5 qualities you really need in your coworkers

When you’re hiring for an open role on your team, you have a list of qualifications that you’re screening candidates against. But in addition to whatever job-specific requirements you’re looking for, there are some other qualities that you want in any new hire, no matter what their position is. Here are five key qualities that you should screen for in building your team.

A determination to get results. You want team members who care about the real impact of their work, rather than appearances. You want people who will persist when they run into roadblocks that might deter the average person, who will scrutinize ideas to make sure that they’ll get the best outcome, and who will hold themselves accountable to getting done whatever they’re there to get done.

Decency. You want people on your team who will treat others as they’d want to be treated themselves – people who won’t be rude, dismissive, arrogant to clients or colleagues. You want people who give others the benefit of the doubt, who respect opinions that differ from their own, who can handle disagreement civilly, and who genuinely care about other people.

A desire for continuous improvement. You want team members whose determination to be successful will lead them to being fairly ruthless when it comes to identifying ways they could perform better. You’ll recognize this trait when you find people who are open about their flaws and fairly obsessive about learning from experience – people who want to incorporate those lessons into practice and be as effective as possible.

Communicative. If you’re ever worked with someone who didn’t speak up about problems or made it difficult for coworkers to approach her to talk about work, you know why this one is important. You want team members who operate with transparency, seek out input from others, and welcome the interaction that makes teams function more smoothly. You don’t want a team member whose instinct is to bury a problem and hope no one will notice – or who will figure, “Well, if they wanted to know that we were way over-budget on this project, they should have asked me.”

A sense of possibility. You want people who are engaged in their work and approach it with a sense of possibility, rather than people whose first instinct is to say “we can’t do that.” (This doesn’t mean that “we can’t do that” is never the right answer; sometimes it is. But you want team members who don’t start from that assumption.)  This will get you a team more likely to embrace rather avoid challenges and to persist in the face of setbacks rather than giving up easily.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. The Other Dawn*

    Decency is a big one. You can have all the other qualities, but if you’re an a$$hole, that usually negates the others.

    1. Sascha*

      So true! I’m reviewing applications right now and there is a guy who has great experience and skills for the position, but his cover letter made him sound like an egotistical jerk – I almost don’t want to interview him just because of this. We’ll see what he’s like in person.

        1. Sascha*

          I wish! I’m on the interview panel but not the hiring manager, so I can’t. I’ve suggested this to my manager before, but he either won’t do it or can’t (we have very strict hiring practices). I would even do all the phone interviews myself, and I hate talking on the phone! :)

  2. MelG*

    This sort of falls under decency and self-awareness, but consideration for others is a huge one. Don’t urinate on the toilet seat, don’t loudly beatbox in your cubicle, change the water bottle when you use the last of the water, bathe regularly, don’t take things that don’t belong to you, etc. So many of these common office struggles would not occur if everyone was just considerate towards one another.

  3. James M*

    I think AAM’s point is that it ought to be a deal-breaker if a candidate is particularly lacking in any one of these areas. Otoh, if a candidate shows all 5 traits, it may be worth overlooking his/her other foibles.

    Personally, I’ll try to show that I have these traits in my cover letters and interviews. Thanks AAM!

  4. Cowbelle*

    The most depressing thing is that many of these qualities are not rewarded and sometimes even punished in workplaces. Then when you move onto a new workplace, it can be very difficult to resurrect these habits and attitudes. Does anyone have any helpful advice for that? maybe I should just print this list and stick it on my wall.

    1. JM in England*

      I know exactly where you’re coming from Cowbelle!

      In many of my former workplaces, it’s been the ones with “pushy” personalities (ie shout the loudest) that seem to get noticed and the “nice” ones largely ignored.

    2. Rebecca*

      +1! At my workplace, you are better off keeping your head down and not saying anything about anything to anyone…especially a middle manager who is lateral to or above your manager. I equate the experience to being treated like a dog who accidentally sat someplace he shouldn’t…it’s so discouraging.

      Communicative? Oh, you mean actually answering emails and questions? Determination to get results will get you scolded in front of other managers, because “that’s how we do it, and you must be doing something wrong”. Continuous improvement? How can you improve procedures when you’re afraid to point anything out for fear of being humiliated and made to look like you don’t know what you’re doing?

      It’s very sad. The first two companies I worked for were totally different, and now I feel sick to my stomach if I see an email from certain people in the company because I fear how they will lash out, which goes to decency: just because you are in a position of authority does not give you the right to be a mean, nasty, dismissive person.

