Hire for Character: The Most Important Hiring Rule That No One Remembers

Character – it can make a team, it can break a team. But what is it? At the core of a Tech Titan is CHARACTER. There are plenty of great quotes about character – but aren’t they all pretty much cliché at this point? It’s “what you do when no one’s looking” or “how you treat people who can’t do squat for you”. Sure, the infinite wisdom of famous quotation authors is right – but what does it mean for ME? Maybe that’s a flaw in MY character.

We’re not here to re-hash all of these pillars of character. This post aims to show you that more than ever you need to recognize character as part of your hiring/vendor selection process. Missing this crucial aspect of hiring can completely derail your software project and potentially your entire corporate culture.

Isn’t Character Subjective?

Character differs between people, cultures, city-folk versus country-folk, beach people versus landlubbers, East Coast versus West Coast rappers. It’s not something you can put on a resume, although we’ve seem people try: “My CHARACTER is top-notch and I am an expert in PHP web development.” Instead, you see keywords like “honesty”, “integrity”, and “hardly ever misses estimates”. The staffing agency isn’t going to put that on the e-mail they send to you (Mr./Mrs. Hiring Manager), saying: “Hey, check out this candidate! His CHARACTER is off the charts! You won’t get screwed, we promise!!!

You’re Doing it Already

You may not realize it, but you’re constantly making decisions based on character – you’re just not talking about it. You’re looking at what the person has in their resume or on social media and making decisions subconsciously. Your subconscious is saying, “This candidate is a cyclist. My lyin’, cheatin’ ex was a cyclist. Eh… no. Declined.

Not saying that you’re discriminating based on hobbies (are you?). But at the core of the process you’re thinking, “will this person screw me over?” and all of your experiences in life are coming to bear. Listen – not everyone you hire, every vendor for every project, the people that dry clean your shirts or cut your grass need a background check and 7 character reference letters. We’re saying that a) it’s freakin’ important, b) you’re doing it already, and c) you need to understand the impacts.

The 4 Core Traits of Reasonable Human Beings

Although character is subjective, you’re choosing (or at least considering) hires/vendors based on character already. Your experiences have defined what that means to you. So let’s at a minimum identify a few core traits that apply across the board:

  1. They’re not an a$$hole.
  2. The person does what they say they are going to do.
  3. The person communicates when they are wrong/fail.
  4. They don’t screw people over.

This seems cut-and-dried, right? Not so much. Think used-car salesman meets bad-ass coder meets you needed 4 people like yesterday to hit your deadline and all of a sudden you have yourself a mess on your hands. But wait, you’ll say, “What’s wrong with bringing in a contractor that might not be a quality human being? It’s not like they’ll be here forever.” Glad you asked.

Sh*tty People Are Poisonous

Studies of the cultures of successful teams are all the rage these days. Just take a look at Amazon’s latest book propaganda and you’ll see it everywhere. That’s because it’s freakin’ HARD. Getting a group of people to work together for a common goal is just plain challenging. And it has EVERYTHING to do with character.

Let’s say you’ve established your team around what you/your company believes, a.k.a. your corporate culture. You’ve built a decent working relationship with your people. Things are getting done and for the most part your business users are happy. But here comes a new project and you’ve got to add to your team to help to get it done. Let the fun begin.

First, everyone is looking to see if your choices line up with your principles. Bring on a shyster and your team all of a sudden doesn’t believe that you care about the type of people you hire. And no one who is helping you get candidates is motivated to help you find a fit based on character – they want the placement so that they can get paid. If you truly want to hire based on a culture of character, it’s slim pickings.

So Now What Are You Supposed to Do?

You need quality resources to meet the demands of the business, but 99% of the candidates don’t meet your principles. And we haven’t even started talking about skills yet. So you either end up taking forever to get someone or you compromise. It’s seductive: you’ll get an immediate bump in productivity with a compromise, but at some point down the road, it starts to unravel.

We’ve seen this happen especially with veteran contractors joining a younger team. Since they’re a basically a rockstar temp making double the pay of an employee, they are not-so-much aligned with the culture. After the first month or so, they start bailing out at noon on Fridays and suddenly the rest of the crew starts to get jealous. Next thing you know they are trashing your VP of Development at a team happy hour after a half-dozen jaeger bombs. But you can’t afford to get rid of them – because deadlines! Enter the most poisonous of all villainous traits: COMPLACENCY.

