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4 Signs of a Nightmare Job Candidate

nightmare hires

In honor of Halloween, we asked our recruiters to spill the beans on the most horrifying behaviors they’ve seen from job candidates over the years. And, boy, did they deliver. We heard about a candidate who showed up to the interview in costume, someone who repeatedly got high at their job and stole pizza from building security, and another whose mom accompanied him on his interview…and tried to participate.

We hope you’ll never experience some of these more shocking atrocities, but what about the subtle cues that recruiters have learned to recognize as signs of a nightmare hire? Behold our recruiters’ tips below to avoid hiring an employee who will keep you up at night.

1. They’re Rude

This one may seem obvious, but the more subtle sign is WHO they’re rude to during the process. Recruiters play a critical mediation role between an employer and a job candidate. Good recruiters allow job candidates to be open and candid with them about their questions and concerns with a job. This type of relationship is valuable. But, all too often, rotten job candidates use those recruiters are their punching bags by disrespecting and demeaning them. If a recruiter raises concerns, definitely listen.

Some job candidates similarly shine for the “right people” but are rude to support staff when called or when they arrive for interviews. Before moving on with a job candidate, check with each staff member who had contact with them, from the junior staffer to HR to the front desk to the parking lot attendant, and ask them one, concrete question, “How did that person treat you?”

Asking this one question and discussing it with the recruiter can also help if the rudeness is directed at you (the employer or hiring manager). The person may have been given terrible advice to “Be confident!” which could be coming off as being arrogant. But their behavior toward non-decisionmakers can offer you clues that the person may be nervously playing a role (and failing miserably).

2. They’re a Hellraiser

Our recruiters told us several stories about job candidates showing signs that they’ll stir things up in your organization, and not in a good way. Don’t ignore those clues. For example, a job candidate recently turned a question of “Will you be comfortable wearing a face mask at work?” into a political discourse on what he termed the “fake” pandemic. Another blamed the recruiter when the employer decided the candidate’s experience wasn’t strong enough.

Bringing up politics or biases and showing outrage against past employers or coworkers are certainly red flags. But what about the more subtle signs of a toxic personality? Try these tips:

  • Observe their body language. This can be hard to do remotely, but if you do get into a room with the job candidate, look for signs that go beyond nervousness. Take prolonged eye contact, for instance. “If a candidate’s stare starts creeping you out, then chances are, they’re trying a little too hard to seem calm and collected,” says Mark Wilkinson, founder and recruiter of Coburg Banks in the UK. He offers other body-language tips here.
  • Ask the right question. You could be bold and ask a key “gotcha” question like, ‘What five things did you like least about your former employer?” or “Why shouldn’t I hire you?” You could ask more complex behavioral questions like “Tell me about a time you failed?” and watch out for complaining, blaming, or “me first” language (not giving credit to others on the team). This classic Inc. article offers some terrific interview questions that can expose toxic behaviors.

3. They Lie

You know the statistics: More than 75% of job candidates lie on their resumes. It’s so pervasive that it’s almost impossible to hire someone who hasn’t veered from the truth a little. But that’s the key, says our recruiters: Some transgressions are less forgivable than others. True red flags include lying about job-critical skills and degrees. These lies can be downright dangerous. We were told about a forklift driver who lied about being able to drive a forklift, and then there’s this story of a woman who was sent to prison for lying about her experience and education and for impersonating a job reference.

Thankfully, background screening can reveal many lies, especially critical ones. Your recruiting partner can help you determine what level of background screening should take place for your open jobs. Job references can also help reveal inflated job responsibilities and successes. Even a quick online search—including comparing the candidate’s LinkedIn profile to their resume—can reveal discrepancies. For ideas on the types of background screening other employers are doing right now, check out our list here.

4. They’re a Jack (or Jill) of All Trades

“I can do anything and everything!” “I’ll do whatever you need me to do!” “I’m happy when others are happy!” These agreeable job candidates rarely work out, our recruiters lament. Being well-rounded is excellent. So is being easy to work with. But a job candidate should be able to pinpoint their strengths precisely and have some sort of career goals in mind that they’re willing to share.

This is a red flag because it could mean the job candidate will need to be micromanaged. If you’re looking for someone who is self-motivated, a people-pleaser won’t cut it. Some question you could ask to cut through the pleasantries into what motivates the job candidate could be:

  • Tell us about an idea you started that involved collaboration with your colleagues that improved the business.
  • At times you may be asked to do many things at once. Tell me how you would decide what is most important and why.
  • Can you give me an example of a new idea you suggested to your manager within the last six months?
  • Tell me a time when you identified a problem with a process, and what steps did you take to improve the problem?

You can find these questions and others here. This behavior often goes hand-in-hand with other red flags like showing a lack of interest or curiosity about the job. When you need to probe for answers and still don’t get them, it may be time to move on.

A bad hire can cost you 30% of that employee’s first-year earnings, not to mention lost momentum, productivity, and morale. That should scare your socks off, but you don’t have to be haunted by the prospect if you know how to spot the signs.


The HT Group fills roles in Temporary Staffing, Executive Search, Technical Recruiting, and Retained Search.

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