Humility is one of the ten crucial qualities of employees of high character, and smart businesses seek out people with humility to work for them. These employees inspire their coworkers, instill confidence in their supervisors, and move up quickly in their organizations.
Humble people are generally not disposed to call attention to their humility. Still, the discerning interviewer might use the following questions to discover the degree to which a job candidate or employee is truly humble or merely pretending to be.
Tell me about one of your proudest accomplishments. What was it, and how did you pull it off?
Janice Piacente, the chief risk and compliance officer for a global beverage company, came up with a novel way of getting employees to have the ethics hotline at their fingertips. But she gave the credit for it to her team, because they were the ones who took her idea and made it a reality. It’s not that she denies the role she played in the project’s development, but simply that her humility dictated that she also acknowledge the contributions of others.
Astute interviewers listen carefully to how the candidate or employee answers this question. Does he focus primarily or exclusively on his own role in the achievement? Or does he, like Janice, talk about how others contributed to his success?
Where have you seen examples of humility in action?
When I came up with this question, my mind turned to Emily, a woman I knew when I worked at Lox, Stock and Bagels, a deli in San Antonio, Texas, during my senior year of high school. Emily’s job was to keep the restaurant clean, which she did tirelessly and cheerfully. I can’t recall her ever complaining about her job, even though it was far from glamorous and couldn’t have paid very well either. When Keith, the owner of the restaurant, decided to return to Chicago, he chose Emily to replace him as the manager.
Emily didn’t have extensive formal education or any job experience beyond janitorial work, so Keith would have to teach her how to run the business. It would have been easier for him to train a more experienced person, or to hire someone who already knew the job. But Emily was trustworthy, and she was good with people. The day after Keith offered her the job, she was the same humble person as a manager that she’d been as the janitor. I didn’t get the feeling that she viewed herself as any more important in her new role than she did before. She treated me in exactly the same way: with kindness.
I hadn’t thought about Emily for a long time until this question prompted me to remember her. It’s a good idea for interviewers to allow applicants some extra time of their own, if necessary, to think about the humble employees they’ve known. You never know what inspiring stories await.
When Janice Piacente told me about how she gives credit to her team, even though her ideas often begin with her, I was surprised. “Isn’t leadership about generating ideas?” I asked her.
“Not to me,” she replied. “Leadership is about bringing out the best in people.”
This is the seventh in a series of blog posts on how to hire high-character people. The first six were How to Hire Honest People, How to Hire Accountable People, How to Hire Caring People, How to Hire Courageous People, How to Hire Fair People, and How to Hire Grateful People. Next time, we’ll look at what it means to be a loyal person and how to evaluate this quality in job applicants.
Dr. Bruce Weinstein is on Twitter @TheEthicsGuy. A more in-depth version of this post, including details about Janice Piacente’s inspiring story, appears on The Ethics Guy Blog.
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