How to avoid hiring manipulative people
October 21, 2010 5:20 PM   Subscribe

As part of my job, I interview lots of engineering candidates (but the field doesn't really matter). One of my concerns is hiring manipulative personalities (blaming, perpetual victim, passive/aggressive, covert-aggressive, untreated personality disorders, etc). What are the best things to ask to spot trouble ahead of time?

I'm familiar with Behavioral Based Interviewing. The idea behind behavioral interviewing is that talking about a concrete example of the applicants past is better than asking them about themselves in general or asking how they would handle a hypothetical situation.

That's working pretty well. But I have concerns that all sorts of bullies or difficult people will make it through my interview without a hint of their future behavior.

I have read Give me the benefit of your hindsight and In Sheep's Clothing. Those two resources have been fantastic for spotting manipulative people in my everyday life, where I have lots of time to notice these things. My job interviews are very short though...

So, hive mind, what can I ask as part of an interview that will help me spot difficult personalities, if it's even possible? I generally have less than an hour with the candidate (each candidate is seen by multiple interviewers), and I have to evaluate their technical skills as well as personality fit.
posted by ssqq to Human Relations (36 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
One of the best ways is to carefully interview all of their references. Ask the references about how it was to work with the candidate on a project, are they team players, etc. If they don't give enthusiastic responses or say how much they enjoyed working with them, that could be a clue. I've been surprised by the candor of references even though they have been hand picked by the candidate. If the references don't have direct working experience with the candidate, that can be a red flag.
posted by JackFlash at 5:50 PM on October 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Ask them about what a typical day for them is like. Ask them about how they like working on their current team. Ask them to think through a problem.

You should be able to quickly evaluate which candidates are good people and which are psychos.
posted by bshort at 6:09 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess you could just look some of those things up in the DSM-IV and see what you can ferret out from the symptoms.

In the behavioral interviewing techniques, are the questions:

"Tell me about a recent success" and "Tell me about a recent failure"?

Try questions like "tell me about a time someone really impressed you" and "tell me about a time when someone disappointed you and how you dealt with it". And "what annoys you the most" and "what is something you think you do better than anyone else." Ahh. Just thought of a perfect one: "what are some of the attributes of what you consider to be a good coworker or team member? And the attributes of bad ones?"

Remember that the content of the answers isn't as important to the candidate's reaction to it. In a lot of cases, a string of seemingly perfect answers is the most worrysome: these would potentially be the charmers and liars. I also seem to remember that one thing you can do is preface the questions with "it's not that big of a deal, if you can't think of anything just make something up."

As for the passive aggressive and covert-aggressive, it is going to be harder to figure that one out. You would almost have to set them up with some kind of booby trap. But that is veering into evil territory. You might ask- completely dry and without any tone or implication- how the interview with the last person went, or how they were treated in the lobby or something. Compare what you hear to reality. Or tell the reception person to be slightly annoying in some trivial way- the kind of thing an aggressive jerk would comment on behind their back, but that a normal person might not mention.
posted by gjc at 6:11 PM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: To suggest them DSM-IV is really out of line as OP is not a psychologist/psychiatrist and there is no need for arm chair analysis. Besides. I'm sure you wouldn't want potential interviewees to discover this as depending on your state this could be grounds for violating hiring rules.
It sounds like you already have a good grasp on how to vet candidates and asking for particulars in the form of previous situations would be best suited to weed out potential behavioral issues of your concern. An hour is hardly enough time to really determine much about an individual but certain responses could be indicators of how people would fit within the work culture.
A place for resources to hiring practices would be a human resources manager. If you'd like to talk to someone who is experienced with hiring practices drop me a mefi mail and I can provide you an email to ask someone.
posted by handbanana at 6:26 PM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

My best hire was a person who answered, when asked to tell me about her current boss, "He is highly motivated, and that inspires people who work for him to do their best."

Twelve years later, I know that what she meant was, "He is a complete and utter asshole."

I loved that she didn't trash her boss when invited to do so, and I have reaped the rewards in a person who accomplishes twice what most people do in a day.

Meanwhile, one the other side, there was the candidate who said, when asked about working with volunteers,"Let's face it, these people are sheep, and they need to be led."

Uh, no. That's not quite it. But thanks for playing.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:58 PM on October 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

First, ask them a series of Yes/No or True/False questions with a known Yes or True answer, e.g., "You studied engineering? You go by 'Ted'? Your resume-- it says you last worked at VorTechs?"

Then ask them a series of Yes/No questions with a known No answer, e.g., "Did you ride your bike here? Did you minor in journalism? Are you from Hawaii?"

Note the nonverbal differences between their Yes/No answers.

Later, notice what nonverbal answers they give you-- Yes or No-- when you ask more substantive questions. (Also, asking them stupid questions can give you insight into their stress-response patterns.)

You don't have to go full-bore THE TURTLE IS ON ITS BACK. WHY AREN'T YOU HELPING, LEON?, but a few such queries can show you much.
posted by darth_tedious at 7:06 PM on October 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

A large part of my work involves ferreting out just these types of character problems among job applicants, but without labeling them (for all the reasons handbanana describes and more).

My behavioral based questions are almost exclusively about negative things: "Tell me about a time when you were criticized unfairly" "Tell me about a boss you had that you didn't trust" etc. Their answers to questions of this sort should help you get enough information to make some educated guesses about the person. It's a good idea to develop a fairly standard repertoire of questions like this that you ask in the same way every time, so you can make comparisons across candidates.

Another very useful strategy is to monitor your feelings and reactions as you listen to the candidate. Does (s)he make you feel stupid? flattered? threatened? Your own personal reactions can give you good insight into the person.
posted by DrGail at 7:10 PM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also, ask them who their worst and most troublesome coworkers were-- though leave names out. Ask your candidate why they were so bad, and what could have been done to make them better... and what your candidate did or didn't do to improve the situation, and how he/she might handle a similar issue in the future.

Finally, ask him/her to describe the former co-worker he/she is most different from... and how that co-worker would describe the candidate.
posted by darth_tedious at 7:10 PM on October 21, 2010

So your question is really how to bring out the worst in someone in an interview? Having their status lowered usually works, and you can do that by asking them a really challenging question that they have very little hope of getting right. Most people experience shame or embarrassment in that situation, and the real weirdos will act out and try to put you on the defensive to deflect attention away from their weaknesses, maybe by outright attacking you. But the main point is that when confronted with their own failure, they become hostile and angry to the outside world and try to shift blame away from themselves. Ordinary nice people are ashamed and apologetic about their failures, but only truly hoopy froods who know where their towels are can gracefully accept success and failure as things that happen, and don't have excessive neurotic self-doubt is common to both the nice and the psychopathic.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:18 PM on October 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If a potential boss asked me some of these deliberately provocative questions or used the interview to bring out the worst in me, I probably would not want to work there. I think the best suggestion is careful attention to the nuances of personal references.
posted by yarly at 7:35 PM on October 21, 2010 [22 favorites]

I have to agree with yarly; I'm not an engineer, but if you asked me these kinds of questions suggested here that were not only weird but tedious to answer, I would not accept a job offer from you and consider the organization not worth my time.
posted by anniecat at 7:54 PM on October 21, 2010

Who was the worst boss you ever had? What was it about them that made them so bad? If I asked that guy/girl about today, what do you think they would say about your complaint right now?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:01 PM on October 21, 2010

Mercy, what company is this? I don't even know what "covert-aggressive" is supposed to be.

posted by rhizome at 8:04 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most personal references aren't going to tell you anything that revealing. If you're calling a former employer, you're not going to much, and if the candidate is supplying the references, I sincerely doubt that the people you call are going to spill anything really juicy.

Face it, everyone's got some pathology in some degree or another. Sure, you can weed out the obvious wackos, but unless you're going to go for full-bore psychological testing, I don't know how a brief interview is going to uncover untreated personality disorders.

