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The Virtue of Integrity in Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard M. Jacobs
November 27, 2021

Addressing University of Florida MBA students in 1998, Warren Buffett—the, “Oracle of Omaha,”—discussed success and its role in the hiring process.

The wisdom Buffett offered those students is as important for public administrators today in 2021 as it was in 1998.

The virtue of integrity

Buffett defined success as a byproduct of integrity, intelligence and energy, noting that integrity and intelligence are more critical in the hiring process at his company than are intelligence and energy:

“We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb.”

With research indicating that trust is critical for building a team, integrity is non-negotiable.

How might public administrators hire for integrity?

Reframing the hiring process

In the hiring process, a candidate’s resumé and talent oftentimes figure prominently. Yet, 89% of hiring failures are directly attributable to candidates who possess wrong or negative attitudes, indicating that Buffet is correct: Attitude should figure more prominently. After all, a toxic attitude can fester, making it difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate trust within a team.

To predict future performance, many popular interview questions focus upon workplace conflict and disagreement, not attitude. These questions aim to solicit a singular response characterizing a candidate’s persistence in resolving conflicts and disagreements. To focus more directly upon attitude, Gilbert suggests modifying these questions, to create open-ended prompts that invite candidates to narrate what led up to, rather than what provided, the resolution.

Administrators who hire for attitude, Gilbert notes, interview to identify candidates who possess a positive attitude, evidencing itself in an openness to receive feedback, the willingness to engage in learning to solve problems and resilience in bouncing back from mistakes. This information, gleaned from the interview, provides insight into the candidate’s attitude.

Interviewing for integrity

ASPA’s Code of Ethics defines integrity as, “Adhering to the highest standards of conduct to inspire public confidence and trust in public service.” This virtue evidences itself in personal truthfulness and honesty, and never compromising either value. This is demonstrated in the support a public administrator offers others who are subject to multiple pressures that can tempt them not to demonstrate integrity.

To heed Buffett’s advice and interview for integrity, Schwantz offers five questions that drill to the core of personal character:

  1. Was there a specific time when you had to handle a tough problem that challenged fairness or ethical issues? What happened and how did you respond? (This question opens a discussion about the candidate’s ethical decisionmaking process.)
  2. When was the last time you “broke the rules?” What was the situation and what did you do? (This question clarifies the how the candidate deliberates and weighs conflicting values when confronting a dilemma.)
  3. When working with people, how would you describe your preferred relationship with them? (This question assesses a hallmark of integrity— honesty—and the candidate’s capacity for open communication.)
  4. What values do you appreciate the most in a team environment? (This question ferrets out a candidate’s traits of trustworthiness—fairness, transparency and inclusivity—additional hallmarks of integrity.)
  5. If we ever got into a bind with a stakeholder, would you be willing to tell a little lie to help us out? (A “trick question” designed to identify a candidate’s core values any candidate possessing one ounce of integrity would immediately object. If the candidate objects, Schwantz recommends explaining the motive for posing the question.)

Forging a culture of integrity

Buffett prioritized hiring for integrity which, he said, requires ascertaining a candidate’s integrity above intelligence, demonstrated skill and other desirable traits like attitude. The failure to interview for integrity opens the door to hiring a “lazy and dumb” colleague who generates a climate wherein trusting others is near to, if not impossible.

Yet, hiring for integrity involves more than interviewing candidates who demonstrate integrity. It also aims to cultivate trust within the team, making integrity the keystone of organizational functioning. Buffett called this achievement, “The core and essence of any great company.”

To forge this culture of integrity, public administrators begin by hiring for integrity and intelligence. But, as the, “Oracle of Omaha,” reminds them, what’s then required is to provide team members the support they will need so they won’t succumb to any temptation in being untrustworthy or dishonest.

View Buffet’s speech: HERE.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Immediate Past Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance and former Acquisitions Editor for Public Integrity. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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