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:
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