While I don't work with engineers, I do a fair amount of hiring tech-minded people for a team or crew. I just go with my gut reactions--if I can stand to be around them for the 15 minute interview and they've got the proof that they can do the job I need, I'm pretty satisfied.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:12 PM on October 21, 2010

This is sorta left field, but I'm always a little more reserved with candidates who really work to put me at ease - the super affable ones, with smiles and comfortable handshakes and breezy manners. Most people are somewhat nervous during interviews. Manipulative people know how to manipulate the interview situation. If someone seems just super great at projecting total calm and comfort, and is relating to you already as a peer and practically interviewing you, that should be kind of a red flag. In other words - yes, it's possible to interview too well, and as an interviewer you can sometimes tell when someone's trying to snow you as a means to the end of getting the job.
posted by Miko at 8:15 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always found the Rorschach-type questions to be the most interesting ones to answer in interviews. I've usually got a few pre-prepared answers for the typical interview fare, but nothing scares me more than "so, tell me about yourself.". I've also been intrigued by "do you consider yourself a leader, or a follower?" and "what do you do when you get stressed out?" In all these cases, the manner in which the interviewee approaches the question is just as important as what the actual answer is.
posted by Gilbert at 8:23 PM on October 21, 2010

My favorite, favorite interview question is: "Don't tell me which one it was, but your worst job ever, what was wrong with it?"

If they aren't prepped for it, you'll get some really emotional answers. Make it one of the last questions once they're loosened up, though.
posted by Gucky at 9:48 PM on October 21, 2010

I've recently been blown away by the accuracy and nuance of graphology. If you're seriously considering a candidate, having their handwriting analyzed by a respected professional graphologist can be quite illuminating.
posted by blueyellow at 9:55 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've interviewed a lot of people and find it's actually kind of impossible to make the call upfront on how a person's future will pan out. Sociopaths are great liars, for example. Bullies rarely bully their potential bosses, so it's not going to come out during an interview. You can check their references and quiz their technical and if all comes good, you might still be stuck with the depressing engineer who stalks the hallways complaining about late-changes to requirements and then quits a week before the deadline.

The only thing I've ever found that worked was to be prepared to actually sack a person. If you can get yourself used to the idea that you can, and will, remove people who don't work out, you might find it easier to hire people.

After all, by being so careful upfront, you might be missing out on the best (some people are great, but interview terribly).
posted by Ultrahuman at 10:10 PM on October 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

If you're seriously considering a candidate, having their handwriting analyzed by a respected professional graphologist can be quite illuminating.

Please don't do this. This is potentially a person's job, and a company's asset. You cannot magically infer anything beyond what you get from interacting with them and from talking to their references. If you try to read between the lines, there is no way to know that your analysis or "gut feeling" is right. Interviews are high-stress situations where the candidate is often very nervous, so unless they're very confident, you're not going to get a full understanding of who they are.

Other than being very diligent and thorough with reference checking, there's really nothing you can do. There's risks on both sides: you don't know if they'll fail to integrate well into the company, and they don't know if you'll be a good boss. Common sense and discretion will go a long way.
posted by spiderskull at 10:33 PM on October 21, 2010 [10 favorites]

Most people experience shame or embarrassment in that situation. . .Ordinary nice people are ashamed and apologetic about their failures,

I call bullshit. Someone with healthy self-esteem is not going to necessarily display shame and embarrassment while discussing a past failure during an interview.
posted by mlis at 12:26 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Find a weakness (or invent one) in their CV and see how they react when you point it out to them.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 1:07 AM on October 22, 2010

A reasonable starting question is just to ask them "what is your approach to management?"

I've always found the answers pretty enlightening. Just how they interpret the parameters of the question can be instructive.

From that you can keep asking probing questions and hypotheticals depending on what you hear.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:51 AM on October 22, 2010

Best answer: You might be interested in the "No Asshole Rule" book. Guy Kawasaki reviews it and gives some of the asshole indicators, which aren't always obvious in an interview.

Some ideas for how to spot them: Ask your receptionist how candidates treated him/her. Do they insult previous employers or co-workers, or roll their eyes when talking about them? Do they interrupt you, or make you feel uncomfortable when shaking hands?

Look out for weasel-words from the referrees. One question that I've been asked when I'm giving references is "Would you work with this person again?". Most of the time I'm able to say "I'd love to work with them again, anytime, if the opportunity arose". But just once I've had to kind of dodge the question, and ended up saying something about how unlikely it was to happen. That co-worker wasn't an asshole, he was just crap at his job, but he guilted me into giving the reference. I was lukewarm and non-committal, none of my usual positive statements.

