Humility is one of the most valuable qualities of high-character employees.  Here’s how to find humble employees and why they are so crucial to your success.

Remember when soft drinks came in glass bottles? Even though they were heavy to lug around, the glass didn’t alter the taste of the soda the way that plastic bottles can. They also looked cool.

When Janice Piacente was the chief risk and compliance officer for a global beverage company, she was faced with a knotty problem: how to get the phone number for the company’s ethics and compliance hotline in front of everyone who worked there. Putting it on posters scattered throughout offices around the world made it too easy to overlook, and serious violations of corporate policies might go unreported.  What would make the number unmissable?

That’s when Janice remembered the glass bottles her company used to make on a wide scale. The bottles are still available, but they’re much rarer and therefore much more desirable: they’re collector’s items. What if the phone number were printed on a sleeve that covered the glass bottle? Wouldn’t that make the phone number something every employee would want to have around?

Her idea was met with great acclaim, and it soon became the company’s method for distributing its hotline number. Employees loved it. Janice brought a bottle with her when she gave speeches to other compliance officers, who shared the problem of how to get employees to take compliance seriously. The answer, Janice showed, is in branding the compliance office so that its message is recognizable and even fun. Audience members were so impressed that they came up after her talk and took pictures of the bottle with their smartphones.

Janice is proud of her achievement, but she refused to take the credit for it. Instead, she gave the credit to her team. “I just had the idea for it,” she told me, “but my team implemented it. They made the bottles. They designed the artwork. They made my idea a reality.” Janice doesn’t deny that she played a role in the development of the innovative item.   But when she talks about the project’s success, she places the emphasis on the team’s effort.    “The focus is on ‘we,’ not ‘me,” as she puts it.

Janice is one of the Good Ones because she is the embodiment of the humble employee. For Janice, recognizing the contributions that her team makes to accomplishments like the hotline on a bottle is right for its own sake. But her humility has the wonderful side effect of motivating her team to give her their all. “They work as hard as they can, because they don’t want to disappoint me,” she says. “My number one job is to help the people who work for me be successful.”

I asked how Janice came to develop this view.  “I once had a boss who loved to say, ‘Rank has its privileges.’  It bothered me a lot, and I swore I’d never treat people like that.”

Humility is one of the ten crucial qualities of employees of high character, and smart businesses seek out people with humility to work for them. These employees inspire their coworkers, instill confidence in their supervisors, and move up quickly in their organizations.

Humble people are generally not disposed to call attention to their humility. Still, the discerning interviewer might use the following questions to discover the degree to which a job candidate or employee is truly humble or merely pretending to be.

Tell me about one of your proudest accomplishments. What was it, and how did you pull it off?

Janice Piacente came up with a novel way of getting attention for an important phone number. But she gave the credit for it to her team, because they were the ones who took her idea and made it a reality. It’s not that she denies the role she played in the project’s development, but simply that her humility dictated that she also acknowledge the contributions of others.

Astute interviewers listen carefully to how the candidate or employee answers this question. Does he focus primarily or exclusively on his own role in the achievement? Or does he, like Janice, talk about how others contributed to his success?

Where have you seen examples of humility in action?

When I came up with this question, my mind turned to Emily, a woman I knew when I worked at Lox, Stock and Bagels, a deli in San Antonio, Texas, during my senior year of high school. Emily’s job was to keep the restaurant clean, which she did tirelessly and cheerfully. I can’t recall her ever complaining about her job, even though it was far from glamorous and couldn’t have paid very well either. When Keith, the owner of the restaurant, decided to return to Chicago, he chose Emily to replace him as the manager.

Emily didn’t have extensive formal education or any job experience beyond janitorial work, so Keith would have to teach her how to run the business. It would have been easier for him to train a more experienced person, or to hire someone who already knew the job. But Emily was trustworthy, and she was good with people. The day after Keith offered her the job, she was the same humble person as a manager that she’d been as the janitor. I didn’t get the feeling that she viewed herself as any more important in her new role than she did before. She treated me in exactly the same way: with kindness.

I hadn’t thought about Emily for a long time until this question prompted me to remember her. It’s a good idea for interviewers to allow applicants some extra time of their own, if necessary, to think about the humble employees they’ve known. You never know what inspiring stories await.

When Janice Piacente told me about how she gives credit to her team, even though her ideas often begin with her, I was surprised. “Isn’t leadership about generating ideas?” I asked her.

“Not to me,” she replied. “Leadership is about bringing out the best in people.”

This essay, adapted from my latest book, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees, is the latest in a series of blog posts on how to hire high-character people.  (To read the previous ones, scroll down in this blog.) Next time, we’ll look at what it means to be a loyal person and how to evaluate this quality in job applicants and current employees.