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The Dangers of Hiring Candidates Based on Personality

December 7, 2016 at 9:00 AM William Clarke

Personality Hiring Post.pngThis is the second in a series of ten posts on hiring candidates for characteristics linked to high performance. Each post focuses on a key candidate trait, why it matters and how recruiters can develop processes to correctly and fairly evaluate for it.

Last week, I discussed how first impressions affect our decision-making process. In this post, I’ll be looking at how recruiters can fairly assess the personalities and character of job candidates to maximize the odds of making good hires.

Personality and character are a key part of every candidate's repertoire, and traits every recruiter has to evaluate. The best hires possess a diverse combination of skills, experience, and intangibles that allow them to gel with coworkers and make contributions to teams that go far beyond their technical skillset.  

But effectively judging both personality traits and character traits is one of the most challenging parts of a recruiter’s job. As easy as it is to read someone’s basic personality, judging their deeper makeup is a completely different task, yet we often confuse personality with character and vice versa.

Why personality is overrated

Determining someone’s fit for a role based on their personality is easy and highly flawed. It usually only takes a few minutes (even seconds) to get a decent sense of someone’s personality. That’s great, but having a winning personality isn’t an accurate indicator of whether someone will make a great hire. Instead, personality turns into a red herring. Recruiters wind up looking for people just like the people already at the company. 

“Good fit” turns into “the same as,” which means you’re hiring people not because you know what they’ll add to the company, but because they seem like they’ll get along with everyone.

Work isn’t just about being fun and social. Well-matched, like-minded personalities can help teams iron out their differences and maintain a positive workplace culture in the short term, but there’s also research that shows how costly and damaging groupthink and homogeneity can be to organizations.

Being nice and funny does not make a person hard-working, yet a recruiter’s job is to puzzle out these correlations in a limited amount of time. Given the inherent ambiguity of the hiring process, it’s easy to fall back on confirmation bias and confuse attractive personality traits with positive characteristics. But someone need not be a social butterfly to be an effective marketer, and shy people can be outstanding sales reps.

If someone consistently cuts corners and lets their teammates down, that makes for a bad hire – talking to someone for 15 minutes won’t often tell reveal that about them.

Our tendency to rely on easily observable personality traits leads us to overvalue their predictive usefulness. In doing so, good candidates get eliminated and people are hired because they fit a mold, not because they represent a superlative set of skills, abilities, and traits. Not all of these hires turn out to be bad hires, but recruiters and hiring teams are at higher risk of making less than optimal hires who may damage the organization down the road. 

Hire for character instead

World-renowned investor Warren Buffet famously said he looks for two things in CEOs when he is looking for companies to buy: Energy and integrity. In other words, he looks for people with certain character. Much like investing, hiring is hardly a science, yet character is one of the best indicators of future success.  

As I discussed last week, humans often rely on first impressions out of necessity. Efficiently judging personalities and character are two different processes that often get conflated. In a scenario where we’re asked to make a decision with limited data points in a finite amount of time, first impressions provide crucial context to help us make those judgment calls.

Personality can be analyzed quickly, but it’s very difficult to gauge character via first impressions. Assessing character usually requires observing people’s behavior under challenging situations, but that’s not always possible within the context of a typical interview. The next best way is to carefully construct questions that provide character-revealing information about candidates. A structured interview process with thoughtfully designed questions, both reduces the impact of confirmation bias and evaluates for character traits such as conscientiousness and drive. These two traits indicate whether a person will work hard, perform well under pressure, and meet their obligations to teammates and coworkers, crucial aptitudes no matter the role.

Finding out how candidates handle complex, complicated and emotionally difficult situations gives recruiters and hiring teams crucial insights into individual’s deeper traits. It’s a window into how they’ll approach their work at your organization and is far more predictive of how they will problem solve, treat others and think about complexity than basic personality traits.

What matters most to your organization

A healthy, well-functioning workplace requires, quite simply, that people treat each other with respect and take their responsibilities seriously. There are a handful of fundamental character traits that every candidate should possess no matter what. All it takes is one toxic personality to throw off that equilibrium, so every hire should be evaluated for certain non-negotiable qualities.

Organizations can guard against this by intensely testing all candidates for characteristics like empathy, honesty, and conscientiousness. These qualities generally correlate with people who have good impulse control, work hard in the face of challenges and treat others well. Sounds like the beginnings of a great hire, right?

Create a list of 3-5 character traits that candidates should possess for each role and create questions that evaluate for those characteristics. Consider the team they’re joining, the seniority of the position, and the responsibilities. For instance, a manager role requires different traits than an individual contributor and a sales or customer support role requires different personality traits than a marketing or engineering role.

Hiring for character creates more productive, effective, and resilient teams. When presented with tough decisions, they are more likely to think fairly and for the benefit of the team  and contribute positively to your company culture.

Takeaways

The pressure of work brings out the worst and the best in people. There are pressures to deliver outstanding results. There are pressures to come up with newer, more interesting and smarter solutions, and there are pressures to be the best. Cutting corners and taking shortcuts always comes back to hurt you eventually,  which is why hiring for character is so fundamental to creating a workplace and a culture that can endure and overcome obstacles while establishing the long-term success of your organization.

Other posts in this series (so far):

What the Science of First Impressions Can Tell Us About Recruiting 

Related Articles:
These Five Seth Godin Insights Will Help You Recruit Better
Why You Should Be Hiring For Culture Add Not Culture Fit
How to Identify and Manage Interview Chameleons

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