Ethical dilemma interview/essay questions

One year, we had a client who wanted to write an essay about an ethical situation he faced, wherein his manager asked him to take a test for him.

He worked in some kind of real estate company, and there was some kind of real estate test that his boss needed to take. Our client was a smart cookie and knew his stuff. The boss, apparently, was not. The boss figured, why not? He works for me, he should have to do what I say. Let’s see if he’ll go for it.

Thankfully our client said no to the boss.

But you know what? We also said no to our client.

This is not a good story for a bschool essay.

“Why not???” you say with a huff. “EssaySnark, that sure as heck looks like an ethical dilemma story to me!!”

Why yes, Brave Supplicant, it is. But there are a BUNCH of reasons why we do not feel this type of story is ideal for your bschool pitch.

First of all, in this exact case, what kind of “dilemma” is it, really? The fact of the matter is, it’s not. Our client said no to the silly boss and that was the end of that. There is no debate. There is no hemming and hawing. It’s not like the boss was gonna fire him if he didn’t do this shady thing he was asking. He just said no, and that was that.

The problem with such situations that are so OBVIOUSLY ethical lapses in judgment is that if it’s so cut-and-dried as this, then there isn’t much to talk about. In fact, in similar stories we’ve heard, where maybe the Brave Supplicant was asked to fudge details on a report, or do a little stir-fry on the ledgers*, it’s actually a LEGAL issue, right? With SOX? If you’re a public company, then the higher-ups need to certify that everything is legit, and maybe it wouldn’t be YOUR head on the line, but it sure wouldn’t go down well in any circle if/when this was found out.

This may come as a shock, but EssaySnark just doesn’t recommend using any story in a bschool app (essay or interview) where someone asks you to commit fraud.

The problem with using such a story is that a) it’s so OBVIOUSLY an ethical issue that it doesn’t really give you that much to talk about – all you can do is offer 500 words about “of course I didn’t do it.”

The bigger issue though is b) This makes it sound like you work for a completely unethical company. The fact that some guy could ask you to do this really stupid thing could make the reader assume that the entire place is corrupt – which, of course, puts all of your candidacy into question.

Another issue is c) It’s impossible to tell this story without making the other dude look like a chump – and you really don’t want to criticize your colleagues or superiors in any of your essays. (Even if they sorta deserve it. Chumpmeister indeed.)

So….. believe it or not, we actually recommend you come up with ethical dilemma stories for interviews and essays that are a little less blatant. A little less UNethical. THEN you can tell a more interesting story about your quandry of how you navigated the situation, what your decision-making process was (how you decided to do the right thing), how you convinced others to take a specific action — and it won’t be quite as problematic.

Using too-dramatic of an ethical situation here could have some unfortunate collateral damage for you. Sure, it might be a really easy essay to write, but it also might cause some unfortunate fallout over your candidacy.

*We mean “cooking the books” which is an idiom that means falsifying the records.


  1. says

    You just made answering this question ten times harder. Okay, can you drop some hints to get our brains thinking about other types of ethical dilemmas.
    Personally, I can't even think of any concrete ethical dilemmas I've faced. I'm sure I have faced them, I just haven't consciously labeled them as such so it's difficult to recognize in my own life.

  2. says

    cheetarah1980 … everyone says that. It's one reason it's a great question for the adcoms. It's also incredibly relevant for them to ask, given the regular and repeated ethical lapses we keep seeing in the business world.

    We're a little reluctant to suggest any examples since the temptation is just too great to adapt our suggestions wholesale. Basically, any situation that made you uncomfortable and you had to seriously consider what to do next could possibly qualify (that's very broad but maybe it helps).

    If anyone wants to pose questions about possible ethical situations, we're happy to entertain.

  3. says

    I have two cool examples:

    In the movie,You Will Meet A Talk Dark Stranger,the guy who claims his friend's manuscript as his own.

    Second one is the narrator in Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet

  4. says

    Discussing examples from movies is a great idea! Thanks ccatcher! Claiming a manuscript as your own would be sucky stuff. If something like that happened, a BSer could talk about how they reacted, what they did to assert their rights with the thief, etc.

    Unfamiliar with the Rushdie story, can you explain that one too?

  5. says

    In the book, the narrator is a photographer. He goes to cover a sheep farm with a friend. Turns out, it's a terrorist group's hiding spot. They get captured and their cameras confiscated. The friend is hanged. One day, the narrator takes a film reel his friend had hidden in his shoe and manages to run away.

    He becomes famous by publishing those photographs. Technically, he didn't do anything wrong as the reels might as well have been his. The dead guy anyways doesn't care about his own career anymore. Ethically, it was the wrong thing to do.

  6. says

    OMG yes that is unethical – and hopefully none of our Brave Supplicant friends are ever in such a situation!! (LOL!) These examples are great to help get people thinking. Anyone else have one to toss out?

  7. Dan V says

    Finding a lot of money or a high value item on the ground. What do you do? Do you feel comfortable taking it? Who will be affected if you take it? If you don't take it who will? Who should you tell?

