Hiring Focused on Character

I often hear the general perception by business owners and managers that employees under the age of 30 have a lousy work ethic or other character deficiencies. They complain about entry-level employees who aren’t interested in paying their dues and are 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. But I know many “kids” under 30 (my 26-year-old son among them) who are incredibly motivated, hard-working, smart and willing to pay their dues.

Throughout my 32 years of practicing employment law full-time, I’ve also heard lots of similar stereotypical complaints about women in the workplace (“they can’t get along with other women—it’s always a cat fight” or “they just quit when they have children”). And sometimes, I have unfortunately been privy to pure misogyny, racism, ageism, and other bigotry when discussing problem employees.

I have a radical observation from more than 30 years of practicing employment law: Character is not generational, racial or gender-specific. I’ve worked with some terrific young employees and some terrible older ones, some unbelievably hard-working women and some slacker men, some brilliant minorities and some completely ignorant WASPs. The real debate is not about an employee’s age, race, gender or any other data point over which the employee has no control, but the employee’s individual character. So I encourage employers to focus on character more and stereotypes less (actually, not at all).

As an employer, I know you want to fill any open position with an employee who will exhibit responsibility, honesty, loyalty, enthusiasm, flexibility, initiative, dependability, civility, judgment and a distinct sense of right and wrong, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age, or other protected characteristic.

You won’t find nearly as many business books that focus on character instead of generational conflict or the “downfalls” of diversity. The subject of character often sounds old-fashioned and faintly religious.

But all of us have reluctantly dealt with people with poorly-developed values: gossips, 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. But you have to be able to spot poor character in your hiring process to avoid bringing this poison into your workplace.

To hire better employees, first 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 shopping on the internet on the company computer for hours a day? Then honesty and productivity are probably high on your list. Did your former employee pot-stir, pitting employees against one another? Then you are looking for someone who treats everyone with respect and doesn’t enjoy gossip.

Design an employment process that doesn’t just focus on job skills, but also zeroes in on the character traits that matter most to you. Ask open-ended questions about values in the interview, but don’t rely solely on your ability to judge character. No hour-long interview is going to tell you everything about an applicant’s character.

But you can find out some aspects of an applicant’s character if you ask about:

  • the employee’s most important values;
  • an actual instance in a job where she had to exercise wisdom and good judgment;
  • any moral dilemmas she has faced at work;
  • a person of integrity whom she admires and why;
  • the most important lesson her family taught her: and
  • the most difficult coworker she has ever had to deal with and why.

If the applicant isn’t introspective enough to even answer these kinds of interview questions, he/she probably hasn’t ever attempted to improve his or her character either. That applicant is probably unaware of why they behave badly and will just expect you to excuse whatever mood of the moment they exhibit.

Ask every applicant these same questions and do similar background checks to avoid claims of hiring discrimination, particularly since screening applicants using character issues can sound like religious discrimination to some skeptical ears or can mean that you accidentally hire only people who are very culturally similar to you—meaning you may exclude other ages, gender, ethnicities, etc.

There are other questions, tips and tricks that experienced human resources experts can share with you to evaluate character, but my favorite is to take the applicant out to a restaurant for a meal. I watch the applicant carefully to determine if he/she is polite to everyone serving them (for me, it is an automatic exclusion if the applicant treats service people as inferior or gets upset by little mistakes with an order, probably because I waited tables in college and know what a hard job it is). I also notice whether the applicant looks people in the eye, is able to keep our conversation going with smart questions and some interest in me, and remembers to thank me for picking up the tab.

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 get along with his coworkers. Find out from personal references what they perceive as the applicant’s strength and weaknesses. You can even just flat out ask the references to describe the applicant’s character.

There are also pre-employment tests that you can give to applicants to test character. If well-drafted and scientifically validated to be unbiased, you shouldn’t have any problem with discrimination claims for using these types of tests. Here is some good information from the Society for Human Resource Management about personality testing and what to ask vendors of those tests before you utilize one.      

I have one caution if you are going to use character questions, tests or concerns to screen out undesirable employees: Make sure your own character as an employer can withstand scrutiny. 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.

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