Ethics in the Job or Internship Search

Barbara Hewitt

We all know that the job and internship market is competitive, and as an applicant you want to make yourself stand out from the scores of other job seekers our there. You strive to put your best foot forward to increase the odds that an employer will select you for an interview. This competitive environment is heightened even more during on-campus recruiting, when lots of students, all in one place, are vying for the same interview slots. The pressure can be intense and it can be tempting to step over the ethical line and do things you shouldn’t to give yourself an edge.

Don’t do it! You are only as good as your reputation, and if you do things that are unethical in the job search you will come to regret it. The professional world is very small – people in the same industry often know one other (and talk to each other!), so burning bridges with one employer can ultimately have more far-reaching effects than you could ever imagine. (A couple of years ago, I spoke with a student who had a job offer withdrawn from an employer in London who found out that he was still interviewing with a different employer in New York, even though the student had indicated he had withdrawn all his applications. Even on different continents, things you might think an employer would never learn about can come back to haunt you!)

Here are just a few of the ethical issues that might arise in your job or internship search:


While you want to present yourself as positively as possible on your resume and in interviews, it is imperative that you are honest. Sometimes this is very clear cut. Flat out lying about your GPA, positions you’ve held, or specific accomplishments is clearly wrong. While such lies may not be caught by every employer you send your resume to, sooner or later someone will follow-up, asking for an official transcript, reference, or simply probing questions that you won’t be able to adequately answer. Keep in mind that the Career Services Office spot-checks transcripts and resumes, and if we find that a student has lied on his or her resume or altered a transcript, we immediately refer the case to the Student Conduct Office at Penn. Academic integrity is expected at Penn, and violations of it are treated very seriously. The consequences of such actions can be severe, including possible suspension or expulsion from the University.

While most students do not outright lie on their resumes, it is tempting to overstate accomplishments or your role in activities. Perhaps you were a contributing member of a team (but not really the “leader”), but state on your resume that you did indeed lead the team. Perhaps you overstated the size of a budget you handled for a student club, or the responsibilities you were given as a summer intern. As the recruiter questions you about the things listed on your resume, it will quickly become apparent that you did not, in fact, do all the things claimed. Once doubts are raised about one area of your resume, doubts will surface about all your other stated accomplishments. I once talked to a recruiter (an alum of Penn) who removed a student from consideration for a position because the student indicated that she was the president of an organization at Penn, while in fact the alum knew that the organization had co-presidents. Don’t let a similar situation occur because you have exaggerated something on your resume or in an interview.

Accepting an Offer

It is wrong to accept a job or internship offer, and then continue to interview for other opportunities in the hopes that something “better” (in your eyes) might come along. You would be outraged if you accepted an offer from an employer and then received a call a few weeks later to rescind it because the employer had “found a better candidate.” It is no different for employers. If you accept a position, you are expected to show up on the first day. Reneging on an offer seriously damages not only your personal reputation, but that of Penn as an institution. We have had employers in the past who have stopped recruiting at Penn because of students reneging on offers.

In an ideal world, you would have as much time as you need to consider an offer and finish all other interviews of interest to you. However, in the real world, things don’t always work out as smoothly as you would like. Most employers won’t wait indefinitely for you to respond to an offer and often will pressure you to respond quickly. (Please see our employer offer policy for on-campus recruiting.) Some employers may even ask if you would accept an offer before they officially extend it to you. In such circumstances, you may be tempted to accept the offer quickly due to the pressure, but you should ONLY do so if you are indeed committed to working at the organization. If not, politely ask if they could extend the deadline for you for a reasonable amount of time. If they won’t, you may be forced to make a decision before you would like….but you should not accept with the idea of reneging later if you receive another offer. Think carefully about what is at stake and whether you really want to work for such an aggressive employer. (When I received my very first job offer out of graduate school, the employer asked me to make a decision on the spot. I didn’t feel that I would want to work for such a manager and, although difficult, turned down the opportunity. Fortunately, a few days later, I received another offer from a place where I was much more enthusiastic about working.)

Holding Multiple Offers

As a job seeker, you may find yourself in a situation in which you have received offers from several employers. In this case, you should decline the offers you don’t plan to accept as soon as possible. The employers will appreciate your quick response so that they can move forward with their search and extend the offer to another candidate (perhaps even another Penn student!).

It would be unrealistic to expect all ethical dilemmas in the job search to be clear cut or easily resolved. The fact is, many situations are complex. The Career Services staff is here to discuss issues that might arise in the search with you. Come in and talk with us.