On a resume, look out for lots of different short-term roles in the same organisation. Bosses who don't like confronting useless workers often just shuffle them off to new projects or departments in order to make the person someone else's problem. The new boss soon realises they've been duped, and shuffles the person on to a new area. Ask the interviewee about it though, there could well be a good reason for it.
posted by harriet vane at 2:44 AM on October 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

People often reveal a lot by their descriptions of other people, especially, I have found, in talking negatively about other people. Hence, I have asked people about their negative experiences and what specifically made them such. I would also ask them about their most positive work experiences.

How they describe these things can tell you a lot about how they perceive their interactions with those around them and potentially how they might behave in the future.
posted by From Bklyn at 5:19 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I favorited harriet vane's answer (and a few others), but would like to add, verbally, that the asshole indicators she links to are right on the money. While I haven't done hiring interviews in a while, I do supervise new arrivals, as their direct report — I work as a consultant, in a (major) client company, and so it's my job to let our sales engineer know ASAP if a new hire is talking a stroll down Asshole Lane, before their stroll reaches Formal Complaint from Client Headquarters.

That list is a great summary of the issues that ping my "not just immature or unaware, but asshole" radar. It's never gotten as far as "Uninvited personal contact" or "Withering email flames" for me, but all the other points? Definitely. I'd say it's especially the lack of fundamental respect — the kind we accord to everyone as fellow humans — shown by the listed behaviors "Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems", "Rude interruptions", and "Two-faced attacks" that bode the worst. How to tell? First and foremost, fundamental respect stands out all the more when it's an active priority in your own life. Second, note how people talk about their colleagues, or others they run into, whom you may or may not know. It's not whether it's negative or positive, necessarily, but whether it's constructive, respectful, and reality-based. For instance, the last "asshole" I dealt with made comments such as "lol, those three other chicks in my office are never there, it's like, they just never work, lol". It so happens that the "three chicks" are women with 30 years of experience and who manage projects for which there are several conference meetings in different offices. This person also commented that "this project is totally easy, I mean, like, I've done so much more complicated stuff, I don't know how you can possibly find it interesting." When I pointed out — for the third time — the importance of our work (global livelihoods depend on it, quite literally), he scoffed and boasted of his "8 years of experience, and not all behind a desk," in a witheringly haughty tone.

One commonality you can see in these examples is that they're self-referential (i.e. the superior-feeling asshole refers only to his own impressions and experiences, not those of others except to denigrate), the asshole never bothers to ask questions since they assume they know more than others (he could have asked his officemates what they did, but he preferred to assume they were lazy), and, especially, the asshole never assumes responsibility for the negative consequences of his leaps of judgment. Or much of anything else, to tell the truth, but that's a longer story, and the one we're trying to avoid.
posted by fraula at 6:13 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you don't know how to interpret the answers to behavioral questions, don't ask them. I worked with someone once who liked to ask these questions, but consistently hired people who echoed his own opinions, which were not shared by his management or by those with whom he worked.

Honestly, if I felt that I was being armchair psychoanalyzed (i.e., by someone not trained in mental health assessment) or if I noticed the interviewer trying to trip me up with a false mistake in my resume, I'd complete the interview and withdraw myself from consideration as soon as I got back to my computer. Are you really seeing so many jerks slip through your process that it's worth insulting the potential hires who would benefit the organization by assuming they're hiding a personality defect?
posted by catlet at 7:03 AM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Catlet, the point of an interview is to make sure the person would be a good fit in the organization. That means making snap judgments and armchair "diagnoses". Being asked to expose one's personality at an interview isn't asking too much, and the people that are insulted probably would not be good fits in that organization.

But I understand your point too- the people doing the interviews need to make sure the tone is appropriate.
posted by gjc at 7:24 AM on October 22, 2010

I was referring to the suggestions that the interviewer use a DSM-IV to analyze the candidates, or call the candidate out on an error not actually in the resume to see the candidate's reaction.
posted by catlet at 7:31 AM on October 22, 2010

The best question that Starbucks asks is, "Tell me about a time when you made a mistake at work, and how you handled it." This was specifically asked because they know you'll be corrected, especially during the first few months, and it's amazing how many people cannot recall making a mistake- which is a huge red flag- or tell you their "mistake" was someone else's fault. Granted, this happens a lot with younger people, but I still think it's a valid question, especially when followed up by, "Tell me how you respond to feedback/constructive criticism." Both tell you whether or not they're willing to learn, ask for help, and accept coaching.
posted by questionsandanchors at 8:14 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I definitely don't want to psychoanalyze anyone. I don't need to put a labels on anything. I just want to ask the candidate questions about their previous work experience and if their stories relate behaviors that may be problematic, then I know they might not be a good fit.

