Why (and How) to Hire Candidates Who Are Forgiving

Let’s be honest. Your company and its leaders are going to make mistakes. Your executives will initiate an ill-considered change effort, managers will fail to recognize a star employee, or HR will fail to enforce a policy. Regardless of the particulars, even the most brilliant and well-intentioned companies and leaders are going to make errors.

The real question isn’t whether you can avoid all mistakes, but rather whether you’ve got employees who are willing and able to forgive those mistakes.

Forgiving others isn’t about being a patsy and allowing transgressors to walk all over you. Instead, forgiving others involves taking your anger, remorse, and resentment and bringing those negative thoughts to at least a neutral (and maybe even into a positive) realm. It means you’re less likely to seek retribution and let negative thoughts consume you.  

On a practical level, if you’re spending your days ruminating about your pent-up resentment, it’s tough to be motivated, productive, and open to new and positive experiences. And there’s now data to back that up.

Leadership IQ’s latest study, “The Links Between Self Forgiveness, Forgiving Others, and Employee Engagement,” discovered that people who can forgive others are 64% more likely to recommend their company as a great organization to work for. And they’re 42% more likely to be motivated to give 100% effort at work. 

Now, while forgiveness is an incredibly valuable attribute, the study found that only 12% of employees were exhibiting it at a high level. So when you’re hiring new employees, it’s important that you have a way to determine quickly if candidates are adept at forgiveness. 

Spotting the Unforgiving

One of the fastest ways to assess whether your candidates are particularly forgiving is to ask them to describe a time when someone did something harmful to them. A nuanced way to ask this is, “Could you tell me about a time your idea or opinion was rejected?”

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This interview question is intentionally so open-ended that it forces candidates to reveal their underlying feelings about the people who rejected their ideas or opinions. For instance, here are two real-life answers that candidates have given to this question. See if you can spot the differences:

Candidate A: “My former group was in a rut. I suggested to my boss a few solutions — for example, diversifying our client-base, emphasizing solving difficult problems rather than being “executive secretaries,” and changing the mindset that the boss was the authoritarian figure by giving the employee more responsibility. All of my ideas were rejected. Sadly, it took me a long time to realize I couldn’t change the machinery. Nothing can ever change for the better when micro-managers run the show. You see, I didn’t want to solve the problem by avoiding work or being lazy…my boss often accused us all of being lazy. But, with all of my suggestions, it meant he had to do ‘something’ or give up ‘something.’ He wasn’t willing. The issue wasn’t an ‘employee problem’; it was a ‘management problem.’ It is hard to thrive when management is set in their ways with no compunction to change.” 

Candidate B: “I was the task lead for the alpha project until we onboarded a newer employee who took over as task lead. She and I had different management ideas, and some of the workflow management and quality assurance controls I helped build were retrograded. However, the new task lead was open to discussion and just had a different philosophy than I did. We were both willing to put in the time required to make the old processes work. We worked together very well, and I supported her process because, at the end of the day, we all needed to work together to build a great product.” 

Did you spot the differences? Notice how Candidate A’s response goes quickly from “a time when” to a full-blown attack on a former manager. We hear elements of bitterness and blame that are the opposite of forgiveness. This sounds like someone who holds a grudge and who may be difficult to manage.

By contrast, Candidate B expresses a genuine willingness to collaborate and shows an ability to set aside ego in order to forgive and work toward the greater good of the organization. This person doesn’t hold onto resentment or focus on problems. Instead, we hear positive and forward-looking language that sounds like it belongs to a solution-oriented person with an optimistic mindset.

Lest you think forgiveness isn’t all that important in your next round of hiring, the study ”Why New Hires Fail” discovered that attitude is more predictive of hiring failures than skills. And given the stressors and transgressions rampant in today’s workplace, hiring someone with a dose of forgiveness is a fast way to increase employee engagement while you work to eliminate those stressors and transgressions.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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