Forget Skill Sets: Why You Should Hire for Character Instead

Posted by Penn Foster on August 16, 2018

The skills gap has been making headlines for years. For companies in manufacturing, construction, and other skilled trades it's more than a news story, it's a fact of life. Despite proposed changes in legislation and educational structures, many are still struggling to find the employees they need to fill vacant positions.

Even as demand for new construction, solar power, and medical support workers increases, the number of people actually ready to do those jobs is falling. Which is why it might be time to put a radical hiring policy into practice. Instead of looking for someone with the right skills, look for someone with the right character. Then, train that person to have the skills you need.

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A new spin on an old idea

This strategy isn't new. As far back as 1996, Fast Company was telling business owners that building a great company started with great people. Using examples from Southwest Airlines and others, they explained that attitude was more important than skills. Their logic was simple. You can teach skills, you can't teach attitude.

However, the focus on attitude makes it sound like positivity is more important than experience, which clearly isn't the case. Attitude is just one characteristic of the ideal new employee. Focusing only on attitude creates a potential trap for your hiring team. New hires are often enthusiastic and excited by the novelty of the job. After a few weeks or month that attitude generally wears off, and you get to see other aspects of that person's character. If you have an applicant who isn't excited, who doesn't seem enthusiastic about the job or the company, who generally seems disengaged even during the interview process, they're unlikely to improve their attitude over time. Even if they have the perfect skills for the job, you might be better off hiring someone who is less skilled, but has a better attitude. Yet, attitude should not be your only metric. A person needs more than a good attitude to be a good fit employee. You'll want to get a sense of their fundamental character. What is character? In this context, it's the innate mental qualities that make them a valuable employee. Not smarts, though that could be part of it, but personality traits like curiosity and willingness to learn or underlying abilities like persistence. Businesses struggle to retain employees or reach performance goals when they hire only for attitude without looking at other character traits.

How to assess character

The trick, of course, is recognizing the fundamental character of a person behind their attitude. That's no easy task. So it makes sense that businesses have tried to reduce it to something a little easier. Hence the checklists of skills that characterize most job postings. When you're looking for an ideal employee, the character traits you need might differ from job to job, but a few remain constant. The most important of these is curiosity or willingness to learn. Someone who doesn't want to learn, who isn't curious about your industry and the people you support and the work you do, isn't going to be trainable. Employees without curiosity stick rigidly to their job description and get annoyed when someone asks them to do something outside that narrow task list. Employees with curiosity are eager to learn new things. They'll step out of their comfort zone and try something new or challenging. A curious person will: ask questions during the interview, have outside interests, listen attentively to what you say, they might even take notes. Go against conventional wisdom and look for resumes that list work outside of your industry. People who worked or studied in other industries are often curious people looking for a new challenge.

Persistence is another essential quality. You want someone who won't quit at the first roadblock but will keep trying new strategies or looking for new answers. Traditionally, a college degree has been taken as a sign of persistence, because it shows that the person was willing to stick to a goal for two or four or more years. However, there are other signals on a resume that indicate a persistent applicant. Persistent applicants have: earned certifications (even if not in your industry), earned other types of recognition like the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts or a leadership position in their volunteer organization. They follow up with applications and they're working on outside projects or learning something new. Personal responsibility is a trait that rarely makes it onto hiring lists, but it's a vital one. People who take personal responsibility own their goals. They don't blame other people for their failings and they are willing to work for success. It's hard to tell from a resume if someone has personal responsibility, but it will become immediately evident in a job interview. Ask about a time they failed and what contributed to the failure. Ask how they deal with a difficult coworker or customer. People with personal responsibility will focus on what they could do to improve the situation rather than on what other people should do. These traits all add up to an employee with a growth mindset. These employees will be trainable, even if they don't have the specialized skills to do every part of the job on their first day.

Now for the easy part - training

One of the benefits of hiring for character over skills is that you get to develop your employees to do things in a manner that works for your company and your customers. They come to you with fewer preconceived notions and ingrained habits. To get started, make sure you have a clear understanding of what skills are needed to do the job. Then assess your employees through written tests, manager observation, or practice assignments, to see exactly where they need to improve. From there you can create a customized training plan for each employee or for groups of employees with similar training needs.