Integrity: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

by Keith Francoeur

As Vice President, he is responsible for training and managing PCI’s global assessment team, designing and updating the assessment process (including the research and selection of the test battery and interview format), and handling custom competency mapping.

Most people would agree that integrity is an important characteristic for employees to have and that if you don’t have it, it can’t be developed. What most people may be surprised to know is that whether someone is likely to display integrity can be predicted well by their personality. More specifically, three out of the five major factors of personality, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Steadiness (which happen to make up the metatrait Alpha or Stability) have been found to correlate substantially and consistently with integrity tests. What’s more, they have been shown to predict both counterproductive work behaviors (e.g., theft, taking credit for others’ work, shirking) and overall job performance very well.

What may also surprise people is that research on twins shows that the five factors of personality have a significant genetic component, which can account for 50% or more of the observed differences in personality between individuals. So, in a sense, integrity can be said to be part of someone’s DNA.  Even that which is influenced by the environment has most of its impact early on, as an individual’s personality is primarily fixed and does not change considerably after age 30.

The above is not to say that the situation doesn’t matter; it does. Any behavior that someone exhibits is always a function of what’s in the individual and the situation that individual is in. For example, research has shown that toxic leadership leads to an increase in counterproductive work behavior among followers. Still, how likely any person is to act with Integrity is influenced by their personality; those who are very high on Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Steadiness are more likely to exhibit integrity, regardless of situational influences. People who are very low on these factors are more likely to lack integrity, even if they are in a company with a good culture. Moreover, the likelihood of those people exhibiting bad behavior is even greater when the situation is weak (e.g., they are working from home). Because of this, it’s always a good idea to know whether a person is likely to exhibit integrity before you hire them.

Now the question is, how can you assess for integrity?  You have some options.

Interviews. While interviews may give you a sense of how energetic and intelligent a person is, integrity will be much harder to see. This is especially true when the person is energetic and intelligent, as they will probably be more skilled at creating a positive impression and therefore, more likely to get hired. If it turns out that they lack integrity, it may indeed be a very painful lesson for you and the company, as Warren’s quote suggests; people who are bright, energetic, and inclined to act without integrity could be especially dangerous because they might be skilled manipulators who are adept at driving their personal agenda and not getting caught.

Integrity Tests. These predict counterproductive work behavior and job performance very well and are legally defensible. However, research suggests that candidates may be more likely to perceive them negatively compared to other assessment tools. Moreover, they give you less bang for your buck; they do not measure some major domains of personality or allow for a detailed breakdown of personality facets, both of which are crucial for assessing many important competencies and other work-related outcomes of interest. So, if you give an integrity test, you will need to give an additional measure of personality.

Personality Surveys based on the Five-Factor Model. Most of these provide thorough and detailed measurement of Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Steadiness, which all predict counterproductive work behavior. They also have the added benefit of measuring Openness/Intellect (which is the only personality domain consistently related to intelligence) and Extraversion, a facet of which happens to be Energy.  Thus, you can get a read on the three characteristics that Warren references.

Still, while the correlation between Openness/Intellect and Intelligence is significant, it is modest.  A much better way to assess intelligence is through maximal performance cognitive ability tests.  Such a measure or measures should adequately sample different cognitive skills to provide a good approximation of general intelligence, the single best predictor of job performance. By leveraging the predictive power of psychometrically sound measures of personality and intelligence, you will increase your effectiveness at hiring top talent who are bright, energetic, and trustworthy.  

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