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Ellen-Maree Gadd
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psychological testing

From sexual harassment, drug abuse and workplace violence to bullying, rudeness and undermining others, there is a spectrum of dangerous employees, from absolutely toxic to mildly poisonous.

Luckily, toxic people in the workplace are comparatively rare – only about three to five per cent were identified as toxic in a study by hiring software company Cornerstone OnDemand. But their effect is much larger. Toxic behaviour is contagious, and makes others more likely to behave in undesirable ways. It makes good co-workers resign and costs companies financially.

The experts are unanimous: the best way to deal with toxic employees is not to hire them in the first place. The financial costs – not to mention the social and personal costs – are simply too high. A rigorous hiring process using experienced professionals will weed out toxic people most of the time.

Psychological tests are an important part of the hiring process, along with structured interviews and thorough reference checks. Although they are used mainly to test for specific traits that predict success in a particular job, tests also help to weed out toxic people.

‘Psychological assessment is one of the best tools available to select people with a combination of traits and help organisations reduce the risk of hiring toxic people’, explains Steven Booker, Challenge Consulting’s Principal Psychologist. ‘The tests should be well designed and have built-in lie detectors, and must be used together with a competency-based structured interview’.

In a structured interview, each candidate is asked the same questions in the same order, so that they can be compared objectively against set criteria for the job. Interviewers ask competency-based questions to probe how a candidate has responded to a particular situation, based on real-life examples. This gives the candidate the opportunity to explain the reasons for decisions, how they implemented them and what the results were.

There is a range of psychological tests available, from short true-or-false quizzes to intense investigations that take many hours to complete. The good ones will allow the tester to identify the personality traits that will make success in a particular job most likely and show up the traits, or combination of traits, that ring warning bells for toxicity.

One test asks candidates to answer yes or no to 299 different statement, such as ‘You like to entertain guests,’ or ‘It bothers you to have people watch you work.’ The answers are then scored on 10 personality dimensions, such as general activity, restraint, and emotional stability. Another rates 16 personality traits, such as sensitivity and agreeableness, in a 10-minute test. Many tests can found online.

But beware of finding an online personality quiz and giving it to candidates to complete. Dr Arthur H Brayfield, Executive Officer of the American Psychological Association, said that testing ‘…puts a premium upon clinical judgment and professional skill and knowledge and requires the best available knowledge of the situation in which the individual applicant or employee is to perform’.

Make sure that any test is administered by a qualified and experienced organisational psychologist. It’s possible to cheat (although the best tests have built in ‘lie-detectors’) and if anybody will be able to game a personality test, it’s the toxic person who has no fear of others, is cold-blooded and over-confident. Evidence shows that subjects of personality tests will try to give the ‘correct’ answer rather than an honest one.  A trained professional will be able to spot the anomalies and compare the tests with the interview results and reference checks to gain a whole picture of the candidate.

The costs of making the mistake of hiring a toxic person are too large to leave the process to chance or intuition. Evidence shows us that psychological testing, together with the structured competency-based interview, offers employers the best chance of spotting the toxic employee before they wreak havoc and reveal their true cost.