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7 of the Best Questions to Screen for Toxic Employees in the Interview

7 of the Best Questions to Screen for Toxic Employees in the Interview

You hire a candidate who seems perfect on paper, seemed friendly in the interview, and nailed your interview questions. However, after a few weeks on the job, they’re not exhibiting these same behaviors. They don’t work well with other individuals on the team; they gossip and are arrogant. They’re a toxic employee, and they wreak havoc on your team. 

Hiring a toxic employee is more costly and harmful than you, and other company leaders may think. It doesn’t just hurt the performance of that one employee, but also those who must deal with toxic employees. 

A study conducted by Harvard Business School found 78% of employees said their commitment to their organization declined in the face of toxic behavior. Considering that toxic employees can cost you some of your best workers, the study’s experts estimated that hiring a single toxic employee costs about $12,500.

Toxic employees can hide their poor attitudes from employers, so you must ask the right interview questions in the screening process to reveal those destructive qualities. Use these interview questions to avoid hiring employees with toxic energy: 

1. What would you change about your previous job/employers?

The toxic answer: Recognize toxic employees as candidates who whines and complains when they discuss their boss, co-workers, and their job in the interview. Anyone who dives into a laundry list of faults about their previous job is someone who will bring high levels of negativity to every workplace challenge. 

Toxic employees can answer this question more subtly, as well. Beware of candidates who pinpoint problems in their workplace on a specific person or who speak ill of their co-workers. These professionals aren’t team players and cause tremendous damage to morale, especially when things go wrong.

On the other hand, avoid the candidate who says they wouldn’t change anything about their job or employer. The candidate wouldn’t be looking for a new job if they loved everything about their current one. These candidates are faking it, and you don’t know what else they’re phony about. 

What to look for instead: 

No one likes everything about their job, and there are improvements that need to be made in every organization. Although you’re asking candidates to speak about negatives, look for those who do so without complaining. They speak about office problems overall and don’t blame them on any particular person. They speak honestly, but professionally about the changes they would make and focus on the positive outcomes of those changes — not the negative issues.

2. What do you love most about your current/previous job?

The toxic answer: Toxic employees love vacation days, free food in the kitchen, and high salaries. Employees should enjoy the benefits and perks of their jobs, but it shouldn’t be their primary motivation for work. 

Toxic employees don’t care about their work, and only show up for a paycheck. And their negative attitude permeates throughout the organization. After all, evidence from the Harvard Business School study found that nearly half of employees “decreased their work effort” and intentionally spent less time at work. A candidate who only cares about superficial aspects of a job isn’t engaged, and won’t be motivated to do their best work. 

In addition, identify toxic candidates who talk about the awards and recognition they receive on the job. These candidates may only be motivated by rewards, not the job itself. 

What to look for instead: 

Look for candidates who are passionate about their work. These employees find joy in their role and the impact it has. These candidates will talk about the challenges of the job, the outcomes of their work, or their interest in the industry. 

Quality candidates may also discuss aspects of their working environment they enjoyed that go beyond superficial perks. They talk about the great collaborative team, how they loved the open communication between co-workers and managers, or how everyone worked together and pitched in during stressful times. 

Although these candidates aren’t expressing their passion for the job, they’re showing that they care about co-workers and how the office environment impacts their work, not how perks benefit them.

3. Tell me about a failure or a time you could have done better. 

The toxic answer: There are many types of toxic employees. Many of them struggle to recognize their faults and could be too proud to reach out for help when they need it. 

Arrogance is a signature trait of toxic employees, and job seekers with this trait won’t take direction, advice, or criticisms from their co-workers and managers, recognize and learn from their mistakes, or seek help to remedy a situation. 

In fact, Cornerstone OnDemand’s Toxic Employees in the Workplace: Hidden Costs and How to Spot Them report found that professionals who are notably over-confident about their technical proficiencies were 43% more likely to engage in toxic behavior. 

Avoid toxic workers who admit failure but are quick to blame others for the situation. Similarly, beware of candidates who claim they solved their own problems without the help of others. These professionals won’t ask for help when they need it, and they won’t appreciate it when their co-workers help them.

Also, interview questions like this eliminate candidates who don’t think they have ever failed or could have improved their performance. These professionals have unrealistic perceptions about their skills and can’t recognize their faults. If they can’t recognize problems, they won’t learn from them and grow as a professional. 

