How to Avoid Hiring Toxic Employees

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Larissa (not her real name) was partying with coworkers and subordinates outside of work. There was a lot of drinking and things got out of hand. People started arguing and a fight broke out.

Intoxication impaired Larissa's judgement. She added fuel to the fire by choosing sides and gossiping.

There was fallout the next day at work. Employees were upset about the altercation and angry at Larissa for her role in it. After all, Larissa was a manager and someone people expected to be a voice of reason.

Her boss quickly got wind of the story and had to investigate.

Larissa admitted her role in the fracas, but didn't accept responsibility. She felt that what she did on her own time was her own business, without understanding that a manager drinking with employees can still be considered a work function.

Her boss subsequently learned that Larissa had created issues at her last job. None of that surfaced during the interview process because Larissa's references had lied about her qualifications and conduct.

Avoiding toxic employees like Larissa can be tricky. In a surprising revelation, many common hiring practices actually attract toxic workers. Here's how to avoid that.

Recruiter evaluating puzzle pieces representing employees. One piece clearly does not fit.

How common are toxic employees?

Michael Housman and Dylan Minor conducted a study of toxic employees in 2015. They reviewed 58,542 customer service employees from multiple companies and found that 1 in 20 were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Toxic behavior is defined in the study as "an egregious violation of company policy. Examples include sexual harassment, workplace violence, falsifying documents, fraud, and general workplace misconduct."

It makes sense to avoid hiring toxic people, but that's easier said than done. Larissa got hired by getting references to lie on her behalf and falsifying her resume (more on that in a moment). 

So how can you spot a potentially toxic employee? The study highlighted three specific factors to look for. 

How can you screen out toxic people?

The study identified three prominent risk factors for toxic behavior:

  • Overconfidence

  • Self-regarding

  • Rule-orientation

Let's take a closer look at each one, starting with overconfidence. 


These are employees who believe they're awesome, even when they're not. 

Study participants were asked during the interview process to estimate their level of computer skills. The applicants were later given a skill assessment to determine their actual skill level.

A whopping 34 percent were overconfident, with the skill test revealing they were less skillful than they had claimed. These employees were 15 percent more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior than the rest.

I've run my own experiments that reveal customer service employees consistently overrate their abilities. These overconfident employees are less likely to accept feedback, learn new skills, or improve their performance because they don't believe they need to.

One of the warning signs Larissa's boss missed during the initial interview process was Larissa lied on her resume. She overstated her qualifications and was overly confident about her ability to do the job. 

You can avoid hiring overconfident employees by having them demonstrate their abilities during the selection process whenever possible. This might include a computer test or asking them to write a sample customer email.

Some abilities, like defusing an angry customer, are more difficult to test in an interview. One solution is to ask candidates to relate a specific experience rather than respond to a hypothetical situation. So you might ask, "What happened the last time you had to defuse an angry customer?"

Janis Whitaker's excellent book, Interviewing by Example, provides lots of great examples and ideas for crafting these types of interview questions.


Pop quiz. What type of person do you think is generally better at customer service?

  1. Someone who is self-centered

  2. Someone who cares deeply about others

If you answered "someone who cares about others," you're right. The study found that self-centered, or self-regarding, employees were 22 percent more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior.

Recall that Larissa focused on her desire to party and have a good time with friends, rather than her responsibility to be a good role-model when socializing with subordinates outside of work.

Many customer service leaders make the mistake of designing a selection process that attracts people who are more self-regarding.

  • Including self-centered terms like "rockstar" or "superstar" in the job posting.

  • Promoting perks like games, incentives, and prizes for top performers.

  • Selling candidates on advancement opportunities, rather than the job itself.

The way to fix this issue is by emphasizing teamwork and company culture in the interview process. Here are just a few ways to do this:

  • Highlight culture on your career page, such as this one from Squarespace.

  • Use team-focused descriptions in job postings.

  • Screen candidates for culture fit using this guide.

Above all, do away with contests, games, and prizes that promote self-regarding behavior. There's extensive research that proves incentives can crush an employee's motivation to do the right thing.


Job applicants in the study were asked to decide which of two statements most applies to them.

  1. I believe rules are made to be followed.

  2. Sometimes it's necessary to break the rules to accomplish something.

The surprising twist is people who chose "I believe rules are made to be followed" were 25 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior. It seems that someone stating they are a rule-abider doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually abide.

Customer service managers with a lot of toxic employees tend to be overly focused on rules.

  • Attendance policies

  • Dress codes

  • Conduct policies, such as the use of personal cell phones

The solution to this challenge can be counterintuitive. Customer-focused leaders spend less time on rules (what not to do), and more time reinforcing positive behaviors (what to do).

For example, rather than reviewing the attendance policy with an applicant, a customer-focused leader might emphasize why an employee might want to come to work every day. Perhaps the company offers fun and challenging work, has a compelling customer service vision, and creates an environment where coworkers genuinely trust and support each other.

Take Action

Hiring good, non-toxic employees is difficult.

When I wrote about customer-focused companies in The Service Culture Handbook, the chapter on hiring was the most difficult to write. There were too few companies that did a fantastic job recruiting the right people.

You can make strides by avoiding overconfident, self-regarding, and rule-oriented job applicants. I've also created this hiring resource page to give you more tools and information.

Beware of Snake Oil and Hiring Assessments

One question I'm often asked is what hiring assessments do I recommend for screening customer service employees. 

I'm always cautious about these, as some assessment vendors seem like the modern-day equivalent of a snake oil salesperson. "It will cure anything," they say, even though it actually won't.

It can be hard to tell the difference between a good and bad assessment. Here's my advice if you're thinking of going down this path.

Searching for job candidates who all like the same.

My "Ah-Ha" Moment

Years ago, my role included developing leaders for the company I worked for. We used two pre-hire assessments from a well-known vendor. One assessed cognitive ability and the other was a personality assessment.

Like many assessments, this one came with pre-determined "standards" that were supposed to aid our hiring decisions. Candidates whose assessment results fit within a range determined by the vendor were considered to be ideal.

The company was dutifully following those standards when I arrived. While not the only basis for a hiring decision, the assessment results were weighed heavily.

Ever the nerd, I did a study to compare our most successful leaders to the vendor's ideal profiles. The results were a mild surprise.

Many of our best leaders did not fit the ideal profile.

A senior executive did poorly on the cognitive test, though his many years of exemplary performance suggested he was pretty smart, or at least smart enough to do the job.

One of our best leaders appeared to have been hired by mistake. The results of both assessments were well outside the vendor's "ideal" range, and I wondered how she could have been hired with those results. Yet her actual performance indicated she was one of the company's top performers in nearly every category, from financial results to service quality to employee engagement.


The Challenge with Assessments

Hiring managers turn to assessments to help them solve two challenges:

  1. Make better hiring decisions
  2. Speed up the hiring process

Don't get me wrong, there's a place for assessments and they can sometimes work. (More on that in a moment.) There's also a major challenge.

A good assessment must be valid and reliable. Validity means it accurately assesses what you want to assess, while reliable means it does that consistently.

Looking back on my own research, the assessments my company was using were neither valid nor reliable. They had failed to correctly identify some top performers, while other top performers did fit the vendor's profile.

The big question is why?

Some assessments just aren't very good. They're based upon junk science and crackpot theories with no real evidence to back up their claims.

Other assessments have potential, but it's the vendors' suggested "ideal profiles" that are the problem. These profiles are often generic and not calibrated to your employees.

Think of it this way. Costco and The Ritz-Carlton are both known for outstanding customer service. However, it seems reasonable that the ideal employee is probably slightly different for both companies. 


How to Assess Your Assessments

First thing's first. Before investing in an assessment, decide which characteristics you are really looking for in a customer service employee. This will help you pinpoint what type of assessment, if any, to use.

You can use this hiring guide to help you.

If you do consider an assessment, make sure you calibrate it first. Here's how:

  1. Start by having your existing employees take the assessment.
  2. Evaluate the results for your top performers, middle performers, and bottom performers.
  3. Identify the differences (if any) between the assessment profile of each group.

This exercise will help you construct a more accurate hiring profile than the generic one provided by your vendor. 

You may also find that there's no rhyme or reason to the assessment results when you compare them to your top performers. That happened to me when I did this exercise. The results of top leaders were wildly inconsistent.

