3 Things You Should Look For in Employees

what to look for in employees

I’ve often been asked what I look for in employees — not an unusual question.

The answer could get long and drawn out, too. I’ve dealt with hundreds of employees over the years I’ve run my business and, if asked, I can say a lot about it.  What I’m looking for in an employee boils down to these three things:

1. Tell Me the Truth — Always — And Fast

Standard boss-employee relationships are (unfortunately) conducive to people telling me what they think I want to hear instead of the truth. It starts early, during the job interview. You think you’re supposed to impress me with all the right answers. I’m just trying to figure out whether your aptitudes and likes match up with what I need to have done. Maybe when you’re unemployed, you’re so desperate to get a job you’re willing to say or do almost anything, but trust me. That doesn’t help either of us.

This problem runs deep, too. Ask any recruiter, any job seeker, or any placement “expert,” whether in HR or the boss’s chair of their own company. Smoke screens are so common now that the hottest topics at career sources or job boards are either how to make them work for you or how to cut through them!

It’s no surprise that your hesitation about the supposed right answers screws up working together day-to-day, too. It leads to half-truths like, “I called and got voicemail” or “I sent an email,” when actually you forgot about it and you’re hoping to buy time with a white lie.  I also hate hearing, “It can’t be done” when, in reality, you haven’t even tried to figure it out.

I don’t want an employee to fear me. I want you to trust me with the truth. If you screwed up something, or you’re late, or you forgot, then, sure, that’s bad … but it’s worse to compound that error by not trusting me.  I want to collaborate with you to solve the problem, so don’t try to manage me.

Most important … I want bad news FAST.  The absolute worst communication blunder in boss-worker relationships is trying to hide or delay bad news. We can’t fix what we don’t know is broke, so “swallow the toad” and get it over with.

2. Own the Job

“Owning” can be a useless buzzword unless we understand what it means here — and that is, that you care.  When your function isn’t working right, I want that to hurt. When it is going well, I want that to feel good. This means instead of managing you every step of the way, I want your results to speak for themselves. If you own your job, then when your results are bad:

  • You’re aware of it
  • You’re figuring out what’s going wrong and what it takes to fix it, and
  • You’re coming to me asking for help, input, resources, or collaboration.

Note: Making excuses is NOT owning the job. My first boss, some 40 years back, made that point clear: “Don’t come back tomorrow with a reason for this not being done,” he said. “I don’t care the reason. If it isn’t done, don’t come back.”

Harsh? Maybe. Blunt? Definitely. Effective? Without a doubt.

To paraphrase that time-honored business expert, Yoda, “Do. Or do not. There is no excuse.”

There’s a reason “The dog ate my homework” didn’t fly with your English teacher. It’s because it doesn’t fly in the real world, either. And one of the most agonizing boss-employee snafus comes about if employees ever get the notion that presenting an excuse for not doing the work is as good as having the work done. News flash: it’s not.

On the other hand…

I love it when an employee owns the job enough to defend it, campaign for more resources and enhance it. To me, the ideal collaboration is like an orchestra or band leader with an individual player. I conduct the operation but you play your own instrument yourself. I own the baseball team. It’s your job to be a great infielder.

When that kind of partnership happens, you win, I win, and the company wins.

3. Compatible Goals

What does “compatible” really mean? It’s not a synonym for “identical” because no two human beings have identical goals. But if your goals match what the company needs, and if your career growth matches my description of your job, we’re golden.

It means that the job with me is good for you, too — at least for long enough to make hiring you worth my time and money!

Working for me has to be good for you. If it isn’t, our goals simply don’t mesh. You’re not right for me, and what I’m offering isn’t right for you. Trying to force things at that point is a lose-lose.

And that doesn’t just apply to today and next week, either. If you outgrow your job, good for you — and if I don’t find a way to help you grow on my team, bad for me. I won’t prevent you from leaving if my company doesn’t give you the path you want and deserve. In fact, I’ll do what I can to help you move on, and wish you well.

Looking in the Mirror

Of course, there’s a flip side to all these points, too. As the employer, I can screw this up as badly as my employees can.

  • If I respond to the “straight scoop” badly by generating guilt or fear, casting blame, or failing to help you, then I can’t fault you for not giving me the truth.
  • If I micromanage or second-guess your performance, then you can’t really own your job. You’ll know when this is happening if you find yourself asking me about every little detail rather than having initiative. That’s on me, not you.
  • And if I’m not clear with myself on my own goals, then I can’t blame you for yours being incompatible.

Funny how this boss-worker stuff goes both ways!

High-Five Photo via Shutterstock

Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.