Building Trust and Assessing Integrity as You Interview

Jeff Stump

Establishing trustworthiness early is a fundamental part of the interview process. Nothing else matters if you don’t think you can trust someone. Hopefully, you’ll build trust by way of multiple interviews, references, working sessions, etc. — but how can you get comfortable with someone you are meeting for the first time in the interview process, and vice versa? 

To this end, one fundamental error hiring managers make is being so focused on assessing candidates’ skills that they forget the importance of building trust early in the very first meeting. Often the pushback is, “I’ll build trust once I know I want someone for this role.” My suggestion is to do the opposite: Build trust whether or not you see that candidate in the role.

I recommend building trust early for several reasons:

  • Establishing a foundational level of trust early can allow you to have a more comprehensive and candid conversation with candidates. This should allow for a better assessment of them and a better understanding around how they will fit into your organization and your team.
  • We live in a connected world and people like to talk. When candidates who do not make it to offer still experience trust and comfort in their process with you, the stories they tell about you and your company will strengthen your reputation in the market.
  • Some candidates will pause or slow down a process if they do not come away from a first meeting with a sense of trust or openness. As candidates assess whether they want to work with you, a primary underlying question is whether they think you will have their back as their manager. They want to know that, in addition to focusing on their performance, you will want to help them be successful, advocate for them, give them the benefit of the doubt, be fair, and the like. There should be enough signals in initial meetings to help a candidate begin to answer these questions. If you are too guarded and do not create this foundational level of trust as an interviewer, you risk losing excellent talent before you have a chance to truly assess them.
  • If you are the CEO, candidates will often make assumptions about the culture of the company and your leadership style based on their initial meetings with you. Therefore, as CEO it is even more important for you to create a sense of trust, supportiveness, and comfortability in your initial meetings with candidates. Remember that you are not just representing yourself, but also your vision and the values of the company you lead.

How to build trust in an initial interview

First, it’s important to know that trust is a relational phenomenon (read: “a two-way street”). This means it takes effort from both you and the candidate to create a trusting, open dialogue. It is your job as the interviewer to open that door and create conditions that will allow for such dialogue. Once you have opened the door, you will see how different people respond to that openness. The intent is to provide space for candidates to be more open and to share insights on their experiences, which will allow you to better understand their qualifications for the role.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this is not a way to assess a candidate’s moral compass or integrity – that is an entirely different task. Rather, building trust is about the kind of environment you create during an interview. If you become concerned about a candidate’s level of integrity or their propensity for fraudulent activity, creating a comfortable dialogue with them is increasingly important: Once they feel comfortable and open, you can ask more candid questions and read the candidate better.

Here are a few interview pointers to keep in mind:

  • The first meeting(s) should be all about getting to know someone. A good sign is whether they let go and open up a bit. Either the relationship and trust are established between two individuals or not. If a candidate doesn’t open up, they might be too guarded to ever let you know their real personality. It does take time for most people to shed their prepared interview persona and show more of who they are, but I would consider giving up if this doesn’t happen after two 1-hour interviews.
  • In the first meeting, ask them questions they would not have prepared for and see how they respond when they are thrown off. Do they become more closed off, or open up easily?
  • Most importantly, take every opportunity to share your own experiences and thoughts on these topics. The purpose is to establish rapport while learning about them; being vulnerable yourself will help create a safe space.

One more thing to think about: For some of us, trust needs to be earned before it is given; for others, trust is given until it is broken. Give some thought as to which perspective you have on this, because this is how trust works for you personally. For those of us for whom trust needs to be earned, we should ask questions that will elicit an answer to this question, “How can I build trust with and in this person?” Whereas, for those of us whom trust is potentially lost, a question is, “What does this person — or, indeed, any person — need to do to lose my trust?” With these internal questions, you can then determine the right things to discuss in that interview.*

Here are some sample interview questions that can open the door to understanding a candidate. :

  • Tell me about your childhood. What values do you have from your parents/family or mentors (coaches and teachers)? 
  • What values do you try to instill in your teams?
  • Top teams can be political – why isn’t it based just on merit? How have you found your way to success? What’s your playbook?
  • How do you figure out who to trust and who not to trust? Have you ever been burned? What did you learn? (Get examples. People that value trusted relationships should have answers here.)
  • Which company cultures did you like and which did you not like, and why?
  • Who was your worst boss, and why?
  • Tell me about some of your failures.
  • What life experiences have had the most impact on who you are today?
  • Tell me about a difficult interpersonal situation and how you responded to it.
  • Tell me about when you had an ethical conundrum and how you handled it.
  • How are you most likely misunderstood?

Ideally, you will get a candidate to tell you a story about one of these questions. Listen for a pattern. In order for a personality characteristic to be considered an issue, it must show up multiple times in a person’s life. I like asking about both work and personal life experiences, and I look for the same type of story appearing over and over — usually involving disturbances in their interpersonal relationships.

At the end of this deep-dive, you should have a good sense of how someone values trustworthiness in a relationship. Generally, it’s better to assess through examples than from just asking questions.

How to assess integrity in a candidate

Interviewing for trust is different from interviewing for integrity. The reason is that building trust is a relational phenomena that takes place when meeting/interacting with someone, whereas assessing one’s integrity is an individual phenomena. Whether I feel I can trust you, or not, during a meeting is based on a series of things happening between us that are very specific to that interaction. Whether someone has integrity is not a feeling, but rather a personality trait that an interviewer needs to assess.  

But what is integrity? At the risk of oversimplifying it, integrity is all about keeping your word. You do what you say you are going to do. When teams operate with integrity they become more powerful; provided teams are committed to a shared intent and shared perspectives because they are delivering on their promises.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune of getting to know Chris McGoff, who wrote The Primes – an excellent book that I refer to often. He wrote that 

“integrity is not based on value or morals. It is based on honoring and keeping your word. When people choose to operate in integrity, their words about the future cause the future. People trust them. They reach a level of performance that otherwise would be unattainable.” 

Taking it even further, Chris takes a firm approach to integrity by stating that it is all or nothing: “The rule is that there are no small or big promises; there are only promises. And promises will be kept.” 

I tend to agree with Chris, with one exception being recognition of how hard one works or tries to keep a promise. If a team committed to one another to win a game and everyone competed to literal exhaustion and “left it all on the field,” did they not keep their promises to one another if they lost the game? To what end do you only evaluate only the outcome and ignore the actions taken in an attempt to keep a promise?

When getting to know someone that would be potentially joining your organization, I suggest interviewing them for this demonstrated behavior of integrity. Integrity under any other definition might be difficult to interview for, but it’s a little easier in the context of keeping promises. Some good questions to gauge whether they understand and appreciate what it means to give their word include:

  • When did they say no or really push back on something? Did they ever tell their boss, “I can’t take this on because I can’t see a path to getting it done.”? Some might see this as a negative, but I would see it as someone who takes their word seriously.
  • Ask them when they made a promise that they couldn’t keep. How do they process this? Are they emotionally or otherwise frustrated at the fact that they could not keep their promise, and how did they manage it? 
  • Ask them to follow-up on something discussed in the interview and set some parameters around it. Make sure they understand they are making a promise to follow through. You will get clarity on how they value a promise depending on the outcome. 

I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible people over the years, including the amazing talent team here at a16z. The highest performing teams knew down to the bone what it meant to agree to something . . . to make a promise. Imagine if you were part of a team that signed up for this definition of integrity. I think it is the greatest commitment you can make to your teammates.

* Thanks to Jerry Colonna for his perspective on these internal questions.

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