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For millennia, the nature and structure of human character has long been studied, debated, and questioned, representing one of the most complex issues that we face as a civilisation. Competing theories attempt to explain why we behave the way we do, and academic research brings us closer and closer to understanding humankind’s true nature. The field of occupational and organisational psychology represents one of the more practical applications of this research, especially when it comes to hiring.

Although all organisations wish to hire the best possible employees, they may be unsure what to look for when hiring. This is understandable, giving the complexity of the empirical evidence in this field. As a result, the objective of this article is to outline the five most important qualities to look for when hiring an employee, based on the best available research evidence:

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Cognitive Ability

When it comes to predicting real-world job-performance, especially the more task-focused aspects of the role, cognitive ability is king. Cognitive ability can be described as “the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”, and is thus essential to learning and problem solving in the workplace. It is especially important in professional, technical, or managerial work, which involves a high degree of cognitive complexity.

Cognitive ability is measured using aptitude tests, which usually include verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, and inductive (logical) reasoning tests. These three tests combined will provide an overall measure of general cognitive ability, which is more useful for predicting quality of hire than any specific aptitude individually.

Overall, this makes ability tests the most useful tools, and it makes cognitive ability the most important individual quality to look for when hiring.

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Conscientiousness is a major personality trait which underpins how focused, diligent, dutiful and thorough, people are. Conscientiousness is perhaps the most studied personality trait in occupational psychology, and has the strongest evidence base for use in making hiring decisions. Often, employers include “Work Ethic” and “ Attention to detail” in their hiring criteria, and both of these constructs are well captured by the personality trait of conscientiousness. So when looking for qualities of a productive employee, conscientiousness is the trait to focus on.

Conscientiousness like most personality traits are best measured using personality questionnaires, especially those which are designed in line with the Big 5 Model of Personality. This allows organisations to measure conscientiousness directly, as conscientiousness is not effectively measured using employment interviews.

Moreover, it also allows organisations to measure this construct scalably, as personality questionnaires are typically completed online and administration is easily automated.

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Resilience has major implications for both performance and wellbeing in the workplace, making it a common hiring criteria. Resilience allows employees to cope with stress and pressure, serving as a bulwark against burnout and stress related illness. It also ensures that employees remain focused and energetic in the face of obstacles or setbacks, stopping them from giving up or losing hope. Resilience is particularly important in high-pressure roles, such as management, sales, or customer-service professions. Read our article on why resilience is important in the workplace.

Resilience is underpinned by a number of personality traits, such as emotional stability, neuroticism, positive / negative affect, and the core-self evaluations. Unlike other qualities to look for when hiring employees, employers have an ethical duty to ensure that future employees have the required resilience for the role, otherwise they will be knowingly putting hires at undue risk of burnout and stress related illness.

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Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to recognise, understand, and interpret the emotions both of other people and within themselves. It has huge implications for both interpersonal interaction, and for the internal regulation of emotions. This means that highly emotionally intelligent employees will work better with their colleagues, customers, stakeholders, and managers, helping to avoid conflict and build strong relationships. It also allows employees to track their own emotions, avoiding emotional outbursts or counterproductive emotionality.

Although emotional intelligence does have an interpersonal component, it is not well measured using an interview. Instead, personality questionnaires are required to measure emotional intelligence, and indeed, will require a specific emotional intelligence scale. Similarly, assessments designed to measure emotional intelligence alone will be useful, providing a deeper dive into this particular quality. Find out why emotional intelligence is important in the workplace.

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Industriousness is a person’s level of drive, motivation, and tenacity when striving towards achievement. Industriousness is closely aligned to conscientiousness, as they both underpin a person’s work-ethic, but conscientiousness is more related to being organised, whereas industriousness is more about motivational drive. It is an essential hiring criterion in any role which involves goals, targets, quotas, or measurable performance outcomes.

Industriousness is best measured using a personality questionnaire, as interviews will inevitably yield inaccurate or even deceptive results. Naturally, a highly skilled interviewee could convince an interviewer that they are driven and motivated, but in reality this quality isn’t measurable using an interview. Instead, a valid and reliable personality questionnaire is required, and will result in the best quality of hire.

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Although employers commonly ask which qualities to look for when hiring employees, this question has largely been answered by the academic research. Overall, they want employees who are smart, resilient, and emotionally intelligent and have a great work ethic. Although other qualities will also play a role, especially in certain roles which require a specific behavioural or skill profile, these five qualities are likely to yield the best results, and will be useful in virtually every role.

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