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What Character Education and Grit Have To Do With Better Hiring Decisions

After many years of counseling employers on a daily basis on a variety of employment matters, I have developed several fundamental theories as to why certain employers have successful track records with employees and why other employers do not. One of my core beliefs in this regard is that successful employers are distinguished from their unsuccessful competitors because they understand that “EQ” (known as “Emotional Intelligence” in the words of the author Daniel Goleman) is a far better predictor of success than IQ. Emotional intelligence includes such things as creativity; the ability to work successfully with others; curiosity; industriousness; and the ability to make principle based decisions, among other things. I have often wondered, however, how these “character” issues can be measured.

In this regard, I was fascinated to read a recent article that appeared in The New York Times about character education. ("What if the Secret of Success is Failure?” by Paul Tough, New York Times, September 14, 2011) The article featured two schools in New York, one a private school and one a public charter school, which believe that one of their primary missions is to develop character traits that lead to success in life. The schools’ curriculum is predicated, in substantial measure, upon research performed by the famous psychologist, Martin Seligman. Dr. Seligman, now at the University of Pennsylvania, along with his staff and others in the field have conducted research that increasingly is showing that character is a better predictor of long term success and happiness in life -- better than standard measures of intelligence, and often better than prior achievement. What these researchers found is that various combinations of social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, zest or enthusiasm, grit, love and humor all play important roles in determining lifetime success. The researchers further distinguished so called “moral” character issues such as fairness, generosity and integrity, from “performance” related behavior issues such as enthusiasm, diligence, perseverance and effort. At the heart of these studies, however, is the conclusion that “grit” plays perhaps the most significant role in determining success. The researchers have challenged schools to consider implementing a “character grade point average” for students.

What, if anything, does this have to do with success in the workplace and making better hiring decisions? In my view, a tremendous amount. My experience is that in many, if not most, situations, the reason employees do not succeed in organizations has very little to do with technical competence (or IQ), but almost always involves the emotional intelligence issues and the character issues described above. In seminars and in private training situations, I challenge employers to make a list of the qualities of the individuals who have done very well at their organization and those who have not. Almost invariably, these lists are the mirror image of one another. Individuals who succeed rate very highly in terms of motivation; the ability to get along with other people; perseverance; grit and industriousness. The opposite is true for those who did not fare well.

Measure Character in the Interview Process

I also challenge clients to construct an interview process which attempts to measure these character issues. In other words, I challenge them to ask interview questions that elicit responses as to whether applicants possess some or all of these character traits and, if so, why they believe they possess them. One question I encourage employers to ask an applicant is which of her traits or characteristics she is most proud of. Often, the initial response that an individual gives to this question reveals a tremendous amount about what character trait the individual considers most important. Another question which may elicit revealing character information is to inquire about a situation -- work related or otherwise -- when the applicant went above and beyond what was required to establish a creative solution to a problem. Once again, the ability to answer these questions successfully demonstrates not only an ability to organize thoughts carefully, but also to successfully recount a situation where creativity, perseverance and “grit” were needed. Similar types of questions can and should be asked of references.

As the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere have discovered, and as the private school and charter school in New York are discovering, character matters tremendously, both in the classroom and in the workplace. I am convinced that employers who are mindful of the character traits most conducive to success in their organization, and who take appropriate steps during the interview process to elicit this information are the ones who will flourish. 

Marc Engel is an employment attorney at Lerch, Early & Brewer in Bethesda, Maryland who advises employers on all types of employment issues, including strategies for improving hiring, performance management, retention and avoiding discrimination and harassment claims. For more information about interviewing prospective employees, contact Marc at (301) 657-0184 or


This content is for your information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney before acting on any information contained here.


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