Not all people are created equal, regardless of similar skills and experiences. Character is a factor that can optimize or diminish what a new hire will bring to your endeavor. Sadly, too many small and mid-sized organizations lack the skills, tools, or interviewing techniques to screen candidates as well as they could. Every person coming into your organization changes the flavor of your culture. Some people enhance it, while others can do it harm. There are toxic personalities that you want to avoid. It can be tempting to overlook their flaws, particularly when people with the skills and experience you seek are hard to find. Still, once they become embedded in your company, the disruption they can cause generates more harm than you want to deal with.
Who are toxic people
Toxic people are those whose attitudes, perspectives, or habits disrupt your organization’s peace of mind. If you already have one or more of these people, you know what I mean. If you don’t, then you surely want to avoid introducing them into the mix. Dysfunctional people come in all sizes, shapes, and colors so your inspection has to go deeper. Some may have, what can be clinically diagnosed as personality disorders. Others, while not so severe, have habits and attitudes that still disrupt morale, work flow, and interpersonal harmony.
While the list I give here is not exhaustive, it will alert you to people who are potential disrupters. These people are:
- Self-identified Victims
- Self-absorbed or selfish people
- Rigid and inflexible people
- Apathetic people
- Anxious people
- Angry and disrespectful people
- Comfortably ignorant people
- Dishonest people
Most people, when they come to work, want to be seen as valuable contributors who seek to earn the appreciation of the group already there. That’s what’s typical. These others, mentioned above, expect to be valued, or coddled simply because THEY show up. They expect the work place to accommodate them. They feel entitled by virtue of the attitudes that they bring with them.
Victims, as opposed to survivors, see themselves as passive reactors to the forces of life that have acted upon them. They have a deep seated sense of powerlessness that renders them needing special treatment or consideration. These aren’t people who are passing through a crisis and feel temporarily battered. Rather, these are people who chronically feel that life’s bumps and bruises are aimed specifically at them. They talk about the unfairness of life. They can silently suffer, or loudly complain. Either way, they often feel impervious to the rules, or the expectations of others because of their suffering. These people tend to emotionally drain those around them. They often don’t do their share. They expect special consideration. While we tend to give that consideration to people in a crisis, we expect that as the crisis passes they’ll return to their old selves, and even appreciate the support those around them have provided. People with a victim’s mentality take the kindness until others feel used, and still they never move on or get better.
Self-absorbed and selfish people see the world as all about them. They constantly worry about getting their share, even at the expense of others. We accept these traits in five-year-olds but some people never grow up. These people seek attention, take credit for other peoples’ work, and are envious of what others get or have. They will behave childishly when their whims are thwarted or when they don’t feel favored by the powers that be. This attitude and these behaviors, grate on peers and infuriate people with authority in the organization. To play off of the John F. Kennedy quote, “They ask not what they can do for the company but, rather, what the company can do for them.”
Rigid and inflexible people know the right way to do things and are reluctant to change their habits or patterns. They don’t appreciate the need to modify their approach as conditions or expectations change. These are the people who exercise a pocket veto when asked to get onboard with a new initiative or to adopt a new process. They listen to instruction, maybe even superficially agree, but then return to their desks and fail to change. They can be self-righteous. They know better than their leaders. The truth is that they simply don’t want to leave their comfort zones. Whether they are insecure or stubborn, the end result is that they don’t play for the team. The way that it has always been done, or they way that they did it elsewhere should be good enough for you. Not only do they not willingly comply, but they resent you asking them to change. Another characteristic of people like this is that they tend to complain and fuss to those who work around them. They generally don’t consider the impact of their behavior on others.
Apathetic people are people who just don’t care when push comes to shove. They display little ambition to advance or improve. They come to work to get the paycheck without out much regard for the quality of their efforts. These are the “that’s not my job” people. They do as little as they can get away with doing. They will never think of ways to grow their jobs or improve a work process. They take no pride in their work and tend to ridicule or deride people who do as chumps. They look to do as little as possible while quickly cueing up for perks or benefits. If they can they go home early, come in late, and use up all of their vacation or personal time regardless of how their timing might disrupt the organization, something they see as not their problem.
Anxious people are prone to constant worry, sometimes about something in particular, but often about any number of things in general. The people that I’m referring to here have their anxiety as a foundational piece of their personality. They tend to dwell on the things that make them anxious. They give elaborate and even excessive attention to the things that they worry about. While we can all be anxious about something from time to time, these people are characterized by the fears that seem to constantly lurk beyond the periphery of their routines. They tend to avoid people, tasks, or situations that are outside their normal comfort zone. Needless to say, their anxiety limits how fully they can involve themselves in their work. Being limited by their fears as to what they can and cannot do, and their often over-wrought emotional displays often grate on co-workers who toil through similar circumstances. Of course, everyone is expected to excuse them or indulge them because they report, “they can’t help it.”
Angry and disrespectful people are those with little regard for the contributions or the dignity of others. They tend to belittle people, using ridicule or sarcasm as a tool for dominating or intimidating others. These folks have little regard for institutional norms or values. They often tease or play in ways that are designed to diminish or intimidate others. They might be overt bullies (men or women). If it isn’t overt, there is an undercurrent of anger and hostility with these people. They display little or no empathy for others in general, but especially for those who run afoul of them at work (be it customer, supervisor, or peer). These people also tend to gossip, and while we all may do it a bit; these folks are often relentless in seeking and exploiting the vulnerabilities of others.
Comfortably ignorant people are not stupid; rather they are comfortable with not learning new information. Since they probably know how to use cell phones, video recorders, tablets or computers they can learn and adapt, if they want to. However, their interest in learning new information for work or for other people’s benefit in general is pretty slim. These people want what they already know to be good enough. They’d rather drift along letting others assume the responsibility for doing new things or old things in new ways. This trait makes them dependent on others for showing them how to do things, often again and again. By the same token, these people don’t bring a curiosity to the workplace or to their jobs. This lack of interest in learning and intellectually growing often relegates these people to the lower rungs of the organization. Although, whatever their roles, the lack of interest and engagement displayed by these people often has ripples far beyond their work stations.
Dishonest people cause a great deal of frustration and problems in the work place. Honesty is a complex and multi-layered concept. While some people might steal office supplies from work, others can’t be counted on to keep their word or to keep a commitment. These people are blamers. They seldom accept responsibility for either their actions or the consequences of their choices. It’s often someone else’s fault. Or, this person usually can name someone who they say made me do it (or say it, or think it). They tend to avoid accountability, or ride on the coattails of a group or team. In places where I’ve seen open theft of company property, it has usually been done by people who had ways of evading responsibility or of masking their true feelings.
What’s the antidote?
People looking for work put their best foot forward. They generally mask these attitudes at least a little. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to assess these people but you do have to read between the lines of what the say in the interview process.
- Having a behavioral interviewing strategy and approach, skillfully done, is a very powerful way of listening behind the verbiage to the essence of what they are really saying.
- When people are ‘courting” you in the job hunting process, and red flags in these toxic patterns takes on added significance. You can multiply the issue by a factor of ten in trying to anticipate what these people will be like when they come on board and settle in.
- Finally, in the interview process, it’s a time to learn, not sell. I’ve watched many owners or CEOs switch from learning about the candidate too early in the process and start selling the company, the team, and the benefits of working here. That should take place in a later meeting after you’ve sorted through the candidate, gotten to know them well on your key competency dimensions, and have set your sights on the best fit of the lot.
Be prepared. Be disciplined. Be focused. Avoid bringing these toxic personalities into you organization. Don’t hire these people regardless of the skills and experience they might also bring to work. It just isn’t worth it.