Interviewing for Character

In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, many employers were either patting themselves on their backs, or are quietly re-examining their codes of ethics and their hiring practices. Commonly, executive managers are asking, How can we ensure that the people we hire to lead our public institutions have the necessary character to earn and maintain our trust?

Most American businesses are lead by fine people who lead wisely and ethically. By their very actions, some leaders even inspire their workers to greatness. How do companies qualify such leaders during the interview process? Is it by accident?

At companies that have taken time to foster ethical cultures, finding people who are attracted to sound values has proved rewarding. At Baxter BioScience, the Global Business Practice Standards handbook issued to every new employee since the late 1990’s was the culmination of years of promotion on the importance of professional integrity. The book’s slogan is Integrity Works Here. At Irvine-based Edwards Lifesciences, a former Baxter company spun-off in 2000, it published a similar code of behavior, and took the additional step of including several aspects of integrity and people skills in the interview criteria guides used by its hiring managers.

For most people, interviewing others is rarely easy. Verifying someone’s competency and employment history is challenging enough. Determining whether someone has sound character adds complexity, but it is doable.

It is far more difficult to see people as they really are, than it is to see them as we would like them to be. Interviewing requires diligence and patience. At a minimum, it takes time to verify the basics: dates of employment, job titles, promotion history, performance achievements, references. It takes even more time and functional knowledge to determine if candidates are knowledgeable and competent. Gaining insight into people’s character requires still more time, but the dividends earned can be the greatest of all. When you hire a person who has extensive job experience, is knowledgeable and competent, and possesses outstanding human character, you have won the equivalent of a trifecta. Not only have you hired an outstanding individual contributor; you have introduced into your organization a presence that can positively impact your corporate culture in many ways.

What Is Character?

In one of his syndicated radio commentaries, Michael Josephson said, “What we’re looking for is moral strength based on ethical principles. Character is revealed by actions, not words, especially when there’s a gap between what we want to do and what we should do, and when doing the right thing costs more than we want to pay. Our character is revealed by how we deal with pressures and temptations. But it’s also disclosed by everyday actions, including what we say and do when we think no one is looking and we won’t get caught.”

Josephson’s Character Counts! Foundation, which promotes good character to schoolchildren, developed a list of six enduring, universal moral truths which distinguish right from wrong and define the essence of good character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, justice & fairness, caring and civic virtue & citizenship. In the business world, respected author and speaker Stephen Covey speaks about similar values as “inviolate principles” and says that the most effective leaders follow a “true north” compass.

In John Maxwell’s 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, 11 of Maxwell’s espoused qualities are as much attributes of character as they are of leadership. Maxwell believes that most of these qualities can be learned – if an individual recognizes his or her weaknesses, and truly has the will, drive and persistence to grow.

The challenge for interviewers is that even executives with questionable values may have studied these same self-improvement books by Covey and Maxwell, and have today’s “exec speak” down cold. They can be charming, know precisely what to say, when to say it, and carry themselves with absolute confidence. Differentiating the Real McCoy from a smooth talking fraud can be difficult for those without an interview process with defined checks and balances.

Crystal Ball Not Required

Regardless of how one defines character, there are many traits or clues for which any interviewer can look when trying to determine if someone has good character. One does not need to be a psychologist to achieve insight into a candidate’s character. Some qualifying questions, a little perception, and validation of one’s impressions through reference checks can uncover a lot.

The DNA of a person’s character can be discovered in their personal history. Unlock someone’s history, and one can unlock his or her code. Often, stories relayed about childhood experiences, team sports or academic clubs can reveal much about one’s integrity, commitment or courage – or just about any other aspect of character. The same holds true for lessons learned in college, or in every job worked since. “It is never about what organization an individual belonged to,” says executive search consultant, George Sheth. “It is about what that person did there.” To the skilled interviewer, what becomes apparent as one walks through someone’s life story from past to present, is that their life and the lessons learned at each step have to make sense. One looks for consistency or personal growth. If a candidate must grapple with an answer, the cause may be a conscious or unconscious need to edit reality.

Sheth says interviewers must be just as interested in how their subjects made tough decisions, as they are in what they decided. “How” and “Explain to me” are among the most powerful words in an interviewer’s toolbox. “Why” is another. Asking candidates to clarify the logic and the methods for past decisions can be extremely telling.

Some of the most savvy and manipulative people may go out of their way to convince others of their superior moral nature through their commitment to their community. It can be difficult to discern what aspects of servitude are heartfelt, and which are simply designed for public viewing. When a candidate discusses his commitment to the arts, does he speak more about the lavishness of the latest fundraising dinner or about a struggling young artist? Does he namedrop in order to impress others?

Interview Methods

With most interview techniques, how candidates respond frequently is as important as what they say. Sheth recommends using active listening, and paying attention to eye movement and body language.

