How to detect trustworthiness in potential hires

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In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Heidi Grant Halvorson, associate director at Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center, outlined how employers can detect whether new hires are trustworthy during the interview process.

“The most important thing [for candidates] to get across in an interview is not that [they] are smart and motivated – it’s that [they] are trustworthy,” she wrote. “Trustworthiness is the fundamental trait that people – not just interviewers – automatically and unconsciously look for in others. It will make or break you.”

According to Halvorson, there are two key qualities that candidates need to demonstrate to prove that they possess trustworthiness: warmth and competence.

“Warmth signals that you have good intentions toward the perceiver, and competence signals that you can act on those good intentions,” she explained. “A warm and competent interviewee is a valuable potential ally. But a competent interviewee who doesn’t project warmth is a potentially formidable foe – the kind of person who may not be a team player, and who may cause trouble for you down the road.”

Halvorson outlined how two of the most commonly asked interview questions can be used to analyse whether the candidate fits the bill.

“Tell me about yourself.”

“This is a great question for showcasing competence, and most people are only too happy to launch into the why-I’m-so-great speech they’ve been practicing in their bathroom mirrors,” Halvorson said. “But it’s also a great question for sending two powerful signals of warmth: modesty and gratitude.”

She advised employers to be wary of candidates neglecting to mention the mentoring and opportunities that previous employers provided them with.

The ideal candidate will mention “the opportunities that others created for [them] to develop [their] strengths”, and should “talk about how fortunate [they] have been in the help and guidance [they] have received”.

“Why did you leave your last job?”

“Notice how much “I” there is in the answers: I’m looking for new challengesI want to develop myself,” Halvorson said. “What about the people you left behind? Where is your loyalty, your sense of responsibility? (Two key indicators of warmth.)”

If a candidate speaks about how painful or difficult it was for them to leave their colleagues, it indicates that they have a level of warmth to their character.

“If it seems like it was easy for [them] to walk out on [their] last team, [it’s easy to] assume it won’t be hard for [the candidate] to walk away from [you], either,” she said.

When looking for a candidate to demonstrate responsibility, there are two things which Halvorson claims they need to convey: that they are eager for new responsibilities, and that they did not leave anyone in the lurch when they left their old job.

The interviewee’s questions

The interviewee’s questions can also hold the key to their levels of warmth and competence, Halvorson said.
She advised employers to look for three key indicators of warmth in the questions: interest in your organisation, affirmation of their skills and abilities, and empathy.

“For example, they might show interest in the interviewer by asking, “So, how did you come to be [current role] at [company]?” or “What are you currently working on?”” Halvorson said. “The answers might reveal similarities in your background, experience, or goals, or give them the opportunity to express empathy and understanding regarding shared challenges.”

The candidate can also affirm the interviewer by asking, “What advice would you give to someone in [role they’re applying for]?” According to Halvorson, research shows that – counter to our intuitions – asking for advice and admitting what you don’t know demonstrates both warmth and competence.

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