a young woman interviewing for a position
Photos by Getty Images

Should You Hire for Attitude or Skill?

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: I've heard that I should "hire for attitude, train for skill," but doesn't the new hire need to have the skills to do the job, plus the right attitude?

A: If you've ever flown Southwest Airlines, you've experienced this theory in practice firsthand. Southwest's policy is to "hire for attitude, train for skill" except—and they're very clear about this—for pilots and mechanics. Otherwise, the company's goal is to hire people who don't take themselves too seriously.

I know it's easier to determine whether an applicant has the skills required for the job. You ask them to demonstrate their skill in a particular area. You question their references about their particular talents. It's not as easy to determine whether a person has the attitude you need, but it's doable.

Start by looking at your current staff and analyzing the attributes of your most successful employees. What do they have in common? You may discover that people who have a great sense of humor are successful, or people who are good team players make your department more efficient.

Once you know what you're looking for, keep in mind that job applicants are usually pretty good at telling you what they think you want to hear in an interview. If you tell them that this job requires them to work on a team, they will share stories of how great they are at teamwork. So, you need to ask the right questions.

Develop some targeted questions that will get you the information you need. For example, if your job requires someone to take risks, you might ask, "Can you tell me about a time when you tried something new and there was no guarantee of success?"

Look at your current staff and analyze the attributes of your most successful employees. What do they have in common?

If a team player is what you're looking for, ask, "Can you share a story about a time when you went beyond the call of duty to help a coworker?" After the applicant has shared the example, probe for more information by asking:

  • How did you do that?
  • What did you learn from that experience?
  • Would you do it any differently next time?

Another way to find out about an applicant's attitude is to involve others in the hiring process. Back to my Southwest example: The company gathers information from everyone the applicant comes in contact with. If the applicant flies to an interview, his or her ticket is coded so that the gate agent, flight attendants, and pilots know the person is an applicant. HR gets feedback on how the applicant interacted with others along the way to see if the person has the attitudes Southwest requires. You can do the same thing by asking your receptionist or others who might have interacted with the applicant as he or she waited in your lobby.

It's not so much that attitude is more important than skill when hiring a new employee. It's about getting the right information from the candidate to determine whether he or she has the attitude and skill you need to fit the role.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you'd like her to answer in "Ask the Expert"? Send it to [email protected]

Hiring Interviewing