Why Accountability is Key to Effective Recruiting

February 27, 2017 at 12:00 PM by William Clarke

AccountabilityHeader.pngThis is the tenth and final post in our series on hiring candidates with characteristics linked to high performance. Each post focuses on a single key trait, why it matters and how recruiters can develop processes to correctly and fairly evaluate candidates for it.

So far, we’ve covered the science of first impressions, hiring for personality versus character, how to hire committed candidates, how to find motivated candidates, how to hire collaborative individuals, how to hire passionate candidates, finding candidates with the right skillset for your role, the value of growth-minded candidates, and why freethinkers are awesome hires for every company.

You’ve probably heard this phrase before: Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. Besides the fact that everyone shirks blame, what does it mean? It means true accountability is hard. It’s easy to take credit for success, but hard to take ownership of failure. That goes for individuals and organizations, and it’s why accountability is so important for successful organizations. But it’s a tough nut to crack.

Lack of accountability plagues the modern workforce. A 2013 study by the American Management Association found that 11 percent of managers and 50 percent of workers avoid responsibility. That’s pretty bad. In reality, it may be even worse. This month’s State of the American Workforce survey by Gallup found that only 33 percent of US employees were engaged at work.

Here’s the rub: engagement does not exist without accountability and accountability does not exist without engagement. Disengagement is a result of bad culture and, much like accountability, is an organizational failure. But fixing your culture isn’t impossible, and the payoff is worth the effort.

A strong culture of accountability and ownership is what keeps employees and organizations happy and productive. If your hiring team is missing goals and struggling to make enough good hires, look inward., By asking yourself a few questions and beginning a dialogue with your team, you’re planting the seeds for a team built on accountability. From there, the sky's the limit.

The upshot is that talent teams are uniquely positioned within organizations to be changemakers, and because you are the people responsible for bringing in new talent, your impact on culture will be felt across the entire company.

Accountability in a nutshell

At its root, accountability is about honoring your commitments. But that’s not all. It also requires absolute clarity. Accountable organizations make goals, responsibilities and expectations crystal clear. Everyone from individual contributors to senior managers must know what is expected of them.

Confusion is the enemy of accountability. When people don’t know what is expected of them, they can’t take ownership of their role, and when organizations don’t have clear goals, teams can’t come together to achieve them. That’s why clarity is so essential.

If you’re struggling to kick off your push for accountability, look for moments of failure. While it may seem difficult to establish accountability if things are going poorly, failure is an opportunity to kickoff the kind of in-depth evaluation and analysis that bolsters accountability and ownership.

Feedback loops and honest dialogue are essential aspects of a culture of accountability. And the more often you do them, the easier and more natural it becomes. It all starts with you saying, “We didn’t meet our goals and, as your leader, it’s on me. Now, what should we do about it?” The key is finding the right time. The upshot is that, according to Gallup, a strong culture of accountability, “leads to improved competency, commitment to work, increased employee morale and work satisfaction.”

Establishing accountability on your team

Organizations that share feedback top to bottom with dignity and professionalism are great places to work and perform better.” - Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures

Accountability is a two-way street. It’s an agreement that you will do what you say and, if you don’t, you’ll own it. Simple, right? Well, simple enough to say, but that's like saying that all you need to do is hit a 90 mile per hour fastball is wait for the pitch and swing the bat. True enough, but there’s also some technical know-how you’ll need along the way. Creating accountability is similar; it's easy to describe but difficult to do. 

In practice, accountability relies on mutually agreed upon goals, key performance indicators, and expectations for every person on your hiring team. Each person needs to know their responsibilities and what is expected of them, especially leaders like you. Yes, you.

This can be difficult with hiring managers since they often view hiring as a secondary responsibility. The key is to explain clearly what you require from them and why the more they help you the easier it will be to land top-notch hires. By helping you, they are helping themselves.

For sourcers and recruiters, it’s important to establish timelines and metrics. Things like the number of qualified candidates per role or the number of filled roles each quarter. There can be no ambiguity because it erodes accountability. Setting aggressive goals can also be a strong motivator, so don’t be afraid of ambition.