What to look for instead: 

Look for the candidate who understands their strengths and weaknesses and takes responsibility for their mistakes. These candidates recognize their faults and move on. They don’t see these situations as failures but as learning experiences. In their answer, they focus on what they learned from the situation and how they would handle it differently now. 

Non-toxic candidates don’t have a problem talking about those who helped them out, their managers who offered tips and advice, or how they worked together to handle a crisis. 

4. What has been your biggest success so far? How did you achieve it?

The toxic answer: Toxic candidates are quick to cast blame and even quicker to accept praise. If the group wins, they count it as a personal success, not as a group effort. 

Avoid candidates who brag about their skills and achievements, in response to these kinds of interview questions, without recognizing the help they received from others along the way. Those who describe their success in terms of “I,” not “we,” aren’t collaborators and will take the credit for accomplishments your team achieves together. 

In addition, watch out for candidates who only discuss personal gains as achievements. They talk about their big promotion or award — they don’t talk about how they earned that recognition. They’re not excited about a project or the quality of their work; they’re excited about the rewards. 

What to look for instead: 

Candidates can and should be excited about their achievements, but they understand that the overall success is not all about them. They recognize those who helped them reach their goals and their effort of everyone who helped.

Look for candidates who are genuinely excited about their job responsibilities — their success might be something big like landing their first new client or small like improving communication and productivity among their team. Whatever their accomplishment is, it should show that they are interested in doing their best work, and the impact it has on their employer, team, and workplace as a whole. They’re not absorbed with how the achievement benefits them. 

5. What is your ideal workday like? 

The toxic answer: Toxic employees are at the center of office drama and are the ones spreading gossip among the team. Although you want your employees to socialize, beware of candidates who place too much importance on chatting with co-workers. 

A few seemingly harmless words can quickly evolve into a toxic environment. Unfortunately, according to a new paper on workplace relationships by Wharton University, not all toxic relationships are identifiable while employees are on the clock anymore. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites now further threaten bonds between employees, especially when a negative 

Toxic employees will focus on the social aspects of their workday, not the actual work. 

What to look for instead: 

Friendships and good relationships are essential to organizations and overall job satisfaction. Look for candidates who spend time socializing without letting it become a distraction. You’re looking for the right balance between a collaborator and an individual worker. 

This candidate will mention socializing as a part of their ideal day, but won’t focus on it. They note teamwork as an important part of their workday but also see the importance of working alone. Look for candidates who think it’s important to form working relationships and get along with others while completing their work.

6. What values of your previous/current employer most align with yours?

The toxic answer: Toxic employees don’t place importance on the values of their workplace. They struggle to name their own values and those of their employers. As a result, they may try to answer the question by listing rules they agree with, in the office. But self-proclaimed “rule followers” are 33% more likely to be toxic employees, the Cornerstone OnDemand study found. 

Toxic employees don’t have a clear idea of their own values, let alone their employers’. They’re focused on the little rules, not the big picture. Asking interview questions that put emphasis on the rules may lead them to tattle on other employees, a behavior 44% of respondents surveyed by CareerBuilder said they have witnessed in the workplace.

What to look for instead: 

Effective professionals are driven by their values and are aware of the values of their employers. Look for candidates who connect with the culture of their office and are passionate about their values. 

The best candidates will focus on the big picture and won’t get caught up in little details. They will share similar values as you and will be a good fit for your office culture.

7. What skill are you still missing?

The toxic answer: Toxic employees think they know it all and aren’t interested in spending their time learning new things. Beware of candidates who struggle to come up with an answer to this interview question. 

This interview question essentially asks candidates to disclose a weakness, and toxic employees may try to answer this question with a superficial answer. For example, they may say they need to learn how to disconnect from their job or how to be less of a perfectionist. These answers show that the candidate doesn’t really have an interest in learning something new, and is just trying to look good in the interview.

What to look for instead: 

Look for candidates who have a genuine interest in growing their skills and learning new things to improve continually. These candidates will recognize they are missing a skill that is relevant to the job or industry, such as coding or social media. 

Effective professionals may also be interested in learning a skill that isn’t directly related to the job. These candidates love learning and have interests outside of work, which are valuable traits in the workplace.

Hiring a toxic employee can be a costly mistake. Ask candidates the right interview questions during screening interviews to weed out potentially poisonous professionals and find the best person for the job.


interview questions


Josh Tolan

Josh Tolan is the Founder and CEO of Spark Hire, a video interviewing platform used by 6,000+ customers in over 100 countries.