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Ask an Ethicist: Is it ethical to accept an internship offer from networking only?

Networking can sometimes help land an internship. But sometimes we may feel guilty because we don’t feel that we deserve the internship because of other factors, such as lower grades. Would it be unethical for you to accept an internship based on networking alone?
by Rob Peeler Jan 16, 2017

By: Susan Knell

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: Normally, students with my academic record and grades are not hired as interns at Company A.  However, because of networking with a contact within the company, I was offered an internship with them.  Would it be unethical for me to accept this internship? 

An ethicist responds:

Susan KnellAccepting this internship position would not be a breach of ethics, because grades are only one of many criteria that organizations use in making hiring decisions. 

The internship and job search requires persistence and attention to detail, since many organizations indicate specific eligibility requirements or preferences for their positions.  These can include major, semester/class standing, previous experience, or targeted skills.  Some organizations even may set a specific cumulative GPA requirement as one of their selection criteria for internship and full-time positions.  

However, as you proceed with your internship/job search, it is important to remember that grades are only one aspect of a candidate’s qualifications.  Organizations may use grades as a way to target individuals who they think will be qualified, but those candidates then will typically go through a number of other screening processes (e.g., phone and/or in-person interviews, etc.) to determine if they are a good fit for the position and the organization.   Therefore, candidates who are able to connect with a recruiter through more personal methods such as career fairs or on-campus information sessions, through an alumni network, or via a personal or family connection, will have the opportunity to communicate their skills and suitability for the position in ways that a résumé or on-line application cannot.  Therefore, depending on the organization’s policies, the recruiter may be able to put forward a candidate’s application based on their personal interactions and knowledge of the candidate’s suitability for the position, even if the candidate does not meet the organization’s minimum GPA requirement.   In-person interactions with candidates are invaluable to employers, which is why they commit significant time and resources to visit campus for career fairs and other campus events such as luncheons, workshops, information sessions, and case competitions.  They are interested in getting to know you as a candidate to help them in determining if you will be a good fit for their organization and their hiring needs.  Taking advantage of those opportunities to make personal connections and talk about your interests and out-of-class experiences can balance or compensate for a GPA that may be less than the required minimum. 

While estimates vary, it has been reported that between 60-80% of positions are unadvertised, which means they are filled by someone the employer already knew or learned of through employee referral programs.  That’s the power of networking.  Building a strong professional network of peers and colleagues who know you and your abilities can be invaluable in your job search, and now is a great time to start building.  Anyone can do this through a strong LinkedIn profile, through developing connections with alumni through programs like the Liberal Arts Alumni Mentor Program (College of the Liberal Arts) and LionLink (Career Services), and by connecting with staff and faculty who are invested in their educational and professional success.  

Your ethical conundrum might also might include feeling guilty that you received this offer versus a classmate who had better academic accomplishments. Sometimes we may feel this way if we are offered an opportunity as a result of networking, thinking that somehow it makes us unworthy of the position if we do not meet the other screening criteria.  While those feelings may be understandable, candidates in that position should remind themselves that networking is hard work and requires time and skill.  The fact that they have put in that effort and were able to articulate their suitability for the position and advocate for themselves as a strong candidate means they have proven they are deserving of the opportunity.  Students faced with any ethical dilemma can refer to the Penn State Ethical Decision-Making Model for guidance in thinking through the situation and the implications and consequences of any course of action they may choose to take. 

Ultimately the organization’s decision about who they would like to hire is theirs.  Some have strict policies that may prevent a candidate from being considered if they do not meet specific requirements, while others will have the flexibility to consider other qualities that a candidate can bring to the position and organization, even if they do not meet specific criteria related to academic accomplishments.  In this case, it seems that you used the power of networking to connect with a recruiter who was able to assess your capabilities and determine that you could make a strong contribution to the organization, and they have offered an opportunity based on that assessment.  Congratulations and best of luck in the position! 

Your success is a great reminder to all Penn State students to take advantage of the resources available to help you with building your professional network.  There are a variety of career development opportunities for all students on each Penn State campus including your adviser and faculty members. These individuals can also help you with ethical concerns you may have about the job search process.  Career Services at the Bank of America Career Services Center at University Park, offers a range of workshops each semester, so visit their office and/or their website for details on spring semester opportunities, including the upcoming Spring Career Days  on February 14, 2017.

Liberal Arts students should access the range of networking resources available through the Liberal Arts Career Enrichment Network , including the Alumni Mentor Program and opportunities to connect with organization representatives hiring Liberal Arts majors.  The upcoming Liberal Arts Career Week from January 16 – 20, 2017, includes a range of workshops, employer information tables, and networking opportunities, and you can see the full schedule here

Susan Knell is the director of Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts Career Enrichment Network.  Prior to her current role, she served as director of Penn State's Science Career & International Education Office.  Susan earned a B.A. in English and a M.Ed. in Counselor Education, both from Penn State. 

Have a question? Submit it here.

Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.