How to Spot a Potentially Toxic Hire During a Job Interview

Wednesday, November 4, 2020
It costs about $4,425 to recruit and hire an employee and more than three times that if they’re an executive. You don’t want to make a mistake, especially hiring an employee that disrupts the workplace. When you avoid hiring a toxic employee, you save about $12,500 in lost productivity and impaired morale. But how?

It’s possible to spot toxic potential employees during the interview process, including via Zoom, says leadership team coach Mike Goldman, author of Breakthrough Leadership Team: Strengthening the Heart and Soul of Your Company.

“A mis-hire can be costly when you factor in the lost productivity, onboarding costs, and low morale. Still, the average company mis-hires 75% of the time,” he says. “But with the right onboarding strategy, you’ll decrease your chances of hiring an underperformer and find the right people for your team.”

First, it’s important to understand what is and isn’t a toxic employee.

“People think that a toxic team member means they’re a bad person,” says Goldman. “What is toxic depends on the team you’re on and the culture. There are no toxic people. There are only people who are toxic to particular culture. The first thing a company needs to do is to define and build the right culture.”

Culture is built from an organization’s core values, vision, and willingness to be vulnerable, explains Goldman. A toxic employee is someone who will not fit within that culture.

“Values is most important as it relates to culture,” says Goldman. “A lot of companies have a beautiful plaque on the wall in their lobby with their core values. It sounds nice to their clients, but often the words don’t mean anything.”

Core values are a small number of nonnegotiable behaviors that anchors the corporate culture and reflects what’s best, right and noble about the organization. “If one of the core values is teamwork, and you have an individual working in the company that doesn’t help anybody else, that person is toxic to the culture no matter how talented and productive,” says Goldman.

To spot someone who is toxic during an interview, Goldman suggests looking for three things:

Look for someone already living your core values. Instead of telling the candidate your values and asking how they represent them, ask them questions about past jobs that will get them to share the values you’re seeking. For example, if your core value is teamwork, you can ask if the candidate prefers to work to autonomously or as part of a group. If your core value is innovation, ask what ideas the candidate brought to their manager that were implemented.

“Make sure you’re asking questions that get to heart of living your core values,” says Goldman. “If they’re not, it could be a big red flag. Don’t think for a minute that they’ll live a different set of values at your organization. It’s hard to coach someone who is not consistent.”

Leaders also need to be clear on the purpose of their organization as well as on their short-term vision and a long-term vision. “Why do you exist?” asks Goldman. “For example, Disney exists to create happiness.”

When you’re in the interview process, get a sense for whether this candidate seems to resonate with your vision. This requires that you look at attitude and personality in addition to their skill set. If your vision, like Disney, is to create happiness for your customers, assess the person’s energy and outlook to determine if it matches. You can ask behavioral questions that get to the heart of your vision.

“They may want a job, but don’t connect with your vision,” says Goldman. “They may be perfectly fine from nine to five, but they won’t be a superstar. You want someone who will be an evangelist of your vision.”

Finally, you want someone who is going to be willing to tell the truth even when it’s difficult. “They need humility to put the organization first and hold themselves accountable,” says Goldman.

During the interview, ask them to describe their greatest weakness or to talk about a time when they were wrong. The more forthcoming they are, the greater chance they’ll be willing to tell the truth as your employee. You want someone who learns from mistakes, but who isn’t afraid to admit them, too.

Whether the interview is in person or on Zoom, you should be able to measure a candidate’s fit and add to your culture. “The bottomline is this: Will the candidate improve your culture or be toxic to it?” asks Goldman.

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