Dealing with problematic candidates

During the recruitment and selection process, it’s no surprise to be confronted with something that you don’t expect. Recruiters experience it frequently, from spectacularly ill-prepared or over-prepared candidates to those who have essentially lied on their CV to earn an interview. While screening calls and CV scrutiny can root out most of the timewasters in the process, there is a certain percentage who will present for interview or assessment with far different character traits than what you might have expected from their CV. You get that sinking feeling, knowing in your gut after just a few minutes that this is not the right person for your organisation.

But you persevere, after all the process is the process, and maybe you’ll be able to crack their teak-tough veneer, calm their jitters or coax them out of their shell. Let’s have a look at some of the different personality differences you might encounter.

Tough talker but over-sensitive

This is the type of candidate that over-accentuates their achievements but is unable to deal with even the mildest criticism of critique of them. If you’re examining their portfolio and say that their work is great but some of the design is a bit dated, they will react defensively and perhaps question your design credentials. The former may just be nerves, but the latter should be a flashing warning sign unless it’s a very informal interview and you may already know the candidate. If you ask someone why they left a previous role and they begin to cast unfounded assertions about previous employers, this should also flick your warning switch.

The reason you’re asking about previous positions is that you want to see where this candidate wants to go professionally and why previous roles may have either constrained them in terms of professional development or overextended them in terms of their professional knowledge. Any interviewee who disparages previous employers will likely do the very same about you at some point in the future.

For these types of candidates, if you believe their CV really represents a skill you need, try to find out how they take direction, or if they can take direction. How do they react to management and can they take feedback. If any of the above is likely to be a consistent issue, then it is unlikely you are talking to the right person for the position.

The F.E.A.R

So their CV jumped right out of your inbox, the competencies, skills and experience you need. The tone of their writing is engaging and refreshing. Then you meet them and the poor soul across from you has drank the glass of water you offered in one gulp and is fiddling nervously with the corner of his or her CV while banging their knee nervously off the underside of the desk. The nerves have well and truly set in and you can’t coax more than a word or two from them in response to standard questions. If it’s just purely nerves, then maybe they will subside as the interview continues, but if it gets worse there could be an underlying issue, relating to undisclosed personality traits or the veracity of their CV.

Perhaps try and ‘warm them up’ with some softer, more open-ended questions to get them talking. If they come clean and say they are nervous, then try to help as much as you can, allowing their personality to come out slowly. But if they remain in defensive mode then there is only so much you can do. Give them as much opportunity as possible, but at the end of the day remember that it is the candidate’s job to sell their skills to you. You may find that someone who is nervous and quiet in the interview, may be hyperactive from a distance. Be prepared to be bombarded by emails and messages asking for feedback as to how they did not get the role. Make sure you and your colleagues on the interview panel are on the same page, so the candidate can get a polite and firm response as to why they are not right for your organisation.


On the flip side, you can find yourself in a room with someone who considers your time to be there time to shine, and boy are you going to hear about it. A simple question may elicit a rambling, irrelevant response about something overly personal or perhaps even inappropriate. And best of luck if you ask them if they have any questions for you. By holding firm and curtailing their over-enthusiasm at the start of the interview you may find that their posture changes and they calm down and begin to focus on the skills on their CV that made you want to interview them in the first place. Let them understand that you value passion and creativity, but not at the expense of someone who can’t handle pressure or who can’t answer a simple question directly and concisely. You also need to consider what effect they could have on others within their team.

And then there are people…

Who are just difficult. We have all met enough of them in life’s various facets. But some of them operate at a level that only becomes apparent when the door closes in an interview room, or even worse after they have been hired. They then bide their time until after probation has passed, or they consider their time has come for a promotion, to wreak absolute havoc. It’s hard to know how much damage people in these positions can do until it is too late in some cases. A senior product manager for a global legal technology firm told gradireland that a person in their organisation caused massive issue through unfounded allegations. “When passed over for internal promotion, she made a series of unfounded but highly damaging allegations about personnel in business, male and female, which led to three key members of staff feeling that they had no choice but to leave,” she said.

Ensure you know your conflict and dispute resolution process, whatever the size of your business and ensure that it is adhered to. Be aware of your legal responsibilities too and document everything, avoiding unnecessary and often ugly verbal confrontations. If you have followed proper disciplinary process and warnings procedures, then you are within your rights to terminate the employment of anyone who you deem to be damaging to the business interests of the firm and/or the culture of your organisation.

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