During and following the recession, human resources staffs and headhunters seriously began to evaluate candidates’ character as a barometer of competence.
And spotlighting character didn’t surprise Mark Jaffe, president of Minneapolis search firm Wyatt and Jaffe.
Top executives are constantly looking for new ways to identify talent, says Jaffe. “The newest fad is looking at candidates’ character,” he says. “HR people think it’s a quick and easy way to get a handle on candidates’ job performance.”
“Corporate heads have learned that candidates’ past accomplishments are not accurate predictors of future success,” he says. Factors that set someone up for success in the past may not be relevant today, because market and job demands are always changing. Mediocre workers in dynamite companies may look far better than they actually are. Or outstanding managers and innovators who happened to be in the wrong company at the wrong time look unimpressive because decision-makers weren’t smart enough to recognize their talents.
It’s all about getting a handle on leadership
Another reason companies are focusing on character is that they’ve yet to get their heads around leadership. Jaffe says that publishers are still pumping out new books about the secrets of leadership, yet they’re still posing the same tired question they asked decades ago: “What makes a great leader?”
As Jaffe sees it, most of the chatter about candidates’ character is meaningless and irrelevant. “Companies are grasping at straws because they think they figured out how to evaluate character,” he says. When looking for high-level executives, for example, many decision-makers feel it’s essential to check out potential candidates’ lifestyles – where and how they live, and what schools their children attend. That usually involves getting a read on their families. A common practice is taking spouse and candidate out to dinner to observe them in a social setting. The firm’s brass gets to see how the candidate handles him- or herself in potential wheeler-dealer social situations with clients and customers.
Candidates’ table manners count
How the couple conduct themselves in a highbrow restaurant could be a potential deal-breaker. What and how they order are considered telling indicators of class and elegance. What do you think a candidate’s chances are if he orders meat loaf and a glass of tap beer or ordinary table wine instead of the house special of aged filet mignon and a $75 bottle of a 15-year-old pinot noir? Before the candidate shoveled the last chunk of meat loaf into his mouth, the brass had already drawn their conclusions on this socially inept candidate. He’ll never cut it with the firm’s old-line customers.
The candidate’s wife is also being scrutinized microscopically. Heaven forbid she should commit an irredeemable faux pas and order a second and third martini, and slur her words in the bargain. By meal’s end, her spouse will no longer be in the running for the job. By the time the check is paid, all hiring efforts will have been unofficially aborted. What a pity, too, because the man could have a genius IQ with the potential to add millions to the organizational coffers.
Companies are easily duped when evaluating character
In the ongoing quest of companies to get a handle on candidates’ character, they’re often duped by couples who have mastered the art of fooling corporate bigwigs by turning in Oscar-winning social performances, leaving no doubt that the couple bear the class and elegance of diplomats or royalty. Months later – after the candidate is hired and comfortably situated in a gorgeous corner office – they realize they’ve been had. The candidate is incompetent, and the wife is a con artist. For whatever it’s worth, they deserve a prize for mastering all the superficial social graces necessary to capture a big job. But it’s doubtful that they could pull the wool over the eyes of an entrepreneurial genius wheeler-dealer like Warren Buffet.
No such thing as a perfect candidate
No one is perfect, adds Jaffe. The notion of trying to isolate the perfect candidate by identifying the success traits of super achievers – character being one of them – is ludicrous, he says. “Organizations’ goals ought to be to weed out candidates early in the evaluation process who are conspicuously out of control,” Jaffe explains. “The big mistake companies make is thinking certain character traits are an accurate indicator of competence for all jobs. If you believe that, you might as well use tarot cards or a crystal ball because there are no standard predictors of success.”
“The only way to look at character as an accurate indicator of job success is to determine which facets of candidates’ character are relevant to the position being filled,” Jaffe adds. “For example, is it honesty, compassion, aggressiveness?”
Jaffe feels that there are many character traits that should be ignored because they’re irrelevant to the job. “If a company is trying to hire a director of sales, does it care if the person is compassionate, or should it concentrate on looking for candidates who are aggressive, persistent, enterprising, resourceful, and that take the initiative?” he asks. “These are the character traits relevant to the job.”
Or if a company is looking for a high-level project manager with international experience, it ought to be looking for a raft of character traits specific to this complicated position. Candidates ought to have chameleon-like personalities and be flexible, adaptable and comfortable working with people from different cultures. Because they’re constantly traveling through time and culture zones, they must constantly be changing gears and adjusting to different business customs and traditions. Any headhunter will tell you that these are tough character traits to find in one person.