Rationally Selfish Q&A: Character in Hiring

 Posted by on 3 August 2010 at 11:30 am  Business, Ethics, Q&As
Aug 032010

Many thanks to the 75 people who voted 361 times on 10 questions for the first edition of my Rationally Selfish Q&A. I’m delighted by that response to this experiment, and I hope that you enjoy my answer to the top-voted question below.

Given the enthusiastic response so far, I’m pleased to continue the experiment. You can submit and vote on questions for next week’s Q&A on this page. I didn’t pre-load any questions this time, so please submit yours! However, some great questions lost by only a few votes last week. You’re welcome to resubmit any of interest for consideration this week, if you like.

Now, without further ado:

What are the most important qualities of character to look for when you hire people, besides technical ability? How can you determine if a person has those qualities?

More than anything else, honesty — down to the very marrow of the soul.

Some years ago, when working as a web programmer, a client asked me for some data about site traffic. My report was not was favorable, and I hated to be the bearer of bad news. So I tried to soften the blow with something like “I’m sorry to report that…”

My client’s reply startled me. She chided me for being apologetic, saying “Facts are always good!” By that, she wasn’t denying the existence of unwelcome facts. Instead, her point was that you’re always better off knowing the facts, even when they’re not what you’d like, rather than remaining ignorant, mistaken, or deluded. My client was right: facts are always good. And more, that attitude is the essence of true honesty.

Since then, time and again, I’ve found that a person’s most important quality of character is that kind of honesty. For any serious dealings, personal or professional, a person must be committed to the facts of reality above all else. He must be honest to the core.

What does that mean in practice?

  • The honest person doesn’t ignore or deny facts to gratify his feelings and desires: he seeks the truth and acts on that.
  • The honest person doesn’t invent excuses to save face: he admits his errors and reverses course.
  • The honest person doesn’t try to cheat reality by deceiving others: he’s truthful, even when difficult.
  • The honest person doesn’t evade his problems, thereby allowing them to fester and grow: he works to identify and remedy them.

In short, the honest person’s most basic policy is “Reality First!”

The process of judging whether a person is deeply honest requires some time: you need to see — in word and deed — that he regards any willful departure from the facts as unthinkable.

In the process of hiring someone, you can assess a person’s honesty by asking certain kinds of questions, such as:

  • You realize that you’ve made a serious error on a project that will delay delivery. What do you do? Why?
  • A friend on your team asks you to lie to a client about a trivial matter. What do you do? Why?
  • Your boss proposes an idea that you think will likely to fail. What do you do? Why?
  • What was the worst mistake you made in your prior job? What did you do about it? What might you do differently now? Why?
  • You realize that a policy you implemented over the objections of your team is having just the kind of negative effects they predicted. What do you do now? Why?

A person’s answers to such questions can reveal much about his commitment to facts — or the lack thereof.

Most of all, remember that in judging people, just as with everything else, “facts are good!”

Update: I’m now answering questions on practical philosophy and the principles of living well in my internet radio show Philosophy in Action. The Q&A broadcasts every Sunday morning at 8 am PT / 9 am MT / 10 am CT / 11 am ET. Each week, I select the most popular and interesting questions from the ongoing queue of questions. Please submit your questions, as well as vote and comment on questions that you find interesting!

If you can’t attend the live broadcast, you can listen to the episode later in the podcast archive or by subscribing to the Philosophy in Action Podcast RSS Feed:

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