Facilitating College Students' Ethical Decision-Making in the Job Search

By Laura Winkler




College students sometimes make unethical decisions during their job search because they lack information about job search ethics, have misconceptions about job search ethics, or do not fully understand the consequences of their unethical behaviors. Therefore, it is important for career centers to offer a comprehensive plan to raise awareness of job search ethics among students and it is incumbent upon career development professionals to assist students with making ethical choices during their job search.


College students encounter a variety of ethical dilemmas and decisions during the job search process. Examples of ethical situations include representing themselves accurately in their resumes and in interviews, interviewing with employers with whom they are sincerely interested, and accepting a job offer in good faith. At George Mason University's School of Management, career consultants discuss with students ethical situations that they have confronted or may face during their job search. For instance, many George Mason business students receive multiple job offers before they graduate, which presents an ethical dilemma for some students. After accepting a job offer, some students are tempted when a recruiter from a more attractive company invites them for a job interview. They may not realize that it is unethical to continue the job search after accepting an offer. Other students know that reneging on a job offer is inappropriate, but they hear from peers or family members that it is an acceptable and common practice.

Even though the current job market is favorable for business majors, it is still a competitive employment environment. Many organizations require that students have a minimum grade point average (GPA) to qualify for internship or full-time positions. The majority of students represent themselves accurately on their resumes and only apply for jobs for which they meet the requirements. However, some students may misrepresent their information due to a lack of awareness of their actual current GPA. While it is uncommon, other students deliberately falsify their personal data. They may make unethical decisions in order to make themselves more competitive for appealing jobs.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook 2007 survey, Honesty/Integrity ties with Communication Skills as the most important quality that employers seek in college students. The ethical decisions that students make during their job search have a significant impact on their job candidacy, on their own reputation, and on the reputation of their institution and its career center. Professional circles are small and recruiters have been known to communicate with each other about job candidates' behaviors. Therefore, students who demonstrate unethical behavior with one employer may hinder their opportunities with other employers. Furthermore, recruiters may decide to discontinue their recruitment efforts at an institution if they encounter students there who demonstrate unethical behaviors during the job search.

To raise awareness of job search ethics among college students, it is important for career centers to provide job search advice through a variety of mediums. The use of different resources and communication tools appeals to a diverse group of learners. A variety of methods, such as videos, guest speakers, discussion of real cases, student testimonials, and experiential education, can help students with diverse learning styles learn about the importance of ethics (Lampe, 1997).

Career development professionals can encourage students to reflect on their own ethical behavior by presenting ethical dilemmas in job search workshops, career courses and online modules. For example, at George Mason University's School of Management, career consultants helped develop a new online module for students to assess their level of understanding of job search ethics. The prospective launch of this module will be in Fall 2008. The purpose of the module is for students to analyze the ethical scenarios, choose what they view as the most ethical response, and then identify whether their preferred response is considered the most ethical choice. This online activity encourages students to understand their own ethical standards while learning about appropriate ethical behavior during the job search.

In addition, when career development professionals encourage students to participate in experiential education, such as internships, they appeal to hands-on learners and provide an excellent training ground for learning about ethical decision-making. During their internship experience, students can seek career guidance and resources that assist them with handling complex ethical situations, allowing them to apply the decision-making skills they gain during their internship search and experience to their future job search endeavors. For example, recently a career consultant helped a George Mason student who faced an ethical dilemma in his internship search. The student was offered both an internship and a full-time job by the same employer. He wanted to accept the internship opportunity but felt pressured into accepting the full-time job offer as well. The career consultant informed him about having clear communications with the employer regarding what positions he would accept and she referred him to NACE's web site entitled Playing Fair: Your Rights and Responsibilities as a Job Seeker. The student conveyed afterward that the career consultant's advice and the online resource on ethics helped him handle the situation with the employer.

Universities that offer a variety of resources, programs and services addressing job search ethics will help to raise students' awareness of job search ethics and improve their ethical decision-making. Further, career centers that teach students via multiple learning modalities will be most successful in promoting positive ethical behavior during the job search among its diverse learners.


Lampe, M. (1997). Increasing effectiveness in teaching ethics to undergraduate business students. Teaching Business Ethics, 1, 3-19.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. Employers Cite Communication Skills, Honesty/integrity as Key for Job Candidates. Job Outlook 2007. Retrieved January 24, 2008 at http://www.naceweb.org/press/display.asp?year=2007&prid=254

National Association of Colleges and Employers. Playing fair: Your rights and responsibilities as a job seeker. Retrieved December 18, 2007 at http://www.naceweb.org/committee/whitepapers/fair.htm



Laura Winkler, MA, NCC, is the Career Coordinator for George Mason University's School of Management Career Services and serves as the liaison to George Mason's University Career Services. Laura is pursuing a Doctor of Arts with a concentration in Higher Education Administration from George Mason and has a Master of Arts in Counseling from the Universityof Maryland. She has held careercounselor positions in community college, Federal government and employment agency settings. She can be reached at lwinkler@gmu.edu.

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