What is Accountability and How Can You Hire for It?

Accountability. The term sometimes veers into “buzzword” territory, where people in the workplace know it’s valuable and important, but it’s hard to actually define.

What does it mean? What does an accountable person do in the office? And how do you actually find someone who’s accountable to join your organization? We cover all that and more below.

What accountability means

An accountable person takes full responsibility for their own actions, and they consider the consequences of those actions. If a mistake is made, they own up and make amends. But accountability isn’t all negative. Being accountable also means taking ownership for accomplishments and ideas, too.

Accountable employees admit when they’re wrong or when they’ve messed up, but there are positive aspects to it, too. Accountable employees are unafraid to offer their opinion or offer up their ideas for consideration. Accountability means being willing to embrace failure or the possibility of failure.

Why accountability is important in the workplace

When you have a team of employees who keeps their promises, acknowledges their mistakes, and honestly celebrates their accomplishments, you create a culture of accountability. You can count on your team to be responsible and honest.

It’ll also make planning strategies and setting realistic goals much easier. When your employees are honest about their abilities and limitations, you won’t have to worry as much about not meeting your goals. And when your team does come up against challenges or errors, you’ll get over them much more quickly with accountable people.

Look for accountability using these interview questions

Now that you know what accountability is and why it’s important, you’ll be able to recognize it in potential new hires. Ask the following questions and listen to your candidate’s responses so you can detect their level of accountability.

Bonus: these questions can also be used in performance reviews for current employees.

Give me an example of a time you made a mistake.

Okay, no one likes to admit they messed up, but an honest and accountable person will ‘fess up in an interview. When a candidate answers this question, pay attention to what they say and how they say it. Do they blame someone else for causing the mistake? How did they handle the consequences? And most importantly, what did they learn from the experience?

For example, someone could say that they made a big error in a presentation they put together with other team members, and it was revealed during a meeting. An accountable candidate might say that they realized their mistake right away and took responsibility for it rather than blaming the group. They made the error because they didn’t factor in enough time to review and edit their work. But going forward they’re much more vigilant about doing that with every presentation.

If your candidate gives you an answer like that, you probably have an accountable person on your hands. Especially if they answer with confidence and humility. If you have someone that says all the right things but acts annoyed or shifty, they may just be telling you things they know you want to hear.

Tell me what a typical work day is like for you.

This question helps you assess what kind of work-life balance a potential employee maintains. An accountable person works hard, but they’re also honest about their work habits. You want someone who’s neither a workaholic or a perpetual loiterer.

If you get a short response like “I come in at 9 am and leave around 5:30 pm,” don’t be afraid to push for more details. How often do they take breaks? When and where do they eat lunch? Do they have morning or afternoon activities before and after work?

For example, Candidate One might talk about how they get to work an hour early before everyone else, eat breakfast and lunch at their desk, and are the last person to leave the office. They don’t walk away from their desk unless they have to. And they’re always available in case you need them to work extra hours.

That might sound like a dream for a manager, but take an honest look at Candidate One. They work too hard and too many hours, meaning their health might be at risk. And it seems like their job is all they have going on in their lives, which also isn’t healthy.

Candidate Two, on the other hand, might talk about how they eat a healthy breakfast at home before getting to work on time. The first few hours in the day are their most productive, so that’s when they get the most work done. They like to eat with a different person from their team everyday so they can get to know each other. They leave at the same time as everyone else, but they’re open to staying late every once in awhile if needed. On the way home they hit up the gym, or they go home right away to spend time with their family. (And they keep their phone off.)

Candidate Two clearly has better work-life balance. They keep their personal and professional time separate for the most part. They value their time at work as much as they value their time at home.

It may be hard to tell how accurate a candidate is assessing themselves, but at least you’ll get some clues into their work habits and accountability.

Tell me about your greatest weakness.

Here’s another tough question that no one likes answering. But just like the first question about making mistakes, it’s a great measure of your candidate’s honesty and self-awareness. If your candidate says “I don’t have any weaknesses” or they give you a humblebrag response like “I work too hard,” then they may need to work on those traits.

An accountable candidate will give you a candid, sincere response. Hopefully, they’ll also give you a sign that they’re actively working to improve themselves. For example, a great candidate might say that they have trouble with public speaking because they get too nervous. To get better at it, they try to speak up more in meetings, and they practice a lot before important presentations. An honest answer like that shows that they know themselves and they’re working hard to be better.

Build a culture of accountability from the ground up

When you hire for accountability, you’ll know that your new employees will positively contribute to your organization’s culture of accountability. Don’t forget to enforce it throughout your entire company, though. Accountability comes from the top. Make sure your organization’s leadership is setting a good example for everyone else to follow.