Interviewing for Character Traits

By: Don Tyler

Sometimes we get overly concerned about the legal limitations to the types of interview questions we can ask, and miss the opportunity to glean crucial information about the personal character of a candidate. It is essential to ask the skill-based questions about experience, background, education and knowledge—but we can’t spend all of our interviewing time on these issues and neglect their other important traits.

There is an old adage among professional hiring managers that goes, “We hire people on their skills…but fire people on their character and attitude.” The reason for this is that we don’t ask enough questions or get enough information about their character before we hire them.

Aside from the documents we should have available at the interview such as a Job Description, the Employee Handbook and their completed Job Application, we should also have a set list of questions that we plan to ask to ensure that we do not overlook key points of inquiry, and to also ensure that we are being consistent with all candidates.

To make that list, we first have to identify the character traits we want in our operation. Here are some common ones:

Integrity; Work Ethic; Sincerity; Honesty; Compassion for Animals; Teamwork; Loyalty; Achievement; Fairness; Common Courtesy; Quality; and a Sense of Purpose.

Here are some sample questions to glean information about these character traits:

• What are some of the ways you try to extend “common courtesy” to your coworkers?

• Tell me something that you did for someone else in the last week, just to help them, without wanting or asking for anything in return.

• Think about the last time you made a mistake or reacted inappropriately to a situation. What did you do next? (You don’t have to tell me what you did that was a mistake or inappropriate.)

• Give me three words that describe some of your core values.

• Describe a time in your last position that you went out of your way to ensure that animals in your care got everything they needed, even though it was inconvenient for you.

• Tell me about a time that you “did the right thing” but still paid a price as a result. (Follow up—”Would you do it again?”)

• What do you think about gossip at home or the work place?

• Tell me about an area that you are trying to learn more about or get better at, and how you plan to apply the lessons you learn.

• Tell me about charities you are involved in, or some other way that you help people in your community.

• Tell me something that you saw a coworker do that was disloyal to the company. (Follow up: “What did you do about it?”)

• If you personally saw a coworker obviously stealing something from the business, what would you do?

• Tell me about your overall work ethic and the evidence that your former boss or coworkers would use as examples.

• What are some ways that you ensure good quality work?

• What is important to you above all else?

• A lot of people today feel it is important to have a “sense of purpose” in their life. What is yours’?

Though there are many right or acceptable answers to these questions, there are a few clearly wrong ones that will jump out at you when you hear them.

You can decide which of these questions are most appropriate for your situation. The answer to any one specific question is not crucial, but the general theme of their answers will give you a clear sense of their personal priorities, their individual core values, and whether or not they would be a good fit for the culture you are trying to establish and reinforce in your business. Don Tyler is the owner of Tyler & Associates, Clarks Hill, IN. For more information on these and other business or employee management topics, contact him at 765-523-3259 or

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