Values-centric companies are built by values-centric employees. And you attract these employees by enshrining your company’s ideals in every aspect of the business. Touting your mission on the “About” page of your website is not enough. When it comes to building a thriving, ethical culture, actions are far more powerful than words.
Values-driven businesses enjoy both ethical and financial successes. For instance, a group of Fortune 500 companies saved nearly $3.7 billion in 2016 thanks to their collective energy efficiency and renewable initiatives, but they are not the only ones reaping the benefits of sustainability initiatives. Businesses are increasingly transitioning toward sustainable infrastructures and ethical operations, which is encouraging, but to fully maximize ethical and sustainability initiatives, companies need to hire teams that also hold those values in high reverence.
As an entrepreneur, I know firsthand how important it is to hire people who share your values. Many hiring managers prioritize technical skills over values, but I believe the opposite approach is more effective. Technical skills are teachable, but respecting the environment and being kind and empathetic to those living in it should not be.
Mistakes caused by technical lapses are costly but correctable. Moral missteps, on the other hand, are more difficult to fix. Corruption and fraud damage your company’s long-term health far worse than any software bug or products that fall flat.
Onboarding a new employee can cost $240,000, a considerable expense under the best of circumstances. But a single bad hire can cost the company as much as 30 percent of the employee’s first-year earnings. From a financial perspective alone, it’s worth being conscientious about whom you hire, but bringing the wrong person into the organization has other far-reaching effects. A negative or manipulative person becomes an unsettling presence at best and a corrupting one at worst.
Finding the Values in Candidates
Sometimes when companies are understaffed, they rush people through the interview process and fail to conduct their due diligence. While I empathize with the stress of being short-handed, I’ve seen that overlooking a discrepancy in values never ends well — particularly when you are trying to build a company around sustainability and shared ethics.
Here’s how to build a strong, committed team that upholds your company’s values:
1. Look beyond the résumé.
Just because someone looks like a can’t-miss candidate on paper does not mean he or she will be a good cultural fit. An Ivy League graduate and Peace Corps volunteer might be a bright and talented person, but his worldview may not align with your company’s.
Rather than fixating on grades and achievements, ask questions that highlight the candidate’s values and critical-thinking skills. Offer theoretical scenarios the candidate could encounter by working with you to find out how he would solve those problems. Whether the hypothetical is specific to a company value such as sustainability or to the job in general, use these answers instead of the CV to gauge whether someone is up to the challenge. Follow up on any responses that seem like red flags so you can get clarity before moving forward.
2. Train your interviewers to present a unified front.
Before an applicant comes in for an interview, gather your panel of interviewers and make sure your tactics and priorities align. Each person should be responsible for a different aspect of the interview, but it helps to review your questions together in advance. For instance, have one panelist focus on someone’s technical experience and have another assess the candidate’s familiarity with your company’s values-based initiatives.
Reviewing questions beforehand is important also because someone might unwittingly jot down a question that crosses legal lines, and you want to catch that before the conversation begins. Organizing a diverse panel of interviewers also lessens the chances of posing insensitive questions or allowing the hiring decision to be influenced by unconscious biases.
3. Get candidates outside the interview room.
Once someone clears the initial screening process, find out who he or she is outside the workplace. I invite people on a nature walk or to chat in another quiet area away from conference rooms and other formal settings. The goal is to uncover a candidate’s authentic reactions to different situations in order to determine whether she’d be a good cultural fit for your company.
In my experience, simply changing locations reveals a great deal about someone’s personality. For instance, we once interviewed someone who was scared to death of nature. She hated the outdoors, which doesn’t bode well when the company’s values center on environmental stewardship. It’s better to learn who a person is during the interview than to onboard candidates you barely know and hope for the best.
4. Ask applicants how they respond to stress.
This is especially important when hiring for senior positions because you want to know how candidates cope with busy or challenging periods. Someone who is reactive instead of proactive, or who is prone to anger, will do little to advance your company’s cause in the long run.
The companies with the most successful sustainability policies hire leaders who are empathetic, open-minded, transparent, and fair. They also take the long view when it comes to progress, understanding that change doesn’t happen overnight. That kind of fortitude requires a sophisticated stress-management approach.
Sustainability and values-centric leadership are laudable goals, but you’ll only reach them if you rally the right team of people around them. Prioritizing values over technical skills and recruiting well-rounded talent will allow you to achieve your ambitions without compromising what matters most to your company.
Peter Seligmann’s name has been synonymous with conservation and sustainability for more than four decades. In 1987, Seligmann founded the nonprofit Conservation International and spent 30 years as its CEO; he is currently its chairman. He is also the founding CEO of Nia Tero, an emerging global collaborative with a mission to advance indigenous peoples and local community stewardship of vital ecosystems around the world. Seligmann sees nature as the most precious currency, one that should be cherished and preserved by corporate executives, indigenous tribes, and everyone in between. Peter resides in Seattle.
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