Developing-screening for character qualities pays dividends

"It has been suggested that "ethical conduct" be formally incorporated as a general competency requirement for any job within the organization". Read the attached article about developing and screening for "character qualities", and discuss your thoughts about the feasibility of screening for character qualities (including ethical conduct). Be sure to include what you see as possible challenges or difficulties of such screening.

In your response, keep in mind that you should discuss screening for these attributes with job applicants, since that is the focus of this course, not on training current employees.

Developing and Screening for Character Qualities Pays Dividends 
SHRM White Paper

6/1/2001  By Robert W. Thompson, Reviewed June 2002 
When David M. Quint, SPHR, became human resources manager for Davidson Industries about three years ago, the annual turnover rate for the Franklin, Ind., company was more than 100 percent. After approximately six months, he recalls, the turnover rate had been cut to less than 50 percent at the company, which supplies wall panels, doors, windows, lumber supplies and other products to builders in the Indianapolis area.

By the time he left Davidson Industries last June to join Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis, the turnover rate at Quint’s previous employer had plummeted to less than 20 percent. While that rate would be horrible for an employer in a normal industry, he says, anyone involved in construction-related manufacturing would be pleased.

Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau in Indianapolis, Quint says, had a position that for six months changed hands several times. Then, the bureau tailored its help-wanted ad to emphasize character qualities instead of job skills. Soon thereafter, Quint says, the bureau hired an applicant who has been in the position for a long time now.

Those are some of the anecdotal examples of the benefits of a growing trend: screening job applicants for positive character traits, developing desired character qualities among existing workers and, sometimes, both.

Major Players:

Some companies use their own HR departments to design programs to develop and screen for positive character qualities. Others use for-profit consulting firms, as well as not-for-profit institutes and associations, including the Character Training Institute, based in Oklahoma City, and the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, based in Marina del Rey, Calif.

The Character Training Institutes program is called Character First! and is designed for use by school systems, local governments such as cities and counties, and private employers. The institute in 1998 founded the International Association of Character Cities (IACC) with the goal of equipping government and community leaders with the tools they need to effect lasting, positive change in their cities ... by providing resources, training, contacts, and counsel to leaders committed to character development. Currently, more than 95 cities worldwide have launched character-building initiatives with the assistance of the IACC.

The Josephson Institute of Ethics, founded in 1987 by Michael Josephson in honor of his parents, provides such services as confidential consultations, multi-day community workshops, ethics training programs for such organizations as the Internal Revenue Service and written codes of ethics for journalism organizations and other groups.

The Josephson Institutes Ethics in the Workplace training seminars and its Character Counts! program for school systems and community organizations are based on what the institute calls the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

Forty-nine Traits of Character First!

The Character Training Institute has compiled a list of 49 character traits that, if practiced, can help employers reduce their workers compensation costs and turnover, improve morale and increase profitability. These character qualities include:

  • Wisdom.
  • Faith.
  • Benevolence.
  • Enthusiasm.
  • Discretion.
  • Self-control.
  • Diligence.
  • Dependability.
  • Patience.
  • Alertness.
  • Hospitality.
  • Generosity.
  • Flexibility.
  • Availability.
  • Endurance.
  • Joyfulness.
  • Sensitivity.
  • Deference.
  • Meekness.
  • Truthfulness.
  • Sincerity.
  • Forgiveness.
  • Thriftiness.
  • Contentment.
  • Tolerance.
  • Gratefulness.
  • Punctuality.
  • Initiative.
  • Decisiveness.
  • Humility.

The Character Training Institute recommends that employers develop a character mission statement, write a character policy manual based on principles instead of rules, tap into a network to utilize the experience of other organizations that have already increased their focus on character and give character bulletins to employees to help them identify and develop the character qualities that will make them successful.

Potential Pitfalls:

Quint and other consultants and HR professionals who have developed character programs for employees say some employees may resist out of a perception that they’re being lectured about qualities that sometimes have a religious or moral ring to them, such as meekness. And whoever manages character development programs, they say, should take care to avoid putting employees on the defensive by creating the impression that something is wrong with their characters.

However, Quint says, if you look at the 49 character qualities, there’s not a one that I’ve ever come across and had an employee or group tell me ‘No, no, Dave, creativity, we really don’t like that’, or ‘loyalty, that’s not for us’, that sort of thing.

If an employee were to argue in favor of moral diversity, his response would be: We have no room for moral diversity. There are things that are right. There are things that are wrong. By distinguishing between the two and by equipping employees with practical tools for developing positive character traits, employers will create workplaces that are better places for everyone, Quint says.

