Toxic Employees: How Hiring Managers Identify Them

Toxic work environments have become a big problem in the technology industry, leading to low morale, decreased productivity and turnover. According to our recent survey, as well as a separate survey by Blind, over half of technologists say their office environment is toxic.

Many companies are trying to nip toxicity in the bud by weeding out potentially poisonous professionals during the hiring process. To make sure you don’t create the wrong impression, here’s how hiring managers spot a potentially toxic employee during the various stages of the interview process—along with some ways to change if you realize that you could be hard to deal with.

Incivility

Michel Falcon embraces Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ policy of not hiring “brilliant jerks.” The author and keynote speaker starts looking for toxic behaviors and traits during the phone interview.

Falcon carefully analyzes a candidate’s demeanor when they answer the phone. For example, do they sound hospitable and excited to speak? He even goes so far as to call back unannounced to see if the candidate greets him in the same way (in order to gauge their consistency and genuineness).

For example, Falcon asks candidates to arrive 15 minutes early for an in-person interview, and he also conducts group interviews to see how a candidate interacts with everyone from the receptionist to future co-workers.

His entire staff is trained to spot toxic characteristics that extend beyond the superficial aspects of a formal interview setting.

Rude workers have a stronger impact on the organization than civil workers, according to research by Dr. Christine Porath, author of “Mastering Civility.” To evaluate a candidate’s true demeanor and the way they are likely to treat others, she recommends following up with every employee who encounters the candidate, not just those on the interview schedule.

Finally, Porath asks the candidate’s references some questions about the candidate’s emotional intelligence, collaborative skills and ability to read people (and adjust accordingly). This helps to evaluate their civility.

Self-Centeredness

Do they ask about stock options and salary right off the bat, or do they wait for an appropriate time to discuss money?

When it’s all about “me, me, me,” that’s a sign of someone who will put their own needs ahead of the team, Falcon added.

Indeed, a Harvard study showed that toxic workers tended to think of their own needs and desires far more than the needs and desires of their co-workers. Worse, they are not just egotistical—toxic workers generally lack an awareness of their impact on others. If you’re interviewing, avoid the impression that you’re toxic by asking questions about your teammates and workflow; emphasize your collaborative skills, and talk about why you’re passionate for a particular position.

Overconfidence

The more overconfident a candidate is, the more likely they are to be toxic. Taking pride in one’s achievements is fine, but toxic candidates brag and overstate their abilities. Then they shatter their credibility by underperforming in technical interviews and assessments.

That’s why interviewers look for a dose of humility when they ask candidates to describe their greatest accomplishments and successes, as well as contradictions between professed and actual skills. If you’re asked to describe your weaknesses, make sure to come up with something substantive that you’re actively working on.  

Blaming Others

A toxic employee doesn’t take responsibility for their mistakes, explained Laura Tanner, who oversees hiring as an operations manager for a mid-sized company. They blame others when she asks them to describe a failed project or a time that they didn’t meet expectations.

“I really dig in by asking two to three follow-up questions, to see take ownership or shift blame,” Tanner said. “It takes a mature person to take responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes.”

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Employees who express their anger or opinions in a passive-aggressive way may resort to sabotage or grousing to their peers when they disagree with a decision made by a project owner or manager.

That’s why Tanner asks candidates to describe a time when they disagreed with their boss. Or to tell her about a time when a co-worker asked them to cut corners or they were forced to take an unpopular stance with their peers, to see if they know how to communicate and get along.

“It’s a red flag if they can’t come up with an example,” she said. “It’s also a red flag if the person seems resigned to accepting a bad decision when they were better solutions.”

A non-toxic candidate feels empowered to take a difficult stand and knows how to handle sensitive topics, conflicts or mistakes by taking a diplomatic approach.

Overcoming Toxic Behaviors

If you fear that you may be guilty of toxic behaviors, conduct a personal assessment or self-audit and solicit feedback from your peers.

Identify three things you want to get better at and create a personal improvement plan. Feedback is critical to improving performance. Let your teammates know you’re not perfect and are constantly looking to improve and grow.

5 Responses to “Toxic Employees: How Hiring Managers Identify Them”

  1. Toxicity starts higher up on a ladder and rarely with the people in trenches.
    Front line employees simply get resentful of the systematic chaos and policies that cut into their personal lives.
    Toxicity starts with the upper management, their unrealistic demands, mistreatments.