Hiring For Resilience

by Jon Lewis

Think for a moment about the most critical traits that an employer should look for in new employees. What words first come to mind? Maybe some of these: Intelligence? Diligence? Polished? Good communicator? Takes initiative? Works well both independently and with others?

All good answers, to be sure. But there is another important word I bet you didn’t think of: Resilience. The ability to handle and bounce back quickly from adversity is an often under-appreciated, but significant, characteristic to seek in potential new hires.

At the outset, it is worth noting the obvious—whether in the legal profession or any other, one thing is almost always certain, even for the best of us: do the job long enough and eventually something is going to go very wrong, for any of a variety of reasons. Unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances crop up; co-workers don’t click with each other professionally; simple mistakes get made, etc. Whatever the reason, very few people are fortunate enough to pursue a lengthy career without a major problem arising at some point. So how can an employer attempt to address that fact when considering potential new hires?

It is clearly unrealistic in the extreme for employers to hope that they can somehow find one of those charmed few who might manage to skate through a problem-free career. Instead, employers should attempt to hire employees who have demonstrated the resilience to successfully overcome the kind of obstacles that will almost inevitably present themselves at some point. While that may sound apparent, in my experience many employers in fact seem to pay too little attention to resilience as a must-have personality trait. I believe there are several reasons for this. First, since there is no standard/objective measuring stick (as in the case of, say, law school rank or GPA), a candidate’s resiliency or lack thereof can be relatively more difficult to assess. Second, when going through the hiring process, there is an understandable tendency to focus more on the job that needs to get done every day under normal circumstances rather than on what might happen on the hopefully much rarer occasions when things go off the rails. Neither employers nor candidates find it particularly comfortable to dwell on the question of how people might react/what might happen if a major problem requiring true resilience were to arise, and as a result, too little consideration may be paid to such a potential scenario. Finally, some employers may not give sufficient thought to the link that exists between a resilient workforce and employee retention rates. Employees who lack resilience are more likely to be those who start looking for a new job when the going gets tough rather than sticking around to work things out. Since employee turnover imposes very significant costs, many employers would be well-advised to pay greater attention to candidate resilience when making their hiring decisions. Hiring even otherwise terrific candidates is of limited value if they don’t stay long.

Given the above, how can employers go about better assessing a candidate’s level of resilience? The following are some steps that can be taken at three different stages of the hiring process:

  • The Resume: Where a candidate’s resume shows a stable employment history with lengthy job tenures and few changes, this is usually a positive sign with respect to that candidate’s resilience. Presumably such a candidate has faced his or her share of issues in the few positions they have held and managed to persevere through same. (This is not to say that otherwise qualified candidates who may already have made a number of moves should be dismissed from consideration; there may be reasons for such moves having nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of resilience or other important traits.)
  • The Interview: When interviewing a candidate, ask for an example of a situation in which he or she demonstrated his or her resilience, such as “Tell me about a significant problem you had in your last job and how you went about solving it” or “Tell me about an unsolvable problem you had to address and how you dealt with that situation.”
  • The Reference Check: When speaking with references, ask specifically whether the candidate is someone who they have found to be able to handle difficult problems efficiently/effectively, and ask for an example of such capability.