Hiring for Virtue

trustsummitThis morning, I had the privilege of attending the “Trust Summit” breakfast meeting, featuring Chris Brogan (@chrisbrogan), Julien Smith (@julien), David Maister (davidmaister.com), and Charlie Green (@charleshgreen). The panel was very engaging, and it was refreshing to hear people of substance and experience reinforcing the idea that the core of business is doing things right, and caring about people.

At one point during the session, as the discussion turned to the type of people who are trustworthy, I put out the following series of tweets:

    I don’t think you can teach virtue. You model it, and you hire virtuous people. Then you train specific behaviors. My 2 cents
    I’d hold that if someone doesn’t have a virtuous approach by the time you’re looking to hire them for biz, it’s too late.
    We should hire FOR basic virtue, not with the hope of imparting what isn’t there. Otherwise, trust will never occur.

Since two of my favorite on-line people,  Jane Chin and Jon Swanson, were interacting with me on these thoughts, I thought it might be best to elaborate in something other than 140 characters.

Let’s take a step back – we live in an age of subjectivity where words are often drained of meaning, so by virtuous character, I mean a person with a clear, well-founded, internally-embraced and externally practiced code of conduct that conforms to norms of ethical uprightness. Unfortunately, many will dispute what ethical uprightness actually IS, but an honest person who practices the Golden Rule smells an awful lot like what I’m talking about.

I don’t believe it is the role of a business to teach virtuous character to its employees. I believe that leaders should model it, encourage it, and train for specific behaviors that align with a virtuous and ethical approach to business. But we’re in business to do business, to serve and to perform – we should HIRE people with virtuous character and then give them the specific pathways to walk in.

I guess I should also say that we’re all “in progress”, and very few people have their virtue muscles fully exercised. But even though our character is still under development, there’s a core of “rightness” in the soul that cannot be imparted by teaching and management. External forces can shape and sharpen, can water and cultivate – but until someone is ready to be BE virtuous, they’ll never become trust-worthy.

Can and should virtue and character be taught? Yes. But that should be done in the formative years, but parents and other members of the surrounding community. It is not the role of a business to put in virtuous character, but to hire the best people who actually possess it.

I believe that, by practicing the principles found in books like Trust Agents and The Trusted Advisor (books authored by the panelists mentioned above) we can encourage the people who have virtuous character (in bud or in full flower) to create or find the types of businesses that will have an ethical core – businesses that will do good and succeed over the long haul because the people leading them are GOOD PEOPLE.

What we don’t need is “check off the box” training programs on ethics. We need virtuous people – in business, in government, in churches, and everywhere else. That is our greatest challenge. Talent and brains are cheap. People with a heart and a conscience and a spine – that’s pure gold.

Am I some off-base idealist? Or is this the way it oughta be?


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About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

5 Responses to Hiring for Virtue

  1. Mark Price says:


    I could not agree with you more. Ultimately, we all have to live by our actions and many actions that seem plausible in the short-term are unsavory when examined over time. When the people on your team and your clients know that you are committed to doing “right” by them, a level of trust is created that enabled the team to achieve greater things than imagined.

    Trust and ethics are not a one-time deal; they are reinforced on a daily basis in the actions you take and the words that you say. You have to say the talk, and then walk it. The test is do you do what it takes when it is hard. It is easier to be ethical in an up economy with lots of growth. It is tougher to make the hard calls when you will face consequences. But the reward is greater too.

    Well written. Sorry I could not make the talk in NYC this am — I am in Mpls and it was too hard to get there. Will look for another one soon.

  2. Jon Swanson says:

    Thanks for fleshing out your tweet, Steve. A couple thoughts.

    1. there are some businesses whose purpose might be to help figure out how to help people relearn virtue, redeem themselves from having acted badly.

    2. This probably isn’t every business.

    3. Not everyone learns it in the formative years. Not everyone is taught it then. Or perhaps I look at formation as being a life-long process. It is an occupational hazard.

    4. Ah, three is enough for now.

    Thanks for writing this.

  3. @Mark – thanks for your kind words
    @Jon – agreed about point 1 – esp. businesses particularly set up to help recovering addicts, former prisoners, or wayward youth. And, agreed that many are not learning virtue early-on, and must be mentored in catch-up mode. However, while a healthy work environment can help reinforce that process (which should be primarily spearheaded by community or church groups, for instance, joined to personal commitment), I don’t believe most company’s missions should be basic character development. That said, many companies have incentivized NON-virtuous practices and encourage ethical compromise – which is the other side of the coin we cannot ignore!

  4. Jane Chin says:

    I’ve been waving my hands about how we simply can’t legislate ethics for a while, so I agree with you, Steve.

    Given that virtue and character and ethics appear “common sense”, and given that these days complexity and clever convolution in semantics have rendered common sense apparently uncommon, here’s where I find to be a contributor of the lack of trust in organizations and in society in general:

    We (meaning society, bosses, companies, individuals) are too quick to punish those who fail, make mistakes, and otherwise show themselves as fallible human beings.

    Result: people recognizing this punitive tendency begin hedging their risk and constructing facades in such a way that they hope to conceal – rather than own – their mistakes.

    And why wouldn’t they, if they have witnessed others who owned up to mistakes to be ostracized and otherwise punished?

  5. Steve, no disagreement here at all! And thanks for attending, and for tweeting, and for writing about the trust summit event.

    In my 10-plus years of work with trust, I have come to realize that “trust” is a result–but not a way to directly act on people. It is the result of two parties: one who does the trusting, and one who is (or isn’t) trusted.

    Trustworthiness and trusting-ness put together create trust. When you put it that way, you can do something with it.

    I’ll sum it up with a simplification: hire for trusting-ness, train for trustworthiness. In other words, when you talk about virtuous character, you are largely talking about trusting-ness, in my view. You get that from your parents. Academics have broken down that kind of trust, and generally call it ‘social trust.’ It is correlated with a view of optimism about the world, and with a sense of one’s own power to take action and improve the world.

    People who do not feel empowered and are pessimistic are far less likely to trust others. You find that a lot in fringe political and religious groups, and in countries with episodic political histories and violence.

    Trustworthiness certainly has a component of virtue to it as well, but I do believe it can be taught much more easily. On my website, you can take a self-assessment quiz called the Trust Quotient: it is made up of four components–credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation. The first three improve your trustworthiness, the last one reduces it.

    It’s important to note that ‘trust’ is like obscenity–very hard to define, even though we generally all agree on what it means in a context.

    I have come to view “integrity” as the best word for the remaining part of what you’re calling virtuous character. And it turns out, as we examine the over-10,000 people who have taken the quiz, that the lower the standard deviation of those four components, the higher the trust quotient.

    That is: if someone scores high on three of the four factors but quite low on another, then we don’t trust them. Why? Because they are inconsistent, non-credible, and we suspect bad motives, that’s why. We trust most those who are balanced, who appear to be the same in all ways at all times to all people. And the only way to be that way is to tell one story all the time–the truth. A truth-telling person is a consistent person, and one we trust.

    More than you wanted to know, I know. Thanks again for a thoughtful and impassioned blogpost. I think you are right on.

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