Ethical dilemma: an employee has a troubled past with someone you’re about to hire


Three AHRI members explain how they’d respond to a situation where a trusted employee opens up about a toxic relationship they have with someone you’re about to hire.

In part six of HRM’s ethical dilemma series, where we ask AHRI members to respond to made-up ethical dilemmas, we explore what HR professionals should do after learning that a trusted, long-term employee has raised concerns about a person you’re about to hire.

The dilemma

You are recruiting for a cybersecurity specialist role in your organisation. You have interviewed a candidate who is highly qualified and seems to be a perfect fit for the role, so you decide to offer him the job.

After you have called him to let him know, an existing long-term employee asks to speak with you. The employee saw the candidate come in for his final interview and recognised him from a role at a previous organisation. She tells you that the candidate exhibited toxic bullying behaviour in this previous role and she wouldn’t be comfortable working with him again.

You did not get this impression from your meetings with the candidate, or from his references, but you trust that the employee wouldn’t make up a story like this.

The candidate has not yet signed on the dotted line. What would you do next?

Mark’s response

There should be serious consideration when appointing someone with the potential to bring further risk into a cybersecurity specialist role. Full trust and good character should be non-negotiables. Therefore, any conflicts of information regarding the candidate should be treated as important and, where possible, investigated and substantiated. This should be HR’s priority.

As your current, trusted employee has brought you this information, it should be treated as a red flag for potential risk to the team’s psychosocial safety and potential future claims of bullying.

If there is no way to gather further information without bringing the employee or the candidate into a situation where their confidentiality is compromised, I would ensure the candidate and employee are immediately notified of the role being put on hold pending further investigation. 

I would potentially close off the role since I had already offered it to him verbally, and offer a gesture of 1-4 weeks wages as a gratuity, aligning with the requirements that would have been in the contract for employer-initiated termination. This should appease the candidate and show good faith in the process while also addressing your current employee’s concerns in a satisfactory manner.

Alicia’s response

Cultural fit is just as important as job fit, so everyone can succeed. Knowing your organisation’s ethical and risk tolerance is important. Low risk tolerance may mean withdrawing the offer immediately.

Alternatively, clarify with the candidate that further information is required to complete the process. Ask for peers or subordinate referees and check these thoroughly. You may also seek more insight with a psychometric test.

Have a deeper conversation with the candidate about their experience with previous organisational cultures: were there any areas of concern from their perspective?

You could also clearly describe your culture and how expectations are set and managed.

If you are progressing with the candidate, ensure a clear induction and probationary process. Ultimately, most people can behave differently in the right culture and with appropriate coaching.

It would also be reasonable to follow up with the existing employee to reassure them and explain how people can behave differently in a new environment. 

Provide them with strategies to deal with the situation and knowledge of how your company’s reporting/complaints process works. And lastly, confirm that you don’t want to lose them.

James’s response

There’s always a balance between talent that’s already working in an organisation, and attracting external talent to add missing skills, different perspectives and experiences, and to catalyse change and transformation. To get this right, navigating people’s experiences working with each other is important.

The approach to this situation needs to be practical. And if the potential hire and current employee will be working together, how this is handled is even more nuanced.

A strong reference checking process is critical to help you understand the allegation more deeply and ‘de-risk’ the situation. What has the current employee said? What was their working relationship like? Did anyone else in the team witness this behaviour? Did we speak to the potential hire’s current boss? Did we ask specifically about their results and how they behaved and work with others?

We need to understand the situation in a non-catastrophising way. We cannot say ‘X said you were toxic’ but rather ‘X mentioned you. Do you remember them?’ This might spark interesting insights.

If you’ve already done the reference checks, there would be no harm going back and asking some tactful, specific questions on this interpersonal relationship.

What would you do? Let us know in the comment section.

This article first appeared in the August 2023 edition of HRM Magazine. You can read the rest of our ethical dilemma series here.


Looking for ways to reimagine your company’s culture? AHRI’s short course, ‘Building an ethical workplace’, will help you define the professional and ethical principles which guide your organisation, and understand HR’s role in building an ethical workplace culture.


