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When it comes to hiring, what counts more: an applicant's character or experience? For Dr. Neil Lavender, co-author of Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job, the way to avoid a toxic work environment is to put character first. 

“I always give more weight to character than on-the-job experience,” says Lavender, who is also a professor of psychology at Ocean County College in New Jersey and a licensed clinical psychologist. “You can train good people to do the job. I’m looking for family values, ability to relate well with others, positive interpersonal relationships, honesty, integrity.” 

Lavender says the best candidates exhibit two prevailing qualities: grit and conscientiousness. Candidates who will achieve the most success on the job show the same cues and characteristics during the hiring process. In the same vein, prospects who are “toxic” or lack good character reveal subtle hints about themselves during job interviews that should set off red flags for any HR manager. The difference can be tremendous -- an employee who boosts productivity and helps fosters a fulfilling work environment, or one that is a distraction and could potentially get into workplace fraud or harassment.

Identifying grit and conscientiousness mostly comes down to good interviewing by the right people in your organization. Of course, bringing social recruiting elements into the mix can also help in terms of pulling the right candidates into the interview process from trusted employee referrals.

Here are three subtle characteristics that can be indicators of more pervasive issues and should raise eyebrows during the hiring process: 

The Narcissistic Star

Over-the-top descriptions of past achievements, star quality, grand plans, deserving of special treatment – these are behaviors that may seem benign on their own. People showcasing these traits are often drawn to leadership positions, and small amounts of certain qualities may even be a good thing. But combined or unchecked, they’re indicative of the narcissistic personality disorder, one of the most damaging and divisive forces on the job, Lavender says.

These employees often think they can get away with anything or that the rules don’t apply to them. There are a few sure signs that can be identified during the interview process that will help HR managers weed out candidates that will infect the workplace if hired, he says. An elaborated or unbelievable resume, a magnanimous quality during the interview process and an attitude of overconfidence are telltale signs that you’ll have a handful on the job.

The Micro-Managing Perfectionist

In an attempt to hire a conscientious candidate, we’re often looking for folks who exhibit great attention to detail and dedication to the job. Long hours and late nights come with the territory of many jobs, and the right candidate will be able to go the extra mile when it counts. But when it crosses the line into the realm of perfectionism, these candidates may be more trouble than they’re worth.

“These are the people that get mired in the minutia of the job, can’t make decisions, procrastinate,” Lavender says. “I call it ‘gilding the lily’ – they always want to add just one more thing.”

Not only are perfectionists overly critical of their own work, they’re toxic to their coworkers because they constantly pick, criticize, can’t delegate, are impossible to please and feel the need to be involved in every decision. Candidates who talk about never taking vacation, describe themselves as workaholics or appear not to have a life outside of work are going to be the ones that bring down companies and coworkers with their pessimism, he says.

“It’s a double-edged sword when people devote their lives to a company,” Lavender says. “Workaholics feel every tension in the company and stress out about it.”

The False Storyteller

The interview is often characterized by a series of stories about a candidate’s past experience, life outside work and values. These stories are valuable windows into the candidate’s character that give interviewers a chance to sit back and read between the lines. What are these stories about? What is the candidate not saying? What do these stories say about the candidate?

Another large pool of toxic behavior comes in the form of the antisocial candidate – someone who is fabricating information on their resumes, missing deadlines and exhibiting a rule-breaker mentality. When telling stories that they think make them look good, they’re often letting valuable clues slip that they don’t even realize are setting off red flags.

For instance, a candidate applying for a sales position who brags about overcoming the odds with record-breaking sales, despite the fact that what he was selling was a defective product – the takeaway is that they’re breaking the rules.

“They’re the ones who are stealing, exploiting, telling dirty jokes, fudging their hours,” Lavender says. “They’re the Bernie Madoffs of the world. They’re con men.”