Ommy Strauch, SPHR, vice chair of the SHRM Board of Trustees, says she researched the pros and cons of character screening during employment interviews at the request of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. Strauch operates an HR consulting firm in San Antonio and is a member of the board that governs the Texas agency.

Board members asked Strauch for her opinion on whether the department should incorporate character screening into its job interview process. After checking with other consultants, she concluded that she could not make a recommendation either for or against character screening. According to Strauch, some people whose organizations were using character screening said, "We have to have it." On the other hand, Strauch notes there were people saying, "Gosh, I don’t know how you could ever justify this [based] on the expense of it.

Beyond Ethics:

Ray L. Jones, founder and president of Visions Unlimited, a management consulting firm based in Little River, Calif., says more companies are considering character development as the definition of customer service evolves. In years past, he says, the customer was just defined as those who purchase services or goods. Now, he says, people outside the HR department are slowly coming to realize that the HR practitioner’s customers are the organization’s employees and that good customer service should be extended to them.

Quint says companies that have implemented ethics policies designed to improve how their employees interact with people outside of the organization, but not within the workplace, are putting the cart before the horse. Once employees have a better handle on how to fairly and appropriately treat their co-workers, that improvement should almost automatically be extended to external relations.

Jones says one difficulty for the HR department in selling a character development or screening program is that some character qualities are more difficult to measure than are others. Punctuality can be monitored with a time clock. On the other hand, loyalty can be more difficult to gauge.

Be Even-handed, Team-oriented:

He recommends that employers who decide to reward their employees for exhibiting desirable character qualities should do so in the context of team, rather than individual, rewards. It’s less effective, he says, to reward one employee for loyalty, which is a team-oriented trait, than to reward all members of a team that demonstrated loyalty to the employer and other employees.

As long as the reward system for positive character qualities emphasizes team rather than individual achievements, Jones says he thinks monetary rewards are entirely appropriate.

Another potential pitfall, Quint explains, would be for managers to insist that their employees work on improving their character qualities without doing so themselves. The biggest risk is if upper management and, more specifically, line supervisors, do not lead by example.

Managers, he says, should avoid creating the impression that “this is good for you all. But for me, I have arrived, and I have another standard, thank you very much”. ... As soon as they see, Ah, it’s a manipulative tool, that’s what it is, then [the training] backfires.

The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) does not screen potential employees for desirable character traits, but actively monitors employees compliance with its ethics policy, says Frank Ashen, executive vice president for HR at the exchange and a member of SHRMs Employee and Labor Relations Committee. The policy includes four core values: integrity, respect for the individual, excellence and customer commitment.

The Stock Exchange, assisted by RedHawk Productions of Red Bank, N.J., provides ethics training to all employees and publishes an ethics newsletter. Ashen recommends having an outside company serve as a consultant on ethics and character development because employees are likely to be more open with an outside party than they would be with someone from the NYSE. Jones agrees, saying, I think there’s a bit of baggage for anyone in an organization.

Ashen says the Stock Exchange does not screen potential employees for desirable character qualities because, in his opinion, the means of accurately assessing character aren’t at the stage he would like. We do heavy reference checking and background checking. But I’m not convinced that the character screening instruments are where they [should be], he explains.

How-tos of Screening:

Quint, who led a session on character development and screening at SHRMs 2000 Annual Conference, says the Character First! list of 49 desirable qualities is helpful but needs to be tailored for use by the individual employer. Otherwise, he said, the size would make it too cumbersome.

At his Annual Conference presentation, Quint distributed a handout that included a character-based hiring worksheet and a model employment interview form. Before an interview, the interviewer would write on the worksheet four essential qualities for the potential employee, along with two questions designed to elicit candid responses from the applicant on each of the four qualities.

Quint’s interview form, which each job applicant must complete, includes one question asking the interviewees to rate themselves on each of 20 character qualities: contentment, diligence, dependability, attentiveness, determination, enthusiasm, loyalty, meekness, decisiveness, flexibility, forgiveness, orderliness, punctuality, patience, discretion, truthfulness, obedience, self-control, tolerance and sensitivity. They are instructed to rate themselves from one to 10, with 10 meaning very strong.

Because some job applicants might be intimidated by such a lengthy laundry list of character traits and might feel they’re being too harshly judged, Quint tells each interviewee that no single question on the 21-question form is of a make-or-break nature. Rather, he says, those questions are designed to give the interviewer a flavor of the applicants character.

And Quint tells his receptionist that, if any applicant should ask whether the question involving ratings is optional or could be answered later, she is to respond: Just answer those as best you can.


Character First!
International Association of Character Cities
Josephson Institute of Ethics
SHRM Handout

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