 

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Mona
Mona
9 months ago

In this situation I think it would be incredibly important to do some further investigation – both of the new hire (for example by speaking again with their referees) and of the current employee (find out more about what was difficult about their relationship and in what context). I have been in two or three such situations, and have taken something similar to Alicia’s approach by ‘presuming innocence’, allowing them them the benefit of the doubt, and aiming to have the workplace culture rub off on them to promote good behaviour. It didn’t work. Their behaviour was just as difficult… Read more »

Emilie T
Emilie T
8 months ago

It’s interesting that Mark’s particular title is Cultural and Safety Manager.

I agree that the red flag is significant, especially if the employee is known to be a reasonable and considered person. Environments may well be different, but personalities are general stable, so the risk to the team is high. Even if it were possible to investigate further, I would be intentionally difficult to reassure.

I would also prioritise psychosocial safety and team dynamics above skill set, interview performance and reference checks.

His approach also takes confidentiality seriously as well as the candidate’s financial entitlements.

Mark Sipple
Mark Sipple
8 months ago

This exact situation happened to me and I was the “trusted employee” in the situation. I had worked with someone previously who had subsequently become my client and now they had applied for a job at my organisation because they know my boss as well. I can tell you that if the person had been employed, I would have left. To me, it just wasn’t worth working with that person every day. Luckily for me, my boss also worked on the job we did for them as a client and saw first hand what they can really be like so… Read more »

Jo May
Jo May
7 months ago

The applicant’s CV would be of interest. Have they moved around a lot? Is there a lack of stability? If yes, this is a glaring red flag and supports the proposition they are a difficult person in the workplace. having been in this situation where I was no given warning of the applicant’s behaviour (had been moved 3 times in the organisation) and suffered at her hands and was accused of malicious acts. These types of people get ‘good reference checks’ because employers want them GONE. Danger Will Robinson. Your trusted employee is that; a trusted employee. Why waste time… Read more »

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Ethical dilemma: an employee has a troubled past with someone you’re about to hire


Three AHRI members explain how they’d respond to a situation where a trusted employee opens up about a toxic relationship they have with someone you’re about to hire.

In part six of HRM’s ethical dilemma series, where we ask AHRI members to respond to made-up ethical dilemmas, we explore what HR professionals should do after learning that a trusted, long-term employee has raised concerns about a person you’re about to hire.

The dilemma

You are recruiting for a cybersecurity specialist role in your organisation. You have interviewed a candidate who is highly qualified and seems to be a perfect fit for the role, so you decide to offer him the job.

After you have called him to let him know, an existing long-term employee asks to speak with you. The employee saw the candidate come in for his final interview and recognised him from a role at a previous organisation. She tells you that the candidate exhibited toxic bullying behaviour in this previous role and she wouldn’t be comfortable working with him again.

You did not get this impression from your meetings with the candidate, or from his references, but you trust that the employee wouldn’t make up a story like this.

The candidate has not yet signed on the dotted line. What would you do next?

Mark’s response

There should be serious consideration when appointing someone with the potential to bring further risk into a cybersecurity specialist role. Full trust and good character should be non-negotiables. Therefore, any conflicts of information regarding the candidate should be treated as important and, where possible, investigated and substantiated. This should be HR’s priority.

As your current, trusted employee has brought you this information, it should be treated as a red flag for potential risk to the team’s psychosocial safety and potential future claims of bullying.

If there is no way to gather further information without bringing the employee or the candidate into a situation where their confidentiality is compromised, I would ensure the candidate and employee are immediately notified of the role being put on hold pending further investigation. 

I would potentially close off the role since I had already offered it to him verbally, and offer a gesture of 1-4 weeks wages as a gratuity, aligning with the requirements that would have been in the contract for employer-initiated termination. This should appease the candidate and show good faith in the process while also addressing your current employee’s concerns in a satisfactory manner.

