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Coffee on the GO with Bruce Weinstein

The author of The Good Ones on the importance of hiring and promoting honest people.
Coffee on the GO with Bruce Weinstein

When organizations make hiring or promotion decisions, they assume that those they select are honest and ethical. Only, sometimes, they’re not—often with disastrous consequences—raising questions about how these traits could have possibly been overlooked. Bruce Weinstein, CEO of the Institute for High-Character Leadership, delivers speeches on honesty and ethical behavior to organizations around the world and has written three books on the subject, including his most recent, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees. He spoke with GO about what makes people “good,” how employers can screen for honesty, and why being in a bad mood can lead anyone down the wrong path.

GO: You work with organizations around the world. What are the common challenges you encounter relative to ethics and honesty?

Weinstein: Last year, I spoke with companies in Hawaii, Australia, and Cairo, meeting with everyone from mechanical contractors to government ministers. You’d think these groups would have radically different issues or concerns. But, surprisingly, that wasn’t the case. In every instance, I found they struggled with hiring or promoting the wrong people and with finding honest, high-character people to bring into their organizations.

GO: Tell us about your latest book, The Good Ones.

Weinstein: In the mid-1990s, a colleague of mine at the medical school I was teaching at used the phrase “the good ones” to refer to those he thought were of high character. I heard that and thought, “I want to be considered one of the good ones.” I really liked that idea, I liked that concept. And, so, with this book I decided to explore the qualities of character that help us make the right decisions every day throughout our lives.

GO: What are some of those qualities?

Weinstein: The high-character person is committed to doing the right thing consistently over time. It’s not just somebody who tells the truth here and there, and then in other instances is free and loose with the facts. Also, an honest person is someone who has a deep, emotional connection to the truth. We talk about honesty and truth-telling as intellectual concepts, but they’re really emotional concepts because the honest person cannot stand lying or liars. And, consistently, throughout his or her life, an honest person does his or her level best to be honest.

One of my favorite stories in the book involves a woman who was processing clothes at a Goodwill center in Virginia. She was nearing retirement, she made minimum wage, and she found $3,100 in cash in the pocket of one of the jackets she was sorting through. And what do you think she did? She turned it in. All of it. Every bill. And I interviewed her and I asked her why she did that. And she said, “It didn’t belong to me.” I thought there would be some deeper explanation and there wasn’t. She said, “My parents raised me to believe that if you do the right thing, you’ll be rewarded on judgment day. And if you don’t, you’ll be punished.”

So, are high-quality people saints who’ve never told a lie or done anything wrong in their lives? Of course not. We all struggle with that. And I think, quite frankly, one of the things that drew me to ethics and keeps me here is because I struggle with it all the time myself.

GO: Why do we find it so difficult to do the right thing?

Weinstein: One answer is being in a foul mood. Have you noticed that if you didn’t get a good night’s sleep or you’ve had a fight with your spouse or partner, it’s harder to resist the impulse to be nasty? What’s important is just to recognize that and say, “Okay, I’m a little compromised now. I have to work a little harder to make sure I’m kind instead of nasty, that I’m fair instead of unjust, that I’m respectful instead of selfish.”

GO: So how should organizations deal with unethical or dishonest people?

Weinstein: It’s an enormous problem. The thing that’s shocking is that I’ve looked at job descriptions across organizations and found they’re always focused on two things: what the job candidate needs to know and what the job candidate needs to do. Employers are obsessed with competence and finding the most-knowledgeable and the most-skilled people.

For two years, I asked executives around the world why they didn’t talk about honesty in their job descriptions or interviews. And I got a couple different kinds of responses, one of which was that they just like to assume people are honest. But as we know, for example, in the dating world, that is an extremely dangerous assumption to make.

Bringing in high-quality people is essential for maintaining a healthy bottom line, promoting good relationships with clients, and earning respect and a quality reputation. I really believe that thinking about character alongside competence can help companies avoid millions of dollars in losses from hiring dishonest people.

GO: How can organizations screen for honesty?

Weinstein: Asking certain questions and listening carefully to the answers is crucial. For example, you could ask, “Have you ever cheated and, if so, what did you learn from it?” People will have those experiences to draw on. My guess is that if you’re at least seven or eight years old, you’ve cheated at least once in your life. If someone’s applying for a job and they’re in their 20s and they say they’ve never cheated in their life, I would find that difficult to believe, wouldn’t you?

GO: Are people basically good or basically bad? Given your research and extensive travel, where do you land on that question?

Weinstein: That’s the million-dollar question. I believe the correct answer is neither. We have to be taught how to resist the impulse to be selfish. And ethics is really, at its core, about thinking about people other than ourselves.

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Bruce Weinstein’s book, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees, is available through bookstores and major online booksellers. To learn more about the Institute for High-Character Leadership, visit IHCLeadership.com.

Talk to an Expert: Coffee on the GO with Bruce Weinstein

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