How To Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee

Today we have something very interesting. A topic that has been brought to my attention by the Leadership Stack team: How to weed out toxic people when hiring?

So, we’re going to keep this simple and clean. No one wants toxic people on their team. Toxic people break down your team and cause separation and anxiety. Toxic people, ultimately, cause the team to not work well together. 

They’re a disease, a cancer that you wouldn’t want pestering in your own organization.

So how do you identify them even before you hire them?

The first thing that I do to recognize whether someone is potentially a toxic hire is to ask open-ended questions.

These are questions like: If there ever was a time when we needed to extend our working hours, or even work over the weekend for a certain project, what do you think about that? How would you feel about it?

The reason why I ask this question is that there are times when projects go unpredictably long. When they do drag out, it would require all hands on deck. And, I believe that if a team player is there and playing to win, then they will do whatever it takes.

This question shows us which people put a platinum premium on work-life balance. They’ll say “Hell no! That’s a big no for me because I am getting paid for a nine-to-five job and I’m only willing to work that far. And you know, if I need to do overtime or work over the weekends, that’s a big no-no for me.”

I’m looking out for that answer because chances are if those people are asked to work beyond working hours, then they might react negatively. They might spread misinformation, gossip, and say bad things about the management, clients, and even other team members as well.

Those are the kinds of people that you wouldn’t want on the team. So, watch out for those who put a high premium on work-life balance.

The second question I ask is: Hypothetically if I hire you today and you get fired a year from now, what would be the reason why?

And the reason why I ask this question is to see if this person really knows their weaknesses—and can admit it and can say it out loud. 

What I’m looking for here are honest answers, such as: “I procrastinate. Sometimes I get angry. I have a bad tongue. I lash out at people when I’m not having a good day. I have problems at home that affect my emotions.”

I look for the down-and-dirty, messy, grizzly things that really are weaknesses. 

Now, the answers that I don’t like are: “I’m a yes man or woman. I keep saying yes, I can’t say no. I work too hard and sometimes my health suffers because of that.”

Those are respectable answers, respectable weaknesses. However, I’ve gotten enough of those kinds of answers that I just know the person is not being honest, open, or humble enough to admit their real weaknesses during the interview.

The chances are if they can admit their weaknesses during the interview, they are a good hire. The chance of them being toxic is a lot less. And if they have problems such as lashing out or anger issues, then at least you know who you’re letting in the door.

Next, you have to get your core values straight.

Now, when we talk about core values, these are values that are non-negotiable for you as the entrepreneur, the business owner, the leader, or the organization. 

And when I say non-negotiable, that means you are willing to be penalized for it.

For example, if you have a one million dollar deal coming in and yet that big organization is asking you to compromise on your integrity, you will say, “No”. 

You’re willing to be penalized to lose that one million dollar deal because integrity is a core value of yours. Integrity is so important to you, that you’re willing to let that deal go.

If you have your core values straight—and you know what they are—then you have to communicate them and practice them. When you do communicate it to your people, then they know what you stand for. 

When people know what you stand for, there are fewer chances that you’re going to get toxic people that are unaligned with your core values trying to apply. And, even if they do, it’s going to be very easy to identify who they are. That’s because your culture will be so set that you know who’s going to fit in well and who’s not.

The next thing we have is our core values exam.

We actually put open-ended questions on our core values and ask that to every applicant that we have. In our exam, we present a scaled option, where applicants can state “no, that’s not me,” to “yes, that’s really me.”

An example of this is our questions about unity—one of our core values. One of the questions we ask for this value is: “If you have a co-worker that you have problems with, do you talk with that coworker directly or do you talk with other people about it and ask them what their opinions are?”

If the person answers, “Yeah, that’s me. I strongly agree with that. I’m going to do that.” Then that person has a high chance of gossiping. If the person answers “That’s not me, I strongly disagree with that.” Then that’s the kind of person we are looking for.

This exam system has helped SEO Hacker find hires that value unity—and are more likely to fit into our culture. 

That said, we move forward with the verbal or face-to-face interviews if we feel like this person scored significantly high in the core values exam. If, however, a person scores significantly low in the core values exam, that is a huge sign that we have to reject them.

Next is: to check the references. Call their colleagues. If they allow you to call colleagues, parents, past leaders, or managers, then do call them and ask them about this person.

What tendencies does this person have? Ask them some of the open-ended questions that you have in your core values exam regarding this person. 

Why are references important? Well, sometimes it’s hard for a person to see themselves directly. We all have our blind spots. That’s where these references come in handy. 

By asking their references the same open-ended questions, they can give you a third-party opinion and perspective about the person applying.

Next, we look for specific attributes that we consider non-toxic and essential, such as humble, hungry, and smart.

Now I have a whole episode on my podcast, Leadership Stack, where I talk about people who are humble, hungry, and smart. It’s a concept that Patrick Lencioni, an author, and thought leader, has come up with. It’s also a concept that is super important in SEO Hacker.

So, I’m going to brush quickly through what we mean by humble, hungry, and smart. 

When we say humble, these are people who can accept corrections. These are people who can admit to their weaknesses and mistakes. These are people who realize that the world does not revolve around them, and they’re not superstars who can carry it all on their own.

When I say hungry, these are people with drive and ambition. These are not people who were born rich, and just want to stay where they are, rich and comfortable. These are people who are open to being uncomfortable—who are open to being pushed. Perhaps, even to the point of exhaustion at times. 

And when we say smart, we don’t mean book smart or school smart. We mean people-smart. We mean that they can communicate with others, and make sure they are understood by others. They should also understand the other person, and where they are coming from. Being people-smart also means knowing when they need to communicate with other people in our team, and even with those outside our team. 

I remember a time when there was an applicant, and during the hiring process, they scored pretty well in our core values exam. But, when we talked to them personally, we discovered that there is not much humility there. 

This person might have been people-smart, and might have had the drive to work hard—but they didn’t have a lot of humility.

And humility, as I’ve said, is one of the most important traits that we are looking for in our hires. So, when push came to shove and we had to make a decision, we unanimously decided not to take this applicant in. Even if we really needed to fill that role, we did it to protect our team.

After all, you would not let someone you don’t know who can wreck your house, inside your house, would you?

And that’s it. I hope you’ve learned from this post, and that these guidelines do help you out when you need to hire someone.

Sean Si

About Sean

is a motivational speaker and is the head honcho and editor-in-chief of SEO Hacker. He does SEO Services for companies in the Philippines and Abroad. Connect with him at Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Check out his new project, Aquascape Philippines

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