How to Determine the Core Values of Your Candidates

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote that “Principles are guidelines for human conduct that are proven to have enduring, permanent value.” Humanity’s progress and sophistication has been fueled by our drive to establish common ethics and identify our personal values. In a sense, our values help us define who we are and who we will become – as well as who others are, and who they will become.  


The Paradox of Finding Common Virtues 

We intuitively know the importance of aligning the values of our partners, families, friends, and communities with our own, knowing how crucial this is to our overall success and happiness. Yet, it seems that we’re not very good at doing this whole “judging values” thing. One 2016  study showed, to the researchers’ surprise, that “not only do people believe the values of others are more visible than they really are, but likewise their own values are more visible to others than they really are.” In other words, we assume we can easily read people’s values, and we also assume other people can easily read our values too – but we’re actually not as great at it as we think we are. This makes sense when we look back at all the times when we formed relationships that didn’t turn out the way we expected; we’ve all faced that uncomfortable experience when a person who you thought was “just like you” is really not like you at all… and we usually realize it too late. Think of the classic examples:  

  • The frustration with a roommate… after you realize they haven’t done any chores, and you’re only 2 weeks into the lease.Why don’t they value cleanliness?! 
  • The awkward obligation to wave to your new neighbor… who doesn’t seem to know what a stop sign is. Why don’t they value following rules?! 
  • The headache of going to your in-law’s house… after they forgot your birthday for the 3rd year in a row. Why don’t they value showing some courtesy?! 
  • The dread of staying through the next half of a date…after they tried to convince you they fought a lion with their bare hands. Why don’t they value honesty… or at least, value telling a believable lie?! 

 We’ve all been there, and in the end, we’re usually left wondering, “Why don’t they value ‘x’ as much as I do?” 


Seizing the Golden Opportunity  

While we can’t predict every value-misalignment in our lives, we can make a more conscious effort to align the values of candidates with our team. The intricate process of screening and interviewing candidates is a perfect time to truly figure out what their core principles are in order to optimize alignment, so that they, and your team, can be their happiest selves. A 2008 study explored the impact of personal values on one’s work experience and concluded that “since personal values of individuals influence their perceptions and evaluations of environmental attributes, organizations must include ‘measurement of values’ as part of their screening process.” By strategically investigating the value-alignment of the candidate and team, we are able to catalyze the team’s success, and to avoid the “uh-oh… this might not work” moment down the line – for both your team, and the candidate. 

 Now, before jumping into the interview process and asking your candidate what their values are, there is a very important first step we need to take… we must take our time to establish what your team and company’s values are. It sounds basic, but don’t gloss over this part! This will be critical to analyze the answers your candidate gives you during the interview. Plus, the truth is, candidates will be trying to judge your values as much as you try to judge theirs, so we want to make sure that the values we’re aiming to “judge” are truly relevant. For your interview pre-work, here are a couple of things to determine first: 

  •  What you’re trying to figure out about the candidateAre their values radically different than ours to the point where it may inhibit their success, or our success? Are their values going to guide us, and them, toward a future that’s attractive for us all? Do we have the means and the desire to help create an environment that fit their personal values? Remember, our values are tied to our identity, so be careful not to neglect this. A candidate who values “frequent communication” may sound awesome in the interview, but you have to be willing and ready to incorporate that into the team’s value set, or else there will be a cultural mismatch that could make the potential new hire, and the current team, uncomfortable or stressed over time. 
  • What your values are. Remember that it’s important to first establish what your organization’s values are, and also the values of the specific team that the candidate would be working with. It’s not about picking values that “sound nice,” but really considering what makes your team who they are, as well as the values that they use to guide their future decisions. It’s also recommended that you first ask your team members the same questions you’ll ask the candidate about their values, so you may compare the answers. Try not to go “shopping” for values to define your team, it’s about choosing real, sincere values that your team consistently lives by and believes in. 
  • How you’ll market those values to candidates. Don’t go too vague, or too picky, on the job description when it comes to which personal values you’re expecting from the candidate. Aim for three solid values that have built the foundation of the team to put on the job description. An example may be: Pride in work, Sense of humor, and Compassion. The goal is not to “virtue signal” on the job description, but to attract those who feel drawn to an organization that lives those values. 


The Interview: Mining for Principles 

Once you have a good idea of what you’d like to know about the candidate’s values, as well as what the team’s values are, we can then ask the candidate questions in order to investigate their principles. Keep in mind, they may have other values which you and the team haven’t implemented that may actually be beneficial to the team – keep an open mind and look out for those. 

 Questions to ask candidates (as well as your team members) 

  •  Describe your worst-possible workday. Have them use their imagination or recent experiences. Once they answer this, truthfully ask yourself, “Does their worst workday sound like a typical day here?” You can also flip the question and ask what their ideal workday would look like, however, the ‘negative’ nature of this question may help the candidate express why they’re leaving their current workplace. 
  • If you were to develop a measurement for an employee review for “people skills,” what would be some of the people skills you’d measure people on? This can help the candidate express what social skills they value. 
  • Finish the sentence: “It frustrates me when people ______.” The nature of the question is similar to the one listed above. However, this one is more likely to elicit stronger feelings. Ask the candidate to provide an example or story about their answer. 
  • What are 3 life lessons you learned (or were taught) early on that you’ll always take with you? Figure out how their values were shaped. These are the values they likely use to define “who they are” because they have likely incorporated these into their sense of identity for a long time. 
  • Even on your most stressful days, what’s one thing your team can always expect from you? How does the candidate see themselves? How do others likely judge their character and values? 

Make sure to give your candidate some time to think about their answer to these questions, and probe deeper into their answers. Most importantly, add your own questions! Get creative and ask for ideas from the team members that would be working closest with the candidate. At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as “too much preparation” – you’ll be glad you took the time to learn about your team’s values, and to be sure you made the right hiring decision.