      1. Jen M.*


        I just left a workplace that was very much like this. It’s hard to shine when people just want to beat you down!

  5. Holly*

    Kind of a threadjack, sorry, but I really need to express this somewhere – my coworker was fired today. I knew it was coming but was told not to tell him (or I’d risk my job.) He just emailed me saying he was “laid off” and that was it. I’m really, really bummed because even though he wasn’t good at his job, it’s still a bad situation. Blargh.

    1. DeMinimis*

      Sorry to hear that.

      I’ve been in the same boat as your coworker, and hope that he realized it was coming and could prepare for it. Usually if someone isn’t good at their job they know they’re in trouble.

    2. AnonK*

      I’m so sorry. I’ve been in your shoes before too – knew a friend was going to be laid off. Things got delayed, and the layoff was postponed for 6 weeks. Long time to keep your mouth shut. My friend was blindsided when it came. She really didn’t have a clue (I’m not sure how since it seemed so obvious to me, but she didn’t).

      To this day, she has no idea that I knew. Even though she’s in a better situation now, I’d never ever let her know that I was told to keep quiet about it. I will also never not feel guilty.

      Hope you are hanging in there.

  6. glg*

    Totally agree with all of them, but one other dimension of Communicative: be available to others for questions. If you dismiss or avoid people asking questions of you and if you never respond with answers that’s a problem especially if other people can’t complete their work without your input/answers. And don’t use physical distance as a barrier to communication; if you find reasons to always be away from your desk or out of the office and therefore out of reach that’s an issue! If people can telecommute then “working from home for the day” or “last minute meeting with clients” shouldn’t be code for “will be completely out of touch unless I need you to do me a favor”.

    Right now the four things I want in all my co-workers/managers are communication, organization, prioritization, and decency, but, really the first three are often all just part of the same overlapping problem, I think.

  7. NHManager*

    Decency! How do you screen for that? I once hired someone who was accused of road rage behavior during the morning commute by a colleague in another department. The accuser was quite alarmed and contacted MY boss. Then other accusers came forward. When I broached the subject with the accused, he aggressively asked why I was talking about it as it had “nothing” to do with actual work. He was later let go for performance reasons but it opened my eyes. I don’t think you can legally attach consequences to someone for their behavior outside work, but when it affects working relationships … complex.

    1. AnonK*

      While not a perfect test of decency by any means, one of my standard interview questions is:

      Tell me about a time where you had to take an action that may not have been popular or well received, but that you felt strongly was the right thing to do.

      I like this question because it really gives an insight into what a candidate thinks is right, and when it is time to draw that line in the sand.

      Also, it’s helped me eliminate some people. I’ve gotten some VERY nutty answers to this one.

        1. AnonK*

          The worst ones are usually political or religious in nature. Even if I was in agreement with what their point of view, I just don’t think either are appropriate for job interviews. I’ve gotten some homophobic and racist answers. I’ve gotten some very fundamentalist Christian answers. I had someone go off that his ex-wife wanted to homeschool his kids.

          The most draw dropping one I got I almost don’t want to type because it will upset someone (it really upset me!) but it was requested, so I aim to please. I had a guy who started telling me a story about how his wife brought home a cat and he didn’t like cats, but his children were attached and there was no way that he could say no. One day, when nobody was home, he…. well, let’s just say the cat was no longer there by the time the kids came home and it wasn’t living with a nice couple on the farm. He felt strongly his home should be pet free. I obviously did not hire this nut. I almost thought about calling the police when he left.

          Since I’m in IT, I often get some fun answers that are amazingly petty. Arguments about Mac vs. PC, which text editor they prefer, which video game console is superior, etc. Completely NOT in the spirit of the question, but still helps me understand what is important to them in the grand scheme of things.

          1. Ruffingit*

            OMG! Because killing an innocent animal is totally something you should admit to in an interview. GAH. That is really, really awful, so sorry you had to hear that story. I’m sure this jerk went into graphic detail too since he seems the type to do that just based on the fact that he was willing to tell that story in the first place.

            1. AnonK*

              What really is amazing is that he had the job. It was his to lose by the time I asked the question.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              This is alarming to me because social workers know there is a strong correlation between animal abusers and child abusers.
              It’s about willingness, if he is willing to kill a cat– that his family LOVED– what else is he willing to do? And then to go into work and talk about it??? omg. Definitely a person to be careful around.

