Hire AND Fire for Character

I was having dinner with a friend recently; she’s higher up in her organization and has hiring duties.

Naturally, talk turns to work. (Everyone spends a lot of time there; this happens.) She says she recently had an open role and narrowed it down to the top choice, who she brought back in for some final discussions.

In this discussion, the top choice says that he and his wife plan on living in the city for two years, then traveling around and ultimately living in another country. Essentially, he put a 24-month cap on the job he’s about to get offered.

My friend, wine glass raised, says this is “ridiculous.” Why would she hire someone who only planned to stay two years, right? She actually then inferred that she might have preferred him to lie or omit that information, even though in either context she would have gotten him as an employee for two years.

I decided to jump in at this moment. I actually thought what he did was showing strong character, because I’d rather hire someone with honesty and have them for two years than a person who begins with an untruth.

The conversation got a little heated for a few minutes, then returned to more banal work topics.

The whole thing got me thinking about hiring, though. The old saying is that you hire for competence and fire for character. But what if that’s misguided? What if we should be both hiring and firing for character?

Competence vs. character

Character always matters. Don’t get me wrong, you need skills and you need know-how to be good at anything.

Competence will help you cross the finish line, sure, but it won’t help you keep crossing that finish line again and again.

You also need to take into account the current business environment we live in, which is often classified as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. You may onboard to a job and be doing something entirely different weeks later. In that world, competence is a lot less relevant. It’s more about how you adjust and learn and grow. That all comes from character.

So how do we hire for character?

It’s hard because we live in “Big Data” now and we want everything quantified into rows, but character can’t be quantified — and some people (worst example would probably be Ted Bundy) can come off as charming, well-mannered, and possessing good character … and then, well, no.

Eventually, every hiring cycle gets down to 2-4 final candidates. You need to be able spot people with strong character at this stage (and ideally before); these are people with high integrity, high trust, ultimately solid in their convictions and caring of others (big hearted).

The first thing that needs to be done is removing some of the power from the hiring manager. Usually a new hire works far more with his/her team than his/her direct manager, so the team needs to have a lot of input. Put the 2-4 finalists in front of the team and ask them work-related questions, yes. Such as:

  • How do you behave in times of stress?
  • You like to lean on email?
  • Here’s a current challenge for our team. What do you think we should do next?

But also ask character-driven questions, such as:

  • Who’s most important to you in the world?
  • What do you think the line between work/family should be?
  • If you ever start your own company, what’s the culture going to look like?
  • Name 3 people who you’ve helped grow their careers and how you did so?

When you check references or talk to their past colleagues, these are questions to help you spot character breaches:

  • Do they bend the truth to make situations more comfortable for others/themselves?
  • Do they commit to things they don’t plan to fulfill just to get someone off their back?
  • Do they sometimes (a lot) take more credit than they deserve?
  • Do they sometimes make colleagues look bad?
  • Do they share information ‘strategically’ to increase the odds of getting what they want?
  • Do they bend a lot of rules?
  • Do they sometimes invent excuses to get a deadline extended?

The ultimate decision should be based not on “Wharton MBA” or “11 years in Operations,” but a mix of the answers to these bullets.

Firing for character

This one is easier, but it takes gumption on behalf of management. (Yes, gumption is still a word.)

Basically: you cannot tolerate a*holes and “brilliant jerks” even if they are your top performers. You need to fire them. Your best sales guy brings in revenue, yes. But millions of people around the world bring in revenue. If your best sales guy belittles others and slaps females in marketing on the posterior, that’s very bad. Forget the HR implications. Many workplaces are “monkey see, monkey do.” That creates a culture where “If I produce, I have carte blanche.” In this case, “one bad apple does spoil the whole bunch.”

In my world, the main reason someone should get fired is for character. If they don’t live up to the values of the company, aren’t trustworthy and operate with little integrity, whether you sell widgets or VR headsets, they shouldn’t be there.

If you root both “how someone arrives here” and “how someone exits here” in character as opposed to competence, wouldn’t that be a better workplace for everyone currently there?

Lisa Martin, PCC

About Lisa Martin, PCC

I help high achievers – people like you – Lead + Live Better™. I support new and seasoned leaders to gain the clarity and confidence to work more effectively and have more impact. And I equip organizations with leadership development programs which cultivate amazing leaders at every level.


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