How to spot a hard worker

How to spot a hard worker

and avoid hiring a dud
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I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work.
That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top,
but should get you pretty near.
Margaret Thatcher

‘HE LOOKED to be a hard worker. He certainly talked like one. After we gave him the job however he proved so lazy and ineffectual that I just couldn’t credit this was the same person I had interviewed. How might I have discovered his lethargy before hiring him?’

It is a question we have heard many times before, for the truth is most candidates are energetic and enthusiastic at interview – and seem likely to behave accordingly once hired. Candidates these days are often skilled in presenting themselves - and (readily available) on-line assessments, concerned with “personality fit”, supported by LinkedIn referrals, rarely address the common misconception that people will want to work hard.

Spotting a hard worker requires the thoughtful examination of an interviewer who has developed answers to the following five critical questions:

1. Will my job satisfy this person’s underlying needs? It is absolutely crucial to match the underlying needs and goals of any intended appointee with the demands of the job. When we succeed in doing this, we immediately harness the appointee’s deepest inner drivers. Now they dedicate themselves to your job because they really want to.

This concept of complementary needs is a pretty straightforward idea, yet the average employer often fails to take it in to account (or considers it only superficially). So too does the typical employee who, in order to earn a living, ends up struggling in a job that runs counter to his personality.

The lesson is to place caring people into to nurturing roles, overachievers to continuing challenges, and so on. Human life, by its very nature, has to be dedicated to something – and your goal as the decision maker is to assign roles that will enable members of your team to fulfill their personal life missions.

An allied point is that the best workers usually show strong and continuing self-improvement needs, so an employer must provide them with continuing opportunities for personal growth and self development or they’ll likely grow stale or quit.

2. Is this person driven by the work ethic? Hard-driving workers usually harbour consciences suffused with commitment to a constellation of values we call work ethic.

Since this often inherited from their parents or shaped by experiences or circumstances in early life, we find out about this by exploring upbringing and attitudes. Listen for the candidate who remembers parents who prized hard work, who did their best to instill the work ethic (i.e. the idea that working hard at something is ‘good’, right, proper) into their children by way of after-school jobs, competitive or creative activities, etc. Explore the balance between work and ‘personal’ time. Conscientious workers usually see overtime and weekend work as opportunities to get ahead in the world. They often talk about feeling guilty when not actively engaged in some kind of productive activity or having a project to work on in their ‘spare’ time.

3. Does their actual behaviour evidence good work habits? To avoid being gulled by individuals who profess the work ethic but fail to walk the talk it is important to seek specific evidence of 4 crucial, ingrained and observable work habits:

(i) Industry is the habit of working steadily, productively, voluntarily and conscientiously at whatever task is assigned. The power to work hard is not a talent, but hard work can itself be inspiring. The dedication of great composers and painters to work, which in turn stimulates their creativity, provides many examples of this. Psychology too suggests that hard workers are usually better adjusted than their pleasure-minded colleagues.

The habit of industry is to be found by exploring information of hours actually devoted to work, time of arriving and leaving the office, time taken for lunch (and with whom), hours worked in a home office, times when a person feels they are their most productive, activities in the course of any commute, and so on.

(ii) Perseverance It is one thing to work hard it is quite another to see it through to completion! The habit of perseverance is usually deeply ingrained in great executives, for like great athletes, they realise that winning also involves outlasting their competition. Perseverance is a balancing act that involves keeping the overall goal in mind while focusing on the task at hand (however mundane that may seem).

The savvy interviewer listens for challenges pursued and completed – in life and career – and obstacles actually overcome. Most especially, we must also spot and explore the signals of quitting. Clues might include incomplete academic qualifications, job resignations, projects abandoned in the face of unexpected difficulties, broken relationships and shaky finances. Quite apart from revealing the lack of perseverance, such incompletion often signals an unconscious reluctance to grow up.

(iii) Self-Reliance is the habit of standing on ones own two feet and solving one’s own problems despite difficulties and opposition. Nothing is more frustrating than the over-dependent go-getter who, instead of drawing upon personal reserves is forever seeking the bosses’ advice. An upward glance is a good thing, but never ending ‘upward delegation’ signals emotional incompetence.

