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How to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Staff Member

| October 25, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Last week’s Tuesday Reading, Toxic Staff Members, provided a set of steps a leader might take if she or he has a toxic staff member.  In outline form the advice was:

  • Face, not ignore, the situation.
  • Collect specifics about the behavior.
  • Be direct in your feedback.
  • Develop, with him or her, an improvement plan.
  • Be extremely clear about the consequences.
  • See improvement or seek his or her dismissal.

(More detail can be found in last week’s Tuesday Reading.)
Christine Porath, associate professor of management at Georgetown University, in her Harvard Business Review essay How to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee, reports that “Nothing is more costly to an organization’s culture than a toxic employee.  Research shows that rudeness is like the common cold – it’s contagious, spreads quickly, and anyone can be a carrier.”
Take a look at your current team and any toxic members you may have.  If you have been the team’s leader for a few years, these currently toxic individuals fall basically into two categories.  They are:

  • Individuals on your team when you arrived as the new team lead whose behavior was not addressed or unsuccessfully addressed.  Given the impact toxic staff have on the team, you may now want to go back to last week’s advice and take action.
  • Individuals you hired or who transferred into your team from elsewhere in your university who are now exhibiting toxic behavior.

Today’s Tuesday Reading focuses on this last group of individuals and how you, as the team lead, could have avoided hiring them.
Porath suggests that, in addition to your thorough vetting of the candidate’s technical and specific work-related skills and competencies, you avoid hiring toxic staff by carefully evaluating the candidate’s civility.  You start by checking your own.  After all it’s not reasonable for you to expect a candidate – either an internal transfer or a new hire from outside – to be civil if you do not model that behavior.  Internal research at Google indicates that treating all candidates with respect is more important than the type of work, the benefits, or interactions candidates have in the hiring process in evaluating the hiring experience.
So, it’s well worth the effort to be sure that everyone who interviews, or in any way interacts with, any candidate is civil.
The second thing is that you must prepare for and execute your interview and selection process so that any inclinations toward toxicity are identified.  Porath puts it this way:  “Skill and talent can’t make up for the costly impact that toxic employees have on your organization;  it’s [much, much] better to catch the behavior before the person joins the team.  Do your homework.  Rely on structured, behavioral interviews.  Conduct thorough reference checks, investigate hunches thoroughly.  And, put your best foot forward.  After all, it pays to be civil.”
As you interview the candidate for the job related and technical skills, also evaluate his or her civility.  Ask how the candidate handled a particular situation he or she encountered in the past which involves a type of behavior important to the position.  For example, ask the candidate to discuss how he or she has involved clients in a project.  Dig deeply about what happened when the project went “south,” when there was a conflict, etc.  Don’t be satisfied with the initial response.  Keep asking different questions exploring the issue in detail from different points of view.  Seeking information on what the candidate actually did in specific situations will provide more valuable information about the candidate’s behaviors than will hypothetical questions.  [Porath’s essay contains an excellent set of interview questions.]
After interviews with a candidate are complete, personally follow up with each person who has encountered the candidate.  Talk with those who were on the interview schedule.  The individuals who arranged the schedule with the candidate.  Those who walked the candidate to the next appointment.  Everyone.  Was the candidate kind, gracious, respectful?  Or, not so.
I’m a firm believer that the hiring manager, not a human resources staffer or another member of the team, should do the reference calls as well as the follow up.  Don’t just check with those individuals the candidate names.  Use your network.  Pick up on names the candidate mentions in the interview.  Ask those you interview who you might also talk with to get a better perspective on the candidate.  Also, be sure to talk with clients and peers.
All this means that the hiring manager really is deeply involved in the hiring process, perhaps more so than he or she is today.  This must be so in order to hire the very best people, both technically and behaviorally.  Research has shown, as noted earlier, that one toxic employee undoes the value added by two superstars.  And, I’m often quoted as saying that technical hiring decisions are million dollar decisions.  (That’s about what you will pay – salary, benefits, and other expenses – for a bad hire at a university between when the new hire arrives and ultimately leaves.)  By either of these measures, a toxic employee’s impact is simply too damaging and expensive.
So, as you add new staff members to your team, be careful.  Do your homework.  The decisions you make really do make a difference both now and into the future!
Make it a wonderful week.  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

Christine Porath, How to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee, Harvard Business Review, February 3, 2016.