How to Hire Honest People


My father once bought a life insurance policy from an agent who was warm, friendly, and had impeccable credentials.

He also embezzled thousands of dollars from my dad.

It can be difficult to evaluate a job candidate’s honesty, but it’s crucial to try, and the following questions may help.

Tell me about a time when you had to tell a direct report an unpleasant truth. 

Ross, a senior vice president, needed to tell Hazel, his direct report, that she wasn’t going to get the promotion she was expecting.

“I was afraid she would quit,” Ross told me. “She has been with the company for seven years and has always done a good job. She was angry when I told her, but she appreciated that I had let her know what was going on,” Ross explained. “She knows she can trust me to be straight with her. That may be one of the reasons she still works here.”  And Ross eventually secured both a promotion and a raise for Hazel.

Ross is one of the Good Ones, because his commitment to honesty ultimately benefitted his company and a valuable relationship with a direct report.

Have you ever cheated, and if so, what did you learn from it?

From time to time I interview high school students who are applying to the college I attended, Swarthmore. A few years ago, I mentioned to Rob, the young man I was interviewing, that I’d written a book called Is It Still Cheating If I Don’t Get Caught? I told him how dismayed I was by the stories of cheating in high schools and colleges and asked him point-blank if he had ever misrepresented himself.

“Yes,” he said. “My friends and I have done it more than once. School is so competitive now you have to cheat to get good grades.”

Rob got a “Do not admit” recommendation from me on the college evaluation form.

There are two downsides to asking a job candidate a direct question about dishonesty. First, it immediately strikes fear in the candidate’s heart, even if the candidate is an honest person. I don’t like the idea of making people squirm. 

The second downside is that the question seems to present a no-win situation. The candidate may reason that if the she admits to having cheated, she won’t get the job, but if she lies, she’ll be caught in a fib.

But the savvy interviewer will not reject candidates simply because they have admitted to cheating. What bothered me about Rob wasn’t so much his academic dishonesty but the fact that he exhibited no remorse for having cheated and even attempted to justify it.

The honest person has a strong emotional commitment to the truth, and HR managers who evaluate for character as well as competence serve their employers—and themselves--well.


Dr. Bruce Weinstein is on Twitter at @TheEthicsGuy.  A more in-depth version of this post appears on The Ethics Guy Blog.




The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: