12 Interview Questions To Identify Toxic Employees

Toxic Water

Do you need to identify toxic employees? One way to do it is ask the right questions. We asked hiring managers and recruiters to share best insights on the matter. There are several interview questions that could help interviewers determine whether or not a candidate’s behavior is toxic based on the response they offer.

Ask About an Idea They Previously Had at Work

Most employees have ideas. They either mention them, and the ideas are implemented (or not), or they never bring them up to their boss. When you hire, ask them to tell you about an idea they’ve had at work and what happened with it. It can even be an idea they never brought to their boss. If the example is an idea their manager implemented, ask for one that wasn’t. The candidate’s answer will indirectly give insight into how they “feel” about their current environment. And it’s disguised so that they will be more open.

Bernadette Grattan
Accounting & Finance Recruiting Director, The Resource Link, Inc.

Do you need to identify toxic employees? One way to do it is ask the right questions. Here's 12 examples. #HR Share on X

Ask About Past Workplace Mistakes and Difficult Situations

One of the clearest signs of a toxic employee is someone who won’t take accountability for their actions and blames their problems solely on other people. When you ask these people about their past workplace mistakes or failures, their answer will likely focus on why it wasn’t their fault, framing themselves as a savior, martyr or victim. You’ll get similar insights asking about times they’ve dealt with a “difficult” coworker or customer. 

Pay attention to how they describe the situation, the type of interaction they see as “difficult,” and why they chose the solution they did. A manipulative, narcissistic or otherwise toxic employee will focus on how the issue inconvenienced them, and their solution will often be to humor or brush off a person to make them go away. A positive, healthy employee’s answer will show empathy and an ability to see issues from outside perspectives.

Archie Payne
CEO, Caltek Staffing

Tell Me About the Achievement You’re Most Proud of

Asking candidates about their greatest success helps to evaluate whether they are self-centered or team-oriented. A toxic employee will take all the credit for their successes and achievements and will talk about “I” more than they will ”we.” Look out for an individual more concerned about their achievement than they are about explaining how they got there, including the challenges and resources that made it all possible. An employee more concerned about the end goal will do anything in between, regardless of how it affects others, to make their success happen.

The ideal candidate will recognize others who helped them achieve their success and the contributions their team made without downplaying their skills and competencies. They will be excited about their work, including the challenges and opportunities they encounter on their way to success. They should be enthusiastic about the impact of their work on their employer, team and career goals.

Joe Coletta
Founder & CEO, 180 Engineering

Are There Any Types of Personalities or People You Avoid Interacting With in the Workplace?

Are there any types of personalities or people that you avoid interacting with in the workplace? When you interject the word “people,” the question becomes a bit more personal for candidates because some may actually reference a colleague or specific name as a reflex. Some candidates may read this question strictly as a technical inquiry while others may let emotions stir their memory with past experiences. How they respond is interesting because responses can be unpredictable. If a candidate only reacts to the question, then it’s concerning because we want to learn how they rationalize their response. It’s open to interpretation depending on who is asking the question, the role they are vying for and the context of the overall conversation.

Sasha Laghonh
Founder, Sasha Talks

What Do You Find Most Challenging About Working With Other People?

One interview question you might ask tis, “What do you find most challenging about working with other people?” This question can help you gauge whether the person is likely to be difficult to work with and whether they are likely to create a negative or toxic work environment. If they have trouble working with others, it’s likely that they will also have trouble working with you and your team. Additionally, if they find it challenging to work with others, they may be more likely to exhibit toxic behavior such as bullying, aggression or manipulation. Asking this question can help you get a better sense of the person’s character and team fit.

Travis Lindemoen
Managing Director, nexus IT group

How Did You Cope With Difficult Work Situations in the Past?

How did they cope with difficult work situations in the past? If a candidate is quick to point the finger when things go wrong or refuse to take any responsibility for their own mistakes, they are likely to be toxic. If they can’t give you examples of times when they’ve struggled and had to overcome something, that’s also a red flag. You want to see evidence that they can reflect on their failings and learn from them. Finally, if they try to brush off your questions or become defensive when you probe a little deeper, that’s another sign that they will not be able to take constructive feedback well. 

