Four character traits of great employees

Phil Sheridan shares the sometimes missed signs a candidate is a superstar

There is a set of attributes that the best employees tend to share. Not just the obvious ones, like ‘smart’ or ‘trustworthy’, but subtler qualities of character that can be difficult to quantify.

When hiring, you’ll have to spend more time identifying these top candidates, but you’ll be glad you did. Here are four characteristics of great employees:

1. A DIY attitude

Micromanagement is exhausting for everyone involved. Employees today are increasingly asked to be autonomous in their work. The ability to maximise that autonomy — call it a do-it-yourself attitude — is a key character trait of a good employee. It's not productive having to watch over an employee's shoulder because you don't trust them to get the job done. What a relief when you can hand over a project, knowing it will be done well and on time.

And, if for some reason they run into trouble, DIY types often take the initiative to reach out for help long before something blows up into a serious problem.

2. A bit of an ego

Self-important and temperamental top performers often make their managers – and colleagues – miserable. Their bad attitudes and poor soft skills tend to overshadow their strengths. That being said, doormats are no fun either. Workers with fragile egos tend to shy away from challenges and get stressed out quickly.

Ideally, you want to hire people with the confidence to try new things but also the humility to admit their limits, ask questions, request feedback and reach out for help when they’re in over their head.

3. A finely tuned sense of humour

Work is no laughing matter. Or is it? Laughing and productivity aren't mutually exclusive, and a sense of humour is another common attribute of the best employees.

Humour is contagious, and when your teams laugh more they are happier. According to our recent report, The Secrets of the Happiest Companies and Employees, workers who say they have good relationships with others in their team are 2.7 times more likely to be happy in their job than those who do not get along with colleagues. 

These positive emotions open parts of the brain that drive empathy, innovation and the passion required to overcome difficulties and learn new skills. With these positive emotions, employees are able to "function much better in a team environment because [their] social intelligence will go way, way up", says Dr Christine Carter, sociologist and senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, who provided expert insight into our research.

Great employees know that humour can be a double-edged sword, though. They know the difference between making light of situations at work and making jokes that poke fun at others or are off-colour. Employees who spread (appropriate) laughter also simplify your job as a manager, helping free up at least some of the time you would otherwise have to spend on negotiating personality conflicts.

4. Diplomatic contrarianism

The best employees are able to speak truth to power – in a constructive way. They don't bury their heads in the sand when they see problems, even when the problem comes from above. But they don't draw lines in the sand, either. They are able to diplomatically communicate doubts in ways that are palatable to all parties, whether a boss, a colleague or a direct report.

To insecure bosses, such people may seem like flies in the ointment, but these employees are extremely valuable in healthy work environments. Instead of letting questionable ideas go unchallenged or allowing issues to fester, they tend to proactively seek positive, timely solutions.

Of course, managers can help cultivate all these qualities in their employees, but hiring people who have them to begin with makes your job a lot easier. And, as suggested in the four traits above, you may find that great employees don't just perform well themselves, they can also bring out the best among the entire team.

Phil Sheridan is senior managing director of Robert Half UK