That tells you the assessment is not a valid or reliable instrument and shouldn't be used.

There's one last concern to mention here. Pre-hire assessments can sometimes put your company on shaky legal ground if they disproportionately screen out people of a particular gender or ethnicity. Make sure you consult your HR professional or employment attorney before giving any assessment the green light.

How to Hire Employees Who Fit Your Service Culture

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

You've probably heard the adage, "Hire for attitude, train for skills."

It sounds good, but how exactly do you hire for attitude? Customer service leaders struggle with this one. Many rely on off-beat interview tactics they hear about in blogs and books, such as asking questions like "What kind of fruit best describes your personality?" Some just like to have a friendly conversation to see what sort of vibe they get from each person.

Researchers have confirmed you'd make better hiring decisions if you skipped these sort of interviews entirely.

You need a systematic process if you want to hire for culture fit. 

There aren't a lot of great examples to follow. In fact, the biggest challenge when I wrote The Service Culture Handbook was finding good examples for the chapter on hiring. (One of the best examples I know is Publix.)

This post is an update from a post I wrote back in 2014.


Start by Defining Your Culture

The very first thing you need is a clear definition of your culture. It's pretty tough to hire people who fit your service culture if you can't describe that that is!

A service culture is defined by what's called a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. 

Let's imagine we started an online wine store that focuses on helping customers learn about wine and explore new wineries, varietals, and wines from different regions. Our customer service vision might be: We make it fun to discover great wine.

So people who work in our company should not only love wine, but definitely not be wine snobs. They should enjoy learning about wine and helping others experience the fun and joy of learning about wine, too. (I really want to start this business now!)

We can now use this vision as a basis for hiring people who will embrace our service culture.


Create an Ideal Candidate Profile

The next step is to identify the characteristics of an employee who fits your company's service culture. I use this worksheet to create what's called an ideal candidate profile.

This profile separates the characteristics we want in an employee into two categories:

  1. Must Have Characteristics
  2. Like to Have Characteristics

The must have characteristics are attributes a candidate must have or we would not consider hiring them. For instance, everyone we hire for our online wine store must have an enthusiasm for wine. They don't necessarily need to be an expert, they just need to really like learning about it.

A like to have characteristic is an attribute that would help us make a hiring decision but isn't essential. So we might not require our wine store employees to have extensive knowledge of different wine varietals, but a candidate who did have this knowledge might have an advantage over other candidates with similar qualifications.


One key test for your ideal candidate profile is to compare it to your existing employees. You'll need to revise your profile if you have any successful employee who did not possess one of the must haves when they were hired.


Devise Screening Tests

The final step in creating your hiring process is to devise tests to screen candidates for each item on your ideal candidate profile.

The most common way to do this is through interview questions. Each question should be designed to uncover something specific. You should also have a clear answer key before conducting the interview.

For instance, we could test our online wine shop candidates for the "enthusiasm for wine" characteristic by asking them to tell us about a recent wine tasting experience.

A answer that indicated a culture fit would be an enthusiastic story about discovering new wine, such as going wine tasting at a local winery or wine bar. A poor culture fit answer would be someone who hadn't tried any new wine recently, admits they don't really like wine, or describes a story that sounds more like going out and partying.

I highly recommend Janis Whitaker's excellent book, Interviewing by Example, for clear guidance on how to write effective interview questions.

There are other ways to test an employee's qualifications besides interview questions. Here are a few examples:

  • Resume or LinkedIn profile
  • Skills assessments
  • Small project

We might screen potential wine shop employees for the "continuous learner" attribute by  looking for recent training classes, certifications, or education on their resume or LinkedIn profile. These don't necessarily need to be wine related since any recent learning indicates this person is likely a continuous learner.

Some companies have customer service employees respond to a realistic customer email to gauge both their writing style and resourcefulness. Assessing skills through a small project is another great way to learn a lot about a candidate.


Take Action

Assess your current hiring process by asking these three questions:

  1. Does your company (or team) have a customer service vision?
  2. Do you have an ideal candidate profile?
  3. Do you have screening tests for each characteristic on the profile?

The answers will help you decide where to start. You can learn more and see additional examples by viewing this on-demand webinar from ICMI.

