I've read Robert Sutton's book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. I've read Leigh Buchanan's interview with Professor Sutton, "Lessons from Nightmare Bosses." I've hired a bunch of jerks in my day and I've written about The Deadly Cost of the B-Player, much of which deals with how to handle jerks who work at your company. But what about the ability to weed out the a-holes before they infiltrate your company, especially if it's a small business or fledgling startup!

You might be overly enamored by their skill set. You may have interviewed a ton of people and you've come across the shiny resume who would fit the bill by 150%. But if you hire someone who is disruptive, mean, or abrasive, they could be taking away more than what they add to your company by making everyone around them hate their job.

"But how do I know if they're an a-hole before I hire them?" Great question.

I don't believe you'll ever weed out 100% of the jerks before they get in (that's another article!) but you sure can put your best foot forward in the interview process to nab and filter them out. I've focused on three things you can manage in order to move on to the next nice candidate.

Speaking Bad About Former Colleagues or Managers

In your pre-screening or in-person interview you might be able to get their a-hole tendencies to surface from a simple question or two.

Question: "Tell me about a situation where you had an urgent crisis you and your team needed to solve, and how you communicated that to your management team."

In this answer you'll be able to see on a scale what they think a crisis is, how they worked with people to solve it and how they communicated to their managers.

Now if they start to speak badly about their team or their managers, that's a clear sign they're an a-hole. I've interviewed people from customer service to SVPs (incidentally I've found WAY more a-holes at the SVP level), and during the last interview I had an interviewee not only told me they may have to take a call from their moving company but also proceeded to speak badly about former colleagues. Needless to say she was not hired.

A non-asshole would tell you about the situation, how the team rallied, if they succeeded or failed and how it was communicated, and how it might not happen again.

Question: "Why are you leaving your current job?"

You might get someone saying they didn't agree with the direction the company was taking. Fine. But look out for them to start zero-ing in on people or bad-mouthing management. They don't know if you're good friends with their former employer. It's a very small world.

If they trash-talk their former colleagues and employers, they're going to do it to you too and chances are they'll do it "while" they work for you, not just when they want the next job.


The Blame Game

Another great way to weed out an a-hole is if your interviewee starts blaming the company or a colleague for their lack of getting work done. Even though that may have been true, they're just going to blame someone on your team for them not getting their work done when they work for your company.

Blamers are kings at sitting back and waiting for something they're dependent on instead of helping to make things happen. I've had people at former companies sit for months on a project because they're "waiting" on someone else to get their project done. I call that "stealing from the company" because my question to them always is "What are you doing in the meantime?" "Why aren't you surfacing an issue with a recommendation to move the project along?" "How can you be proud of the work you're not really doing?"

I'm positive at their next job they blamed our company for not recognizing their work. They also poisoned the team while they were at our company by complaining they couldn't do their job.

If they blame others in your interview, they're going to blame you next.


Backdoor Reference Checks

With the prevalence of social media, you now have a way to find out some more about the person you're going to be bringing onto your team.

LinkedIn has been very beneficial for many companies including mine to find out more about a new hire. Let's face it, a lot of blind reference checks are going to give you glowing reviews unless you really dig in.

But if you find that you are connected to someone who is connected with this person, it really can't hurt to throw a few questions at them; "Would you hire them again?" or "Would you work with them again?" Be wary of people who won't really answer, or are afraid to answer because of potential lawsuits. Hey they may not even take your call. This might be a sign that the answer could be a resounding "no".


Do as much work as you can before a destructive a-hole makes their way into your company. And make sure your candidate is interviewed by more than one person, then trade notes. You'd be surprised by the way your candidate answers the same question when asked by different people.


Published on: May 14, 2015