In a Nutshell: Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill

In a Nutshell: Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill

This article offers an expanded description of the summary listed in our post 40 Must-Know HR, OD, L&D Models.

Background: The “hire for attitude, train for skill” motto is originally attributed to Herb Kelleher, one of the co-founders of US-based Southwest Airlines. When Kelleher became chairman in 1978, he charged the People Department (aka HR) with the responsibility of hiring people with a sense of humour. Kelleher encouraged employees to have fun with customers — something that no doubt would have sounded very strange to people at the time, especially to those who had been raised to believe that humour is unprofessional and silly in the workplace. However, the chairman believed that failure to nurture people with a great attitude undermined productivity, creativity, and morale, whereas encouraging it increased customer satisfaction, engagement, retention, and ultimately, profits.

Southwest has gone on to become the most successful company in American aviation history. It has been featured in the top 10 of Fortune’s Most Admired Companies numerous times over the past decade and was the best-performing stock in the US from 1972 through 2002, according to Money magazine, up 26% per year (an especially remarkable feat considering the airlines industry is notoriously challenging).

Southwest remains the company that best embodies the “hire for attitude” mentality as a cornerstone of its business plan, and the example that other companies look to for developing similar recruitment and training strategies.

Overview: “Hire for attitude, train for skill” is a recruitment philosophy suggesting that the most important thing to look for in candidates is their inherent personality (attitude), even if they lack some of the basic technical knowledge or skills in a particular industry. This idea operates on the premise that personality is crucial to performance but is very difficult to try and change. Experience, skills and qualifications, on the other hand, can be acquired more easily.

It is also stated as: Character before credentials. Attitude over aptitude. Hire people for “who they are” first; “what they know” second.

Examples of this philosophy include:

“We've turned waiters and waitresses into great mortgage bankers. We've hired soap-opera actors and electricians. We can teach people about finance. We can't teach passion, urgency and a willingness to go the extra mile." — Michael Homula, Director of Talent Acquisition, Quicken

“Don't hire [bankers]… I'd rather hire a jazz musician, a dancer, or a captain in the Israeli army. They can learn about banking. It's much harder for bankers to unlearn their bad habits." — Arkadi Kuhlmann, Founder, ING Direct USA

"Hire for attitude" doesn't suggest that you should hire an enthusiastic 1st year medical student as a brain surgeon. The philosophy is largely about challenging hiring managers' reliance on using previous job experience as their primary screening criteria. A fundamental problem with many job descriptions is that experience-fit is assumed to be more important than personality-fit. Hard skills are certainly easier to assess than soft skills in the job interview. Qualifications and experience can easily be found by looking at a resume; soft skills are rarely so easy to tick off. It also takes time and money to spend training someone who doesn’t have all the proper experience. For these kinds of reasons, the "hire for attitude" mentality is often overlooked in spite of being given lip service. However, when it is embraced by leadership it can pay big dividends, as evidenced in the case of Southwest Airlines.

When recruiting for a role as a hiring manager, the "hire for attitude" motto encourages to begin with this question: What is more important for success in this role: previous job experience or inherent attitude?

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