Tracking during 1st round interviews is an effective means of gaining a thorough understanding of how an individual has grown professionally, to flesh out resume claims, and to ascertain how and why he or she has made job changes. As the candidate walks through a chronology of his or her career, the interviewer must take copious notes, which may be explored in 2nd round interviews or with immediate qualifying questions.

Explanatory Questions provide clarity to why or how the candidate took certain actions. “Could you explain to me why…” and “How did you…” are good examples.

Hypothetical Questions are useful for validating the logic the candidate may have offered in previous Explanatory Questions, or for addressing areas that otherwise were not covered, or for gaining clarity about actions unearthed while Tracking. For example, “Given this scenario, how would you…” can refer to a current real-life situation at the employer, a fictional company or even a hypothetical moral dilemma between two people.

Validating Impressions with Others

Sheth observes that while most interviewers would like to think they have impeccable judgment, no one is infallible. Opinions are, after all, subjective. Observations and anecdotes from objective third parties can be extremely useful for validating or challenging one’s opinions. “The operative words here are ‘objective’ and ‘opinions,’” Sheth says. “It is rare that any candidate is foolish enough to suggest people who will give them a bad reference, but it does happen.”

Many applicants count on the fact that many employers do not check references. If employers do, they typically do a cursory job of it, or they simply rely upon outsourced background checks into individuals’ credit and criminal histories. But callouts to former employers to verify employment dates, or outsourced background checks, rarely provide information about people’s character.

There are two types of references. First, there are those “warm” references that candidates provide, which some employers check at the time of an offer. Then, there are truly objective 3rd party references that should be tapped – and rarely are, except by reputable recruiters or savvy hiring managers.

Many employers operate under the misconception that they cannot legally ask qualified questions of competency about candidates, because their own legal counsels have admonished them not to offer such commentaries on their own former employees for fear of defamation lawsuits. Consequently, many company managers and HR professionals believe they can ask no more than “name, rank and serial number,” or whether or not a prior employer would hire an individual again. The truth is that they can ask much more, so long as it is job-related. It is up to the former employer to decide how much it wishes to answer. Fortunately, despite concern over lawsuits, most functional managers will go out of their way to provide detailed assessments of people’s strengths and weaknesses, their accomplishments and even their failures.

Who are these so-called objective 3rd parties? Any well-connected senior executive who has built and maintained a network of professional colleagues and friends is likely to “know someone who knows someone” about a prospective candidate, particularly if it was someone within that circle who recommended the individual in the first place. Quality recruiters typically have an even more extensive network to tap, because professional networks are their lifeblood. Whoever makes the effort to check with a 3rd party needs to seek qualitative job-related commentary from those who worked closest to the individual. Managers, peers and clients are optimal.

With every input received, a hiring authority must edge towards a conclusion, not leap to it. Candidate-supplied references and references from other 3rd parties should be taken with a grain of salt. Just as in divorce situations, there is “his story” and “her story” – and somewhere in the middle lies “the truth.” Sheth cautions that one always needs to remember that one or more of these 3rd parties may have an ax to grind with this individual, which is why callers need to speak with as many 3rd parties as possible.

Legal experts at the Society for Human Resource Management advise interviewers to document every conversation. Is there consistency in commentary between the candidate’s suggested references and those of 3rd parties? Is the commentary consistent with what the candidate conveyed during interviews? Do the opinions of others align with those of the interviewer or the interview team? Do all the data points make sense?

Little Things Can Add Up

Just because one doesn’t uncover a history of blatant corporate malfeasance, improper behavior or criminal misconduct does not mean an individual’s character is pure enough for a position in which character may decide critical outcomes. Sheth points out that individuals who “look away” from inappropriate behavior may be just as damaging because their patterns of inaction and hypocrisy can undermine corporate standards. “Did the person’s resume stretch the truth? Did you catch him in a lie about himself or the company? Was his assessment of himself consistent with what others had to say? Did he ever give credit to others? Little things can add up to how an individual is likely to respond under extraordinary circumstances,” Sheth concludes.

Triangulate and Decide

Many levels of fact and nuance must come together in order to reveal an individual’s likely character. To rely solely upon a single data point without considering the whole – one’s impression from an interview, other interviewers’ opinions, outside references, or background checks – may be naïve and possibly irresponsible. It may take months to discover that someone has questionable character, still more months to prove it, and possibly a year or more to assemble sufficient documentation to justify termination, if necessary. If an unethical individual is allowed to fester and replicate within a company, bringing in colleagues who share the same values – or lack of values – it can takes years to undo the damage, at great cost. On the other hand, as at Baxter and Edwards, companies that take the time to define and promote their value systems can build business cultures where character and integrity become part and parcel to their businesses.

Scott Cadwalader, Diligent Partners LLC

Diligent Partners LLC