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Hire for attitude: What this means and why it works so well

You may have heard the phrase “hire for attitude, train for skill” but what does that actually look like in reality? 

Making the wrong hiring decisions, especially as a startup or small business, can be a costly mistake. The good news is that knowing what you’re looking for ahead of the interview process can save you time and money long-term.

Before we jump into the details on how you can revolutionize your hiring, let’s take a look at a few statistics on employee retention and values:

The 2020 Work Institute Retention Report found that [1]: 

  • In 2019, three out of every four workers that left their job did so voluntarily.
  • 38% of employees left their organizations within one year of starting.
  • 6% of employees left a job in 2019 due to the work environment.
  • Organizational culture accounted for over 2% of those who left a job voluntarily. This has steadily increased each year from 0.2% in 2013.
  • The cost of losing an employee is, on average, $15,000 per departure.
  • Millennials are willing to give up $7,600 per year to work for a company that has a better cultural fit. [2]
  • Employees who are committed and engaged at the workplace are 87% less likely to leave their current company. [3]
  • 51% of employees nationwide are actively looking for a new job or aware of openings. [4]
  • Companies that rate highly on “purposeful mission” had a 49% lower attrition rate than other companies. [5]
Table of contents

What does hiring for attitude mean?

In traditional hiring models, recruiters typically look for a specific set of job-relevant skills that are needed for a certain position within the company. They’ll look at things like background, education, or industry knowledge and to understand how that candidate fulfills the experience, qualifications, or abilities required for that role.

When you hire for attitude, otherwise known as values-based recruitment, your focus is primarily on the soft skills and personal attributes that a candidate brings to the table. That carries more weight than the performance-related skill set that they offer. 

While the necessary skills for the role are still important, they’re considered a secondary factor when determining which applicant to hire. This is especially the case when you come down to two or three final candidates who may all be a very close match in terms of technical skills but there’s only a need to hire one. Attitude and company fit can quickly become the differentiating factors between several great options.

The pros and cons of hiring for attitude

While we think that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, there are plenty of aspects to consider before making the leap to this new way of recruiting. 

We’re taking a look at the best reasons to hire for attitude, as well as some of the potential problem areas that you’ll want to keep in mind.

The pros

Let’s start with the good news first. In most cases, the pros are the standout features of hiring for attitude.

  • Increased employee retention: Hiring the candidate that you think will be the best cultural fit for your team—meaning someone who shares the values your company holds and believes in your mission and vision—can increase their likelihood to stay with you long-term. In fact, businesses that have highly-engaged employees see 59% lower turnover than other companies. If your new hire fits in well with the rest of the team and enjoys what they’re working on day-to-day, they’re significantly less likely to look for greener pastures elsewhere.

  • Cost-effectiveness: When you hire for a skills-focused position, you’re more than likely looking for a candidate with extensive background in the industry and technical know-how that’s relevant to their role. When you hire for attitude, you have the ability to bring less-experienced individuals into the team, which will usually mean that you can pay them less. Whether it’s someone looking for a career change or a fresh-out-of-college graduate, salary expectations will be much lower if they don’t have a defined set of skills yet. While they won’t (and shouldn’t!) stay at that pay level forever, you can save upfront in the early months and years while they’re acquiring their job-specific qualifications.

  • Flexibility: As a startup or small business, skill needs can change rapidly as you grow and expand. Hiring for very specific jobs may not be the most suitable option at the start as you’ll likely need team members to wear different hats and shift into different positions as you begin to identify where the company needs support. “The skills required in a startup constantly change. You’ll bring a team member into a specific role but that role could change within three months”, says Michelle Duval, Founder of F4S. Hiring for attitude allows you to recruit for company value fit, mold candidates into the positions that are most needed, and train them for the required skills as needs are identified.

The cons

Despite the fact that this hiring method is gaining steam, it’s not without its faults. Focusing on soft skills when hiring can definitely come with a few challenges of its own.

  • Skill deficits: Focusing on soft skills rather than technical knowledge can lead companies into positions where the entire team is made up of “jack of all trades, master of none” individuals. Businesses can run into issues when roles require in-depth knowledge—particularly in technology or communications roles, where there is a much greater risk to the company if an employee were to do or say something wrong. When you’re trying to get a new business off the ground successfully, hiring candidates that require little to no training to fill skills gaps could be more effective in moving a company forward quickly.

  • Authenticity: Beware the curse of “attitude fraud.” We all know that candidates are on their best behavior when it comes to job interviews—after all, first impressions are everything. A candidate will likely be nervous during an interview and may behave in ways that they ordinarily wouldn’t once they land that position and interact with the rest of your team. As a result, being able to identify genuine characteristics and attributes can be particularly challenging in an interview situation with a notoriously artificial atmosphere. There are some ways around this, though, like personality assessments, team shadowing, and asking targeted questions based on values.

  • Steep learning curve: For any new employees, there will always be some element of on-the-job learning required, from company processes and procedures to day-to-day job requirements. But individuals with less industry experience often face a bigger challenge than those who have years of technical knowledge to draw from. Hiring a more skilled candidate usually means that, when you throw them in at the deep end, they’ll happily swim and rise to the challenge. Progress can be slow if you’re in a position of needing to train someone on how to actually do their job. A CareerBuilder survey found that 37% of employees were less productive and 32% lost time when they had to train another team member, which can be incredibly costly if your company operates in a fast-paced environment.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether the particular role you’re hiring for could benefit more from a “hire for attitude, train for skill” approach. 