The Greatest Workplace Enemy of All

The greatest workplace enemy of all is people who don’t care. We’ll avoid getting into theories about “hard work” or “dedication”. But it wasn’t always this way. People used to give a crap about the work that they did. Companies gave a crap about people (or at least seemed to). Somewhere along the way both became dispensable. The company can always find another resource; the coder can always find another gig – so both started to accept sh*t work. As a result, people started to DO sh*t work.

We’re not talking about the fresh-out-of-college kid who landed a coding gig (had to take it, because student loans) at BigFinance Corp coding in some God-forsaken language that was supposed to die a horrible death 10 years ago; or the algorithm ninja who found her purpose with a start-up only to see a herd of MBAs disintegrate it – who now finds herself creating sites for thrift stores to survive; or the enterprise software guru whose will to live is crushed daily by an entire “office” of project managers – to all of you, we understand. Sometimes life doesn’t always allow you to bring out your best.

But there’s more to it than that. If you work for a foreclosure company that makes people homeless and you want a productive team of coders, you’ve got a tough road. We’ve all come to accept a bit of complacency. But you need to recognize endemic complacency and deal with it accordingly.

Get Paid for Doing As Near to Nothing as Possible!

And thus the enterprising soul, completely disenfranchised with their job ends up coasting through it – not too dissimilar from our friend Milton from The Office, who was getting paid (he assumed, albeit poorly) to guard a red stapler.

Certainly, there is more oversight in the real world, right? Not so much. We once had a vendor join an ongoing project for a client where the developer did not make a code commit for TWO MONTHS. Yes. A person whose ENTIRE JOB it was to commit functional code managed to not do so for 2 months and no one really noticed. Amazing, huh?

But the real way this works is far more insidious – when someone figures out how to do just enough to get by. They test the edges. It’s a wicked smart person who does this – like the kid in high school who you totally knew was a screw-up and disrupted the entire school for years, only to find out that by not paying attention they still managed to have a 3.25 GPA and get into a decent college. Believe us – you don’t want complacency to invade your team.

The Close Second Place Of Workplace Evils

Next up on the list of workplace evils: DUPLICITY. This beast has been known to completely destroy teams from the inside. The sad thing is that many people participate in this activity without really knowing it. Duplicity has become so ingrained in the nature of companies that sometimes it’s simply unavoidable. You see duplicity in environments that are very politically charged; people who think that others are out to get them, and even those people aren’t the people that are really out to get them. Everyone is on the defensive and the whole place spends more time covering their a$$ than they do producing functional software.

We’ve seen it when a developer thinks it’s better to fudge the facts (generally an estimate or details on an implementation) in order not to “upset” or “hurt the feelings” of the project manager. This behavior is insidious and will destroy your ability as a manager to get any trustworthy information out of that person, pretty much forever and ever after. You simply cannot run a productive software where duplicity is the norm.

Impacts of Bad Hires on Software Delivery

It’s difficult enough to wrangle a normal herd of cats together to deliver software. But imagine the negative impacts on your project, your culture, your team, your company if you have a group that has no CHARACTER?

It never ends well. Deadlines are pushed and projects are canceled. People argue; people are fired. There’s an air of despondency and unhappiness. Employee/contractor turnover is high. Any good people who remain can’t wait for an offer to leave. Reality is thrown under the covers of corporate politics and no one wants to embrace the hard truth: if a person on your team lacks Character, you have to eliminate them as quickly as humanly possible. If you want to have a productive team, there is simply no way around it.

How Do You Hire For Character?

How do you include character in your hiring/vendor selection process? In the end, when reviewing candidates or vendors for your project, it boils down to simply being honest with yourself about what you see, hear, and read. You must ask these questions:

  • Were they honest on their resume and interview? Did anything “not really seem right”? Did their project histories and dates line up?
  • For contractors/vendors: will they bill me fairly? Would they fudge their time reports?
  • Have they accepted a mode of complacency on their work/team/company/life? Look for places where the titles don’t line up with the work references; leaders/architects who didn’t do leadership or architect stuff. It’s a mismatch that indicates complacency.

Don’t ignore your intuition and any red flags that appear. Make immediate decisions about them. Then, when you can answer positively, the crown question is:

  • If I hire this person/vendor, am I willing to accept the outcome no matter what happens?

If you have an inkling of doubt about any of these things, look out. Hire for character first, technical prowess second, then teamwork , then ability to get in the ZONE, then business knowledge. Get a Tech Titan.