You may not realize it, but you have a powerful impact on the culture and the moral ecology of our era. If your human resources bosses decide they want to hire a certain sort of person, then young people begin turning themselves into that sort of person.
Therefore, I’m asking you to think about the following principles, this Employer’s Creed. If you follow these principles in your hiring practices, you’ll be sending a signal about what sort of person gets ahead. You may correct some of the perversities at the upper reaches of our meritocracy. You may even help cultivate deeper, fuller human beings.
• Bias hiring decisions against perfectionists. If you work in a white-collar sector that attracts highly educated job applicants, you’ve probably been flooded with resumes from people who are not so much human beings as perfect avatars of success. They got 3.8 grade-point averages in high school and college. They served in the cliche leadership positions on campus. They got all the perfect consultant/investment bank internships. During off-hours they distributed bed nets in Zambia and dug wells in Peru.
When you read these resumes, you have two thoughts. First, this applicant is awesome. Second, there’s something completely flavorless here. This person has followed the cookie-cutter formula for what it means to be successful and you actually have no clue what the person is really like except for a high talent for social conformity. Either they have no desire to chart out an original life course or lack the courage to do so. Shy away from such people.
• Bias hiring decisions toward dualists. The people you want to hire should have achieved some measure of conventional success, but they should have also engaged in some desperate lark that made no sense from a career or social status perspective. Maybe a person left a successful banking job to rescue the family dry-cleaning business in Akron. Maybe another had great grades at a fancy East Coast prep school but went off to a Christian college because she wanted a place to explore her values. These people have done at least one Deeply Unfashionable Thing. Such people have intrinsic motivation, native curiosity and social courage.
• Bias toward truth-tellers. I recently ran into a fellow who hires a lot of people. He said he asks the following question during each interview. “Could you describe a time when you told the truth and it hurt you?” If the interviewee can’t immediately come up with an episode, there may be a problem here.
• Don’t mindlessly favor people with high GPAs. Students who get straight A’s have an ability to prudentially master their passions so they can achieve proficiency across a range of subjects. But you probably want employees who are relentlessly dedicated to one subject. In school, those people often got A’s in subjects they were passionate about but got B’s in subjects that did not arouse their imagination.
• Reward the ripening virtues, not the blooming virtues. Some virtues bloom forth with youth: being intelligent, energetic, curious and pleasant. Some virtues only ripen over time: other-centeredness, having a sense for how events will flow, being able to discern what’s right in the absence of external affirmation. These virtues usually come with experience, after a person has taken time off to raise children, been fired or learned to cope with having a cruel boss. The blooming virtues are great if you are hiring thousands of consultants to churn out reports. For most other jobs, you want the ripening ones, too.
• Reward those who have come by way of sorrow. Job seekers are told to present one linear narrative to the world, one that can easily be read and digested as a series of clean conquests. But if you are stuck in an airport bar with a colleague after a horrible business trip, would you really want to have a drink with a person like that? No, you’d want a real human being, someone who’d experienced setback, suffering and recovery. You’d want someone with obvious holes in his resume, who has learned the lessons that only suffering teaches, and who got back on track.
• Reward cover letter rebels. Job seeking is the second greatest arena of social pretense in modern life — after dating. But some people choose not to spin and exaggerate. They choose not to make each occasion seem more impressive than it really was. You want people who are radically straight, even with superiors.
You could argue that you don’t actually want rich, full personalities for your company. You just want achievement drones who can perform specific tasks. I doubt that’s in your company’s long-term interests. But if you fear leaping out in this way, at least think of the effect you’re having on the deeper sensibilities of the next generation, the kind of souls you are incentivizing and thus fashioning, the legacy you will leave behind.
David Brooks is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.