  8. Dan V says

    Hey Anonymous,

    I think school may work too. I think they are looking for a story with real consequences in a structured environment. An ethical dilemma at school or work can create real consequences for a decision while a ethical dilemma with a friend or in a more informal setting does not have as clear or serious long term ramifications. You may not have to worry about things like loosing your job/getting kicked out of school, having a manager/teacher mad at you, angering classmates/coworkers, etc.

    This is all my opinion of course. I interviewed at 2 schools and this never came up. I will defer to essay snark for a confirmation.

  9. Anonymous says

    Thanks Dan V. Actually I had a situation at work and wanted to run by you guys to see if its appropriate for such a question.

    At work I got an opportunity to lena an organization which was helping employees in their career development. But the organization wasn't doing well when i joined and within a few months we were told they might close it down. I was really disappointed because I had not gotten enough time to really turn around the performance of the organization.
    Now the lady who was my interface to the upper management told me that if we could present to the management bigger attendance numbers we might be able to convince them to provide us enough budget for another yr. It was around 2008-2009 economy downturn and the management didn't want to allocate more money for something taht wasn't showing results.
    I offcourse didn't listen to her and went by my own way to convince the management somehow to give us another chance.

    So I am not sure it this counts as an ethical dilemma .

    Thoughts ?

    PS: Essaysnark how did u get so snarky ? lol !!! thanks for great blogs

  10. says

    @Anonymous 2:40PM: Unless directed otherwise, professional stories are almost always best for almost every question. Community-involvement stories can also work. It's recommended to not go all the way back to time at school for your interview/essay stories (unless you just recently graduated of course!).

    @Dan V: Some schools are known specifically to ask about ethics in interviews. Every interview is different though, there's no way to predict what you'll be asked in any.

    @Anonymous 10:31PM: If you're saying that she was suggesting you inflate the numbers in order to convince mgmt, then yes, that sure sounds like an ethical dilemma! You'd want to focus on what you did in response – it's not enough to just identify the situation. But, seems that would qualify for the purposes of this question!

    And we got so snarky from reading way too many bschool essays. 😉

  11. says

    I am a sales manager in an automobile co. (trucks!) one of my dealership executives closed a huge deal, which can get me 25 % of my targets and points from my supervisor. also, it would be a story for regional office to showcase in that month as the deal was in a segment we were trying real hard to get (water tanker!) However, when i did a closer examination of the deal – i.e, our vehicle's match with the customer's requirement, i understood that the deal isn't going to be beneficial for the customer and he would lose money if he uses our trucks in his application. (technical issues- lower milage, excessive tire wear etc etc) I am unsure weather to cancel the deal on grounds of honesty and ethical business practice and lose the deal, or to keep my mouth shut. enjoy the accolades and let the dealership enjoy the profit (the dealership executive too gets a hefty incentive)

  12. says

    @Nirvana, are you asking whether this is a good situation to talk about in an “ethical dilemma” essay or interview question? The answer to that would be YES!

    If you're honestly asking what you should do, we honestly hope you'll go to the customer and tell them not to buy the darn trucks!! In our experience, that's how you get a customer for life (and how you avoid collecting that pesky little nuisance called BAD KARMA!).

    If you're asking if in the future this would be a good story to use in an “ethical dilemma” essay… ONLY IF YOU DO THE RIGHT THING NOW!

    (Didja really need to ask that?)

  13. says

    Thanks for answering. Yes it is something to talk about in my essay. However, the essay is on difference between professional ethics and personal ethics and a dilemma faced. Do you think it is part of my professional ethics to go and let him know about his less than sound decision or is it my personal ethics interfering with my professional goal of profit maximization for my company? I asked that because it seemed to be too obvious to me.. as in probably anyone would do the same thing.. that is, go and tell the customer the right thing is it? as far as b school essays are concerned.. ! 😀

    • says

      @NIRVANA, not sure of the actual essay question you're referencing, and surely “ethics” is something that people need to define for themselves, but… in EssaySnark's opinion, there is no difference btwn “personal” and “professional” ethics! You do what's right, period.

      A major reason that the world economies have been teetering for nearly four years now is because so many people put “profit maximatization” ahead of “doing what's right.”

      In the ideal and still-nonexistent world of the preferred'Snark universe, everyone would act in a noble manner towards each other at all times.

      Of course, if we're talking about bschool-essay-ethics, then we must also point out that anything you write about SHOULD REALLY HAVE HAPPENED. The fact that you're still debating weeks later on what to say you did means that you're manipulating the truth. Which is, uh, unethical!!!

      Just working out of the Department of the Obvious today.

  14. says

    Thanks again. However, I am not really manipulating anything 😀
    It's just that I am not sure what qualifies as an ethical dilemma and what is considered an obvious action. I went the fair way but doing it seemed to be a usual action that probably anyone would be doing when confronted. Moreover, I wanted to write a good and mature answer and probably that's what forced me to rethink :p But Thanks for guiding me!

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