The Amazingly Simple Way to Develop Better Interview Questions

Coming up with interview questions can be tricky.

I'm going to focus on hiring customer service employees, but my experience as a recruiter has taught me that it's a tricky process for nearly any role. 

There's no shortage of ideas on the topic. Books, articles, and webinars galore are dedicated to coming up with interview questions. The problem is it's just too much to make sense of it all.

You might ask the typical questions, such as "Why do you want to work here?"

Some people ask challenging questions, such as "What would your last boss say was your biggest weakness?" (Correct answer: "Sometimes I work too hard because I care too damn much.")

Others enjoy weird questions that focus on how the candidate answers: "If you were a fruit, what kind of fruit would you be and why?"

There's often a fatal flaw in all of these approaches. A flaw so bad that research shows you'd make better hiring decisions if you skip the interview questions entirely.

Three simple steps can fix that.

Step 1: Create an Ideal Candidate Profile

Just as a teacher wouldn't give a test without making an answer key, asking interview questions without knowing what a successful candidate should say is a recipe for disaster.

You can solve this problem by creating an Ideal Candidate Profile. It's a list of the specific skills and attributes that would make a job applicant the ideal candidate. The profile ultimately serves as the answer key for your interviews. 

For example, let's say you manage a tasting room at a winery and want to hire a wine room host to conduct tastings and sell wine. Some wineries promote a party-like atmosphere, but your winery really focuses on educating guests about great wine so they'll appreciate it more.

So one item on your Ideal Candidate Profile for a wine room host might be "a passion for learning about wine." Someone who loves learning about wine is more likely to share that passion with your guests, which is exactly what your winery wants.

You can use this handy tool to create your own Ideal Candidate Profile. I've even included a couple of how-to videos.


Step 2: Develop Your Questions

The next step is to develop at least one interview question for every item on Your Ideal Candidate Profile.

The idea is to use the interview to help you uncover whether or not a candidate has the specific qualities you're looking for. So if you want someone who is a team player, you should have a question that helps you learn if this person is truly good at teamwork. 

Let's go back to the winery example. Here's a question that might help you discover if a person has a passion for learning about wine:

"Can you tell me about the last time you went wine tasting?"

Someone who has a passion for learning about wine will spend their own time exploring wineries and learning all they can. They'll be able to describe a specific experience and what they learned from it.

The advantage of developing your own interview questions (versus copying from a generic list) is you can use the questions to target specific characteristics. I found Janis Whitaker's excellent Interviewing by Example workbook to be a huge help with this task.


Step 3: Evaluate Your Candidates

By now, you should have an Ideal Candidate Profile and an interview question for each characteristic. The final step is to apply these in a job interview. 

Let's say you interview three candidates for the wine room host position. All have prior customer service experience and have warm, outgoing personalities. Take a look at their answers to the question, "Can you tell me about the last time you went wine tasting?"

Candidate A: It was a long time ago, so I really don't remember. I like wine tasting a lot, but I've been so busy with work and school lately that I haven't had a chance to go. If I get this job, I definitely plan to go a lot more often!

Candidate B: I love wine tasting! I went out with some friends two weeks ago and it was a lot of fun. At one winery, we got to do a cave tour where we walked through these elaborate wine caves and they had this amazing room in the cave where they hosted special events for wine club members. Another winery offered cheese pairings with their tasting, so my friends and I lounged on the patio enjoying the sun, sipping some great wine, and eating the cheese. It was fantastic!

Candidate C: I read about a winery that does barrel tasting, where you can taste the same wine out of two different oak barrels. I often hear winemakers talking about American oak or French oak, so I thought this would be a great way to learn about the differences. It was a fun experience, because you really can tell the difference when you're tasting the same wine from the two barrels side by side. I learned the American oak is a little bolder and brings out more vanilla flavors, while the French oak is a little more subtle with spicier tastes.

Which candidate would you pick?

All three seem to enjoy wine tasting. Without an Ideal Candidate Profile, three different hiring managers might make three different decisions. Perhaps you can eliminate Candidate A who hasn't been wine tasting in awhile, but candidates B and C both described a recent experience they really enjoyed. 

The Ideal Candidate Profile for this particular winery makes the answer crystal clear.