By Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy®
Distracted employees can create headaches for you as a compliance or ethics officer, because distractions can give rise to costly ethical problems. Mindfulness, focus, or what I’ll call presence is the tenth quality of high-character employees that we’ll discuss in this 10-part series, How to Hire High-Character People.
Unless a job candidate is fiddling with his or her smartphone throughout the interview, however, determining the candidate’s commitment to being present is tough but not impossible. The following questions may provide some guidance.
Tell me about a time when you were distracted at work and dealt with the distraction successfully.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero, Odysseus, tells the crew of his ship that they’re about to sail by a group of dangerous women known as the Sirens, whose beautiful music lures unsuspecting sailors to their deaths. Odysseus orders his crew to put beeswax in their ears, tie him to the mast of the ship, and keep him tied there, no matter how much he begs them to let him go. Odysseus’s novel method for protecting himself and his crew from the deadly allure of the Sirens is successful.
This scene is the best illustration I know of the potential dangers of allowing our passions to take us off course. There are lots of responses to this first question that would reveal the candidate’s commitment to being present that don’t necessarily involve earplugs (though those may indeed be the solution if the distraction is construction work outside the office or noisy coworkers inside).
A modern-day way to avoid distractions that Odysseus would approve of is software that blocks access to distracting websites. I use an application called Freedom. (This is not product placement; it’s just an app I discovered years ago and like.) You determine how much uninterrupted time you want on your computer or smartphone, hit “enter,” and then the app thwarts your urge to check your Facebook page, Twitter feed, or email inbox during that period of time. A job candidate who talks about using such software is someone who takes his or her work seriously, understands how disruptive distractions can be, and does what it takes to be fully present.
Others use yoga or meditation to help them develop focus. Sometimes, however, disturbances come from without rather than within—overly chatty coworkers, needy bosses or direct reports, or office noise, for example—and earplugs aren’t a practical solution. If an applicant responds that a problem with a colleague or family member posed a distraction, I’d hope to hear something along the lines of, “I spent some time talking with that person and eventually worked through the problem.” Imagine that — going right to the source of the distraction and resolving it directly.
Do you expect your direct reports to have business conversations on the phone while they’re driving?
This question helps the interviewer learn two things about the job candidate: how he or she feels about smartphones and driving, and how committed the candidate is to allowing team members to have a boundary between professional and personal life.
A study by the National Safety Council showed that 80 percent of Americans believe that driving while using a hands-free device for calling is safe. But even these devices increase the risk of an accident, according to research by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The distraction that causes the problem isn’t just the conversation itself but all of the activities that go along with receiving or placing the call. Texting while driving involves taking one’s eyes off the road, which is why an increasing number of states have laws banning this practice, but it turns out that even the use of hands-free devices is potentially deadly.
Until safe self-driving cars become a reality, smart employers will not allow their employees to accept or make phone calls while driving, even with hands-free devices. Employers who want to be considered fair will recognize that there is a time and a place for having phone conversations and will give their employees what is due to them: the freedom to get from A to B without increasing the risk of harm to anyone. Taking business calls while driving is irresponsible. High-character managers will not expect employees to do this, and employees who value their lives and the lives of other drivers will not do it either.
Talk about a time when you didn’t listen well or pay attention at work. What were the consequences?
Like some of the questions in previous blog posts, this may be hard to answer on the spot. For one thing, we don’t like to dwell on our failures. And if you’re not paying attention or listening to someone, how can you know what you missed? After all, your mind was somewhere else.
The point of the question, though, is to find out how the candidate dealt with a situation where he or she should have been present but wasn’t, and that’s something everyone can relate to. For example, when I was working on my previous book, I took a break from writing about presence to do the dishes. But I was thinking about something else when I was putting an item aside to dry, and I knocked over a container that was sitting on the stove. The lid flew into the air and landed behind the oven.
What could have been a pleasant few minutes away from my computer screen turned into a wild goose chase, frantic texts to my wife, and far too much time devoted to recovering the lost gizmo (although I wound up with a great anecdote for this blog post). I learned that even the high-minded pursuit of writing about presence doesn’t mean much unless the writer puts those ideas into action, and that it’s valuable to focus and be mindful even when doing something as mundane as cleaning.
This essay, adapted from my latest book, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees, is the final entry in a series of ten blog posts called “How to Hire High-character People.” The previous nine were How to Hire Honest People, How to Hire Accountable People, How to Hire Caring People, How to Hire Courageous People, How to Hire Fair People, How to Hire Grateful People, How to Hire Humble People, How to Hire Loyal People, and How to Hire Patient People.
Stay tuned for my next 10-part series for the SCCE blog, “What is a High-Character Employee?”
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Dr. Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy®, works with organizations that want to do the right thing every time and that recognize that the key to their success is the high character of their employees. Download a summary of his presentations here. Watch excerpts from his keynote speeches here. Book him to speak or present a webinar to your organization here.