Corporate Governance Honesty at the Top: Boards can recruit for integrity

According to globally recognised executive assessment expert William C Byham, screening top job applicants, or any other level job applicants for that matter, for honesty and integrity is increasingly important. And to do so, is “easier than you think”.
Byham, co-founder of Pittsburgh-based recruitment research and selection specialists Development Dimensions International (DDI), believes that despite their interest in doing better job of hiring for honesty and integrity, too many organisations continue to believe that their hands are tied. “This is mistake,” he says.
It might, in some cases, be as simple as doing proper background and reference checks, practices which many organisations let slip for couple of decades but which are now resurrecting. But, says Byham, substantial information on ethical behaviour can be obtained during the interview process and it is all too often overlooked.
Part of the solution of course, lies in having properly trained interviewers seek examples of how candidates have handled ethical situations in the past, and by having several interviewers openly sharing, cross-checking and evaluating the information candidates provide.
To screen for honesty and integrity, interviewers must ask the right questions. Answers to these questions will soon illustrate whether or not candidate’s own ethical values are “a good match with those of the organisation”.
Byham also reassures sceptics who doubt that dishonest or unethical individuals can be ferreted out simply by asking questions about their past behaviour because dishonest and unethical people simply lie. “Psychological theory suggests they won’t. People with low integrity tend to think that everybody else has the same or an even lower degree of integrity than they do,” he explains. “Therefore, they are ready and willing to admit to their own integrity lapses because they think that their behaviour is normal and assume that the interviewer feels the same way.”
He has had the theory borne out many times in his own interviewing experiences. The key to effectively interviewing for integrity is seeking multiple examples of behaviours and asking probing questions that reveal the thinking behind the behaviour described.
But while it is important to incorporate integrity questions into an interview, it is equally important to know when to ask the questions. According to Byham, interviewers should save sensitive ethical questions for late in the interview and after rapport has been developed. “Listen and respond to the answers with empathy. Empathy does not mean acceptance or agreement. It means understanding,” he adds.
Employers should also put more work into closely scrutinising resumes. Studies in the US show that 40 to 60 percent of resumes contain “meaningful errors”, such as dramatically inflating education, experience or employment history.
But short of doing background check before an interview “there isn’t much you can do about errors until you get into the interview. Then there are two things you can do,” says Byham.
* Look for holes in the candidate’s employment record and ask about the omissions.
* Assign at least one interviewer to do thorough review of the work or education record and ask questions like; “How did you get the job?” “What did you do?” Why did you leave?” “How did you leave?” All dates should be verified.
But in the end, recruiters must judge for themselves how important resume errors really are. The intentional deletion of critical information or inclusion of misinformation is, however, telling sign about what kind of person the candidate really is.
Integrity tests have become increasingly popular in the US. “We might hate them, but they work,” says Byham. “The key is to ask the right questions, to pin the applicant down on the answers and then to have multiple people interpreting the answers.
“Ethics are climbing on the list of competencies that boards and senior executives consider important in the candidates they recruit. They rate higher now when individuals are assessed for suitability.”
According to Byham one of the ironies of top-end recruiting is the inverse relationship that exists between the importance of the job to which an applicant is being appointed and the quality of effort and thinking that goes into the decision. Directors are apparently reluctant to ask the tough questions even though the consequences of wrong choice are extremely high. “It is as if they don’t want to embarrass the candidate or hurt his or her feelings,” he ventures. “The tendency is, however, changing. Boards are starting to demand more information about the individual and to take more time making decision.”
The answer to the dilemma of surety about selection is, in Byham’s opinion, to “grow your own leaders”. It makes strategic sense for boards to encourage management to “tap into the quality people already in an organisation”. This might be contrary to popular opinion but, he says, the alternatives are to “intensify efforts to hire hard-to-find, increasingly expensive people from outside or do nothing and suffer the probability of competitive decline”.
Byham is so committed to the concept he has written book about it. His Grow Your Own Leaders explains the DDI concept of ‘Acceleration Pools’, their terminology for “new method of succession management”. The book is about how to identify, develop and retain leadership talent.
According to Byham, the global shortage of top level leaders is driven by variety of factors “including rapid growth, dramatic rise in retirements [baby boomers leaving the scene], competitors poaching key people and the difficulty of retaining talented people”. By growing their own leaders, organisations can secure the talent they need to compete and reduce the time and money spent on attracting outside talent.
The 21st century business landscape is very different from the relatively stable times of the 1980s and ’90s. Organisations are flatter, there are fewer middle managers, rapid change is endemic, business units have been decentralised fragmenting HR initiatives, top executives face myriad pressures that restrict the time they have to spend on leadership development, quarterly reporting adds additional pressures and talented individuals expect unique attention.
For these reasons Byham thinks organisations need to consider his ‘Acceleration Pool’ approach to succession management. There are, he says, four good reasons why organisations should grow their own leaders.
• Business strategy can be implemented only if appropriately skilled and experienced leadership is in place;
• Decisions about filling positions are more accurate when candidates are from inside the organisation;
• Effective succession management systems operate as both talent-growth and talent-retention mechanisms, and
• Organisations don’t have the time or resources to develop the leadership skills and organisational savvy of all their people. They must concentrate on those who will benefit most.
Byham also pioneered behaviour-based executive selection system, Target Selection, that is now credited with being the world’s most accurate. Recruitment company Sheffield offers the programme in New Zealand. www.sheffield.co.nz/what/targeted.html

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