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Recruit rogues at your own peril

Aug 02, 2010 Business Daily, Management

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without the first, you really want them to be dumb and lazy. ”


Read the Sage of Omaha’s quotation again: have you ever thought about it like that? That the first, pre-eminent quality you want in a new hire is integrity?

We don’t really view the world like that, now do we? When we’re hiring, we look for people who are smart, articulate, presentable, competent, qualified, pleasant. Oh, and it would be nice if they were honest and ethical as well, but you know, how many people are these days?

We almost assume, certainly in today’s corporate Kenya, that any person we employ who’s half good at the job will also be a bit of a chancer, an opportunist, a player. And that we will have to deal with that aspect of them by hoping for the best and trying to ensure nothing too bad happens.

Is that really the way we should be running our businesses? As Warren Buffet is telling you: if an employee doesn’t have integrity, do you really want them to have the other prime qualities? All you will be doing is employing a highly skilled crook.

Look at the number of frauds and embezzlements happening all around you today. With banks, it is endemic: there is always a teller or manager appearing in the courts at any given time being charged with forgery and what-have-you. In pretty much every large organisation, there is a fraud happening or brewing somewhere deep in the finance or procurement departments. And some of the ruses that larcenous employees come up with are truly ingenious. One can only wonder how much good they could do if they deployed their mental resources in more honest directions.

Why is it we don’t make integrity, honesty and ethics a fundamental part of our selection processes? Partly because our general values are so eroded that we have lost the sense that those things are important; and partly because we believe that we will end up with honest bumpkins instead of the city slickers we really need.

When I was interviewed for my very first job in London at a leading international consultancy firm, one of the very first scenarios put to me in the interview was an ethical one: what would I do if a member of a client firm asked to see an advance copy of a sensitive report? I would decline, I replied. But it didn’t end there: for the next fifteen minutes of the interview I was subjected to mounting pressure on the same question: would I really not divulge? What if the client employee was a personal friend? What if he didn’t want to keep the report, just read it in my presence? What if the report wasn’t that explosive anyway? What if he was flying out immediately and could not influence anything?

You will be relieved (I hope) to learn that I said no, no, no, no and no again. And I got the job.

That seems to be a bygone era now, when personal ethics really mattered. These days, big consultancies and auditors themselves seem to be at the heart of every new scandal that breaks. And more’s the pity. Eventually, we all pay the price for recruiting rogues: shareholders lose money, managers lose their careers and directors lose their reputations.

So you think it over: how much emphasis do you place on probing integrity, on testing character, on evaluating ethics? If the answer is “very little,” why so? For every reprobate you recruit, a scandal awaits down the road.

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