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Hiring accountable people makes the lives of managers and employees much easier, because accountable employees do four things consistently:

  • They keep their promises.
  • They consider the consequences of their actions.
  • They take responsibility for their mistakes.
  • They make amends for those mistakes.

The following questions may help managers discern a job candidate’s level of accountability. The questions also work well during performance reviews of current employees.

Walk me through a typical working day.

Asking a job applicant to provide details of a working day is an attempt to discover what is often called the person’s work/life balance. The point is to get the applicant’s assessment of how work fits in with his or her life. People with a strong work ethic are accountable people, because they keep their promises to their employers to do their jobs well. They’re neither lazy nor workaholics.

A predictable response might be, “I’m at my desk every morning by 8:30 and leave no earlier than 5:30.” But that doesn’t reveal much. Does the interviewee eat lunch at his or her desk while working, or even skip it altogether? Does exercise play a role in the day? What happens before and after work? More work? Time with friends or family?

Consider the different approaches to work that two people I’ll call Hubert and Marie have. Hubert works constantly, which compromises his personal relationships and health. Marie works hard when she’s at the office and occasionally checks her smartphone when she’s home, but she does her best to separate the professional and personal dimensions of her life (no easy feat given our ready access to work and our employers’ ready access to us). Hubert is a workaholic. Marie has a strong work ethic yet still has room for valued relationships beyond work.

Evaluating responses to this question requires taking a look at the broad picture the employee paints. Sean, a senior editor with a major publishing company, is one of the hardest workers I know. He doesn’t eat lunch, but he’s no workaholic. He has close relationships with family and friends, reads for pleasure regularly, and is an avid theatergoer. But when Sean is at work, he is focused like a laser, and he recently celebrated his twenty-seventh anniversary with the company.

“But this question is too personal to ask, even if it’s legal to do so,” one might object.  Yes, it’s personal, but in an entirely appropriate way.  The interviewer is trying to get a sense of who the person is before him or her.  What role does work play in the job candidate’s life?  How much does he or she value having a rich and varied personal life? Asking about the candidate’s sex life or religious views are out of bounds; inquiring about work/life balance is not.

And then there’s the problem of self-evaluation.  How accurate is the job candidate’s assessment of his or her work schedule and commitment to getting the job done?  It might be close to reality, and it might be a bit off.  Answering one question won’t provide a full view of who the candidate really is, but it can provide some useful clues.

Describe a situation in which you took responsibility for a mistake you made. What were the consequences to you for doing so?

Brad, a mailroom worker at a large pharmaceutical company, threatened a coworker, initially denied what he had done, but eventually admitted that he had indeed issued such a threat, even though he said he hadn’t intended to follow through with it. Geri was the HR director at the company.  She believed in Brad and rebuffed efforts to have him fired.  Brad agreed to take an anger management course and went on to be selected Employee of the Month.  In Geri’s telling of the story, Brad’s hardscrabble background made owning up to his mistake especially challenging.  Brad is one of the Good Ones for taking responsibility for his poor judgment at work.

Recall from How to Hire Honest People, the first blog post in this series, that the Good Ones are employees of high character.  Their commitment to honesty and accountability, among other qualities, brings out the best in others, reflects well on themselves, and consistently delivers results for their organizations.

Have you ever taken responsibility for a mistake that a member of your team made? Tell me about it.

A manager who takes responsibility for an error caused on his or her watch is acting honorably.

But it’s possible that a job candidate has never taken responsibility for another person’s mistake. Perhaps he or she has not had managerial responsibility, is new to the job market, or is simply fortunate that the situation has never come up. Another explanation is that the candidatecouldhave taken responsibility but chose not to or never considered doing so.   It’s probably not useful to probe here, because none of these reasons alone is worth rejecting a candidate for.  But an affirmative response can be a sign of high character, and that’s why it’s worth asking.

This is the second in a series of blog posts on how to hire high-character people.  The first one was How to Hire Honest People.  Next time, we’ll look at what it means to be a caring person and how to evaluate this quality in job applicants and current employees.

As a business ethics speaker and trainer, 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 (U.S.)