Down To Business: Do Tech Employers Value Character As Much As They Say They Do?

You won't find morals and ethics listed in an IT job board ad, but first-class employers make it a hiring priority.

Rob Preston, VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

December 4, 2008

4 Min Read

In an attempt to put its new line of popular pickup trucks on a pedestal, Ford manages to drag the rest of us through the muck. "I figure the engineers who built the all new '09 F150 are probably the same guys we all cheated off of in science class," the manly narrator intones in a TV commercial. "We're thinking about pizza; they're thinking about aerodynamic weight properties. Crazy smart ..."Watching Ford's commercial with my 14-year-old son, I was more than a little annoyed by the unintended commentary on society: When "normal" kids aren't stuffing their faces, they're cheating at school; hard work and ethical behavior are for overachievers or weenies.

Maybe Ford's just reflecting current mores. In a recent survey of 29,760 randomly selected high school students by the Josephson Institute, which focuses on ethics, 64% of respondents said they had cheated on a test within the past year, and 36% said they had used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment. Some 30% admitted to stealing from a store within the past year, and 23% said they had stolen from a parent or other relative. Yet 93% of the students said they were satisfied with their own ethics and character, and 77% said that "when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."

I'm not trying to single out the younger generation. As I've written before, I think the kids of today are generally smarter, more disciplined, and more ambitious than the kids of my era.

But the ethics bar seems precariously low. In various news stories about the Josephson survey, we see far too many school administrators and other authority figures trying to rationalize the students' behavior. Students of today are under a lot more competitive pressure than we were, we're told. So unlike the lazy, pizza-dreaming cheaters of yesteryear, today's student cheaters are go-getters. We can all feel better now.

I offer these anecdotes in the context of my column of two weeks ago, which reported that "ethics and morals" is the attribute business technology executives value most among both entry-level and midlevel hires, at least according to the recent annual survey by the Society for Information Management.

I received e-mail on that column from quite a few readers, many of whom questioned how committed tech employers really are to hiring people with high morals and ethics, especially as their job board ads emphasize technical competencies, not character traits. I also received a few rants about how the business technology profession is completely devoid of ethics. Most of the honest IT pros have already left the field for careers in real estate, general business, or law, one reader who went the legal route informed me. (I don't think he was kidding.)

Forgive me if I'm more in sync with an online commenter who says that character is as critical as ever in business technology organizations, even if it's not always an explicit job requirement. "Whether those traits are actually the deciding factors, many of them should be," he writes. "I look for how well someone might fit into the organization, how their past skill sets show what they can learn in the future, and whether they seem adjusted to life. Technical skills can be learned, but a lot of what you are as a person (attitude, determination, values, work ethic) makes for successful and long-term employees."

One reader posits that in many organizations, the link between the CIO and HR is broken. The CIO and other executives may value ethics and morals, he says, "but by the time the message gets to the recruiters, it's stripped to bare, searchable requirements: Java version this, QA tools version that. ... The soft stuff is just too hard to codify."

You can't advertise for ethics and morals on a job board. But first-class tech employers--and they're the rule, not the exception--will try to identify character as part of the interviewing process, and they'll hold onto it once they have it.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

About the Author(s)

Rob Preston

VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech publishing and media, during which time he has been a senior-level editor at CommunicationsWeek, CommunicationsWeek International, InternetWeek, and Network Computing. Rob has a B.A. in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and an M.A. in economics from Binghamton University.

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