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Skill vs. Character: What Matters Most in Hiring?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about significant changes to the modern workplace including increased focus on employee wellbeing, adoption of new technologies, and the rise of remote and hybrid work arrangements. Along with these changes, the debate between hiring for talent or character has become a hot topic among business owners. While hiring based solely on skill may seem like the obvious choice to fill open positions quickly, it can lead to potential conflicts and ultimately result in poor job performance and retention. In this post, we will explore strategies for identifying and hiring candidates who possess both the necessary skills and the right character to succeed in the workplace.

The Great Resignation has forced organizations to address the various problems that come with a decrease in workforce and applicant pool. In 2021, over 47 million people voluntarily left their jobs, citing reasons such as low pay, toxic work environments, poor leadership, and a sense of "life is too short" as contributing factors. Additionally, retirement and relocation have further strained companies trying to fill open positions. To address this problem, companies have leaned towards finding and hiring highly talented individuals with experience in the field who can immediately contribute to the company without much training or direction. However, this approach comes with potential conflicts that management must be aware of.

Hiring based heavily on skill is a common default because there are tangible standards for this type of hiring. Recruiters often use checklists and questionnaires to gauge potential candidates based on their past experience and abilities, but we do not have reliable ways of gauging if someone is a good fit outside of those items. This is what makes the interview process uniquely difficult to master. The simple truth is that it is near impossible to understand someone’s character or how they operate until actually working with them.

Unfortunately, we see a scenario played out over and again as a result of hiring based almost exclusively on skill. It looks a lot like this: companies do a wide search for the perfect candidate in the field, and make very high offers for that individual to be a part of the team due to the urgency of need. Often in this search, red flags are seen but ignored because this candidate is a high performer with a clean track record of success. Everyone in the office is excited to have someone of this caliber associated with their work. Shortly after bringing this person on, there is a consistent disconnect within the office. Tensions rise as this individual is not quite meeting the expectations of the position, and communication is not what it should be for success. When asking the new hire about these items, excuses range from "this is how I operate" to feeling that some portion of the work was beneath their abilities. While this may not always be the case, it happens frequently and causes more damage to the team and the company as a whole.

It happens all too often that individuals are hired or promoted because of their talent or competence, but ultimately fired for their character or their inability to work within a team. While a person's skills may land them a job, it is important to recognize that character and attitude play a crucial role in job performance and retention. A person’s character makes up their moral and ethical values, beliefs, and behaviors. These are elements that have been shaped by a lifetime of experience, and so it should be understood that no matter how great of a work environment you have, you simply do not have the time or ability to change someone’s character. However, you can help advance someone’s skills and abilities with relative ease through training.

With that said, there are a number of ways to lean towards identifying someone’s attitude and character in the hiring process. Two ways to improve hiring methods is to use open-ended discussion questions to interviews and to include personality-based assessments to the hiring process. The goal should be getting to know the candidate as a person, not as a statistic on a page. This will further help identify whether that individual will be a good fit or not.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the hiring process, as the needs of each company and position vary greatly. However, it is crucial to set clear expectations for the role based on company values, prioritize character over skill, and seek out candidates who demonstrate enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

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