tips for interview questions about facing an ethical dilemma

‘Give us an example of a time when you faced an ethical dilemma.' Tricky graduate interview question

When an interviewer asks you to discuss an ethical dilemma you've faced, you need to show both your integrity and your approach to analysing and resolving problems.

This is not the time for dramatic confessions. No one wants to be the candidate who, halfway through their interview, finds the recruiter furtively dialling 999 because they’ve just admitted a felony. Workplace dilemmas are typically more likely to be about potential grey areas than jailable offences: for example, what’s the trade-off between a good deal for the organisation and a good deal for the client… between being ambitious and stepping on colleagues – or doing a deal that helps one group of people but not others, indeed perhaps puts others at a disadvantage?

You may feel you’ve never encountered a genuinely challenging ethical dilemma in the workplace. However, if you give this tricky graduate job interview question some thought in advance, you should be able to identify a situation you’ve come across where there could be different points of view about the right course of action. Here are some replies to avoid, as well as an example that could be opened up for further discussion in your interview.

How not to reply to the interview question ‘Give us an example of a time you faced an ethical dilemma’

  1. ‘When I was a university society treasurer, someone accidentally overpaid fees for a group event. Initially I pocketed the difference and was on my way to a betting shop to increase the return when my conscience said “Hi”, and then I gave the money to the donkey sanctuary.’
  2. ‘I’ve always found honesty is the best policy.’
  3. ‘I always give money to a homeless person in the street although part of me wants to walk on by and keep my money.’

Why are these answers unlikely to get you the graduate job you want?

1 is going to raise more questions for your interviewer than it answers.
2 is just saying you’re a nice person – but that’s not answering the question. Where’s the dilemma in generally doing the right thing and avoiding doing the wrong thing?
3 has potential, but doesn’t go into the issues in enough depth. 

What is the graduate recruiter really asking?

What the employer is trying to measure is:

  • How transparent you are in your dealings with people.
  • Whether your core beliefs chime with those of the organisation. In particular, a lot of corporations are now defining themselves as being ‘values-based’ in their operations.
  • How well you articulate your own ethical framework, and how it affects your behaviour.
  • Not only whether you are a decent person to work with, but how thoughtful and intelligent you are when it comes to difficult decisions. That’s what they want from a graduate.

So how should you tackle the question ‘Give us an example of a time you faced an ethical dilemma’?

The example you choose is far less important than how well you cover the points outlined above.

Don’t try to make up a scenario for the interviewer, who will probably be able to tell that you’re being inventive. It’s fine if your dilemma is relatively commonplace – most ethical decisions in work are like that. It could be a situation that many of us are likely to encounter in everyday life.

Let’s take the candidate’s response we mentioned earlier – ‘I always give money to a homeless person in the street although part of me want to walk on by and keep my money’ – and tease out the issues that could be involved in deciding what to do in that situation. The answer could have launched into the candidate commenting upon:

  • The difficulty of ascertaining someone’s real needs – and therefore making a fully considered ethical decision without further questions being asked.
  • How much can you assume about what is happening in that homeless person’s life? Probably not very much.  Is it ethical to ask them before handing over money? What might be the consequences of doing so?
  • Is that person dealing with an addiction? Maybe or maybe not. If they are and you give them money, would you simply be feeding their habit? Possibly, but what if they spent that money getting shelter for the night as they say they will? There may be experts at that shelter experienced in helping people who deal with addiction.
  • There might be many other reasons why that person is homeless. Do their circumstances affect your ethical decision?
  • Rather than giving to the individual would it be better to donate to a charity that helps homeless people, builds homes or lobbies politicians to tackle the housing crisis? Would you do that?
  • Does the likely temperature that evening affect your decision?
  • Could you buy the person some food instead?

What you need to do is to mesh your observations into a coherent overview. You might say that your dilemma here is to balance wanting to help an individual (homeless person) with focusing your resources effectively. If you have time, your first action might be to offer to buy a warm snack as that resource is targeted. Failing that, you could make a small cash donation and a one-off larger donation to a charity that has the experts to deal with the bigger picture.

Then the smart thing is to link what you’ve said to the workplace. For example, you might observe: ‘For me, this shows that ethical issues are often complex and that applies to ethical issues at work. If there are ethically tough choices to make, I would always want to look at every possible course of action and the consequences of each – and then consult with colleagues before making a decision.’ This both addresses the question posed by the interviewer and provides an answer to another question that you haven’t been asked directly, but which puts you in a good light.

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