          2. AnonK*

            And reading this several hours later, I see all my iPhone autocorrects here. I apologize. How embarassing!

      1. Whippers*

        This kind of interview question scares me because I wouldn’t know what the hell to say! It makes me feel like I should be standing up for what I believe in and making moral stands in order to be a decent person and I don’t know that a lot of people genuinely do this in their daily life.

        What have been good answers to this question?

        1. AnonK*

          What I’m really looking for is work related answers. Example would be where you may have been told to do something for policy’s sake, only to realize it didn’t make sense.

          I once hired someone who explained a scenario where she was expected to cut off a service to a customer after XYZ. Anything above and beyond required a greater contract with her company. She went on to describe how she figured a client this big would be more expensive to lose than to eat the cost of elevated support. That was good for me because they showed she wasn’t someone who would always go off the reservation, but knew when it was time to make the judgement call.

          To be honest, as long as you aren’t psycho, I don’t eliminate you for this answer. It’s just a good indicator that you 1. know when to color outside the lines and 2. you know where the lines are.

  8. anon*

    These also seem like really good things to look for in coworkers (and supervisors?) if you are the interviewee trying to get a sense of a workplace’s culture.

  9. Adam*

    The sense to not send me those giant html laden spam emails about how this is CUTEST/FUNNIEST/MOST INSPIRING THING EVAR!!

    …Oh wait that’s my mother.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Hello brothers and sisters. I too am in the boat of receiving blatantly false emails about politician du jour, cutsie emails that I must drop everything to read or watch, etc. Le sigh.

  10. T*

    Reliability. I think this somewhat overlaps decency and communication. I once had a supervisor who was totally unreliable. He repeatedly failed to do things that he either implied or explicitly stated that he would do. Once I figured this out, I had to adjust my thinking so that I was pleasantly surprised when he did follow through instead of being quite so frustrated when he didn’t. In other work situations it might be even worse if someone is not reliable.

    Customer focused and team oriented. I’ve worked in a number of organizations with heavy emphasis on customer service. You can’t just say, “that’s not my job.” Help a coworker or customer graciously even if a task doesn’t fall within your job description. If you aren’t able to do the task, take ownership and find someone who can.

    My question in all this is, how can you successfully determine any of these characteristics during the hiring process?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Some of it is reference checking, but most of it is really probing into the details of their past experiences and how they operated. Lots of “tell me about a time when…” questions with lots of follow-up probing on their answers, like:
      That sounds hard. How did you handle X?
      And then what?
      What was your thinking on Y?
      How did you approach X?

      1. Mints*

        Does that count for decency too? Could you ask “Tell me about a time you accidentally said something insensitive” But that seems like a stretch (I’m not hiring, just curious)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Doesn’t really work on decency — that’s more a matter of your overall screening and sense of the person, combined with nipping jerkiness in the bud when you see it in your workplace.

    2. some1*

      +1 to reliable. Don’t call in sick when you’re hungover. Don’t take two hour lunches all the time. Don’t quit without notice.

    3. Ruffingit*

      +100 on the reliability issue. Had a boss with that same issue. I knew that nothing she promised would actually happen. After awhile, I made my peace with it and slogged ahead. If she was willing to pay me to do work that took 5 hours (but would have taken only 1 or 2 if she followed through on training, help from others that was promised, etc) then whatever. It’s her dime. Still though, I was glad to get out of that environment because the lack of reliability is generally and irritating issue.

  11. Sharon*

    I would add “follow-through”. It drives me batty to have to chase down coworkers (and sometimes managers) to get a status on something they were asked to do. Whether I’m acting as team lead and coordinating the work of several people, or my tasks depend on the other person’s task being done first, I expect people to let me know when they finish things or run into problems that will cause delays.

    I know this sounds like a manager’s complaint about subordinates. I seriously feel like I’m the only person in the world who provides task-based status reports to whoever is waiting for the task, and it really peeves me that so few coworkers do this. I shouldn’t have to constantly bug them with “are you done yet”, “are you done yet?” “when do you think you’ll be done?”…

    1. Amanda*


      I hate having to to chase down people for updates! I always provide status updates on longer term projects, or quickly follow up on anything else. It’s so frustrating to constantly have to chase someone because I’m sure I come across as annoying.