Telling The Story: A Narrative Approach to Interviewing

by Sharon Fleshman

Once upon a time — those words signaled the start of many stories that captivated us, particularly in our younger days. Whether it is meant to scare, delight, convince or teach, there’s something about a good story that can pull listeners in. As it relates to a job search, a narrative approach can be used to present your career interests and qualifications in compelling and creative ways. Consider the following tips for incorporating “story” into your interviews:

1) Prepare for the “Tell me about yourself” question. Indeed, your answer to this can set the tone for the entire conversation and should make clear why you are sitting in front of the interviewer. Don’t default to just stating “I’m a senior at Penn majoring in…” Trace relevant themes in your background. For instance, suppose you are applying to a position in international development. You may not have a track record in that field per se, but perhaps you can help your interviewer connect the dots regarding your international experiences. You should also identify the defining moments that helped you discern your interest in a given career. For the international development example, you could talk about what occurred during your travels that caused you to become interested in development work.

2) Make sure your stories illustrate relevant skills and accomplishments. Go through your resume and develop the stories that emerge from your experiences. Your stories should have a “plot” with a beginning, middle and end that speaks to the job description. A good way to structure such a story may be to start with the situation at hand, proceed with discussing the actions you took to address the situation, and then end with the result that came from your actions. This approach is especially useful for behavioral questions (“Give me an example of how you served a difficult customer”) or other questions (“What are your strengths?”) where the interviewer wants evidence to back up what you claim to be true. You may not know exactly what you’ll be asked, but anticipate the types of skills that employers seek. Prepare to address areas such as problem solving, teamwork, leadership ability, strengths, weaknesses, and working with difficult customers/clients. Whether you played a key role in increasing membership, improving operations, boosting morale, or strengthening your own performance, you can build a story around the impact you made.

3) Keep it professional and positive. Stories for job interviews should not sound like autobiographies as much as snapshots of experiences that demonstrate that you are a great fit for the position. For instance, discussing resolution of conflict on a team for a group project is likely better than reminiscing about how you broke up a fight between two housemates. Look for the most pertinent highlights from your previous jobs/internships, volunteer experience, study abroad, extracurricular activities and class projects. Also, make sure you maintain a positive attitude. Even if you have to discuss a negative situation, resist the temptation to cast yourself as a hero and others as villains. Stick with sharing what you learned and how you developed in the process.

4) Practice. Storytelling flows from the human condition. It is very natural for us to reflect on what has happened on a given day and “tell the story” to those closest to us. However, applying this tendency to the job search may not feel as natural, so it is good to practice with those who are willing and able to offer helpful feedback. Career Services counselors are available to help you with mock interviews.

Use of stories in the job search can also be applied (in a more concise way) to resume and cover letter writing, as noted in the book Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career, written by Katharine Hansen and available in the Career Services library. Using storytelling will not only help you to prepare well, but will build your self-awareness and confidence along the way to a positive “The End.”

Global Volunteering Fair: TODAY!

Global Volunteering Fair, Wednesday, February 3, from 5 pm to 8 pm, Houston Hall, Hall of Flags

Co-sponsored by and Career Services

At the Global Volunteering Fair, attendees will have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with representatives of organizations that coordinate volunteer projects around the globe, including:

• Amigos de las Americas
• Cross-Cultural Solutions
• Earthwatch Institute
• Global Citizens Network
• Greenheart Travel
• MASA Israel Journey
• Peace Corps
• Projects Abroad
• SIT Graduate Institute
• Visions in Action
• WorldTeach

For more information, including a schedule for the day and an updated list of organizations who’ll be at the event, as well as to register (which is free), please visit Global Volunteering Fair Philly. Also, before attending the Global Volunteering Fair, please consider checking out the International Volunteerism Resource Center to learn more about strategies and options for serving abroad:

In addition, we will be offering two concurrent workshops:

Affordable Volunteering Abroad, 5:30 pm – 6:30 pm, Ben Franklin Room, Houston Hall
Between airfare, living expenses, and potential program fees, the cost of doing good abroad can really add up. Fortunately, there are lots of great options to fit what you can afford. This workshop will cover tips and ideas for budgeting, raising funds, and finding the right international volunteer opportunity for you – whether it’s with a global service organization that provides you with transportation and a stipend, paying for an all-inclusive volunteer abroad program, or going abroad on your own.

International Volunteerism 101, 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm, Ben Franklin Room, Houston Hall
Who can I volunteer with? What kinds of projects are available? How do I choose the right opportunity for me? These topics and more will be discussed by a panel of representatives from volunteer-sending organizations with opportunities around the globe.