Red Flags Flying? Hiring to Avoid Toxic People

Toxic People

Ad agencies and marketing firms expend much energy on building strong cultures. But, while culture can enable success, it can also empower some people to work against your values and principles. A positive culture lifts and inspires; but a toxic culture can cause valuable employees to flee, the work to suffer, client loss and a vibe in which no one actually wants to work, including the owners. That is why, as part of your hiring screening process, you need to be on the alert for toxic people.   

The Sociopath Across the Table

People who demean, abuse or just treat co-workers and subordinates badly are assholes. Ignore the other euphemisms: jerk, bully, tyrant, whatever. They are assholes, says Robert I. Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Even if an individual performs well, he is not worth the destruction he will wreak on co-workers, your clients, vendors, partners, and your agency culture.

The No Asshole Rule has been adopted by many successful organizations; a few even ask new hires to sign pledges agreeing not to be assholes. Businesses have embraced the rule because these disruptors can be very costly: buy Sutton’s book to learn how to calculate your TCA (Total Cost of Assholes).

Sutton, professor of management science at Stanford U., first wrote about toxic co-workers and managers in a McKinsey Quarterly article* that evoked a huge response. Apparently, pretty much anyone who has ever been employed has had to work with at least one… let’s call them “AHs.” Since then, Sutton’s book and the rise of social media encouraged more people to share their epic AH stories with the author. Sutton’s follow-up book, The Asshole Survival Guide, is scheduled for release in September of this year.

No AH Rule: Looking for One Red Flag

An agency principal of our acquaintance once told us, “No matter how talented, I never hire someone whom I feel will be a cancer to culture.” That is exactly what hiring the wrong person is like—a nasty growth that spreads its tentacles throughout your organization, creating an environment of unmotivated, negative people, resistance to process and systems, and eventually, poisoned relationships with clients and vendors.

The best preventative to this cancer is to not let it in the door. Here are some strategies for spotting AH candidates during the hiring process.

Watch for values cues in hiring interviews – Ask open-ended questions, and let AHs hang themselves. The first rule of interviewing is to let the interviewee do all of the talking. Beware of candidates whose answers seem too perfect. Only practiced charmers and habitual liars present as perfect. Negative questions can help reveal candidates’ dark sides. “Tell me about a time when you were unfairly criticized.” “Have you ever had a boss you distrusted? Why?” “Give me an example of a time when you made a mistake.” Tell me about a conflict with a past co-worker: what happened? How did you handle it?”

Test for values as part of the hiring process – Seek character with competence. Use personality testing to assess key traits and suitability for the position you need to fill. Also, ask about upbringing, hardest learned lessons, mentors, and other background that will give clues to who they really are. If they spend more time telling stories on past employers than discussing their own actions, be wary.

The importance of reference checking in assessing values – Past performance predicts future behavior. Be skeptical of references who haven’t actually worked with the candidate. Also, it could be a red flag if former employers or co-workers are not very enthusiastic, or use HR-speak in talking about the candidate. Do another interview and probe for more info. If managers do the hiring, and they have reservations at the reference-checking stage, it may help to have the agency principal make some calls—sometimes a business owner can get answers former employers just won’t share with lower-tier managers.

Use probationary paid employment to give red flags a chance to unfurl – If you like the candidate on paper, but something just doesn’t feel right, try a probationary hire period.

A practiced interview subject may drop their guard once they are in a real work environment. Consider building a relationship with a trusted temp or contract hiring firm so that you can hire (and audition) people for up to six months before the relationship becomes permanent. If red flags appear, you can end the relationship quickly.

Create and sustain a non-toxic workplace – Not hiring AHs is just one step in building a motivated, passionate and collaborative ad agency team. Build on good hires by recognizing and promoting the people who do the most to lift up their colleagues, get the job done for your clients, and make it a pleasure to come to work every day.

If you still manage to hire a person who is a bad values fit, fire quickly.

Beware the AH in “sheep’s clothing” – AHs come in many shapes and sizes. Some may be deceptively mild-mannered with their managers, while terrorizing those who report to them. Try to avoid hiring people directly into positions where they will manage teams or groups. Instead, make management responsibilities contingent upon successful completion of a probationary period.

What if the agency principal is the AH?

Sad to say, we have seen instances of toxic agency environments where the main culprit is the agency owner or one of the principals. This is the toughest AH issue to resolve, since often, the lead AH is resistant to change and seldom willing to acknowledge that he or she is the source of many of the agency’s issues. Dr. Cameron Sepah recommends businesses “remediate or separate” competent AHs—those who do their jobs well, but are nevertheless toxic to culture and values. Giving the AH the boot through a buyout is sometimes the only solution for a smaller business. Such splits are usually ugly; even if the non-AH partner can rebuild with most of the team in place, the lingering effects of toxicity are difficult to purge.

A more viable option is to separate AHs by moving them to non-supervisory management positions where their ability to directly poison employee and client relationships is minimized. Sadly, the remaining principals still have to deal with the AH, but sometimes the leader has to take fire to save the regiment.

How about if the AH is a client?

You and your people do not deserve to be treated badly by clients who are rude, abusive and generally behave like playground bullies. If you absolutely must hang on to such clients for financial reasons, principals should step up and be the direct contact with the bully. Asking employees to shut up and suffer that kind of abuse is simply not a way of expressing your agency’s positive cultural values. Make a concerted effort to find better clients to replace the AH and get rid of him/her as soon as possible.

If you see your agency culture descending into difficulties—increased employee conflicts, souring client relationships, errors and system breakdowns—look first at whether the AH effect is in play. Identify the person and show him or her to the door. Then start rebuilding your culture with a focus on values and teamwork. The only flags you should see waving at your agency are team pennants.

* “Building the Civilized Workplace,” 2007


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