Hire for character, train for skill

Dec 27, 2020

Many people in this business will say they agree with this idea, yet the people doing the hiring rarely do it.

You have probably all heard it by now: “Hire for character, train for skill.” Many people in the A/E business will say they agree with this idea. Yet the people doing the hiring rarely do it.

Why is that? There are many reasons. One big one is the fact that sometimes we have to have people with a license or registration. How many? That isn’t always easy to say. Yet I can certainly understand the idea that principals of an A/E firm should be registered professionals. Some states require that credential for firm owners by law. Once registration is a requirement to fill a job, you narrow the field radically and there are fewer choices in who you can hire.

Besides that, how can you really figure out what someone’s character is? It’s not easy. You can follow your gut after what most likely will be a few short conversations or meetings with a job candidate. That is helpful, but not your only source of information. You should have them talk with other people in your firm whom you respect to get their readout as well.

Of course, you should be sure to check out the credentials anyone you are considering hiring claims to have. Lying is a good indication that the job candidate’s character isn’t up to standard. And believe me, I have found plenty of lying job applicants (or worse, employees) in A/E firms over the years. One of the most dramatic cases was a fellow who claimed to have both a bachelor’s degree in finance and an MBA. The firm I had just gone to work for interviewed this guy for our CFO position, and the chairman of the firm offered him a job on the spot. Needless to say, when we found out he had actually only taken one class at the university we had to renege. Can you imagine the damage someone who was that much of a liar could do in a CFO role? Plenty.

Then there are references. I would say that for the most part, they are pretty worthless for determining character. And most companies at this point are giving no more info beyond dates of employment and (maybe) whether or not the employee is eligible for rehiring or not. No one will say anything bad because if the employee doesn’t get the job, he or she could sue the company for providing a negative reference. Not worth the risk!

One last indication of character is creditworthiness. Does the person pay their bills or not? I will never forget a time many years ago a client had me check out someone they were considering hiring for a high-level management post. My sources said he had money problems, but my client hired him anyway! Six months later they fired him for embezzlement. I’m not sure about the legalities of credit checks for potential employees. The laws could vary from state to state. In any case you will need the employee’s permission to run a credit check on them.

So “hiring for character” is undoubtedly easier to say than it is to do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to figure out what someone’s real character is!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.