Screening Candidates for Bullying Traits

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Bullying - Screening Candidates

Bullies are the most undesirable characters in any workplace. Their offensive behaviour is often learned in childhood and honed during adulthood. They operate intentionally and repeatedly to harm others in order to gain power. Ontario’s Health and Safety Act (OHSA) considers bullying a workplace hazard. This is specifically why hiring managers should attempt to bar such candidates from joining the organization in the first place. This can be achieved by screening the individual thoroughly using various filters, including their social media accounts, in-person interviews as well as by obtaining the perspective of others.   

Social Media

Social media provides a window into the interests, personal lives and personalities of the people you are considering for an interview. Surprisingly, many individuals do not pay attention to their privacy settings or turn off their social profiles when they are job hunting. Where possible, use this as a pre-interview screening to determine if the individual should be invited for an in-person interview at all.

Furthermore, if their LinkedIn profile shows a connection you have in common, keep this information in your back pocket for a future reference check.

Behavioral Questions

Resumes give you information on how qualified a person is for the job. You can use the interview to evaluate their values and attitude.  Always conduct the interview in person or via video conference. This will allow you to observe the candidate’s verbal and non-verbal cues.

Behavioral based questions are very important if you want to pick up on a bullying-like personality. Prepare a list of behaviours and values that are important in your organization. At the interview, ask specific questions to judge the candidate’s past behaviour to detect concerns. 

Examples of behavioral based questions include: “How did you handle criticism of your work?”, “How do you know you are under stress and what do you do to handle it?” and “What types of people do you have difficulty working with and how have you managed this in the past?”

Some organizations present these as a written questionnaire, where the same query is phrased in several different ways. A distortion score will identify when a candidate tries to manipulate answers.

Verbal and Non Verbal Cues

Pay close attention to the responses you receive to your questions. Bullies often have difficulty speaking about their own faults. They rarely take responsibility for their behaviour and will cleverly deflect by focusing on the shortcomings of others at their previous workplaces. Anyone who trashes their former employer should be a red flag. No matter what the circumstances, an interview is, first and foremost, a forum for civility, diplomacy and tact. 

Also look out for candidates who exaggerate their own achievements without mentioning any assistance they might have received from subordinates and other team members. 

Other non-verbal cues to look out for include arriving on time, cleanliness and physical presentation, hesitation or evasiveness with answers, as well as signs of  underlying aggression. 

Involve Your Team

In some organizations, a second interview is often conducted with a hiring manager as well as a department member, often the supervisor that the candidate would report to.  Rephrasing the behavioral questions in a different way will allow you to evaluate the candidate for a second round. And this time, you will have the perspective of another person. Compare notes to the first session to find consistencies or discrepancies. You will now be in better position to form an opinion about the candidate’s character and value system. 

Some hiring managers also like to check in with the receptionist or an admin assistant who might have fleetingly dealt with the candidate through the interview process. Was the individual polite or rude? Bullies often disrespect subordinates with condescending behaviour, especially when they perceive them as lacking authority. 

The Reference Check

The reference check is a very important layer in the screening process.  It will help you round out the picture you have started to form about the individual, this time, from people who know him or her better than you do. 

Make appointments with the people you contact to ensure you have their undivided attention.  Ask similar questions that you prepared for the interview, for example, ” What could she have improved on at your company?“, “Did he take criticism well?”, ” How did her subordinates feel about working for him?”,  “Would you rehire her?”.  You could also share your company’s core values to confirm if he or she would fit into your culture.

Just like you did at the candidate interview, pay attention the responses, tone and mannerism. If there is awkwardness or hesitation with the answers, probe it further, if only to rule out indications of trouble.  

The Probation Period

Of course, everybody puts their best foot forward at interviews.  The sure way to evaluate a person is to see them in action. Stipulating a probation period in the employment contract will allow you to “test-drive” your candidate in a live environment. 

Bullying generally occurs in workplaces with lax rules or a dictatorial culture. It manifests itself verbally, psychologically, physically and even on-line. While disagreements and conflict occur in every workplace, step in and call it out as bullying when incidents become repetitive and persistent.

Berating and shaming a person in public is classic bullying.  Other bullies operate through gossip and innuendo to destroy reputations. They often break a subordinate’s confidence with unwarranted and constant criticism. Specifically look out for individuals who take credit for other people’s work or those who withhold information and resources to make a colleague look bad.  

Creating a healthy environment where you can solicit this type of feedback from colleagues who directly work with the individual will help you nip bullying in the bud. If you missed anything at all in the various layers of screening, these behaviours might just show up during the probation period.  And if so, cut your losses and let the person go to ensure a toxic culture does not set in at a workplace that is otherwise thriving and productive. 


Susan Heim is the president of Equity Career Transition and Outplacement Services, offering personalized coaching services for individuals in their quest for the perfect job and career. Equity also provides cost-effective outplacement services for organizations, large and small, in both the private and public sector.

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