Accountability in your recruiting

First things first: tracking your recruiting metrics is absolutely key for accountability in your recruiting. It makes it simpler for your recruiters, sourcers, hiring managers and everyone else to stay on the same page and know what’s going on. Luckily staying on top of your data is easier now than it used to be. Many modern ATS’ like Greenhouse, Lever, iCims and Smartrecruiters offer the functionality to track candidates through each stage of the funnel and even give you the ability to create reports. Given these tools, there’s no excuse for Talent Acquisition and Recruiting leaders to not be on top of their recruiting KPIs. Sidenote, if your ATS doesn’t offer you these capabilities, you should probably start looking for one that does!

Once you’ve established accountability on your hiring team, it’s far easier to find, screen and hire candidates who have the characteristics you’re looking for. If you’re trying to bring accountability in through your candidates without first establishing it on your own teams, you’re gonna struggle. Candidates are smart and they’ll know if you’re disorganized or have a less than optimal culture. Even if they don’t notice during interviews, any research will expose the fact that your culture needs work. So, instead of hiding it, own it. If your culture is still a work in progress, explain how and why you’re going about improving it. Acknowledging your faults and explaining your plan to remediate them is a great example of, yep, you guessed it, accountability.

If accountability is something new for your team, it can help to formalize a code of conduct that establishes how you will treat your candidates.  Here are a few suggestions:

1. We will honor your time.
2. We will treat you with respect. 
3. We will always be forthright and transparent. 

It may sound ridiculous, but many organizations still don’t treat candidates as well as they should, so something along these lines tells every applicant or person considering applying that, no matter what happens, they’ll be treated well. A clear statement of values also shows what matters to your organization beyond just profits or growth, which is a huge part of your employer value proposition. Candidates will appreciate that.

Finding accountable talent

Sourcing and recruiting for candidates with predilections towards accountability is a lot like looking for other character traits. The key is knowing the right signals. Ensure that your job reqs feature a section titled responsibilities and expectations. That, right off the bat, will tell many candidates whether or not they have the right experience, skillset, and mindset for the role, which will lead to more of the right candidates applying.

When it comes to sourcing, search resumes and job boards for people who have identified their responsibilities and accomplishments. Any resume without concrete and measurable achievements is a red flag because that means someone is probably inflating their impact. Also, don’t assume titles like manager or director mean considerable responsibility. In some cases, they have more impressive titles than their responsibilities warranted.

Once you get to the phone screen, be sure to ask them about any question marks brought up by their resume. They may have good answers and explanations, but if anything seems light, poorly defined or fluffy, try to get more information out of them about their specific roles and responsibilities. It’s far easier to overstate things on a resume than it is over the phone. If someone isn’t quite as experienced or skilled as they seemed you can usually suss that out over the phone.

During in-person interviews, ask them about a time they didn’t meet expectations. Ask them why they think it happened and how they worked to correct the issue. If they prevaricate or can’t think of a single example of when they struggled or didn’t succeed, they’re probably not someone who truly takes ownership. Real accountability means not hiding from your mistakes and using them as an opportunity for growth. If they can’t reflect on any of their imperfections in an interview, they probably won’t be able to do it down the road.

At the end of the day, your job is to find people who will work well within a system that promotes accountability, so be careful not to ding people coming from chaotic environments where accountability may not be a priority. If they can succeed in a place without it, just imagine what they can do in a place where accountability is prized.


Accountability takes constant work. It doesn’t just exist in perpetuity on its own. That’s why a strong system to promote it is crucial. Establishing clear expectations, responsibilities, and goals for individuals and teams for each month, quarter or year keeps everyone honest. Creating feedback loops and checking them at regular intervals keeps the system healthy by addressing challenges and problems in a timely matter. The best thing is, once accountability has become a real part of your culture, it begins to support itself. But hiring the right people through a recruiting plan that rewards accountability creates a virtuous cycle that supports and replenishes your organizational culture.  

Other posts in the Evaluating the Traits of High-Performing Employees series (so far):

  1. What The Science of First Impressions Can Tell Us About Recruiting

  2. The Dangers of Hiring Candidates Based on Personality

  3. Attracting, Hiring, and Retaining Talent For The Long Term

  4. How to Identify and Assess Motivation in High-Performing Candidates

  5. How Hiring Talent Breeds a Creative, Scaleable Organization

  6. Why Passion is the Keystone to Success

  7. How to Tell if a Candidate's Skills Fit Your Role

  8. The Advantage of Hiring Growth-Minded Talent

  9. How Hiring Freethinkers Encourages Diversity of Thought

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