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One of the most popular management initiatives for companies wanting to improve the commitment of their employees to their organization’s goals is the use of engagement surveys. According to Bersin and Associates, U.S. organizations spend around $720 million or about 3/4 of a billion dollars each year on engagement surveys.  This is not surprising since a 2012 survey by Towers Watson showed that 63% of US workers are not fully engaged in their work and are struggling to cope with work situations that don’t provide sufficient support.

Engagement surveys typically attempt to focus on reducing attrition. Qualtrics, a leader in engagement survey software and reporting systems, lists as their number one goal — to identify “at-risk” employee populations with low engagement and attrition issues.  Other goals of engagement measurement are to ensure people are reaching their full potential. The focus of this approach is to determine what management changes can be put into place to improve employee engagement. E.A.S.I-Consult® recognizes the value of this approach but has witnessed that there is much more that can be done. We feel that focusing on the current workforce and not attending to the “work attitude” of those being hired is short-sighted.

Employees bring their own work attitude to the workplace. This includes such things as dependability, adaptability, quality initiative, productivity drive, team orientation and customer centricity (see Workstyles Predictor® dimensions for a complete list and definitions of these constructs). We know that work attitude is difficult to train or change once on the job and should be screened for during the hiring process (see Helping Companies Hire For Attitude). We also know that bringing on board an employee lacking in an overall positive work attitude can significantly impact your current workforce (see The Cost of a Bad Hire). Gren Moran, a writer for Fast Company noted, that once a culture has gone bad, it’s hard to rebuild relationships and trust.

E.A.S.I-Consult sometimes refers to these as “toxic employees.”  Fastcompany.com highlights this in an article entitled “Four ways to identify toxic employees before hiring them.”  They begin their article with a revealing quote from a hiring manager:  “Two minutes into my interview with Mike, and something felt off. On paper, he ticked all the boxes I sought in a new hire: talented, smart, resourceful. But in person, his answers were curt, overly cocky, and he seemed to ‘know it all’.” This is consistent with E.A.S.I-Consult’s 15-year success with helping companies “hire for attitude, train for skills” approach. And the benefits to our customers have been significant.

In the article, Moran lists four ways to identify a toxic employee in the hiring process: Hone Your Hiring Process, Observe Behavior, Assess According to Values, and Don’t Rush the Hire. In general, I agree with these steps but will summarize and comment on each of them.

Hone Your Hiring Process 

Hone your hiring process refers to establishing or developing a systematic hiring approach before deciding to consider someone new. Moran provides little elaboration on how a good process might look other than to suggest that trusting colleagues to help evaluate applicants will improve the process.  I would go one step further and insist that these colleagues should be subject matter experts. That is, they must know and understand the challenges of the target job and the skills and work attitudes needed to be successful.  A formal process should also be established for those who collect data (interviews, etc.) by meeting to discuss and debate the pros and cons of hiring the applicant.

Several things determine how elaborate your hiring process can and should be. These include the size of your organization, the frequency of hiring for the target position, the volume of candidates you will screen, and importantly, your legal exposure. Regardless, having a planned process will improve your likelihood of hiring successful employees.

Observe Behavior

In this area Moran offers specific techniques to look for behavior throughout the entire hiring process, both in the structured interview process and outside of the interview. He asks, “how do they treat others in their interactions with your teammates, your administrative staff, and anyone else including, for example, your office janitor.”

Many years ago, I was part of a high-level candidate recruitment team for a Fortune 100 company. The candidate had completed the structured interviewing process and was invited to a formal dinner with me and a colleague. There were several things I noticed at that time that were inconsistent with the candidate’s behavior in the interview. They showed up late for the dinner with no explanation or apology. Following the dinner, as we were leaving, the restaurant doorman took a few seconds longer than expected to open the exit door. The candidate was impatient and disrespectful of the doorman in front of the hosts, myself, and my colleague. These were pieces of information that should not be discounted and were not. They did not negate all the other information collected through the hiring process but were included in the overall evaluation.

Assess According To Values

Moran goes on to claim that the strongest predictors that someone will make a great team player is if their values align with your company’s mission. I don’t disagree with this. Alignment with your company’s mission is very important. And this may impact team orientation but there are many other considerations that provide a prediction of being a team player. These include a person’s personality makeup, work attitude and such things as emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is listed in Moran’s suggested assessment of values. In particular, Moran encourages looking for information that reflects a person who takes responsibility for their behavior. In our description of work attitude, we refer to this as “dependability” (this person, “can be counted on to take the initiative – to do what it takes – to get the job done”). The work attitude attributes E.A.S.I-Consult has measured over a decade overlap with many of the attributes of emotional intelligence (see E.A.S.I-Consult’s January 2021 newsletter article, Emotional Intelligence, Work Attitude and Job Success).

Finally, Moran recommends looking for a display of “intellectual humility.” This is defined as being “open to new ideas and willing to learn.”  If you’ve been following our newsletter, you’ll recognize this as “learning agility.” Learning agility is one of the most prolific predictors of leadership success, especially in new hire and promotion decisions.

Don’t Rush the Hire

Moran warns us not to be desperate when hiring. The toughest part of weeding out toxic employees is having patience:  “Skill and talent can seem like that shiny new option you’ve been looking for, but you want someone who will add to your company’s culture and inspire those around them, not bring down morale.”

I believe that Moran’s approach to hiring is right on target. As you’ve seen, the four ways to identify toxic employees before hiring them are consistent with the science, beliefs, and business approach of E.A.S.I-Consult. These have allowed us to benefit our customers over many years of consulting. All I want to add to this is, “Amen.” You have to live a long time with your hiring decisions. It reflects on you and your judgment. So, take your time, do your due diligence, and get it right!

About the Author

David Smith, PhD, is the president and CEO of E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.