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How to Avoid Hiring the Toxic Employee

In light of the damage a toxic employee can inflict on a company, it makes sense that the best option is to avoid hiring toxic employees in the first place.  While this is more difficult than it sounds, there are some proactive measures that employers can take in the hiring process.   One of the best measures is to develop a company culture that has zero tolerance for toxic behavior.  The best organizations make explicit their intolerance for bad apples: they spell out which behaviors are unacceptable in the workplace and act decisively to prevent and halt them. 

This concept has been succinctly demonstrated by CEO Robert W. Baird, who heads a wealth management firm that handles over $100 billion in assets.  His primary rule for employees is not to put their egos ahead of their clients or the company.  Baird calls this “the no a**hole rule,” and says job applicants and employees violate it at their peril.[29]  In a 2013 interview he explained, “I tell them, ‘If you're an a**hole, don't come here. We'll fire you.’”[30]  Baird says he has made good on that promise, even with top producers. “It's not hard at all… People in the trenches stand up and cheer you because they see you really mean it.”[31] 

In a recent article by the Harvard Business Review, Georgetown University Professor of Management Christine Porath offered the following advice to employers hoping to weed out toxic applicants in the hiring process:[32]

Interview for civility and emotional intelligence.  In the average interview, the discussion usually focuses on job skills and experience, but a focus should be on the applicant’s civility in a workplace environment. Porath advises avoiding hypothetical questions, and instead requesting specific examples of how their past behavior matches the values you are seeking in an employee.  Porath says examples of such questions might include: [33]

  • What would your former employer say about you — positive and negative? [34]
  • What would your former subordinates say about you — positive and negative? [35]
  • What about yourself would you like to improve most? How about a second thing? A third? [36]
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to deal with stress or conflict at work. What did you do? [37]
  • What are some signals that you’re under too much stress? [38]
  • When have you failed? Describe the circumstances and how you dealt with and learned from the experience. [39]
  • What are some examples of your ability to manage and supervise others? When have you done this well? [40]
  • What kind of people do you find it most difficult to work with? Tell me about a time when you’ve found it difficult to work with someone. How did you handle it? [41]
  • Does the candidate speak negatively of former employers or others? [42]
  • Does the candidate take responsibility for behaviors, results, and outcomes, or do they blame others? [43]
  • Follow up with every employee who encounters the candidate, not just those on the  interview schedule. How an applicant treats individuals who they do not view as important to the hiring process can speak volumes.  How did they treat the person who drove them from the airport or the receptionist?  Were they friendly and polite or rude and condescending? [44]  
  • Porath recommends that a person-to-person call to a reference “is more likely to reveal any specific behavioral problems. Seasoned recruiters report that the most useful data they get from references comes from follow-up questions, and mainly from the reference’s tone, demeanor, and pace — not necessarily their words. Listen very closely and follow up on hints of trouble.” [50]
  • Ask the applicant's references structured questions that get at the heart of the individual's civility, such as:
    • “What’s it like working with him?” [45]
    • “What could he improve on?” [46]
    • “Did her behavior ever reflect negatively on your organization?” [47]
    • “How did his subordinates feel about working for him?” [48]
    • “How emotionally intelligent does she seem? Is she able to read people and adjust accordingly?” [49]

There is no sure-fire vaccine against hiring a toxic employee, and no guaranteed antidote to fix the problem once they are hired, short of termination.  However, employer awareness of the potential problems can go a long way in making your workplace a toxin-free environment.

This is the final column of a five part series about the toxic employee:


[29] Sandra A. Swanson, Best Places to Work 2013, Crain’s Chicago Business (April 1, 2013).
[30] Id.
[31] Id.
[32] Christine Porath, How to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee, Harvard Business Review (Feb. 3, 2016) .
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id.
[37] Id.
[38] Id.
[39] Id.
[40] Id.
[41] Id.
[42] Id.
[43] Id.
[44] Id.
[45] Id.
[46] Id.
[47] Id.
[48] Id.
[49] Id.
[50] Id.

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