How to Screen Out Sexual Harassers During the Hiring Process

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Feb 5, 2018

Recruiting leaders must realize that they are exposing their firm to “negligent hiring” charges if they fail to do everything possible to prevent the hiring of candidates who later go on to sexually harass. Prevention is key, because once sexual harassment occurs in your workplace, irreversible damage has already been done to both the individual and the company. Unfortunately, few firms have data-driven sexual harassment prevention initiatives. I have written extensively on how to predict/prevent sexual harassment, and it should be obvious to all that the first line of prevention defense should be screening them out during the hiring process. Unfortunately, most firms unwittingly allow toxic employees to get hired because they lack a specific assessment approach for pre-identifying them among their finalist candidates.

The early weeding out of these toxic candidates is now becoming even more important as the problem itself and its resulting costs become more prominent. Unfortunately, there is no “magic bullet” candidate screening approach that works for every firm. However, my research and benchmarking have found that there are a dozen already tried approaches that you should consider when you decide to take on preventing sexual harassment during hiring seriously.

Top Firms Have Taken Actions to Avoid Hiring Toxic and Jerk Employees

Google has a “no-jerk rule” and to avoid hiring them it has a data-driven hiring process. It uses a highly structured interview process, a trained dedicated hiring team, and targeted interview questions that are designed to screen out jerks. Zappos has developed a “social testing” process that identifies jerks during preplanned informal interactions. And finally, research by Deloitte provided an example of a high-tech company that “developed an analytics model that accurately predicts job candidates who are likely to become “toxic employees” (those who lie, cheat, or commit crimes) and they dramatically reduced this population among its hires by scrutinizing special parts of the interview process.”

Candidate Screening Approaches for Screening Out Sexual Harassers

The primary goal is to accurately identify potential toxic employees during the hiring process. This effort should begin by defining what a toxic employee is. In my opinion, it is someone who harasses or bullies others, or who lies, steals, cheats, violates major rules, or severely disrupts major team activities. Rather than trying to assess every candidate, I recommend that you only assess those who successfully complete the final interview, or alternatively, only the single selected finalist. Some of the already used approaches and tools that you should consider when trying to identify these individuals in the hiring process include:

The top seven most recommended approaches to consider

  1. Employee referrals can add an assessment step — if you prohibit employees from submitting the names of individuals who they haven’t formally interacted with or worked directly with. You essentially add another toxic-employee assessment step, whereby because of their past interactions, the referring employee can attest to the fact that there is a low probability that this individual is a harasser or toxic employee. You can further reduce weak or toxic referrals by making the employee aware that they will be held accountable for the quality of the referral, because there is a feedback loop that labels employees that have made a toxic referral.
  2. Identify harassers during peer interviews — because other employees on the team will be the ones to suffer the most if a toxic employee is hired. Teammates are often the most committed to weeding them out. The peer interview process is most effective if you specifically ask the employees to look for the previously identified indicators that reveal that a finalist candidate has the potential of being a harasser, a bully, or toxic employee.
  3. Assess them on proven indicators of a toxic employee — use your own internal research to identify indicators that predict that a candidate may become a toxic employee. However, you can also rely on outside research to identify these factors. For example, research by Cornerstone OnDemand revealed that “Professionals who are notably overconfident about their technical proficiencies were 43 percent more likely to engage in toxic behavior.” And “self-proclaimed “rule followers” are 33 percent more likely to be toxic employees.” Based on this research it makes sense to ask questions that assess whether a finalist candidate is “overconfident about their technical proficiencies” and whether they self proclaim themselves to be “rule followers.” This firm’s research also revealed that the costs of hiring a toxic employee include the fact that “good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee.”
  4. Focus your reference-checking calls on individuals — it’s unreasonable to expect any reference provided by an HR department to include any reference to sexual harassment. But some individual at one of the candidate’s past employers would know about any toxic behaviors. So when checking references, specifically talk directly to former managers and coworkers. Ask them a direct question like. “Please help me protect my employees, I need to know if you have seen any indication of sexual harassment or other toxic behaviors in this individual? (All I need is a yes or no answer)”.
  5. Use social interaction opportunities — toxic candidates are on their best behavior during interviews. So firms like Zappos and Southwest go outside the interview to assess how a candidate interacts with people in informal settings before and after the interview. This “social-test” approach directly asks a firm’s employees, receptionists, secretaries, shuttle drivers, café workers, to informally assess how the candidate treats others outside of the formal hiring process.” Zappos proactively sets up several of these social interactions (coffee meetings, lunch, and after work activities) when they think no hiring manager or recruiter is watching to further test how a candidate acts when their guard is down. Zappos even asks the shuttle driver who picks up candidates to assess their behavior and attitude during the ride.
  6. Ask them situational questions that might reveal toxic behaviors — few candidates are likely to reveal a history of sexual harassment when answering traditional historical behavioral questions. However, situational questions, where you ask them how they would handle current sexual harassment issues in an employment situation, can produce better results. You can ask them “In a situation where you yourself were actually witnessing sexual harassment, what would you do?” You would then look for any omitted behaviors in their answer (e.g. like not reporting the incident). You can also ask them how they would handle a situation with conflicts, bullying, and how they would help to resolve it. Or, you can ask them about the types of employees who they might have difficulty working with in their new job and how would they handle them.
  7. Use existing behavioral and personality tests — although not directly related to identifying harassers, there are a variety of tangential behavioral and psychological tests that are already administered that might shed some light on how this candidate behaves and treats others. Although many of these tests have not been validated, some may correlate with toxic behavior. These tangential tests can cover civility, integrity, emotional intelligence, values assessment, personality, attitude, moral character, conscientiousness, and ethics. If you decide to use any of these tangential tests, make sure that they correlate with bad behaviors on the job. It is problematic to assess potential toxic employees by using body language, voice inflection, and cultural fitness assessments during interviews.

