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Five Interview Questions That Reveal Signs Of A Toxic Employee

As an HR manager, managing toxic employees is all part of the job. That doesn't mean it isn't painful - for you as well as for your organisation. Here's how you can spot them early and avoid the headache for your team and the business.
Published 21 Oct 2021
4 min read
Five Interview Questions That Reveal Signs Of A Toxic Employee

We come today with 5 potent interview questions designed to help you weed out those pesky, overconfident energy-suckers before they even get to contract. As an HR manager, managing toxic employees is all part of the job. That doesn’t mean it isn’t painful – for you as well as for your organisation.

A recent working paper from Harvard Business School showed how toxic workers cost a business an estimated US$25,000 to US$50,000 each. So it pays to avoid recruiting them in the first place. Trouble is, they can be sneakily tricky to recognise until they’re in the thick of your organisation.

Five interview questions to reveal toxic employees

1. What is one of your biggest failures, and how could you have done better?

No-one likes to dwell on their failures, but how someone responds to a disappointment is telling. A typical toxic employee, for example, will have a super hard time recognising their own faults yet will be snappy to point the finger of blame at others.

What does this mean for you? Well, in our experience, candidates who can’t accept responsibility for their own shortcomings, are highly unlikely to accept advice or constructive criticism from their colleagues or managers. They are equally unlikely to recognise and learn from their mistakes (because – remember, they didn’t make any!).

Tellingly, these candidates generally won’t ask for help when they need it, and they won’t appreciate their team members who go above and beyond to help them out. Asking interview questions where interviewees have to describe an experience in which things did not turn out quite as well as they’d hoped, and what they did about it, gives you insight into how they perform under pressure. Watch for the red flags when they blame others.

2. What is your biggest success, and how did you achieve it?

While toxic candidates find it hard to shoulder the blame for failures, they are usually super-fast to accept praise. Other signs of a toxic employee to watch out for are counting team success as their personal achievements. You can hear them describe success in terms of “I”, not “we”, joyously disregarding any help they received along the way.

These guys are definitely not team players. Anyone who only wants to talk about his or her personal wins in past positions without crediting co-workers, is literally flaunting a major ego problem. Sound: alarm bells. On the flip side, a great candidate will always show their passion for doing their best work, the role they played in their team, and the impact the team had on the organisation.

3. What skill do you think you lack in the most?

A potentially toxic employee typically thinks they know it all and isn’t interested in learning new skills. On the other hand, candidates who truly want to grow will easily identify skills they need to acquire and find simple, inexpensive ways of doing so. Interview questions that reveal a candidate’s more vulnerable side give great insight into their personality.

4. Tell us about your ideal workday

In any work environment, good relationships are so important to team morale and job satisfaction. But they aren’t everything. And it’s not a good sign for a candidate to simply focus on the social aspects of their workday, and not the actual work. Look for candidates who think it’s important to form working relationships and get along with others, while completing their work.

5. What five things would you change about your current role, and why?

It’s perfectly normal for candidates to dislike parts of their current role, but they should be able to explain the issues without complaining about or blaming any particular person. Asking for five different things really pushes them to focus on issues and you may pressure them into revealing signs of toxicity.

So your candidate has navigated unheeded through your fine toxicity filter. Good job! Here are a couple of final tips to be super sure you’ve got a high-performer on the line.

Extra Tips!

Don’t just rely on interview questions: reference check!

Even when candidates have the perfect replies to these questions and are looking like a strong fit, make sure you actually speak with referees before you offer them the job. Sure, most referees will not say anything unduly negative about a former colleague, but it’s often what they don’t say that matters.

Be specific over your call, and ask some behavioural questions that deliver some between-the-lines nuances:

  • What’s it like working with him/her?
  • How did subordinates feel about working for him/her?
  • Is he/she a team player?
  • What could he/she improve on?
  • What do you consider is their greatest attribute?

Listen very closely and be sure to drill down when you sense trouble. By using behavioural interviewing techniques and understanding how the candidate conducted themselves in the past will help you assess whether there’s any potential behavioural flaws to avoid.

Get the team involved in interview questions

Once you’ve narrowed down your shortlist to just two or three candidates, it’s smart to get the wider team to meet them. While a gifted yet toxic candidate might be able to pull the wool over your eyes, it’s unlikely they can fool the whole team.

Want more?

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