Why Integrity is the Most Critical Professional Skill to Master
In more than 10 years in the staffing business, I’ve placed hundreds of candidates and interacted with thousands more. And of all the attractive qualities these candidates brought to the table, the one that’s proven the most important is the most basic: integrity.
What is Integrity?
Integrity is often mistaken as synonymous with honesty. It’s deeper than that. My preferred definition is having the constitution to do the right thing when no one else is around.
If your personal brand—a critical component to positive career development—is what people say about you when you’re not in the room (Jeff Bezos’ definition), then what could be more important than holding yourself to a standard baseline of professional integrity regardless of who is watching?
- Choose commitments responsibly
- Follow through on those commitments to completion, even when it is an inconvenience and even when it doesn’t benefit you in the way you’d originally imagined
- Refrain from cheating and lying, even when it might help you move forward
- Set appropriate expectations
How Integrity Adds Value to Your Career:
There are lots of “successful” professionals out there who climbed the ladder without scruples.
And while some will never be recognized for their lack of moral fiber, they may never be able to truly command the following three virtues so foundational to rewarding career longevity:
Trust, respect and credibility
Let me provide a case study: Years ago, I attended an event hosted by speaker and co-author of bestselling business parable “The Go-Giver” Bob Burg. At the time, I was helping organize a marketing conference and approached Burg after his lecture to see if he’d be interested in participating.
He asked that I follow up with an email and that he’d respond within 24 hours. He did. We then worked out a mutually agreeable compensation structure and set the parameters for his participation.
He subsequently executed our arrangement with skillful grace and warmly followed up after the fact. It was a simple interaction, but nonetheless his behavior led me to become an evangelist for his brand since I came to not only trust and respect the quality of his work, but the credibility of his character.
As a result, I enthusiastically recommend him to friends, open and click through his monthly emails and continually attend his lectures in my area.
While other strategies may make you successful, aggregating advocates by behaving with integrity is a safe and consistent way to recognize even the loftiest of professional goals.
In fact, Tom Stanley, author of The Millionaire Mind, researched the most salient values shared by first generation deca-millionaires (those with a minimum net worth of 10 million dollars) and concluded “the number one value across the board was integrity. Their vendors, friends and even their fiercest competitors all noted that they had fanatical levels of integrity.”
3 Stages of Professional Life Where Integrity is Key
1) Job Seeking: While looking for new career opportunities, you would be best advised to be as straightforward as possible in your applications and interviews.
You might get away with bending the truth from time-to-time, but should you get caught, recognize it’s a small world and that you may not only have squandered the opportunity at hand but that word of your behavior may spread.
For example, I once was representing a candidate who listed a major university on his resume (the role did not require a collegiate degree). As things progressed, HR began checking his background and asked me to clarify whether he had in fact earned his Bachelor’s.
Upon investigation, he admitted he had not and that he was working towards his degree. Fool me once.
Soon after, it became apparent he wasn’t matriculated at the university at all and needless to say neither the hiring manager nor I will ever work with this individual again.
So while your academic and professional history may preclude you from certain roles, being exposed as a liar can profoundly damage your prospects.
Similarly, be honest with yourself when choosing what employment options to pursue. I once worked with a candidate who made it all the way through an interview process and accepted an offer, only to sever all communication and ultimately blow off his start date.
Had he just been open with me and explained he was considering other opportunities or just wasn’t in love with the role, I not only would have understood but continued working with him.
Perhaps he concluded it wouldn’t have been pleasant to explain those details but the way he handled the situation naturally extinguished our working relationship altogether.
Juxtapose that situation with another candidate who explained he would be taking himself off the market. I asked if he’d first like to pursue another solid opportunity that had landed on my desk but he had given his word to another employer and I had nothing but respect for his decision.
Years later, he reached out to re-engage his search and we managed to achieve a seamless placement as I knew the value of his word and that when he expressed interest in this particular role, he would see it through to completion.
2) Business Leadership: Integrity is equally important from the opposite side of the coin.
From an internal perspective, can you actually afford a new potential hire’s salary? Is it realistic to hit the targeted bonus? Will the responsibilities and performance evaluation align with what was advertised? If not, why string a candidate or employee along only to have bad news come out at the 11th hour and potentially tarnish or ruin the relationship?
My firm was once representing a candidate who was asked to go through a grueling six-hour final interview. While collecting feedback, the hiring manager explained he was going to pass because of the candidate’s reason for leaving his prior job.
That’s reasonable but considering that information was available from the start, it seemed there were other variables affecting his decision that he did not disclose, and without that transparency, I did not feel comfortable sending him candidates in the future.
From an external perspective, business leaders can also exhibit integrity by effectively managing client expectations.
That said, while it may be enticing to take on a huge project that’s beyond the scope of anything you’ve done, carefully evaluate whether you have the bandwidth to complete it efficiently as failing to meet deadlines could severely damage your reputation.
For example, my firm specializes primarily in the placement of Microsoft technical professionals and thus I need to be very careful about working with clients outside my niche and either defer those recs to differently specialized agencies or explain it will take longer than usual to locate quality candidates.
The bottom line is that a big part of integrity is telling people what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear, and while it might hurt a few egos in the short term, integrity is a long term game and there may be some adversity on the road to success.
3) Standard Employment: Integrity is equally important for non-management professionals.
For example, I once employed an individual who missed a half day of work without calling, later explaining that he’d hit someone with his car and needed to help. But, as time passed he couldn’t keep the details of his story straight and he was forced to admit he was just taking personal time.
I wouldn’t have cared had he just been forthcoming, but ultimately, his lack of integrity changed the nature of our relationship until it fell apart.
It’s easy to be up front when the content of your message will make you look good, but in other cases, remember that telling the truth and realistically managing expectations may create some tension in the moment but is far superior than looking over your shoulder when you do things the wrong way.
Bottom Line: You must ignite a fire within yourself to be a professional of integrity because it’s not always easy, and there are many times when the easy way isn’t the right way. But, as I mentioned, integrity is a long term game and how you relate to the concept will be a significant part of your legacy.
So how will you be remembered?
Will your network recognize you as the person who stepped on however many heads necessary to get things done or the person who worked harder to build scrupulous solutions?
The choice ultimately is yours, but in my experience, the latter is far more rewarding.