Get any employer started talking about the problems he or she faces in hiring and retaining good employees and the conversation is inevitably going to turn to the generation of the applicants and new hires as a significant factor in the job success of an employee.
The general perception by the “people in power” in business these days is that people under the age of 30 have a lousy work ethic. I hear about entry-level employees who aren’t interested in paying their dues, convinced they are entitled to move into the corner office on the day they are hired. I also hear about inappropriate dress, lack of loyalty and attendance woes among young people.
Baby-boomer managers are disgusted by the attitude of entitlement they perceive in younger employees. Capitalizing on this conflict between the generations has spawned a whole new area of specialty in business books.
For example, in When Generations Collide (Harper Business, 2002), authors Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman identify four distinct generations represented in today’s workplace:
- Traditionalists, born before 1945, prize loyalty and prefer a top-down approach to management.
- Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are characterized by their optimism and idealism. They achieved success by challenging authority and creating open lines of communication.
- Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, tend to be more skeptical than members of other generations. Many were latchkey kids or the products of broken homes and grew up in a time of political and corporate scandals. As a result, they often distrust institutions and prize individualism.
- The Millennial Generation is composed of workers born after 1980. These young workers recognize that not only will they change employers throughout their career, but also they will change the type of work they do, so their loyalty to a company or career is diluted.
Most of the generational differences business literature focuses on smoothing the inevitable conflicts between these groups. The authors usually recommend a diversity approach to resolve differences in generational cultures as you do differences in race and religion.
I have a radical observation from 20 years of practicing employment law: Character is not generational. I’ve worked with some terrific young employees and some terrible older ones. The real debate is not about the applicant’s age, but the applicant’s lack of values.
No matter which position in a company is available, every employer wants to fill it with an employee who will exhibit responsibility, honesty, loyalty, enthusiasm, flexibility, initiative, dependability, respect for authority, selflessness, civility, judgment and a distinct knowledge of right and wrong.
You won’t find nearly as many business books that focus on character. The subject often sounds old-fashioned and religious to people who believe in situational ethics. But all of us have dealt with people with poorly-developed values: slackers, drama queens, whiners, liars, cheats, etc. There is no reason to have those kinds of people working for you and it is not illegal to refuse to hire them.
Identify the character traits that are most important to you. Think back about what really disappointed or angered you about the personalities of unsuccessful employees in the past. Were they always tardy? Then dependability is very important to you. Did they steal company time by surfing the internet on the company computer for hours a day? Then honesty and productivity are probably high on your list.
Design an employment process that emphasizes these character traits. Ask every applicant the same questions and do similar background checks to avoid claims of discrimination, particularly since screening applicants using character issues can sound like religious discrimination to some skeptical ears.
Ask open-ended questions about character issues in the interview, but don’t rely solely on your ability to judge character. No hour-long interview is going to tell you that much about character. But you can ask about the employee’s most important values, an actual instance in a job where she had to exercise judgment, and any moral dilemmas she has faced at work. If she isn’t introspective enough to even answer these questions, she probably hasn’t ever attempted to improve her character either.
People who know the applicant much better than you do can answer character questions with more accuracy than you can after your short interview. This makes the reference-checking process very important. Ask the applicant’s former managers about his punctuality, his loyalty, and his ability to sacrifice for the good of other employees or the company.
There are also pre-employment tests that you can give to test character. If well-drafted and validated, you shouldn’t have any problem with discrimination claims for using these types of tests. Two vendors providing validated testing instruments are www.eri.com and www.hoganassessments.com.
One caution if you are going to use character to screen out undesirable employees: Make sure your character as an employer can withstand scrutiny also. You will get the employees you deserve if you are quick-tempered, unfair, dishonest, prejudiced, undependable, selfish or disloyal to your employees. Your values, good or bad, will set the standard for everyone you supervise.