Alicia’s response

Cultural fit is just as important as job fit, so everyone can succeed. Knowing your organisation’s ethical and risk tolerance is important. Low risk tolerance may mean withdrawing the offer immediately.

Alternatively, clarify with the candidate that further information is required to complete the process. Ask for peers or subordinate referees and check these thoroughly. You may also seek more insight with a psychometric test.

Have a deeper conversation with the candidate about their experience with previous organisational cultures: were there any areas of concern from their perspective?

You could also clearly describe your culture and how expectations are set and managed.

If you are progressing with the candidate, ensure a clear induction and probationary process. Ultimately, most people can behave differently in the right culture and with appropriate coaching.

It would also be reasonable to follow up with the existing employee to reassure them and explain how people can behave differently in a new environment. 

Provide them with strategies to deal with the situation and knowledge of how your company’s reporting/complaints process works. And lastly, confirm that you don’t want to lose them.

James’s response

There’s always a balance between talent that’s already working in an organisation, and attracting external talent to add missing skills, different perspectives and experiences, and to catalyse change and transformation. To get this right, navigating people’s experiences working with each other is important.

The approach to this situation needs to be practical. And if the potential hire and current employee will be working together, how this is handled is even more nuanced.

A strong reference checking process is critical to help you understand the allegation more deeply and ‘de-risk’ the situation. What has the current employee said? What was their working relationship like? Did anyone else in the team witness this behaviour? Did we speak to the potential hire’s current boss? Did we ask specifically about their results and how they behaved and work with others?

We need to understand the situation in a non-catastrophising way. We cannot say ‘X said you were toxic’ but rather ‘X mentioned you. Do you remember them?’ This might spark interesting insights.

If you’ve already done the reference checks, there would be no harm going back and asking some tactful, specific questions on this interpersonal relationship.

What would you do? Let us know in the comment section.

This article first appeared in the August 2023 edition of HRM Magazine. You can read the rest of our ethical dilemma series here.


Looking for ways to reimagine your company’s culture? AHRI’s short course, ‘Building an ethical workplace’, will help you define the professional and ethical principles which guide your organisation, and understand HR’s role in building an ethical workplace culture.


 

Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

11 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mona
Mona
9 months ago

In this situation I think it would be incredibly important to do some further investigation – both of the new hire (for example by speaking again with their referees) and of the current employee (find out more about what was difficult about their relationship and in what context). I have been in two or three such situations, and have taken something similar to Alicia’s approach by ‘presuming innocence’, allowing them them the benefit of the doubt, and aiming to have the workplace culture rub off on them to promote good behaviour. It didn’t work. Their behaviour was just as difficult… Read more »

Emilie T
Emilie T
8 months ago

It’s interesting that Mark’s particular title is Cultural and Safety Manager.

I agree that the red flag is significant, especially if the employee is known to be a reasonable and considered person. Environments may well be different, but personalities are general stable, so the risk to the team is high. Even if it were possible to investigate further, I would be intentionally difficult to reassure.

I would also prioritise psychosocial safety and team dynamics above skill set, interview performance and reference checks.

His approach also takes confidentiality seriously as well as the candidate’s financial entitlements.

Mark Sipple
Mark Sipple
8 months ago

This exact situation happened to me and I was the “trusted employee” in the situation. I had worked with someone previously who had subsequently become my client and now they had applied for a job at my organisation because they know my boss as well. I can tell you that if the person had been employed, I would have left. To me, it just wasn’t worth working with that person every day. Luckily for me, my boss also worked on the job we did for them as a client and saw first hand what they can really be like so… Read more »

Jo May
Jo May
7 months ago

The applicant’s CV would be of interest. Have they moved around a lot? Is there a lack of stability? If yes, this is a glaring red flag and supports the proposition they are a difficult person in the workplace. having been in this situation where I was no given warning of the applicant’s behaviour (had been moved 3 times in the organisation) and suffered at her hands and was accused of malicious acts. These types of people get ‘good reference checks’ because employers want them GONE. Danger Will Robinson. Your trusted employee is that; a trusted employee. Why waste time… Read more »

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