If specific knowledge is required for the individual to be successful and contribute to the company’s growth, think carefully about whether you or the team have the time and resources to train someone less experienced. If not, hiring at a higher salary and skill level is likely more beneficial at this point in the business’ development. 


It’s also worth reflecting on the big picture and what future growth plans look like. “Hire on attitude and motivation...it’s the most transferable asset in your startup,” advises Duval. If the position is one where an individual can easily be trained and get up-to-speed fairly quickly, focusing on their soft skills and company fit will likely yield excellent results.

How do you hire for attitude?

You’ve decided that hiring for attitude over tangible skills is the right direction for your company. But where do you begin? 

Starting to think about this during the recruitment process is already too late. You need to have some foundational measures in place before you can even think about bringing in new team members for specific roles.

Before you start recruiting...

Knowing what to look for in a potential new hire can’t happen until you know what your own company values are. Do you have a defined culture or set of values that have been agreed on by the team, or are they more loose guidelines at this point? 

Review your F4S assessment to see which motivations stand out to you as a founder or leader within the company. Take a look at what results other key team members have and where you all overlap or differ. This can be a great starting point when trying to identify the traits you’re looking for in a new hire. Some important traits may include:

  • Tolerance
  • Big picture thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Belongingness

Once you’ve identified what your company believes in at its core, you can start crafting a job ad that incorporates some of those less tangible requirements. This will help to save time by filtering out candidates who aren’t a good fit before you proceed with interviews.

During the interview process...

The interview is your chance to put your new recruitment strategy into practice. There are a number of different ways that you can implement this approach, but we’ve found that the below techniques are some of the most effective when you’re looking to hire based on attitude.

View attitude like any other skill

If hiring for the right set of values is important to you, treating attitude like a technical skill is crucial. Don’t think of soft skills as secondary or supplemental. If this is what you’re looking for, it should be just as important as anything else. 

Build a diverse interview team

Just because you want the team to fit and work well together doesn’t mean that everyone should be the same. In fact, cognitively diverse teams are usually more successful as they make better decisions. 

Be sure to involve members of the existing team in both the interview and decision-making process, giving different people an opportunity to meet and assess the candidates and share their honest opinions with leadership. 

This approach also gives the additional benefit of highlighting to the candidate that your company is committed to diversity and inclusion. Your interview panel should be a reflection of what your company really looks like, and a diverse group helps to keep any conscious or unconscious biases in check.

Agree on non-negotiables and red flags 

Before you go into the interview room, decide with your team on any red flags that immediately make a candidate questionable when it comes to opposing your company values. For example, some companies will rule out any candidate that doesn’t follow up an in-person interview with separate emails to the panel thanking them for their time and expressing ongoing interest in the position. 

Others will use behavior observation to get around cases of attitude fraud. Asking the company receptionist or other staff who weren’t in the interview how a candidate acted toward them before and after the meeting (when they think that no one is watching) can be a good indication of an individual’s real personality and help narrow down the hiring pool.

Be prepared with personality-indicating questions

You don’t need to ask detailed personal questions to get a feel for a candidate’s character. There’s plenty that you can infer from asking questions like “why are you leaving your current job?” or “how do you prefer to receive feedback?” 

These types of questions will suss out their willingness to learn and grow, how receptive they are to instruction or criticism, how they handle difficult situations, and what kind of learner they are. 

“Look for candidates who are comfortable with figuring things out as they go, they don’t need to see a plan,” Duval advises. “That big picture thinking, you can visually see it in interviews and identify it.”

Use skill-fluid assessment

While there is some criticism over the use of cognitive and personality tests in interviews, there are benefits to knowing how a candidate responds in a situation that they can’t prepare for and has nothing to do with the job they’ve applied for. 

Some companies like to use tests like the F4S assessment to see where a candidate overlaps with existing team members on different attributes and motivations. 

Others ask candidates to complete random problem-solving exercises like puzzles or brain games to see how well they can reason and overcome a challenge under pressure. Don’t put too much weight on the outcome of these assessments when it comes to making a final hiring decision, but asking candidates to complete these can help to provide additional insight.

Arrange for job-shadowing or meet and greets

Introducing a candidate to some of the day-to-day responsibilities that their job might involve is a great way to finish the interview process. It gives them the opportunity to see what life is really like in the company and gives you, the hiring team, a chance to see their personality in action. 

Introduce the candidate to other members of the team who weren’t involved in the interview and see how they interact during the shadowing time. Does the candidate look interested and engaged in the work and while talking to other employees? Do they seem excited by the work environment and willing to learn the necessary job skills? This will give you a good indication of whether or not the candidate has the right attributes to fit in with the existing team and how much they actually want the position.


Is this the future of hiring?

Hiring for attitude may not be the right strategy for every company—or even every position within your company—but adopting some of these practices for recruiting can yield incredible results. 

As your business grows and evolves, continually re-evaluate how your values are being lived out by your current employees and where you can look for these as you bring new individuals into the team. 

While there can be downsides to concentrating more on personality attributes over hard skills, there are plenty of benefits to shifting your recruitment tactics to be more attitude-focused.

Schedule a free demo of F4S to learn how you can identify the best candidates for your next hire.


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