Life is essentially about becoming self-reliant, standing up for others and looking out for ourselves. Self-reliance, like initiative, is the knee-jerk habit of figuring out the best thing to do, and then doing it. It is a habit combining emotions and rationality to make decisions. A self-reliant person is a more complete person, and therefore a better executive. Self-reliance is key to emotional intelligence!

Clues to self-reliance include concern with personal growth, the acquisition of new skills, self financed education, steady career progress, a willingness to assume reasonable risks, and the ingrained tendency to assume responsibility – rather than blame others – for mistakes made along the way.

(iv) Orderliness is preparedness; it is the habit of assigning an order, pattern, plan or system to one’s work. The effective executive wants to be freed from routine work, taking the time to get organised is one of the best ways to help achieve this. The well-organised person has more effective hours in the day, and, usually a clearer head. Orderliness reflects a disciplined mind and the potential to think clearly. Orderliness is a kind of magic, for it creates time, relieves pressure, and engenders calm self-confidence. The well organised executive is also more likely to be lucky, for, after all, luck is merely preparation for meeting opportunity.

Orderly people usually present orderly resumes (though many are polished by professionals) – dates are stated very precisely, qualifications are explicit, responsibilities and achievements are to-the-point. They arrive punctually for interview, and show a neat, conservative presence. They are usually well prepared, and their answers precise and rational, their questions pertinent and un-contrived. They proffer information and rationality rather than puffery or charm. They are well informed and up-to-date with current events that may impact their lives. Investigation often shows that they favour the latest organisational tools and systems reflecting the fact that time, for them, is precious.

4. Does job-instability indicate unrealism or ineffectiveness? We have always heard a lot about people getting to the top by moving from company to company. In spite of a much increased number of ‘contractors’ these days, fewer truly ‘permanent’ positions and the apparent mobility of Gen ‘Y’, relatively few successful executives are frequent movers, and for good reason: employers recognise their strengths and make every effort to keep them happy. This applies equally to contract workers, permanent or temporary staff, executives and managers across all levels. Even founders in Silicon Valley start-ups tend to stick with their company long after it has sold and the earn-out deadline passed.

A history of job instability, on the other hand, often signals mutual incompatibility. Flitting executives, whatever their strengths, are often badly adjusted people who harbour unrealistic expectations that no employer could ever satisfy – or want to.

From a practical point of view, job stability is important because employers want to hire individuals who hope to build long-term career. More subtly, however, savvy the employer realises that, with some exceptions, job hoppers are likely to be impaired by many more problems than simply lack of tenure. Job hoppers often take care to hide stints of failed employment, so it becomes imperative in an interview to get a detailed month-by-month career history, and to closely explore employment “gaps”.

And as a footnote: ‘short-term’ hires can be very expensive. If cost is a consideration (and it almost always is of course) the latest US estimates for the hire of a mid-senior executive (with on-costs, induction and placement) suggest the hiring cost is now cash equivalent to a year of salary.

5. Does this person work smart? Many people seem blessed with everything – achievement needs, dedication, self organisation, and so on – yet all their fine qualities seem merely to get between them and their actual execution of the job, leaving them impotent and ineffectual. A focus on results is usually the missing ingredient. A simple question to seek it out is “What do you find is the best way to get it done?”

Bureaucrats are sticklers for procedure but smart workers almost always are concerned about results. In the face of a deadline smart workers seek innovative methods and creative short-cuts. You’d ideally like to find a happy blend of procedure and priority.

Be especially wary of petty perfectionists who can’t see forest for the trees; they’re often meticulously organised but simply can’t prioritise because they’re too insecure to delegate (or tyrants if they do). Such fusspots are often just too fastidious in an interview situation, insisting upon detailed answers to run of the mill questions.

One way to spot such ditherers is to contemplate their actual career achievements (and please don’t take what is written at face value, check for your self). Despite many credentials, their performance, somehow, will seldom seem to add up.

In depth psychological testing can also often uncover this problem, but that’s a whole other subject. 

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