Hiring For Character

Recently, I came across a news story detailing how a high school senior had risen to the top of the college application pile because one of his references was written by a custodian from the high-school he attended (story here). The content of the reference revealed how the student had befriended the custodian, been kind to him, and built a relationship with him during his time in school. While there will likely be people who interpret this as an opportunity to seek out a non-teaching faculty to write a reference letter (i.e., let’s predict an increase in the number of reference letters written by custodians, lunch personnel, and other non-teaching employees), what struck me is that this reference was not about the student’s achievements, successes, and accolades, but rather it spoke to his moral character.

Teddy Roosevelt was fond of talking about the importance of character, he noted “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike”. While hiring practices in organizations have evolved over time, we still do not see an emphasis on seeking out evaluative information on character. Evidence points to the fact that the behavioral interview, though popular, actually does no better job of predicting a potential employee’s job performance than a series of objective indicators. Many organizations use some form of personality testing, or some scale they have created to predict “success” in a given field. Academic programs at all levels seek out standardized test scores, grades, and recommendations (usually by faculty or people who are aware of the objective accomplishments of the student) – and they tend to evaluate them in that order. But a person’s character – their moral excellence – is not a usual suspect on the list of hiring boxes to check.

The good news is that academic research on character and interest in the topic of character has continued to increase in recent years. Wake Forest University houses an initiative called “The Character Project”, which conducts research on character from fields like psychology, philosophy, and theology. Taya Cohen, an organizational psychologist at Carnegie Mellon, has worked with colleagues to develop a deeper understanding of the role of moral character in the workplace. The have found that moral character is comprised of elements like being honest and humble, and having high levels of guilt proneness. And moral character predicts positive organizational citizenship behaviors*. Drawing on assumptions that morality is a largely intuitive and affective process, management educators have begun to examine how we can teach virtue ethics and character development in the classroom.** Focusing on the development of individual character empowers individuals to build habits that allow them to strive for moral excellence, which has significant (and positive) implications for the workplace.

It is not simply that this high school student had a non-traditional recommendation letter, but rather that the letter focused on this particular trait, his moral character, as evidence of his ability to succeed in college. Seeking out employees with strong moral character, and providing a space to help them to develop moral character, would bring positive and effective change to the workplace.

*Cohen, T. R., Panter, A. T., Turan, N., Morse, L., & Kim, Y. (2014). Moral character in the workplace. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology107(5), 943.