Workplace bullying is something nobody should have to experience, and yet it does happen. As I was being interviewed on a podcast about my book, the host asked me how HR professionals or hiring managers could potentially spot a bully before they hired them. 

One bully in a leadership position can wreak havoc on an organization – and that is even more true for a small business. 

This was such a juicy question! I had to think about it because I don’t have a background in HR and I haven’t been a hiring manager. What I do have is experience being bullied in the workplace and helping clients work through the lingering effects of being in a toxic work environment. 

Here is what I came up with:

The bad apple

People are usually on their best behavior in an interview situation. I can imagine that it would be difficult to discern who would be a good team player and who would not. 

That said, there are some obvious disqualifiers that HR professionals or hiring managers could look for, including racist, sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic remarks. If someone does that in an interview situation, they should definitely not be advanced to the next round. 

The clueless candidate 

The next level could be listing for whether the candidate talks badly about their former employer, manager, or colleagues. This is just considered bad form – even if their previous situation was a hot mess. 

Professionals who blame others usually have a habit of not taking responsibility and looking for someone or something to blame. 

Once again, these candidates should not advance to the next round because blaming (and shaming) is bad for morale.

The probing question 

The deeper level could be probing for humility and empathy. Bullies don’t generally display these characteristics. Listen to how the candidate tells the stories of their successes. Is it all about them and what they did, without mentioning any other team members or partners? That could be a warning sign. 

Regarding empathy, you could ask the candidate, “You can see that your colleague is struggling. Walk us through how you would react. What would you say? What would you do?” (Thank you, Michelle Wilkes, for your guidance on this.) 

If they can’t empathize with their struggling colleague or offer support, they will not be a good team member, and they definitely will not be a manager that people would want to work for. 

Small businesses need to specifically hire for workplace culture and fit. It can be hard to fire someone and employee turnover is expensive and disruptive. Getting into the habit of identifying potential bullies during the hiring process before they work for you could save you from a bad hire and an expensive mistake.

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