By Louise Green

The world is full of honest, kindhearted, well-adjusted people. Well, mostly. The bad news is that there are also plenty of people who are less than emotionally healthy, the kind who manipulate, lie, and cheat; the toxic people. Many workplaces have them. The colleague who bad-mouths and gossips about you behind your back; the boss who takes credit for everyone else's ideas; the negative person who finds the downside of everything and the person who sucks the energy from the room when they enter.

 Of course the best way to get rid of a toxic employee is to not hire them in the first place. Easier said than done. They are not always easy to spot and we find that people are usually on their best behaviour for interview day! (Surprisingly we do sometimes encounter candidates who make no effort to build rapport with the interviewer, this speaks to their low empathy level and should ring your alarm bells.) If a candidate looks great on paper and performs well 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. So how can you detect a rotten apple when the candidate is doing their damnedest to hide it? Well, there are a few tips and warning signs to watch out for:
  • Spend time on the candidates’ employment history - Watch for high turnover and short time spans spent in a variety of roles. Ask why they left their previous jobs. If you notice a common thread of extenuating circumstances or a pattern of “evil managers”, chances are that this person is full of nothing but conflict and excuses.
  • Listen to your gut feel – does the candidate make an effort to engage with you and to build rapport during the recruitment process? Or do they see the interview as just part of an annoying process they must endure
  • Inconsistent behaviour – watch out for candidates who behave differently towards the interviewer, the client (employer), the receptionist and other people involved in the process
  • Never skip the referee checks - ensure you seek permission to speak to previous managers, not just the people who the candidate nominates. A red flag will be if a candidate won’t let you or doesn’t want you speak to certain people – check why. Always ask whether there were ever any causes for concern with the candidates’ performance or their interpersonal style and how they conducted themselves.
  • Use psychometric test results as a basis for probing questions. Personality assessments give an important insight into a candidate’s likely behaviour and working style. They can give an indication of potential ‘toxic’ traits such as low regard for others, over confidence, risk taking, cynicism and arrogance.  Any potential ‘risk’ areas can be explored further in interview and reference checks to gain a more thorough understanding of a candidate’s likely working style.
  • Show them around – give the candidate a site tour and have them meet with key staff. Current staff will have an intuitive idea about who might fit best in the organisation, so let them provide valuable feedback.
  • Check Social Media –dig through social media profiles such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to get a better picture of the candidate. Someone who is rude, insensitive or inflammatory online is likely to be the same in real life.

 You could also conduct a competency based interview – we would recommend some of the following questions:


What to ask: There are many ways to show respect to others.  What ways work best for you?  What is the best evidence you have that other people trust you? Tell me about a time at work when you objectively considered others’ ideas, even when they conflicted with yours.

What to listen for: Toxic people will struggle to give evidence of interacting with others in a way that builds trust. They will lack examples of listening to and providing support for others.

Managing Conflict

What to ask: Working on a project with others sometimes causes conflict, describe a difficult situation you’ve had involving conflict with another person. People in a conflict sometimes can’t separate issues from personalities.  Tell me about a time when personal issues got in the way of resolving a conflict.

What to listen for: Poor candidates will lack examples of dealing effectively with others in an antagonistic situation and of using appropriate interpersonal styles and methods to reduce conflict.


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: 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.


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

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.


What to ask: Tell me about your favourite 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 i.e. someone with passion and intrinsic motivation.


Everyone knows the cost of a bad hire. But this can be alleviated with sound competency based interview techniques coupled with the right type of psychometric assessments and in depth reference checks.  Going through the correct process of screening high quality candidates is absolutely essential if you are to uncover toxic traits before they infect your workplace.

Louise Green is a senior consultant at Sheffield South Island. Her original article on LinkedIn can be found here. Louise can be contacted here.
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