10 Interview Questions to Weed Out Toxic Job Candidates

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November 22, 2017

If you've ever hired a new employee who looked great on paper—and even seemed to skate through the interview—but soon after onboarding began to go off the rails, you know it can be a waste of your time.  But did you know it can also cost you a substantial amount of money?  That's because so-called "toxic employees," in addition to leaving shortly after being hired, can cause good employees to follow suit.   According to Spark Hire1, good employees who work with bad employees are 54% more likely to quit, and that costs businesses on average almost $13,000 per lost employee.

Taking Control of the Interview

The reason potentially bad employees can pull the wool over the eyes of interviewers is that they take the time to study the questions interviewers typically ask, and to carefully rehearse their answers.  The internet is replete with interviewing advice from respected sites like The Balance2, which tell interviewees:

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"Many of the questions that employers ask at job interviews will be standard interview questions. If you interview frequently, these common interview questions will grow quite familiar. Since it's so likely that these questions will come up, it's important to be prepared to respond to them."

Said differently, questions like "tell me about yourself," "what is your greatest strength," and "what is your greatest weakness" are expected.  To take back control of the interview and find out who job candidates really are, you need to ask questions they don't expect—questions designed to weed out toxic candidates, like the following 10:

  • How would you change your previous job?  You're looking for employees who are problem solvers, but also team players.  Toxic candidates will do one of two things:   they'll either whine on about how unfair or incompetent their previous boss or coworkers were, or they'll say they wouldn't change a thing about their last job.  Good candidates will give a measured response, pointing out the ways they would have done things differently, but without complaining or focusing on themselves and their needs.
  • What did you like most about your last job?  Is a candidate most passionate about what the job did for them, or about the ways they were able to use their talent to make a substantial contribution?  Bad candidates will focus on things like benefits and perks.  Good candidates will tell you about the ways they were able to use their education and skills, and about the ways the job helped them learn and grow.
  • Tell me about a failure in your last job?  Bad employees tend to be arrogant, convinced they're incapable of making mistakes.  They might admit to a relatively minor mistake, but they'll probably also quickly attribute that mistake to someone else's incompetence or unfairness.  Look for candidates who are aware of their faults, and who use their failures to grow and improve.
  • Tell me about an important success in your last job?  Again, you want employees who are team players.  Toxic job candidates will couch any success as purely of their own doing, rarely acknowledging the contributions of others.  There's nothing wrong with candidates being proud of their achievements, but mature candidates will recognize their own limitations and the importance of the team.
  • What are your values, and did they align with those of your last employer?  There's a difference between values and rules.  Bad candidates are likely to focus on rules, like taking no more than one hour for lunch or never being late to work, and they're likely to prioritize those rules over key values, like respecting the rights of others.  Look for candidates who understand the difference, and understand their own values.
  • Can you name an area where you need to grow?  Bad candidates think they already "know it all."  They'll have a difficult time identifying any areas where they're deficient.  They might give you a ham-handed response, like "I'm a workaholic," or "I care too much about getting it right."  This is a transparent attempt to avoid the question.  Good candidates know where they need to ramp up their skills, and care about their professional growth.
  • How would you describe your dream job?  According to Inc3, this question will weed out employees who see the job for which they're interviewing as little more than a stepping stone to a subsequent job.  There's nothing wrong with ambition, but good candidates see every position as a fair give and take, one in which the employer helps them advance their career, and they in turn help the employer build his business.  Bad candidates view every job as only about themselves.
  • Why do you want to work here?  This question gets at how much (or how little) candidates know about your business.  Good candidates, because they care about the contributions they can make, take the time to find out if their skills align with the needs of companies, and that means learning what those companies do, and what their primary business goals are.  Bad candidates are more focused on what the company can do for them. 
  • Describe a situation in which you did something positive that wasn't in your job description?  Most businesses are small, and success means that everyone on occasion needs to go beyond the limits of their assigned responsibilities for the good of the company.  Bad employees stick to the letter of the law (the classic "that's not my job" retort comes to mind).  Bad candidates will struggle with this question—they might even tell you that, if something is expected of them, it should be in their job description.
  • Tell me about a situation in which you depended on someone else to get the job done?  This question is poison to toxic job candidates.   Their greatest strength, in their view, is that they don't need anyone else to achieve success.  Said differently, they lack both emotional maturity and humility.  Look for candidates who are grateful for the help they received, and avoid those who give faint praise to coworkers and managers.


With the American economy approaching full employment, businesses face increasingly stiff competition for the best talent.  That makes it tempting to avoid asking job candidates the hard questions, and to settle for those who are likely to inject toxicity into your workplace.  It's important to avoid this temptation at all costs—you'll not only lose them in relatively short order; you also risk losing good employees who simply don't want to work with these kinds of employees. 

To ensure the success of your business, you need to hire the best job candidates and provide them with the support they need to grow in their jobs.  To learn more about the ways our continuing education and training services will foster your employees' professional growth—and help you grow your business—contact us today.


  1. Spark Hire: 7 of the Best Questions to Screen for Toxic Employees in the Interview
  2. The Balance: Top 20 Most Common Job Interview Questions
  3. Inc:  5 Questions Guaranteed to Weed Out Bad Job Candidates

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