The first thing you notice about Jack Welker, the white supremacist played by Michael Bowen in the TV series Breaking Bad, is the big, black swastika on his neck. Jack makes no bones about his racism. You’ve heard of people wearing their hearts on their sleeves? Jack wears his hatred just below his head.

Jack Welker is hardly one of the Good Ones–people of high character whose commitment to honesty, accountability, care, and courage help an organization succeed. But not everyone who is racially prejudiced flaunts a tattoo with a Nazi symbol. What about the person who passionately proclaims, “I don’t judge people by the color of their skin. I don’t care if a person is black, white, yellow or purple — I don’t think of people in terms of their race”? Can we be sure that that person always lives up to this principle?

The problem has to do with unconscious bias: prejudice that flies below the radar of one’s awareness. As Don Feldmann, Feldmann, CEO of Rippe & Kingston Capital Advisors, Inc., in Cincinnati, notes, however, it’s possible to be aware of the effects of such bias. “If I’m bothered by something that a job candidate has done, I pay attention to this feeling, but I then ask myself, ‘OK, what’s really going on here? Do I feel this way because of something that’s genuinely wrong with the candidate, or is it my bias?’ Sometimes your instincts are valid, and sometimes they’re not. It’s a hard call. We’re capable of fooling ourselves a lot.”

Of the ten crucial qualities of high-character employees that we’re exploring in this 10-part series, fairness—the commitment giving to others their due–is among the most difficult to evaluate in job candidates.  But having fair people on board makes the lives of compliance and ethics officers easier, because there will be fewer fires to put out.  The questions below are a modest attempt at evaluating fairness in both job candidates and employees who wish to move up in the organization.

What are your biases?

Why not just come straight out with it? All of us have biases.  They may not be on the level of Jack Welker, but they’re there.

The problem with this question is that it all but begs the interview subject to lie. What person who seriously wants a job or promotion will be specific about his or her prejudices, should they even be aware of them in the first place?

Still, some answers are better than others. A round of applause goes to the interviewee who speaks of having reflected on this subject already and how he or she has worked to overcome their limitations. Recall how Don Feldmann questions why he feels the way he does about a job candidate, pro or con. Merely considering the possibility of his own biases helps him to do the best job he can in evaluating a candidate fairly.

Tell me about a time when you were discriminated against. How did it affect you, and what did you do as a result?

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, talks about a formative experience growing up in a small town in Alabama. Riding his bike on his way home, Tim saw a burning cross on the lawn of a family he knew was African American. A group of Klansmen stood there, shouting racial epithets. After he heard a window break on the house, Tim yelled, “Stop!” A man in the group removed his hood, revealing himself to be a deacon at the local church. “This image was permanently imprinted in my brain, and it would change my life forever,” he said in a speech, and went on to talk about how human rights and dignity matter. Apple, he says, is dedicated to “advancing humanity,” and to that end, he became the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to identify publicly as gay. “If hearing that the C.E.O. of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy,” he wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek.

In a response to question 2, how would a high-character person talk about what he or she learned after being unfairly discriminated against? Here are some possible responses:

  • “The experience gave me an insight into prejudice that I didn’t have before.”
  • “It made me want to make sure that I never treated anyone like that myself.”
  • “It’s one of the major reasons I went into this line of work.”

If I were answering this question, I would talk about how I had been fired for no good reason when I was working at a fast-food restaurant in high school. The job of cashier required making a note of every twenty-dollar bill we received. One busy Sunday morning when I was working the cash register, I received a lot more twenties than usual. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I’d noted the twenty I’d just been handed, so I made a note of it, which turned out to be a mistake. The register thus said I’d taken in twenty-one bills when I’d really taken in only twenty, and the next day the manager accused me of having pocketed it. He fired me on the spot.

Being fired for any reason is stressful, but when it’s unjustified, it’s hard to describe the sense of indignity one experiences. Granted, it’s not on the level of being sentenced to prison for a crime one didn’t commit, but it’s still unjust. And I believe it played some role in my decision to write about and teach ethics for a living.

Summary

  • To be fair is to give to others their due.
  • High-character employees strive to be fair at work regarding hiring, raises and promotions, and job assignments.
  • Interviewer bias is an obstacle to fair hiring but can be managed successfully.
  • Hiring and promoting fair employees can reduce or eliminate the legal and financial troubles that arise from unfair business practices.

This essay, an excerpt from my latest book, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees, is the fifth in a series of blog posts on how to hire high-character people.  The first four were How to Hire Honest People, How to Hire Accountable People, How to Hire Caring People, and How to Hire Courageous People. Next time, we’ll look at what it means to be a grateful person and how to evaluate this quality in job applicants and current employees.