Additional approaches that are more difficult to implement

Also, consider these more controversial assessment approaches.

  • Ask the candidate directly about past harassment — candidates routinely misrepresent past negative behavior during interviews. But there are some direct questions which can help to get them to reveal past harassment issues. Consider asking finalists this question “In your past two jobs have you been accused of sexual harassment? Before you answer be aware that we can work with candidates that have had issues. But if hired, you will be immediately terminated if you withheld any information regarding past sexual harassment accusations against you.” (Note: If you have an application form, you can include a similar statement in it). Another direct question to consider is “When we check your references, what will your former coworkers say about any issues related to you bullying or harassing?”
  • Use a no a-hole test — there has been a great deal of corporate work as a result of the best-selling book “The No Asshole Rule.” And as a result, there is a free online self-exam known as ARSE. If you suspect that a finalist may be toxic, you can require them to take the test or alternatively you can ask them to take it voluntarily.
  • Criminal background checks  if any of a candidate’s past sexual harassment went further and became sexual assault, the incident may appear in criminal records. Sophisticated reference-checking firms can sometimes also find non-sealed public records of civil harassment cases where the individual was involved.
  • Focus on higher-probability candidates — statistically, sexual harassment is more likely to be initiated by men. And although there are legal issues, it might still make sense to focus your sexual harassment candidate assessment mostly on male finalists.
  • Offer your top candidate a temporary project — although it’s difficult to arrange, by far, the most accurate way of assessing a potential harasser is to give the finalist an opportunity to work directly with the team. So when feasible, pay them to work on a night, weekend, or short duration project with the team. Ask team members to assess their civility and how they treat coworkers.
  • Consider the use of neuroscience assessments for honesty — the human assessment of whether a candidate is lying is problematic, and for most jobs you can’t use a lie detector for candidate assessment. However, neuroscience assessments can effectively recognize candidates who deceive. Vendors like HireVue offer a combination of AI and facial recognition technology to assess taped interviews. This technology allows “honesty assessment” to go beyond the actual answers and to assess phrases, facial expressions, voice inflection, and even subtle physical movements that humans simply couldn’t catch. As a result, if you ask some questions related to sexual harassment and bullying, neuroscience approaches can accurately detect deceptive answers.
  • Continue your assessments after hiring — once you realize that the best interviewees can frequently fool you, continue the assessment of a new hire’s way of treating coworkers during onboarding and their initial training. And during this extended assessment, if you find that individual new hires don’t meet your behavior or value standards, they can either be offered training or be released. If toxic-hire failures occur frequently, you should have a systematic “failure analysis” process for formally identifying how toxic new-hires managed to hide their “real behaviors” and what new discovery techniques need to be added to the hiring process.

Final Thoughts

One of the responsibilities of the emerging “talent advisor” role is to identify any omitted aspects of the hiring/talent process that should be added. And in my view, predicting potential sex harassers among finalist candidates must be an obvious addition. If you decide to add this step, realize that although this identification will be difficult, it’s well worth doing. Because the cost of sexual harassment is now so high, the level of difficulty shouldn’t be a sufficient excuse for avoiding experimenting until you find the most effective screening approaches. Acting quickly is essential because soon your harassed employees will begin to realize that they have a cause of action in “negligent hiring” because your firm didn’t make a full faith effort to identify potential toxic employees during the hiring process. There is no longer any valid reason to postpone adding a sexual harassment screening step to your hiring process.


Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please follow me on LinkedIn.

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