Guest Article from Nathan Fisher, Managing Director, Fisher Investments 401(k) Solutions.

Recently I was at our Camas, Wash. office. After a long day of work, I went to the very full parking lot to find my rental car, and found a note on the windshield.

Funny post-it note

An employee of Fisher Investments, Emily, bumped my rental and left only a small scuff. It wasn’t much damage, and there’s no way she could have known whose car she hit. Nevertheless, she took full responsibility. When nobody was watching, she took the time to write the note and to do the right thing.

Once you’ve made a hire, be sure to incorporate an ongoing review of ethical integrity into your normal review process.

As I’ve reflected on this experience with Emily, her integrity really stood out to me as important, especially as a manager. When you build a business, you pour in your heart and your soul and your time and your energy, but you can’t do it all. So you build systems and processes and incentives to hire good people, to encourage them to do good work, and to make ethical choices.

Ultimately, you can’t make an employee do the right thing, you can only encourage it. So how do you find people like Emily who just want to do the right thing, and how do you cultivate a culture that is built on integrity?

Warren Buffett’s Thoughts on Integrity

When I think about integrity and how crucial it is in a good hire, I reflect on Warren Buffett’s words about the qualities he seeks in his employees. Buffett says, “You’re looking for three things, generally, in a person: intelligence, energy and integrity. And if they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two.” I tend to agree with Mr. Buffett. In business, there’s always going to be someone with the intelligence and energya Bernie Madoff, for exampleto take advantage of others for their own benefit.

Intelligence, energy, integrity

While you can’t always tell about your employees’ sense of ethics, I’d argue that managers who are in tune with their business will be able to tell when something isn’t right with a member of their team. Buffett uses a simple test to decide whether or not he’s comfortable with the integrity of his employees: If the New York Times were to tomorrow publish a tell-all about a given employee’s service to his company, would he be comfortable with the public reading it? His clients? If not, there may be a problem.

Searching business info

Looking for Ethics in the Interview and Beyond

Of course, you don’t have to wait for warning signs to emerge in order to begin thinking about the integrity of your staff. Ethics should be front of mind starting with the first interview. Talent management experts Rework shared an interesting ethical test for a prospective hire that has stuck with me: During the interview, ask the prospect if they would be willing to tell a client a white lie in order to help the company out of a tough situation. If the answer is yes, then you can’t be sure about how honest they’ll be in any situation.

Unfortunately, there might not be much more a manager can do before a hire is made to test a prospect’s ethics. This is why it’s so important to be thorough in requesting and consulting references; don’t just confirm resume details and skills, but use those conversations as opportunities to ask probing questions about your prospect’s moral fiber.

Ultimately, you can’t make an employee do the right thing, you can only encourage it.

Once you’ve made a hire, be sure to incorporate an ongoing review of ethical integrity into your normal review process. In the same article about hiring for integrity, Rework also recommended asking prospects about their greatest successes, the idea being that how that person shares credit or blame with others says a lot about their ability to work on a team towards a greater good. I think this is a tactic that’s maybe even more useful later in your relationship with an employee. Ask about successes and failures since your last review, and pay attention to how much credit they give themselves, and how much they share.

When an employee like Emily proactively admits a mistake, consider whether you should react to the mistake or their integrity. Opportunities to do the right thing like Emily did might not come to light for every employee, but they’ll surely come. What happens when you aren’t there is what will determine the growth and success of your business. I know that my team is going to make ethical choices for their coworkers, for our clients, and for my business. Will yours?