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Honesty is the most important of the ten crucial qualities of high-character employees.

My father once bought a life insurance policy from an agent who was a really likable guy. Warm, friendly, and a good listener, Eric was just the kind of person you wanted on your team. His impeccable credentials, strong references, and a professional demeanor made him an understandable choice to handle such an important part of my father’s financial portfolio.  He also turned out to be a crook, as dishonest as the day is long.

After my dad discovered that Eric had embezzled thousands of dollars, my father sued him, and I went to the trial. I’ll never forget what Eric’s own attorney said to the jury: “No one will ever trust Eric again.” When your own attorney publicly declares you to be untrustworthy, you’ve got some real integrity problems. Eric was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to prison. After his release, he operated a limousine company and died a few years ago at the age of sixty-two.

Had you met Eric, I’ll bet you too would have believed him to be an honest person you could trust as your insurance agent. He is an excellent, if tragic, example of how difficult it is to evaluate a job candidate’s honesty.

But just because it’s difficult to assess how honest a potential hire is doesn’t mean it’s impossible.  There will be fewer problems for compliance and ethics officers to deal with if organizations hire for character as well as competence.  As I will explore in a series of posts for the Compliance & Ethics Blog, honesty is one of ten crucial qualities of high-character employees.  Here are a few questions that hiring managers can ask to discern a job candidate’s commitment to being honest.

Tell me about a time when you had to tell a direct report an unpleasant truth. What were the challenges and how did you get past them? What were the consequences?

Ross, a senior vice president I interviewed, needed to tell Hazel, his direct report, that she wasn’t going to get the promotion she was expecting. “It was partially my fault for not having submitted the correct paperwork on time, which I didn’t know I was supposed to do,” Ross told me. “Mostly, though, it was our company’s bureaucracy that got in the way of Hazel’s promotion. Hazel would have found out on her own in six weeks, but I decided that the bad news should come from me. I didn’t want her waiting for something that wasn’t going to happen.”

He fretted for days before talking with Hazel. “I was afraid she would quit, which she would have been perfectly justified in doing. She has been with the company for seven years and has always done a good job. Well, she was very angry when I told her she wouldn’t be getting a promotion this time around. But I was glad she felt safe expressing her frustration to me, and it gave us an opportunity to have an open and honest discussion about her role at the firm.”

Ross pressed his own supervisor to get involved, and eventually Hazel got both a promotion and a raise. “Hazel told me she appreciated that I told her what was going on,” Ross explained. “She knows she can trust me to be straight with her and to fight for her, too. That may be one of the reasons she still works here.” Ross could have kept the truth to himself, but his decision to be open with Hazel illustrates the point that honest employees feel compelled to be truthful.

Ross is one of the Good Ones: high-character people whose honesty (among other ethical qualities) benefits the organization and brings out the best in others.  I’d want to work for someone like Ross.  Wouldn’t you?

Have you ever cheated, and if so, what did you learn from it?

Several of the corporate and health care executives I spoke with in doing research for my book told me, “You’d be surprised how often people will just come out and tell you about the dishonest things they’ve done.” I agree.

From time to time I interview high school students who are applying to the college I attended. A few years ago, I mentioned to Rob, the young man I was interviewing, that I’d written a book called Is It Still Cheating If I Don’t Get Caught? I told him how dismayed I was by the stories of cheating in prestigious high schools and colleges and asked him point-blank if he had ever misrepresented himself.

“Yes,” he said. “My friends and I have done it more than once. School is so competitive now you have to cheat to get good grades.”

Rob got an A for being honest with me and a “Do not admit” recommendation from me on the college evaluation form.

There are two downsides to asking a direct question about dishonesty. First, it immediately strikes fear in the candidate’s heart, even if the candidate is fundamentally an honest person. I don’t like the idea of making a job candidate squirm. The second is that the question seems to present a no-win situation for the candidate. She may reason that if the she admits to having cheated, she won’t get the job (as happened to Rob); but if she lies, she’ll be worried about being caught in a lie and rejected for that reason.  Only candidates who have never cheated have nothing to worry about (except being believed).

But the savvy interviewer will not reject a candidate simply because he has admitted to cheating. What bothered me about Rob wasn’t so much his admission of cheating but the fact that he exhibited no remorse for having done so and even attempted to justify it.

The smart employer looks not for perfection but for an explanation of how the consequences of a dishonorable act affected the candidate and others. It is probably also helpful if the dishonorable act in question occurred a long time ago.

Accountability is the next crucial quality we’ll consider in the next post.  Stay tuned!

This essay is an excerpt from my book, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees.  As a business ethics speaker, I work with organizations that want to do the right thing every time and that know the key to their success is the high character of their employees. Download a summary of my presentations here. Book me to speak or present a webinar to your group here.  Call me at 646.649.4501 (US).

Photo of Central Park by Bruce Weinstein