Warren Buffett is renowned for his investing prowess, but many of his most successful investments are in people. As Buffett puts it, "I really have only two jobs. One is to attract and keep outstanding managers to run our various operations."

What does he mean by outstanding? Based on the investment returns he has achieved over the years, it's clear he's found a workable definition: "We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity."

You might be surprised to learn which one he prioritized above the others, but it makes sense. In his own words, "If they don't have [integrity], the first two will kill you, because if you're going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb."

In other words, without integrity, an extremely intelligent and driven employee is a big business risk. They could funnel money from the company, plan their exit with a folio of clients, or even stage a hostile takeover and oust existing leadership. No matter what, Buffett says, integrity must come first.

How Do You Hire for Integrity?

It isn't easy to tease out a job applicant's true character in a short time -- which is why most companies overlook it. Nonetheless, doing your due diligence now can help you avoid unpleasant surprises in the future.

1. Look for accountability.

Ask a prospect to tell you about their biggest screw up at their previous job. If it's something incredibly minor, like jamming the printer or misplacing a stapler, there's something fishy going on. Even the best and brightest make mistakes, but the ones with integrity can fess up to them and hold themselves accountable.

If this seems like more of an exercise in on-the-spot storytelling, don't forget -- you can easily call up the candidate's references to confirm if the example is true. What's that? They don't have references? You might want to put that one in the "Thanks, but no thanks" pile. Particularly if they claim to be a superstar in their last role, don't you think they'd be wanting you to get in touch with their previous manager?

2. Verify information.

A candidate's resume is essentially their ticket to the next phase -- the interview -- but remember, it's a ticket they create for themselves. Many job applicants can't resist the temptation to make that ticket a little more compelling than it actually is, whether that's giving themselves a promotion in their last role or adding an entire degree they never earned.

According to a survey from HireRight, only half of employers bother to verify a prospect's education credentials. Meanwhile, 85 percent of those that put in the extra effort discover false or misrepresented information. If you're looking to hire for integrity, that's a big portion of applicants that you don't want to make it through to onboarding.

3. Conduct a background check.

A background check is a vital step that insulates your organization from a catastrophic hire. It can protect your employees and customers from someone with a history of violence or sexual harassment, and it protects your company's reputation by making sure those individuals aren't in your employment ranks.

A background check can also be an opportunity to gauge the integrity of an applicant. At some point, whether it's during the interview or on the application itself, ask for any questionable history or other unsavory details that the candidate would rather you not know. If what they divulge matches your findings, it's a good sign. If they're determined to conceal something -- even a few speeding tickets -- you might want to look elsewhere.

Integrity might be an uncommon trait, but it's worth putting in the effort to find it. Follow the three steps above and you'll weed out undesirable job applicants and land the individuals you can count on to do the right thing, both at work and everywhere else.

Published on: Dec 16, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.