Source: Gary SwartSource: Gary Swart

Last week, I wrote about how personal characteristics were the biggest predictor of whether a potential hire would succeed, even over skills and knowledge. Many of you commented and rightly asked, “how do you evaluate that?”

While they’re critical to making the right hiring decisions, personal characteristics require much more effort to evaluate. Simply interviewing for them isn’t enough. We’re talking about traits like ethics, judgement, integrity and values — so you can’t exactly ask someone, “how ethical are you?”

Instead, actual experiences are the best reflection of someone’s character. As Senior Talent Acquisition Professional Tim Heard commented on last week’s post, “All else being equal, the best predictor of future performance is past performance.”So instead of placing weight on interviews, thefocus should be on deep reference checks, resume evaluation and, yes, even gut instincts.

The reference checks

While you can’t ask a candidate how ethical they are, you can ask people who have worked with them. At oDesk we believe in what we call ‘deep reference checks’ — talking to many references, especially ones who were not provided by the candidate. We all know that interviews can only tell you so much, and that the references given by a candidate generally represent only the most positive among their contacts. As a result, deep reference checks are the most heavily weighted part of our hiring process.

There are two ways to conduct deep reference checks — asking for referrals and doing backdoor reference checks.

Backdoor reference checks can be tremendously helpful, but they center on knowing at least one person who has worked with the candidate before (or who knows someone who has). By talking to that second- or third-degree connection, you can get a more authentic look at what the candidate was like in a previous role. (LinkedIn is a great place to start for finding these mutual connections.) If a backdoor reference isn’t available, you can ask for referrals by calling the references provided by the candidate, then asking those people, “who also worked with [name] that I could talk to?” That will lead to a second or even third tier of people who are likely to be more unbiased than the original references.

When talking to references, remember to cross-check what the candidate said during interviews, to ensure they were being accurate about abilities and past results; discrepancies here can be a signal that there are problems with trustworthiness, or that the candidate lacks personal insight.

The resume

Another way to assess character via past performance is to take a close look at the candidate’s resume. Have they proactively steered their career, in a way that signals growth and not opportunism? Have they been given increasing responsibility (either within one company or among several), or do they frequently make one lateral move after another? The latter may reflect that the candidate lacks a sense of mission, which is critical to holding on when a company hits a rough patch. Or worse, the pattern could indicate that the candidate is a “soldier of fortune,” leaving as soon as a situation is no longer optimal for them. Finally, if all of the departures are for reasons beyond their control, then the candidate’s judgment in choosing companies and roles can be called into question. Look for these and other patterns in a resume, as job progression can tell you a lot about someone’s character — from personal responsibility and work ethic to loyalty.

The gut check

At the end of the day, what’s most important is that the candidate has the characteristics that matter most to your team. Assessing this character fit requires that you get in touch with your gut instincts.

To do so, you can ask yourself:

  • Would I be comfortable on a project where my success depended on this person?
  • Would I like working with them?
  • Would I be willing to be fully open and honest with them and truly believe they were acting in kind?
  • Would I be proud to turn over my most valued customer relationship to this person?
  • Could I see myself working for this person someday?
  • Do I trust this person?

The interview

Of course you shouldn’t neglect the interview itself, as it can still provide some helpful insights. But I would suggest reframing the interview — instead of taking answers at face value, use the interview to dig deeper into patterns and behavior. By listening carefully, you can begin to piece together a picture of how the candidate sees the world and their relationship to it.

Painting a full picture may take multiple interviewers comparing and contrasting their impressions. For example, often several people get a vague sense that they were not comfortable with something about a person, and only by discussing it together are they able to identify what they were seeing. Remember to also watch for consistency of responses, as it’s a major red flag to get different answers to similar questions at different times.

When all is said and done…

…if you don’t trust the candidate or don’t want to work with them, neither will your customers or team members. Do not compromise on personal characteristics.

How do you evaluate the personal characteristics of a potential hire? Are there certain techniques that have worked best for you?

Authored by Gary Swart