How To Spot Disguised Workplace Bullies During The Interview

Published: Jun 16, 2016
Modified: May 20, 2020


Workplace bullies can slip under the radar of even the most experienced hiring manager. Dressed for battle in a red suit, Haley wore an air of superiority that made you grit your teeth at your final meeting. Where was the charming woman you interviewed three months earlier when you hired her?

“Consider it an education,” she said, as you handed her the severance check to go away.

And it was. You now knew what a Dr. Jekyll/Ms. Hyde could do, if hired. Two of the most toxic bully types, the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde shape shifter and the character assassin, often escape detection during the hiring process. Both present a charming, often charismatic persona, and dazzle hiring managers during interviews.

Here's what to know about these two bully types, how to recognize them during the interview process despite their disguises, and what happens if you hire them.

Shape shifters

Shape shifters, or Dr. Jekyll/Mr./Ms. Hyde bullies, flatter those from whom they seek opportunities and of whom they plan to take advantage. Crafty manipulators, shape shifters have their own success as their sole agenda and work toward what they want regardless of what it costs others. They steal credit for others’ efforts. Their peers and subordinates soon feel their claws. Shape shifters establish their status in organizations even as they weaken other employees’ relationships with their managers and vice versa.

Character assassins

Character assassins knock others down so they can feel taller. They ruthlessly defame their targets, repeating discrediting stories about those who stand in their way, in order to remove or neutralize them. Character assassins act without remorse and enjoy the results they achieve. Their poisonous divisiveness soon seeps into the fabric of a work group.

Recognizing bullies in disguise

You can detect these hidden bullies by asking, “How do you take criticism?”; “What are three of your Achilles’ heels?”; and “Please describe several achievements you and your team made.”

Shape shifter and character assassin bullies find it difficult to answer the first two questions. They may respond, “If the criticism has value, I appreciate it,” or “Those with low energy frustrate me, though I’ve learned how to motivate them,” providing a criticism of others rather than their own Achilles’ heels.

When you ask "bullies in hiding" to detail achievements, they focus on their own accomplishments—rarely, if ever, mentioning others.

In-depth reference checks offer you your best avenue for detecting shape shifters, as they frequently charm those in senior management. Search out individuals your applicants haven’t listed as references, and you'll hear a different story.

Character assassins subtly or overtly trash their former managers and employers, hinting to others of bogus ethical and other problems. Hire them, and you’re next.

Those who tangle with character assassins hesitate when you call them for a reference. Translate “I’d rather not say” as code for “I’m scared what I say might get back to the candidate.”

If you cast a wide net on social media to find what the applicant says about others, or ask people in the industry how the applicant speaks about past employers, you soon discover a propensity for undermining.

What happens if you hire an undercover bully?

Sooner or later, workplace bullies show their true colors and wreak significant collateral damage before you can remove them from your organization.

Like other bullies, shape shifters and character assassins demoralize productive employees and create abusive work environments, resulting in higher turnover and absenteeism rates, increases in medical and worker's compensation claims, and potential liability from outraged employees who sue when the bully finally steps over the line into discrimination, retaliation or illegal harassment. Here you can learn what HR professionals can do.

How do you avoid hiring disguised workplace bullies?  Deepen your questioning and reference-checking practices.

Don't make the mistake of bringing bullies on board. Recruit the right people for the job using best practices from AMA's resources and seminars.

About The Author
Dr. Lynne Curry, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, founded The Growth Company, Inc., a management consulting, training, human resources and organizational strategy firm. Curry has provided more than 55,000 consulting projects to more than 3,700 organizations. She is the author of Beating the Workplace Bully,