What Does Anyone Even Mean by Integrity?

By July 17, 2018 No Comments

It was about 20 years ago and I was on the verge of hiring a new employee. She clearly had the right experience. She seemed talented and everyone liked her during an extensive interview process. We made our offer, which was contingent upon a perfunctory reference check.

References, even then, were practically a useless exercise since previous employers and supervisors were so unwilling to offer anything but praise for past employees out of fear of subjecting themselves to legal peril. Plus, a candidate would have to be a special type of idiot to list anyone as a reference who would have anything bad to say.

My H.R. department took care of the reference check and we had a requirement that at least one of a candidate’s references had to be a past supervisor. Our H.R. supervisor got in contact with a previous supervisor of our would-be employee by phone. The call was going on as they typically do (vanilla answers to vanilla questions) until the obligatory question came up about integrity.

“What can you tell me about this person’s integrity?”

There was a pause, then this: “Integrity? Well…I don’t think she would STEAL from you.”

In the history of sentences, this was among the most brilliant. If and when an attorney called, this supervisor could say plausibly with a straight face that she had made only a positive statement about her past employee: “I don’t think she would steal from you.” But, based on emphasis on a single word, “STEAL,” we learned a whole lot.

There is no word that is thrown around with reckless abandon in business more than “integrity.”

I find it amusing that so many employers list integrity as one of the top qualifications they seek in employees when it is a characteristic that is virtually impossible to gauge. You can’t run a criminal background check and a credit report and arrive with confidence that someone has integrity, but those are the ways that employers verify the qualification they put at the top of their list. That and “gut feeling.”

I understand though. Nothing is more important than integrity. You have to be able to trust that people will tell you the truth, not to steal from you, and to follow laws and established rules and regulations. But its default listing at the top of every job description waters down its meaning and impact.

Do you think people with no integrity avoid those jobs that ask for a “high standard of integrity?” I used to manage advertising campaigns where we tried to push the concept of integrity and we learned in focus groups that the louder you talked about integrity the more likely people were to think that you lacked it.

That has been my personal experience as well. The people who make the biggest deal about integrity are the people you can trust the least. But employers are duped by it. I used to have a boss who talked incessantly about integrity. I used to create presentations and speeches for him about integrity. He would begin with the literal definition of the word, pointing out that the word was derived from the word “integer,” which he said actually meant “efficiency.” He’d then advance the notion that regulation made the marketplace less efficient and, so, increased cost. He then suggested that regulation was a hidden tax and was therefore unethical. And then he’d circle back and wrap it all in ethics and integrity.

The same person had no respect whatsoever for his staff. He lied to us. He ridiculed us. And he generally acted like a horrible human being. But, hey, he talked about integrity all the time, so he must have had it.

I think employers should dig deeper in the interview process to ask questions that reveal someone’s character and their leadership and listen carefully to the answers to determine whether someone has integrity.

And if integrity truly is that important, it has to mean more than telling the truth and following the letter of the law.

Integrity means treating people with dignity and respect. It means keeping promises. It means not perpetuating the rumor mill. And it generally means that you act like a decent human being most of the time.

Integrity means going to bat for a team member when he or she (or they) is in trouble. It means having the humility to admit when you don’t know the answers. It means not talking behind people’s backs. It means putting in an honest day’s work. It means owning your mistakes and having empathy when others admit theirs.

Integrity means having a heart, not just a brain. It means that you never are reckless with decisions that will have real impact on the welfare of your employees. It means having the courage to have tough conversations and doing so in good faith. It means acknowledging and disclosing any ulterior motives.

Integrity is about a thousand other things. So, did I take comfort when I learned that the job candidate I referenced at the outset wouldn’t steal from us? No, that wasn’t nearly enough. We rescinded that offer and I sent her former supervisor an anonymous bouquet of flowers.


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