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In a Harvard Business School publication entitled “Toxic Workers,” Michael Housman and Dylan Minor explore a novel dataset regarding the actual performances and characteristics of many workers in different organizations. In doing so, they identify three prominent signals that are associated with toxic behaviors.

Do yourself a favor: Take the following signals into account in your next interview. The candidate who is sitting opposite you right there, right now – the candidate who looks perfect on paper and sounds perfect during the phone screen – may be a terrible threat to your company.

The candidate may, in fact, be a toxic worker.

What is a toxic worker? It is an employee who makes the workplace a generally unhappy place. The least harmful things a toxic worker can do are damage the company culture, decrease team morale, and cost the company money when it has to fire the worker and find/train a replacement. The most harmful things a toxic worker can do include falsifying legal documents, sexually harassing coworkers, costing the company billions of dollars in legal fees, and threatening the lives of their colleagues.

Seriously, if you want to keep your sanity and maintain a thriving, productive workplace, you should avoid toxic workers like the plague. To that end, employers should all watch out for these signals during the interview process:

1. High Levels of Self-Regard

Researchers have long known that people who have high levels of regard for themselves and little or no regard for others are more inclined to engage in toxic behavior. Often, these people simply don’t understand the toll their behaviors can have on others.

Furthermore, according to Housman and Minor, “Those that show little concern for another’s interests are less likely to refrain from damaging others and their property.”

BridgeWhat to Watch Out for in the Interview: Candidates who take all the credit for themselves and/or badmouth previous employers and colleagues.

2. Overconfidence

Housman and Minor found that “[t]hose who appear overconfident by over-reporting their skill level before they start the job are more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior across all time.”

What to Watch Out for in the Interview: Candidates who overestimate their own abilities and cannot answer specific questions relating to the level of expertise they report in a given area.

3. Self-Reported Strict Adherence to the Rules

Candidates who make a big deal out of always following the rules are often covering up for the fact that, generally speaking, they do the opposite in their daily lives: “If a worker reports that she believes rules are always made to be followed (as opposed to stating that it is sometimes necessary to break the rules to accomplish something), she has about 25 [percent] greater hazard of being terminated for actually breaking the rules,” Housman and Minor write.

According to Housman and Minor, many candidates who claim to strictly follow all rules are only saying so because they believe that such an answer will “secure them a job.” They conclude that this Machiavellian nature is likely to lead to toxic behavior.

What to Watch Out for in the Interview: Candidates who claim to always follow the rules without being able to further elaborate on that claim.

Who on Earth Would Hire These People?

That may be the question on your mind, but the fact is that many interviewers let candidates off the hook when they show these behaviors. Why? Because candidates who show these behaviors often have great performance records.

See, Housman and Minor found that “toxic workers are much more productive than the average worker.”

StairsBut is the tradeoff worth it?

Housman and Minor did the math for you. In their words, “[E]ven if a firm could replace an average worker with one who performs  in the top 1 percent, it would still be better off … replacing a toxic worker with an average worker by more than two-to-one.”

Put another way: Replacing a toxic worker with an average worker is at least two times more profitable than hiring a superstar employee, toxic or otherwise.

It turns out that avoiding toxic workers is more beneficially to a company’s bottom line than trying to catch one of those rare superstars could ever be.

So, how do you avoid toxic workers? Here’s what Housman and Minor have to say:

“Managers should consider toxic and productivity outcomes together rather than relying on productivity alone as the criterion of a good hire.

“Spending more time limiting negative impacts on an organization might improve everyone’s outcome to a greater extent than only focusing on increasing positive impacts.”



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