Character. It is a careful, internal interchange between our values and choices, and the decisions we make that guide our behavior.  Character is also an X Factor in every hiring situation. When I am hiring talent, I have 5 Key Success Areas I am searching for evidence in:

Character, Chemistry, Competence, Commitment and Capacity.

And the order I have listed them in is no accident: character tops my list. Why? Character, ultimately, is described by how you behave when no one is watching.

Here is part 2 of character, with a nod to the great poet Maya Angelou:

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

Yes, I have seen people change their character.  A. Few. Times. In. My. Life. 

Expecting someone to behave differently in the future despite the evidence of the past is magical thinking. I have not seen someone change their character without the motivating force of either a life-changing experience or a crushing personal loss. Life can bring us to our knees and beg us to change. 

I have also seen people choose not to change at those crossroads. Those life stories do not end well.

Does this mean I am not a person who believes in second chances? No. I do believe in second chances. But it means that when I give someone an opportunity, despite the evidence of the past, I am aware that I am taking an incredible risk. In those instances, I do everything I can to mitigate that risk and to help that person be successful.

Leaders can’t correct character. Poor character is a problem of an underdeveloped awareness, empathy, and conscience. These matters are hard to handle in a performance review. If you have to deal with them, it will likely be a long coaching process. The chances that you invest a lot of time and energy only to escort the person out the door 3 to 6 months later are high. Better to handle character problems before the hiring ever occurs. 

How do you discover the character of a prospective employee?

Here are some tips for the hiring process:

1.       Pose thoughtful questions which ask them to tell their story. For example, ask the candidate to recount, in detail, a story about their own first-hand experience with a difficult choice. Or a time when a situation at work made them angry, and how they responded.

Listen for what is said and not said, and trace the values that guided the person through their decision-making. What issue did they choose to share? How much did they disclose? Who were the people involved? How did they navigate their decision?

2.       Do the same with the references you call for your prospective hire. Ask references thoughtful questions. Ask for specific stories about how the candidate made choices. This provides another data-point about how your prospective employee handles pressure and navigates change, choices, and ethics.

3.       If you have more than one interview, choose several different settings. Notice how those different settings impact your prospective employee.

How did they enter and exit the building? Where were they most comfortable? Who did they stop and speak with, and how did that conversation go? What did they seem to pay attention to in each space?

Armed with these questions (and others you develop on your own), you will gain a great deal of insight about someone before choosing to bring them onto your team.

Take the extra time when you hire. It avoids a lot of headaches down the road.