I definitely want to treat each candidate with respect. They are evaluating me to see if we could work together.

Thanks everyone for the great responses!
posted by ssqq at 9:46 AM on October 22, 2010

The way I interpreted the question, it's asking about manipulative people, not just people with low emotional intelligence. In my experience, manipulative people are often extremely charming, personable and well-liked and know all the right answers to the obvious questions. This kind of person will sabotage you and still make you think they're your best friend, who boasts about receiving an award by telling everyone how humbled they are to get it. (Which reminds me of this classic post about how to assert your social status on Facebook.)

I don't think there's anything unethical about trying to find out how people deal with moderate challenges to their skills that they would likely encounter at work to ferret them out.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:43 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

AlsoMike is right -- That's exactly what I was trying to say in my comment. There are some people who are just not terribly competent or who have character flaws, and you can ferret some of those out in your interview with questioning. But intelligent manipulative people interview very well - that's what makes them hard to spot, and allows them to get into situations where they can create trouble.

Manipulative people work hard to put you right at ease, appear calm and competent and unconcerned, answer your questions with exactly the thing you want to hear, etc. You can treat candidates with respect, but manipulative people will see you doing that and then use your innocent attitude of respect to move you into the position they'd like you to be in - an inclination to hire them. They may not be sincerely evaluating you to see if they want to work with you; instead, they may have already decided they want or need a job offer from you, and will reflect back to you whatever you seem to want in order to increase the chances of getting that job offer. I imagine if you've read In Sheeps' Clothing you're aware of this.

So it's not as though there's a magic question you can ask that will reveal their true colors - they've got answers ready for you. The best I could propose is that you ask them to tell you about something they did that failed, and what they learned from it. Manipulative people don't really want to show you a weak streak when they're putting the show on. One thing you can look out for is "my project failed because Joe and Jim didn't do their jobs and the outside contractor dropped out and it rained and the plane was delayed and it was terrible, and and and, and in the end I made it work and I was the hero" - if all the blame is external, then the story has become that it was everyone else's fault and our interviewee is the fabulous one.

But I'd be aware that someone who's really good at this can spin this question too. Remember- they're reading you. When you ask those "behavior" questions, they might be thinking "ah, they're asking those 'behavior questions' to find out whether I'm difficult. Good thing I anticipated that."

The gut is very important in interviewing.

Also, manipulative people can be very good employees as long as they are moving toward their true goal while they work for you. Their true goal might be your job, though - or to take what they learn from you and open their own business, or get into grad school, or establish a career change, or whatever. If they start feeling thwarted in reaching their goals, their motivation will be right out the door, though.
posted by Miko at 1:53 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, manipulative people can be very good employees as long as they are moving toward their true goal while they work for you. Their true goal might be your job, though - or to take what they learn from you and open their own business, or get into grad school, or establish a career change, or whatever. If they start feeling thwarted in reaching their goals, their motivation will be right out the door, though.

I'm pretty sure these are not the traits of manipulative people, but of ambitious people. I read pretty much all of the above comment as, "Hmm, the interviewee says all the right things and seems truly interested in the job, seems to really want the job. Must be a psycho."

Frankly, and this is nothing personal against anybody, but is it beyond the pale to suggest that manipulators themselves are the most wary of being taken in by other manipulators and, perhaps more pointedly, wary of the competition? Just a mirror-check, but...
posted by rhizome at 3:18 PM on October 22, 2010

but is it beyond the pale to suggest that manipulators themselves are the most wary of being taken in by other manipulators and, perhaps more pointedly, wary of the competition

No, manipulators can easily detect other manipulators, so they aren't paranoid.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:15 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure these are not the traits of manipulative people, but of ambitious people. I read pretty much all of the above comment as, "Hmm, the interviewee says all the right things and seems truly interested in the job, seems to really want the job. Must be a psycho."

They can be the traits of ambitious people, except that it's possible for ambitious people to be honest and straightforward rather than manipulative. If they choose to manipulate their interviewer, then hey, they're manipulative. It's just a reality in the working world.
posted by Miko at 9:08 PM on October 22, 2010

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