    2. Jessica*

      Are you letting them know when you need it by in the first place? I have a several people giving me tasks and projects at my job and unless they give me a deadline, well, I’m going to have to prioritize it myself along with the zillion other things I have to do.

  12. Rebecca*

    I’m printing this off tomorrow and putting it on my bulletin board to give me an incentive to find another job faster.

  13. Anonymous*

    There are some coworkers who I don’t need improvement from them, I just need them to not make mistakes and make my job harder.

  14. Anonymous*


    My coworker is all about herself. She has even bamboozled the bosses into getting her way all the time. She’ll do something only if it doesn’t inconvenience her, and even if it does, she find a way to make another coworker pay for it. The bosses just either shrug their shoulders or excuse it as to how she’s been for all the time she’s worked there. But they’ll be quick to put me and my other coworkers in our places if we try to pull the same stunt or they will say, “We’ll see how Jane wants it.”

    If I was a multimillionaire and/or had another job offer in hand, I’d be out the door – and it would be because of her (and because of the bosses lack of authority).

    1. Anon for this*

      This is what I’m worried about with our current dean’s assistant as we search for a new dean. She is always only looking out for herself and has been known to lie about people’s duties or badmouth them to anyone who will listen if she thinks it will make her look important. The staff as a whole (plus the three department heads) feel really burned by the previous dean’s lack of authority with her; even if he didn’t agree with her, he was weak enough to acquiesce to much of what she wanted just to appease her.

      We (the staff) have a chance to interview each dean candidate for an hour when they come for their campus interview visits. What kinds of questions can we ask to find out what his leadership style is regarding managing the staff? We want a dean who will make informed decisions and be fairly transparent in articulating his reasoning, not one (like we’ve had so far) who is influenced by whoever is the loudest or the most persistently conniving.

      1. Cassie*

        I have a similar situation where one staff member is the most vocal, but also has (possibly) the most warped sense of judgement. I don’t trust anything she says – not because I don’t like her, but because if I’m hearing something from her, it’s been filtered by her and can’t be taken at face value.

        And likewise, the big boss is too nice and tries to appease her. I hope the next big boss is transparent and makes informed decisions (but not just based on her input!) too.

        1. Anon for this*

          How can staff members warn a new leader off relying overly much on the warped judgment of one person without coming across as everyone ganging up against that person? In our case, the three department heads have discussed having a chat with the new dean when he comes on board. I guess it seems best at this point for the rest of us staff members to leave our concerns with our department heads, since they are on the same page as us about wanting the new dean to take anything the dean’s assistant says with a huge, huge grain of salt.

          1. Cassie*

            I totally know how you feel! As much as I want every affected staff member speak up, I fear that the higher ups will think we’re just ganging up on that one person. At least it looks like your dept heads have a clear idea of what’s going on (which is more than what we have).

      1. Anonymous*

        I really don’t know why, and I wish I had an answer for both of us. All I know is my boss is weak. While I treat him as an authority figure, as the one who makes decisions, etc., he really has absolutely no authority whatsoever. When he relinquishes it to “Jane,” he has lost all control. Even though rumor has it she has been like this and getting her way long before either he or I have been there, it still makes me wonder if she has something on him and/or his equivalent. I really would like to know the truth behind the whole thing and why these grown adults are afraid of her. She’s been known to throw a tantrum, too. Like I said, I’m fed up, and my respect for my boss dwindles each time he forfeits his managerial duties to her whims.

  15. Gilby*

    Know-it-all-ness and being condecending is a trait that will totally put off co-workers. I work with one now (I am a temp).

    She has stated clearly she feels she needs to “mother” people and argues pretty much any opinion you have on anything. Literally she is the potato pahtato person. You say you like Au gratin, instead of saying ” that’s nice” she will find someway to argue her point for scalloped basically telling you what your opinion should be.

    She truely believes she is smarter and knows more than others. She told me… ” I know more than the sales people and I can do better than all of them. Even though I am younger I have been doing this for 10 years ”
    I have no problem working with younger people ( I am 22 years older ) and have all the respect for them with the stuff they know that I don’t.

    But she totally beleives she well above anyone in maturity, age and knowledge in general and would probably tell a 80 year old about life.
    She is 29 going on 9……..

    1. Nancy*

      I had a boss just like that. She thinks she is outsmart everyone. when we hired a woman who has more education and certification than she has. She rear talks to this woman and purposely excluded this women in team event.

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