As Benjamin Franklin once said, “The rotten apple spoils his companions.”
At the office, we call those rotten apples “toxic employees.” They’re characterized not just by their negativity, but also their contagious effect on others. As Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown, told Harvard Business Review, “There’s a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating, or putting down teammates. It’s not just that Joe is rude; the whole team suffers because of it.”
Unsurprisingly, a toxic employee is expensive for your company. According to research, one bad apple costs more than two great apples. One study found that a superstar employee (defined as the top 1% of workers in terms of productivity) adds about $5,000 per year to the company’s profit.
And one toxic worker? They can cost the company around $12,000.
If your business is lucky enough to be hiring right now, it’s crucial to identify toxic employees during the interview process. Of course, as I’ve experienced firsthand with my webform company, remote recruiting can make it trickier than usual to identify detrimental employees. Add to this today’s less-than-ideal interviewing conditions, which are often ripe with distractions. While working remotely, your kitchen table is now your interview room, and your office mates are your stir-crazy kids. In this current environment, a little patience and empathy will go a long way.
With all this in mind, here are some strategies for properly vetting prospective employees over video.
Ask the difficult questions
According to a recent LinkedIn survey, many hiring managers are hesitant to take on a new hire during the pandemic. It’s understandable: How can you really get to know someone without having met them in person?
To get over this hurdle, it’s important to prepare a set of questions to help you really understand a candidate’s character. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath recommends asking about past behaviors (rather than posing hypothetical questions) and then requesting two or three examples, in order to gather the most insight.
For instance, try asking your candidate to “Describe a time when you’ve dealt with stress in the office.” Another worthwhile ask is “Can you recall working with a difficult person? If so, how did you handle them?” The interviewee’s answers will shed light on their emotional awareness, their fortitude, and the kind of people they consider “difficult.”
Also, ask questions that require the interviewee to be honest and even a little vulnerable. For instance, “What about yourself would you like to improve most?” As you listen, consider how their responses line up with your team and their values.
Through questions like these, you can discover if the candidate is humble or arrogant, as well as if they regularly take stock of their skill set and goals.
Focus on “how” over “what”
When conducting a remote interview, focus on the candidate’s responses to “how” questions. For “what” questions, you can find most of this information on a candidate’s résumé or LinkedIn page.
About each candidate, ask yourself, how do they act under pressure? What is their demeanor? And are they polite? Porath recommends homing in on a candidate’s professionalism—does the candidate speak negatively about former colleagues? Consider whether they arrived—or in today’s case, “logged on”—promptly for the interview. Prepared candidates will take the time to check their internet connections.
Porath says “to be on the lookout for signs of civility,” such as politeness and courtesy in their behavior and speech. Lacking basic civility is one of the biggest red flags in your video vetting process.
Get your team involved
An employee is toxic by virtue of his or her effect on others. That’s why it’s important to see how they act outside of the interview vacuum. A seemingly great hire might be abrasive or undermining in a group setting.
This is why I try to recruit at least two team members at JotForm to participate in the interview process. Together, we can see how a candidate interacts with their peers. What’s more, this helps the interviewee glean critical information about our company.
“You want to give the candidate a first-hand opportunity to observe your team’s and organization’s values, ” recommends Porath to HBR. “Doing so will help her consider whether she’s willing to sign up to live those values.”
Feel free to loop a candidate into group activities too, such as virtual breakfasts or check-ins. Your team members are the ones who will be working alongside a potential hire, so get them involved.
Speak with former colleagues and direct reports
As Tom Gimbel writes for Fast Company, reference checks are typically done near the end of the interview process. They’re considered as “something to check off a list rather than a valuable tool to prevent a bad hiring decision.” Hiring managers often breeze through them, but they shouldn’t, particularly when the interview process is conducted by video only.
If you want to learn how a candidate interacts with others but that person doesn’t have the opportunity to meet your team in person, your next best option is to tap the people who know your candidate best—former colleagues and direct reports.
Reach out by phone to these individuals and ask pointed questions about the candidate’s past behavior. For instance, “Tell me about a project you worked on with the candidate.” Or “How does the candidate treat coworkers or direct reports? Can you give an example?”
Also, home in on how the person answers. If a reference enthusiastically sings someone’s praises, that’s a good sign. But if they’re reluctant to answer, or they robotically describe a former colleague, I might have additional questions.
Hiring is uniquely challenging right now. By preparing your virtual strategy ahead of time, it is possible for you to vet for toxic employees. And through storytelling and creativity, you can introduce a potential new hire to your company’s culture and values.
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.