The right kind of person

A policy of hiring 'people like us' makes a firm sound snobbish and prejudiced. Wouldn't the old-fashioned notion of 'character' serve us better?

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If you really want to shred someone's reputation, at least in the leafy Home Counties, all you need do is put it about that they are not 'PLU': People Like Us. This of course is ghastly, exclusive snobbery in which none of us right-thinking, MT-reading types would indulge. But it is now standard rhetoric in corporate circles to stress the importance of hiring 'the right kind of person' and the need for recruits to 'fit in with the company's culture'. At a recent event on service standards, one business leader said: 'You can provide people with the right skills, but you can't provide them with the right attitude and personality: they have to bring those with them.'

So decades of verbiage about equal opportunity is now being openly replaced with a 'PLU policy'. On the face of it, there is much to be said for the new honesty. As Sir Rocco Forte put it many years ago, the secret of great service is 'hiring nice people'. To his correct appreciation of niceness we might add trustworthiness, a strong work ethic, high standards, ambition, honesty, sociability and energy. Given that so much of work now consists of dealing with others - some say the amount of human interaction in the workplace has doubled in the past decade - the desire to hire the 'right kind of person' is sensible and understandable.

But these attributes are difficult to bring to light through formal job application procedures. References are notoriously inaccurate: and many people can fake all these characteristics for the duration of an interview. This is the main reason personal recommendations are becoming much more important and why networks are replacing job ads in many hiring processes. 'I know a man - or woman - who can' is the order of the day.

The bundle of qualities under discussion - respect, manners, discipline and integrity - are what would once have been easily slotted under the heading of 'character'. Nowadays, the word has lost some of its force. When we say 'Fred is a bit of character', what we mean is that, at best, Fred is agreeably, mildly eccentric or, at worst, that he is stark staring bonkers. To say that someone has 'good character' or 'bad character' sounds judgmental to our 21st-century ears - although the alternative 'personality' makes as many judgments.

An exception to this rule is Richard Sennett, the quasi-anarchist professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, whose most recent books, Respect: The formation of character in an age of inequality and The Corrosion of Character: Personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, have looked honestly at the kind of people that modern society is creating (mostly, he doesn't like what he sees).

As Sennett shows, there is good and abundant evidence that the kind of person we are is hugely influenced by a mixture of genetics and our experience in the first few years of life: the idea, for example, of a 'criminal personality' is now discussed in a way that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. On the other side of the coin, the literature of wellbeing suggests that about half of a person's 'natural' level of happiness is set by the age of five or so. Whether we are happy or a hoodlum is hard-wired into us. The education and social outcomes of our children are increasingly influenced by non-academic skills and attributes, such as self-control, self-esteem and the ability to defer gratification (why revise for an exam when you can go to a party?).

Given all this, firms are right to look for persons of 'good character', even if they use other words to say so. But there are also dangers in the character chase. For one thing, recruiters may make the mistake of attaching certain character traits to particular groups of people: women are weak, blacks are lazy, Asians are workaholic, the Welsh are annoying, or whatever. When this happens, firms are in danger of hiring PLU not in the sense of particular attributes, but PLU in terms of class, age, race and gender - not the same thing at all.

The second danger, captured in the sentiment that 'you can't train character', is that firms fail to recognise their own role in shaping people's attitudes and attributes. It's true that by the time we are in the labour market, large chunks of our character are set - but by no means all of it. Research suggests that firms with trusting cultures create trustworthy workers - and that their heightened levels of trustworthiness stay with them even when they move on to a new workplace.

Workplace cultures are not just the sum of the characters within it: firms have a character too and it shapes as well as reflects the people within it. This is true of happiness, as Ann Bartel and colleagues find in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper (www.nber.org/papers/w9987). 'There are happy and unhappy workplaces, as well as happy and unhappy workers,' they say, 'with very different patterns of turnover and productivity in these workplaces.'

It is hard to imagine, but even economists used to see their work as being, in the end, about character. Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), one of the leading lights of free-market economic theory, said that one of the functions of economics was to examine 'whether the desires which prevail are such as will help to build up a strong, a righteous character'. The idea of character was assassinated by woolly 20th-century liberalism: maybe it is time for an exhumation.

Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk

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