candidate and that she would be hired for his position. We assured him this decision was made with the professional opinion of all parties concerned.