Arrogance, defensiveness and a lack of self-awareness will tell you a lot about whether someone will be a good fit for your team. Unfortunately, these qualities are often indicative of someone who can create a hostile atmosphere, make it difficult for others to do their jobs, and contribute to high stress levels. If you’re not careful, they can even drag your business down.

Chris Lewandowski
President, Princess Dental Staffing

What is an Example of Constructive Feedback You’ve Received and How Did You Work to Act on it?

I always ask candidates in my first call what’s an example of constructive feedback they’ve received and how they’ve worked to implement it. It can be anything small or large, and some of the best answers have come from folks who were honest about significant mistakes they made and how they learned from them. My red flags fly up when someone can’t think of an example, or if they just talk about their philosophy around feedback without any concrete example. This is always something we dig in on more in future interviews if everything else is stellar to see if they show examples of humility by admitting faults, and mutual respect by learning from that feedback. Most of the time, they don’t, and we move away from hiring those folks.

Patrick Ward
Manager, Talent Acquisition, Halloran Consulting Group, Inc.

Why Shouldn’t I Hire You?

When looking to identify toxic employees during the interview process, there is one key question you can ask to help weed out the bad apples. Why shouldn’t I hire you? This question is meant to be entirely rhetorical. By asking this question, you can see how the candidate reacts when put on the spot. You’re also able to see how well they handle pressure and get an idea of their personality.

What skills do you lack the most? This is another great question to identify toxic candidates because it gives you the opportunity to get a sense of the candidate’s self-awareness and honesty. Candidates with toxic personalities will likely claim they lack nothing, while those who are more humble will be able to identify something they’re not good at.

Adina David
Recruiter and Career Coach, Jobzhut

May I Speak to Your Last Supervisor?

“May I speak to your last supervisor?” While there are many reasons to leave a job, sometimes people have to leave because they’re toxic. By speaking to the last person they worked for, you can gather good intel on their behavior and influence in the workplace. Hesitancy on their part should be a red flag. The willingness to give free access to an interviewee’s last supervisor is a solid way to assess their toxicity.

Raina Kumra
Founder & CEO, Spicewell

How Do You Prefer to Receive Criticism?

One sly interview question I used to ask to potentially ferret out toxic employees is “how do you prefer to receive criticism?” Often, this question prompted more negative candidates to mention or rant about a supposedly unfair critique or a past colleague or boss who had found fault with them. However, the question itself is fairly innocuous and does not put interviewees on the defense. This question can also uncover green flags, as candidates who stay calm, respond positively and give helpful tips about how to approach them with issues tend to be good hires.

Kate Duske
Editor in Chief, Escape Room Data

How Would You Handle a Disagreement in the Workplace?

One question we ask to identify toxic employees is how would you handle a disagreement in the workplace. If they respond saying they would approach it in a calm manner and try to de-escalate the situation we gather they are unproblematic. But if a potential candidate says they would respond back to the person in the same way they are being spoken to, we believe that could prove to be a problem in the future. Being able to walk away from a disagreement and stay calm is a sure sign the person will not bring toxic behavior to the workplace.

Ian Heyman
Founder, MDP

What Would You Change About Your Previous Workplace?

The key here is to recognize a candidate who dives into a long list of faults with their previous job. If they are only focussing on the negatives and not providing many solutions you may be dealing with a toxic candidate. By asking candidates what they would change about a previous employer you are looking for improvement and advice. It is a negative question so expect a somewhat negative response, but look for those who do so without complaining. If they keep the answer professional and honest, that is what you want from your employees. Feedback is essential, but needs to be done in the right way. Also, look out for candidates who say they wouldn’t change anything. If that is the case, they wouldn’t be leaving. This just identifies dishonesty from the start.

Ashlea Harwood
HR & Office Manager, Darwen Electrical Services Ltd.

Image: iStock

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