Screening For Toxic Qualities In Candidates

You did it — you found your unicorn. You found the perfect candidate with the skills and experience you need. Their resume looks great, and they seem like a good fit in their interview, so you bring them on board.

After their first few weeks on the job, you fear you made a mistake. Your unicorn is conquering deadlines and turning in awesome work, but at the expense of the rest of the team. They’re toxic, and you don’t know what went wrong.

In a May 2014 survey of 2,978 job seekers and HR professionals by Millennial Branding and, 43 percent of hiring managers rank “cultural fit” as the most important thing when hiring a candidate. And when assessing cultural fit, 84 percent are looking for a positive attitude.

Although a candidate looks great on paper and is pleasant in an interview, it doesn’t mean they’re the right person for the job. The best skills and experience can be accompanied by a negative attitude and toxic qualities that applicants can easily hide.

If you find a professional who seems too good to be true, use the interview to screen for these toxic qualities:


The toxic attitude: Skilled employees come to work each day, they do their jobs, and they do them well. But some top performers may be unwilling to help others who need it simply because it’s not their job.

Toxic professionals may think that if they are excelling in their role and bringing value to the company, they don’t need to spend their time doing work for other people — if other people are struggling to do their jobs, it’s not their problem.

What to ask: What has been your greatest accomplishment so far? How did you achieve it and what lessons have you learned?

What to listen for: When interviewing promising candidates, watch out for those who overly brag about their skills and achievements. If they only talk about their success in terms of “I,” not “we,” that’s a sign that your star candidate might not be a team player.


The toxic attitude: Professionals with in-demand skills and a good track record know the value they bring to employers and that they are needed. But those who think they are the best can be blind to their own mistakes.

A CareerBuilder survey of U.S. workers ranging from managers to entry-level employees conducted in May and June of 2014 found that 41 percent of respondents had felt bullied at work when someone ignored or dismissed their comments.

Skilled professionals may be too proud to take corrections, advice, and criticisms from co-workers and managers. In addition, they may fail to ask for help when they need it, which wastes everyone’s time.

What to ask: Tell me about a stressful or challenging time at work? How did you handle the situation?

What to listen for: Arrogant candidates will have a hard time admitting they needed help from others. The candidate you want will have no problem talking about the team members who helped them, how they asked their managers for help, or how the team worked together in times of crisis.


The toxic attitude: Professionals who are already at the top may not feel motivated to improve their performance. They’re good at what they do and can finish tasks quickly, so they can become bored easily — yet they won’t take the initiative to do more.

These professionals might not enjoy the meaning behind their work and the impact it has. Instead, they work with a clock-in, clock-out mentality, putting in minimal effort while on the job because their minimum might be someone else’s best.

What to ask: Tell me about your favorite or most rewarding moments from your current or previous job. What made them so special?

What to listen for: It’s a red flag if a candidate only talks about the superficial aspects of their work experience. Those who speak about awards they’ve won or recognition they’ve received may only be motivated by tangible awards, not by the work itself. Look for the candidate who finds joy in their work and its deeper impact.


The toxic attitude: Highly skilled professionals may expect special treatment and those who don’t get it might start complaining. They turn in quality work, but whine the whole way.

They complain about tasks they feel are beneath them, clients, their pay, or their team member’s work. While it’s OK to negotiate for a higher salary or bring up serious problems in the workplace, toxic employees can only see the negative in every situation, dragging the rest of the team down into their Eeyore mindset.

Every top performer doesn’t have a bad attitude, but those who do can sneak their way through your hiring process. Screen high quality candidates to find toxic traits before they infect your workplace.
Have you ever found toxic qualities in skilled professionals? How did you handle it?

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