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Achim Preuss

Aon's Assessment Solutions

Head of Global Solutions

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How talent assessments can help to build an ethical corporate culture

Building an ethical business means understanding the motivations and values of your people.

There are 128 companies in the world recognised for exemplifying corporate citizenship and standards of integrity, according to Etisphere. Those on the most ethical list include Capgemini, T-Mobile, Hasbro, LinkedIn and Visa, based on elements like leadership, reputation, culture, corporate citizenship and governance.

Good ethics are proven to make a difference to business performance. Etisphere tracked stock prices of publicly trading companies, finding that the world’s most ethical companies have a stronger financial performance – an impressive 14.4% over five years.

With any hire, it’s important to identify candidates’ values and motivations as a way of understanding risk to ethics platforms.

The advantages don’t stop there, however – other stakeholders, especially employees, respect an employer that shows integrity and growth through improvement. More than ever before, people value meaningful work where they can make a positive impact. They want to work with likeminded people and with leaders who prioritise a vision of social awareness.

For the business, ethical behaviour has a knock-on effect, building employee motivation, engagement and productivity. Indeed, with companies competing for talent, some are building an ethical culture in part to help stand out. It makes sense – whilst markets are saturated and unemployment is at an all-time low, both consumers and job seekers have the luxury of choice, and therefore are more likely to choose a company that has backed an ethical mission.

Ethics and leaders

To maintain an ethical corporate culture, employees need to buy into it at all levels. For HR, that comes down to who you hire, not least at leadership level. No business can thrive if it has insensitive, volatile, manipulative and abusive leaders who ignore the consequences of their actions and use others to their own advantage. That’s bad enough in itself, but it also creates an unpleasant and detrimental culture, setting a poisonous example that can cascade down and affect the entire organisation.

Be warned too – some people may have ‘Dark Triad’ traits, bringing together Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. Astonishingly, studies show that high levels of these traits are evident in CEOs.

Dark personalities

Although each of these is a distinct trait, we all have elements of them in our personality. In 2002, researchers Paulhus and Williams highlighted how these traits can overlap and combine to form a ‘dark personality’. Individuals who score highly in all three of these traits are more likely to engage in deviant or counterproductive behaviour in organisations. These traits are more prevalent in men than women.

Psychopathy is the most malicious of the three, characterised by a lack of empathy, impulsive behaviour, selfishness and an absence of conscience. Those who score highly on this trait are antagonistic, have little regard for the emotions of others and are prone to bullying. Machiavellianism is a willingness to manipulate and exploit others, while focusing on their own agenda. People with this trait can be unprincipled, self-interested and cynical. Narcissism is characterised by entitlement, superiority, pride, disdain for others and self-enhancement. High scorers on this trait are egotists who seek to influence and dominate others through their appearance and charisma.

Understanding risks to ethics platforms

Counterproductive behaviour at any level can come from fraud, corruption, sabotage, betrayal of company confidentiality, theft and destruction of property. It can also include harassment and bullying of colleagues, aggressive or other harmful behaviour, illicit absence or malpractice.

These behaviours can stem from excess pressure, greed, hubris, opportunism, recklessness, boredom or simply from trying to cut corners on quality or maximise short-term returns.

Pressured circumstances can bring out darker sides of individuals and because an individual’s personality is difficult to change, someone with high levels of negative traits will not be easy to coach or train to behave differently.

So with any hire, it’s important to identify candidates’ values and motivations as a way of understanding risk to ethics platforms.

How HR can make an impact

HR should first gauge the level of risk needed for the company’s circumstances – some jobs will require different personality traits, including elements of negative or dark triad ones. It’s important to complete a thorough job analysis and look for opposite traits of integrity, empathy and teamwork capabilities.

Using a range of talent assessments to screen applicants is wise. Use a personality questionnaire, a values questionnaire and a motivation assessment. Choose reputable tests that focus on the job requirements and are not easily faked. The right assessments will measure required competencies, identify any Dark Triad traits and predict whether individuals will suit the role and fit the values of your organisation. The best personality questionnaires will reveal the person-job fit for each individual and will also give you a score for each desired competency.

Employers can select the right people to minimise risks, but to change situations, existing staff may need training and organisations may need to adapt.

Online situational behaviour questionnaires can now more accurately assess a candidate’s integrity, reliability, credibility and the degree to which they’re vulnerable to counterproductive behaviour.

These instruments reveal a candidate’s ethical awareness (are they empathetic, honest and reflective?) and their impulse control (are they disciplined, conscientious and cautious?). If someone scores low on these factors, they’re more susceptible to impulsive behaviour and may have a greater tendency to be distracted or to act irresponsibly. Essentially, it means they’re more likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviour.

Darker traits in interviews

At interview stage, remember that candidates with darker traits will often try to outsmart an interviewer because they think they are superior. These candidates might be charismatic and they may shine in one or two areas of an interview, creating a ‘halo effect’ that can fool an unsuspecting interviewer into appointing them.

To avoid this, hiring managers should be trained to conduct thorough, competency-based interviews that cover all aspects of the role and enable them to keep control of the dialogue. Some personality questionnaires generate an interview guide that provides hiring managers with probing questions that they can ask to check and verify the suitability of each candidate’s competencies and behaviours.

Situational aspects of counterproductive behaviour

Remember too that counterproductive behaviour comes from the interaction between situational aspects and personal attributes. Employers can select the right people to minimise risks, but to change situations, existing staff may need training and organisations may need to adapt.

In summary, whether a company’s ethical platform centres on giving back to the community, minimising environmental impact, ensuring employees become the best ambassadors or ensuring fair supply chains, selecting the right employee fit in terms of corporate values and motivation is a key challenge. By understanding a candidate’s motivations and values, it is possible to assess the cultural fit between a person, a company, department and team.

Interested in this topic? Read Five talent management trends to watch in 2020.

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Achim Preuss

Head of Global Solutions

Read more from Achim Preuss

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