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The Importance of Character and Experience in Hiring

The following is a quote from the book, From Third World to First, by Lee Quan Yew, prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. The quote refers to his appointment of ministers.

The attrition rate was high because, despite all the psychological tests, we could never accurately assess character, temperament and motivation.

Here at Maritime Law Book we have had the same experience in the hiring of employees.

Marks at school or university, taken alone, are not determinative of an applicant’s likely success in a position such as a legal editor. Character traits are an important indicator or an applicant’s likely success in a job, but character traits are not easily discoverable in a job interview. 

What is character? It is the bundle of mental and ethical traits of an individual. In an employment situation, the traits that may be important include, self-discipline, commitment, industry, diligence, cooperation, flexibility, reliability, perseverance, attention to detail and others.

Character traits may be a permanent part of a person’s nature. According to a saying in China, it is easier to move a mountain than change a person’s nature (Globe and Mail, August 28, 2007). 

In addition, character traits may be a part of our nature that resides in our subconscious. David Brooks in his 2011 book, The Social Animal, asserts that “the unconscious matters most”.

Brooks states that his book deals with “the inner mind – the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms”.

Brooks also states:

The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self. If you want to put the philosophic implications in simple terms, the French Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiments, wins.

Brooks says that “we are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness”.

Professional sport teams encounter a similar hiring problem when they try to assess an athlete’s character in advance of offering the athlete an employment contract.

On another level, decisions about whom to befriend and whom to marry involve important decisions about character.

The required character traits for a particular employment may be demonstrated by an applicant who has had previous experience. At Maritime Law Book we have found that an applicant for an editor’s position is likely to be successful if the applicant has practiced law for ten plus years. The successful practice of law requires the exercise and development of a number of character traits important to us. 

The unconscious may be at work when a legal editor with over 10 years experience reads a judicial decision with the purpose of writing a headnote. The editor may not remember the details of several similar cases that she read long ago but her experience (and her subconscious) enables the editor to classify and describe the issues raised in the case at hand. 

A senior Fredericton lawyer, when referring to lawyer competence, was fond of saying that there is no substitute for 15 years experience.

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