Monday, May 2, 2011

Is Helping a Weak Candidate to Land a Job Ethical?

I just posted this to a forum for career counselors but it has relevance to anyone who has or might try to help a weak candidate land a job.

I'd like to ask a question. America is mired in arguably the toughest job market since The Great Depression. And, worse than in the Great Depression, structural factors in the U.S. suggest that our jobless non-recovery may continue for a long time: job-killing technology innovations are advancing ever more rapidly, ever more jobs are being offshored to countries with intelligent, hard-working workforces willing to work for so much less than are American workers, and without employers forced to pay the ever greater government-mandated costs of and paperwork in hiring an American: on top of Social Security, Workers Comp, SSDI, FMLA, ADA, ever increasing employee lawsuits for wrongful termination, sexual harassment/hostile environment, there's now ObamaCare. And paid leave has just been okayed in Wisconsin. Can the rest of the states be far behind?

Those costs, of course, put additional pressure on employers to not hire, to automate, offshore, etc, and when they must hire Americans, to hire people only for a short-term contract or part-time/unbenefited position. And those costs to employers are likely to rise further. U.S. immigration trends and differential birth rates are such that there will be ever more Democratic-leaning voters and so the pressures to place even more burdens on U.S. employers will likely increase further.

In light of the paucity of jobs and likely exacerbation of that paucity, is it clear that top career counselors like yourselves are performing a net good for society by devoting--as you've reported here--so much knowledge and commitment (even making phone calls to employers on the candidate's behalf) to helping candidates like that person with Asperger's Syndrome so severe no one has hired him during his entire 20 years of adulthood, to beat out a candidate more likely to do a better job? As we're all painfully aware, even mediocre jobs typically get many applicants. The same question could be asked about the efforts you describe to help ex-offenders, who, as you know, have high recidivism rates and personalities and ability/skill deficits more likely to make them, on average, worse employees than are non-offenders.

When you choose to package and advocate for such candidates, is that unfair to the more qualified candidate who can't afford or isn't lucky enough to get an advocate as good as you are?

In addition, might your choosing to package and advocate for such candidates be unfair to the employer who ends up hiring an inferior employee because we the career counselor did such a good job of packaging and promoting our candidate?

And ultimately, might your choosing to package and advocate for such candidates, net, be bad for society? We all suffer when a weak person is hired. For example, think of how we suffer when we get an ineffective customer service rep or a car repairperson who doesn't fix our car or charges us too much, let alone a nurse who can't get the catheter in right or makes a more serious mistake---over 100,000 Americans die every year because of medical errors.

In an economy in which there are plenty of jobs to go around, that is less of an ethical problem. But in our economy, even mediocre jobs are difficult to obtain even when a candidate is fully competent and without major personality issues, let alone when the candidate suffers from something like the severe Asperger's Syndrome that afflicts the person you described. Even in the SEO job you suggested--his condition will--as implied in your comments--likely make this person a net worse employee than the employer could otherwise find without undue difficulty.

In light of all that, would we be wise to ask ourselves whether our efforts to package and promote job candidates would do greater good if focused not on the people with the greatest deficits but on the people who--in a well-suited job--are more likely to be good employees?

Update: The response from the career counseling group's members? Nearly universal opprobrium.


Jeff S. said...

Very interesting question. I understand the moral quandary, but I believe that a candidate who uses a career counselor in the first place is actually exhibiting the kind of take-charge behavior that an employer would value; this lightens the dilemma for me.

Further, your post addresses the question as pitting one candidate versus another more qualified candidate. Shouldn't the issue be addressed as the candidate being measured by the requirements of the job? If a candidate is qualified and well-positioned, I don't see an ethical issue in this case. It's only when a counselor is purposefully inflating an otherwise under-qualified candidate that would be pose a problem.

Anonymous said...

Marty, I seriously don't know how you make your living these after post you belittle the profession and your own efforts.

Are you feeling okay? Seriously. Because I highly doubt you're going to get any new clients from this blog. It's a bi-polarly laced convo with you: one day you post good news about career transitions, the next you simply say that you have reservations about helping YOUR CLIENTS.

If they are paying you, you are ethically bound to HELP THEM ACHIEVE TO THEIR BEST OF THEIR ABILITIES.

If not, I seriously don't see why you continue to be a career counselor. Please, let me make an anti-ad for you. Let me go back and comb through all the self-deprecating tidbits about yourself.

STICK TO THE GOOD STUFF. If I was your client, I would seriously look at this post as the undermining of our relationship. I would question whether or not you would be up to the job of sufficiently going to the bat for me.

