January 5, 2021

The 6 Qualities to Look for in Entry-Level Candidates

There are several challenges that work against hiring managers who choose to rely on resumes as a means of hiring their next employee. Resumes are wrought with inaccuracies; they’re inherently biased, backward-looking, and essentially blank in the case of early-career candidates. Given resumes’ limited value, hiring managers are best served assessing early-career candidates in a different way.

Research in I/O psychology has shed light on the characteristics that predict success in nearly every role, making it possible to identify top candidates even when your applicants have minimal experience. From the research, six characteristics stand out: cognitive ability, work ethic, teamwork, receptivity to feedback, drive, and integrity. Here’s why each of these qualities matter, and how they contribute to successful job performance. 

1. Cognitive Ability

Cognitive ability, or general intelligence, is the single strongest predictor of job performance. Across more than 22,000 studies of more than 5 million participants over 100 years, cognitive ability has been proven time and again to successfully predict job performance across virtually every type of job, level of position, and industry. Cognitive ability accounts for as much as 42 percent of an individual’s job performance. As industrial psychologists Frank Schmidt, In-Sue Oh, and Jonathan Shaffer explain in their summary of a century of research, “Cognitive ability is the No. 1 predictor of job performance,” and as more and more research is collected, “its dominance just increases.”

The most effective approach for measuring cognitive ability is with pre-employment assessments. Pre-employment cognitive assessments are generally brief, accurate, and predictive. They also afford candidates a fairer opportunity to demonstrate their potential when compared to other selection tools, such as resumes, interviews, and background checks, which are often subject to unconscious bias. When hiring managers focus on cognitive ability, they have a better chance of identifying candidates who can learn the job faster, make the most of training opportunities, make better decisions, solve complex challenges, and complete work more quickly and efficiently than others.

2. Work Ethic

Work ethic, or conscientiousness, is essential. It is the means by which employees make full use of their abilities. Harder-working employees put forth the effort to learn their jobs faster, try harder, and strive to perform at their best. It’s no surprise that, as a 2019 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains, “Conscientiousness … is the most potent non-cognitive predictor of occupational performance.”

As with cognitive ability, work ethic is generalizable across virtually all jobs, levels, and industries. In fact, in roles where just about everyone is bright, work ethic can make the difference between top performers and the rest of the pack. 

3. Teamwork

Empathy, teamwork, and the ability to build and maintain relationships are critical to success, especially when one is in the early stages of their career. The vast majority of work is done alongside other people. Even work that is conducted alone is often just one small part of a larger effort that involves others. Being able to get along with people is absolutely vital to being successful in all of those endeavors. In addition, contact with prospects, clients, and coworkers needs to be conducted with a genuine regard for others’ needs. When it comes to early-career employees, this is even more important; it is through these relationships and communications that they learn their jobs.

Emotional intelligence plays a critical, and often undervalued, role in all of this. Emotionally intelligent employees are better able to read themselves and others. They understand how and why people behave as they do, and this knowledge enhances the quality of their interactions with prospects, clients, and peers. This leads to more favorable outcomes for all parties. As research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services found, companies with employees who possess high levels of EI perform significantly better when it comes to customer loyalty, customer experience, and customer advocacy. 

4. Receptivity to Feedback

Receptivity to feedback is a difference maker because so few people have it. Employees can be bright, hardworking, and great at building relationships, but if they’re not open to feedback, they can exert considerable effort with minimal results. Sometimes, a person is best served by getting the advice of others who have been there and done that. This essentially allows a person to learn from the experiences of others, rather than having to experience everything themselves. This is especially important for early-career candidates, as their lack of experience means their only other method of identifying optimal approaches is costly trial and error.

While a willingness to listen to feedback is important, it’s those who proactively seek out feedback from a range of sources who stand to gain the most. Arguably, the fastest way to succeed is to quickly learn what works and what doesn’t, and colleagues are an indispensable resource in this process. 

An additional benefit of receptivity to feedback is the relationships that are built along the way. People tend to like being asked their opinions and are often more than happy to offer them. The process of seeking feedback becomes a virtuous cycle, making it easier and easier for a person to gather more and more wisdom from those sources over time.

5. Drive

All the intelligence and talent in the world won’t get you very far if you aren’t driven to have a favorable impact and make a meaningful difference. An employee’s drive to succeed encompasses many of the characteristics above. It’s what sustains their work ethic, puts their cognitive abilities to use, fuels their desire to learn, and inspires them to keep improving and contributing. 

According to a 2020 meta-analysis of 276 organizations in 54 industries conducted by Gallup, employee engagement has a significant impact on a wide range of outcomes. It lowers turnover, absenteeism, and safety incidents, and it heightens productivity, employee commitment, and overall well-being. One of the top drivers of engagement is a sense of mission or purpose among employees. Companies can do their best to foster such a sense, but it has to start with employees’s attitudes — their drives, in other words.

6. Integrity

Finally, new hires must possess unwavering integrity. Integrity is the foundation for how intelligence, work ethic, teamwork, receptivity to feedback, and drive play out in the workplace. People with integrity use their judgment to make decisions that safeguard the business, clients, and coworkers, while ensuring the highest standards of quality. They perform at their best every day, and deliver on their commitments. They admit mistakes early and seek out better ways to go forward. They use their drive to elevate the business and the people in it. There’s a reason the previously cited Harvard Business Review Analytic Services survey found that employees rank integrity right alongside empathy as one of the most valuable traits at their companies.  

So, maybe it’s time we forget about resumes, especially for early-career candidates. Instead, we should look for ways to effectively assess prospects’ intelligence, work ethic, teamwork, receptivity to feedback, drive, and integrity. Companies that choose this approach are best positioned to hire top performers, giving their businesses a competitive advantage that can set them apart today and for many years to come.

Brad Schneider, PhD, is vice president of assessment science at Criteria

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Brad Schneider, PhD, is the vice president of assessment science at Criteria, an assessment company dedicated to helping organizations make better talent decisions using objective, multidimensional data. He leads many of Criteria's product development, R&D, and consulting initiatives to provide clients with leading-edge solutions that drive meaningful and measurable results. Brad's 25 years of assessment experience includes leadership and consulting positions with global consulting firms, Fortune 100 organizations, and government agencies. In addition to leading assessment initiatives across more than 400 clients in virtually all industries, Brad has designed innovative assessment offerings (tests, interviews, simulations, job analysis methodologies) leveraged by more than 200 organizations worldwide and translated into eight languages. Brad holds a PhD and MS in industrial and organizational psychology from Florida International University, an MA in applied psychology from the University of Tulsa, and a BA in psychology from Washington University in St. Louis.
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