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Posted on Feb 2, 2018

Why It’s Good To Have A Guilty Conscience

Why It’s Good To Have A Guilty Conscience

“Guilt proneness is an important moral character trait.” — Taya Cohen

If you have a strong guilty conscience you likely have good moral character, which in turn leads to better job performance.

That’s the proposition of Carnegie Mellon professor Taya Cohen, as reported in an interview with strategy+business in How Your Hiring Process Could Predict Unethical Behavior.

This issue also has implications for leaders.

Cohen suggests that guilt proneness is associated with effective leadership. It is the link to a sense of personal responsibility. Or as she likes to refer to it using a quote by Robert Hogan & Robert Kaiser:

“Who we are determines how we lead.”

This is the reason many HR managers screen potential hires for guilt proneness. It’s not only a positive indicator of an ethical employee; it’s also an encouraging gauge of a good leader.

But what happens when a new hire is NOT prone to a having a guilty conscience?

Action tends to be taken only when an employee – or a leader – demonstrates that their moral compass is not aligned with others (the corporate culture). In most organizations, there’s an assumption that everyone is ethical until proven otherwise.

Let me share a personal experience.

My Bad Hire

I remember a new hire I made that went bad rather quickly and I was forced to fire him. The indicator of his moral character – or lack thereof – was clearly evident in our initial interview. But I chose to overlook it because I was in a hurry to fill an open spot, and satisfy a client need (note: a very poor, and costly excuse).

For the sake of this article, we’ll call this fellow Chad.

After passing the first round of filtering through resumes and phone interviews, I met with Chad in person. He appeared to be a great fit for the role, with his past experience mapping well to the job. He also possessed leadership potential, which was the next step I needed to fill.

I was anxious to move the process along, looking for reasons to hire him (vs. looking for reasons he might not be a good fit).

But then there was this odd story that Chad told me, likely trying to impress me that he could be both shrewd and prudent, and would do everything in his power to save the company money (not the top traits I was necessarily looking for).

With great pride, here’s what he told me:

“There was this time I needed a tuxedo for a big event to meet some key people, but I couldn’t afford one. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to meet the people I needed to if I didn’t have a tuxedo. So I borrowed some money and bought one. I then wore it to the event, and then returned it the next day. It didn’t cost me a dime!”

He was beaming with pride, while I looked quizzically trying to comprehend why he would do that. Such behavior was very counter-culture to how we operated in our company. I don’t believe anyone in our organization would ever do this, or even suggest it.

But… I was too focused on finding reasons to hire Chad. So I overlooked this odd story. And hired him.

About a month later, as Chad was walking the halls of our client, connecting with different contacts, he chose to share some sensitive information he had picked up about another department. His purpose in sharing the information was to make himself look good by demonstrating his access to important and timely data.

From Chad’s viewpoint, he was sharing something within the same company, as if it was one big happy family. Well, this was a big company. But it was filled with lots of political minefields, serious competition for limited resources, and active power plays of many would-be executives.

And who were we? We were just a 3rd party vendor.

Well, it will come as no surprise that a senior leader from our client called me and demanded that either Chad be fired or our business relationship would be terminated – immediately. This wasn’t a case of simply crossing a line. Chad had blown it up.

The decision we needed to make was clear.

Surprisingly, when I discussed this situation with Chad, he was completely baffled. No matter how many different ways I tried to explain it, he couldn’t fathom what he did wrong.

That’s when I realized that Chad’s moral compass did not point in the same direction as mine, or our company’s. As Taya Cohen might suggest, he did not posses a guilty conscience.

Today, when considering a potential candidate, I take more time and listen carefully for clues of a healthy conscience.

“Conscientiousness tends to be a very positive trait that helps people avoid unethical behaviors and perform better at their job overall.” — Taya Cohen