Article main image
Oct 12, 2022

The hiring research has long been clear that most new hires don’t fail for lack of skills; attitude is the overwhelming cause. Sometimes, attitude just means that an employee’s personality doesn’t fit a particular corporate culture. For example, social cultures are warm, collaborative, and lines are blurred between work relationships and friendships. But as nice as that sounds, only 31% of employees describe that as their ideal corporate culture. 

There are other times, however, when attitude really means that an employee has a difficult, or even toxic, personality. As I note in the book, Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More…, some of the trickiest toxic personalities to spot in interviews are narcissists, blamers, and Talented Terrors. 

Talented Terrors are people with fantastic skills but deeply problematic attitudes. Not only do their skill sets lull hiring managers into complacency, but Talented Terrors are also adept at turning their bad attitudes on and off, seemingly at will.

To have a shot at spotting any of these potentially toxic personalities during a job interview, you’ll need to master two distinct skills: asking interview questions that invite negativity and listening for warning signs in answers.

Ask Interview Questions That Invite Negativity

As a recent report found, most interview questions prompt candidates to share successes rather than failures. Asking a candidate to share “a time when they overcame a difficult situation” gives away the correct answer to the question. It’s clear that candidates should not talk about their struggles or failures; only happy success stories are welcome. 

But if you hope to reveal toxic personalities, your interview questions must give candidates an opportunity to disclose their darker thoughts and experiences.

Instead of asking candidates to “share a time when they resolved a conflict,” prompt them to “share a time when they experienced a conflict with a coworker.” While the differences in those questions are subtle, the second option is so unusual that candidates regularly delight in the opportunity to dish the dirt on their horrible bosses and coworkers. Some candidates will naturally turn negative situations into positives (a.k.a. problem-solvers), but the extremely open-ended nature of this question allows you to instantly see the differences between those folks and everyone else.

Listen for Warning Signs in Answers

After performing a linguistic analysis on more than 20,000 interview responses, we made some shocking discoveries. First, answers from low performers contain 92% more negative emotion words (e.g. “angry”, “aggravated”, “afraid”, “pessimistic”, “unhappy”). When a candidate openly discusses negative emotions, it raises questions about why they couldn’t find a more positive resolution. Saying, “I’m aggravated about that part of my job, and I’m pretty pessimistic about whether it’ll ever change,” does not indicate a proactive, coachable, and go-getter type of attitude (characteristics that interviewers typically prefer).  

Second, low-performer answers contain 103% more absolutes (e.g. “always”, “never,” “absolutely”, “impossible”).

Imagine that you asked a candidate to “share a time when you got tough feedback from your boss.” Here are some excerpts from actual candidate answers:

  • “I’ve never really had this experience. I’ve had positive feedback, but never anything that was hard to hear. That’s because if I’m not sure about something, I always check with the boss before I proceed, so there are never any misunderstandings or reasons for critical feedback.”
  • “Oh, I always accept all feedback with a positive attitude.”
  • “I was reprimanded for a goal that had not been met for the quarter. But I never got any feedback along the way. And frankly, the goal itself was just impossible. Nobody was going to hit that target.”

By inviting candidates to share negativity, folks with that inclination will often take the opportunity to divulge their real thoughts. And as you can see in the real-life responses above, those thoughts include black-and-white thinking, denial, negativity, pessimism, and more.

Catching every single toxic personality in an interview may be a stretch, but with a mix of interview questions that invite negativity and deep listening to candidates’ responses, most organizations will spot a great many difficult people long before they start wreaking havoc inside the company.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
The longest running and most trusted source of information serving talent acquisition professionals.