Marty Nemko said...

I am fine. Fortunately, I've never been afflicted with psychological problems.

You ask that, in light of this post, how could I ethically be a career counselor. That's simple: I only work with clients I feel comfortable championing.

I do not write to get clients. I write to share the information and perspectives I believe will most help the world. If that costs me clients, so be it.

I choose to report the negative as well as the positive, perhaps even a bit more on the negative as a counterweight to what I do believe is America's overemphasis on the positive. Indeed, many Europeans deride Americans as unduly positive. I believe the most good comes from examining both the positive and negative.

Marty Nemko said...


I've found that the fact that a person comes to see a career counselor, especially the majority of counselors, who are provided for free through the government or a college, is not a very strong indicator that the person is likely to be a strong candidate for the positions to which he applies.

Also, alas, as I wrote in the post, in this economy in which decent jobs are so scarce, especially for weak candidates, they ARE pitted against competitors. Disproportionately, the people who seek career counselors are less likely to be the type for whom an employer creates a new position. For most of these job seekers, it really is a zero sum game: if they get the job, someone else doesn't. Thus, I raise the question of whether career counselors would be on stronger ethical ground by only packaging and promoting candidates who'd likely be a strong performer on the job.

And more broadly, wouldn't anyone be on stronger ethical ground, helping a friend or colleague to land a job only if we felt the person would be a solid performer on the job?

Jeff said...

Your query applies, of course, to just about any self-employed person. Do we take the work wherever we can find it, or should we be selective to those clients who share our values, who interest us, and where we feel we can really make a difference? I am constantly evaluating my client base accordingly.

Andrew B said...

It is ethical.
At least in the case of Aspergers.

The "weak" and "good employee" terms are in the eye of beholder.

A better skilled but socially inept person could be much more productive than a "please-the-boss" mediocrity. If used properly.

Very often employers are more concerned with looks than performance. Even now, during the so called hard times.

I guess, if businesses still can afford hiring pleasant people over better skilled ones - there is no crisis. Or capitalism does not work.

Marty Nemko said...

In Asperger's Syndrome, especially if severe as in the described case, lack of pleasantness doesn't begin to describe the problems this person would have on most jobs.

Anonymous said...

Dear Marty,
Do you believe in Social Darwinism?

Robert said...

I think the same sort of problem is occurring in the education sector. Part of my living used to consist of turning, into something vaguely approaching grammatical English, the absolutely illiterate dissertations - mostly at masters level but sometimes at doctoral level - supplied by young people who (a) understood almost no English, (b) had nevertheless been accepted into universities as full-fee-paying students, (c) could not read or even accurately quote from the books on their course, and yet (c) could not gain their qualifications unless they submitted these assignments.

Eventually I just gave up, because although the money was all right and although the students (on the rare occasions when I could understand what came out of their mouths) were pleasant enough, it was really a form of faking. "Ed Dante", the pseudonym for a really industrious faker, has diagnosed the problem:

I can think of no government in any English-speaking country that will do the cracking down on immigration levels and collegiate scams which would be necessary to put an end to this syndrome. So the situation, as the old Communist-era joke had it, "is desperate but not serious".

Peter said...

Isn't it also somewhat unfair to the weak or unqualified candidate who will now have a job he is not good at and all the stress that comes with that?

Marty Nemko said...

Good point, Peter. I recall in my earlier, less ethical years as a career counselor, helping a client to land a job she really wanted (because it was well paying and a promising website for older people, which she was) but wasn't qualified for. She screwed things up royally and was fired three weeks later. Everyone, including her, lost as a result of my helping her land that job.

Marty Nemko said...

Dear Anonymous of 6:34 PM today,

If I'm to be put in a box, the closest-to-accurate one is utilitarian-leaning. Generally, I'm favor of the policies that will yield the most good for the most people. But I'm not a pure utilitarian. For example, per John Rawls, even though it may not be utilitarian to provide a basic safety net for all people, I'm in favor of one. I also part company with the pure utilitarians because I'd oppose a policy that would result in the most good for the most people but, in the process would require clearly inhumane treatment of even a few individuals.

Hope that helps.

Marty Nemko said...

Jeff, of course, the more you need the money, the more difficult it is to choose to only serve the people you believe worthy.

I have great respect for not-well-off people turning away work they don't feel ethical about. Those are truly good people.

Candidly, when I was poor, I wasn't as ethical. I like to think that was more because I didn't have the wisdom that comes with age. I'd hope that if I were poor now, I'd only do work I considered fully ethical.


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