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4 ways to identify toxic employees before hiring them

Entrepreneurs are often focused on bringing in people with the best skill set, but they also need to know how to avoid hiring toxic employees.

4 ways to identify toxic employees before hiring them
[Photo: Flickr user SDASM Archives]

Two minutes into my interview with Mike, and something felt off. On paper, he ticked all the boxes I sought in a new hire: talented, smart, resourceful. But in person, his answers were curt, overly cocky, and he seemed to “know it all.”

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Nearly two decades ago, I started hiring for my startup. I was told to focus on talent when seeking out new members for my team—to keep my eye open for that candidate who truly stood out. But years later, I’ve chosen to let my gut guide me instead.

I didn’t end up hiring Mike that day. As entrepreneurs, we want to bring on people with the best skill set. But we often overlook the importance of weeding out toxic employees who may look good on paper but can end up disrupting our workplace.

The cost of toxic employees

Bringing the wrong person into your company’s culture can have catastrophic results. You’ll see this in underperforming employees, rampant complaining, high turnover rates, and a general vibe of unhappiness. As Gwen Moran previously noted for Fast Company, once a culture has gone bad, it’s hard to rebuild relationships and trust.

Adding even one toxic employee poisons the well. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that rudeness, like the common cold, is contagious. Negativity begets negativity, and it’s far too easy to fall into its trap.

How can you prevent this train wreck from happening? Making wise, calculated hires isn’t easy. Inevitably, you’re bound to come across candidates who talk a good talk in their interview but who will rudely respond to a follow-up email.

In the 13 years I’ve spent building my company, JotForm, I’ve identified and adapted four main ways to avoid hiring toxic employees. Here’s what I learned.

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1. Hone your hiring process

Establishing a system way before you decide to take on someone new can help you map out best practices. Set aside time to clearly define your company’s values, and come up with a list of potential hires to keep on hand that you can reference.

For example, I have a spreadsheet I regularly update with people I’ve networked with that could be a great fit for our team. You can also have your recruiters or HR staff keep an eye out for prospective candidates. And when it comes to coordinating your hiring process, include trusted colleagues who can help you evaluate applicants and offer fresh perspectives. Even if you believe you have a sixth sense for recruiting, letting others weigh in can alert you to red flags that you might have missed.

2. Observe behavior

As I’ve mentioned above, it’s easy to laser in on a person’s skill set rather than see if they’ll make a good culture fit. But one fail-proof way to discard a bad hire is to observe their behavior. How they treat others can reveal a lot more about their character than any eloquent answers they can offer.

Here are some questions to keep in mind the moment they walk in: Do they treat your admin assistant and office janitor with respect? Is their personality naturally warm? How do they respond to your other teammates during the interview?

Granted, you should take into account their pre-interview nervousness, but pay close attention to any tension or entitlement in their interactions. As a leader, your decision to bring someone on should be based on the behavior you witness and not just on the words you hear.

3. Assess according to values

One of the strongest predictors that someone will make a great team player is if their values align with your company’s mission. When assessing a potential hire, observe what their overall mindset is. Research published in Personnel Psychology shows that employees who are a good match with a company’s culture tend to report higher job satisfaction. So taking time to carefully evaluate a person’s values is essential for ensuring a happier environment.

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Test their emotional intelligence by asking how they’ve responded to challenges in the past. Do their answers reflect a personal responsibility for their behavior? Or do they place blame on their previous boss or colleagues?

As Christine Porath wrote for Harvard Business Review, look for signs of civility. “Understanding how the candidate behaved in the past will help you assess whether they’ll be civil when they come work for you,” Porath wrote. All of the above references will get at the heart of their true values.

Ask yourself whether they display intellectual humility—are they open to new ideas and willing to learn? Studies have found that those who have this characteristic can appreciate other people’s intellectual strengths, which is vital for fostering a harmonious workplace.

4. Don’t rush the hire

There’s nothing worse than being desperate when you’re considering bringing someone on board. Skill and talent can seem like that shiny new option you’ve been looking for, but you want someone who will add to your company’s culture and inspire those around them, not bring down morale. Rushing a decision will more than likely guarantee a wrong fit.

The toughest part of weeding out toxic employees is having the patience and willpower to narrow your selection and make an informed decision. Take your time. Keep in mind that making a bad hire will set you back in cost and time training them. This may mean you perform two rounds of interviews and follow-up with references, but at the end of the day, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that they’re the perfect addition to your team.

Building a business and leading a team requires a slow and steady approach to stay on track. As Porath noted, it’s better to catch any toxic behavior before the person joins your company. “Do your homework. Rely on structured, behavioral interviews. Conduct thorough reference checks. Investigate hunches thoroughly. And put your best foot forward.”

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Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections and more.

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