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High conflict people: Learning to stop them before they start!

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BEWARE OF A WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING – IDENTIFYING HIGH CONFLICT PEOPLE SO YOU DON’T MAKE A RECRUITMENT DECISION YOU LIVE TO REGRET

One of the great challenges for senior managers, even senior and seasoned executives and HR managers, is identifying candidates who might be high conflict people (HCP) or have extensive HCP tendencies that could prove disastrous for you and your organisation if they were to be unwittingly recruited.

The trouble is, HCPs most typically target senior roles in line with their elevated career ambition, present solidly on paper, and even do well, if not very well at interview. So, how do you protect yourself and your organisation from making a poor recruitment decision when so much of the data around this candidate might have you fast-track them into your business?

In short, always have a healthy degree of caution about the too-good-to-be-true candidate profile as it may mask the reality of a HCP moving on from their last appointment, sometimes in messy circumstances. The trouble is once recruited and onboard, almost without exception, these same candidates turn out to reveal a very different side to themselves. In time, you will likely be dealing with someone who is intense, excessively defensive, capricious, divisive, damaging to others, and then, when it all gets horribly untenable, difficult to get rid of.

For HCPs, it is incumbent to pay even greater attention to their story and employment history as this data often provides clues you may miss in the whirlwind of positivity that sometimes surrounds their transition to employment. And, these appointments are not as rare as you might think or hope.

Most executives and senior managers have a handful of memorable appointments throughout their career that have consumed hundreds of hours of their time, and way too much of their energy, to manage to some sort of satisfactory conclusion. So why does this happen?

You need to be looking and listening differently through the entire recruitment process to identify these candidates before you recruit them. So let’s break down two of the many tell-tale moments in the recruitment process where you might miss or overlook an opportunity to identify a HCP before they are ensconced in your organisation with many going on to cause havoc.

Too good to be true?

Often HCPs overstate their accomplishments, claim the glory of others, or worse shamelessly make stuff up. Many a HCP has been caught out faking qualifications, modifying employment periods or ‘gilding the lily’ in some way with their resumes. Referee checking deeper into their employment history is essential. Why not rely on their current or most recent employer’s testimony? Well, let’s just say, consciously
or unconsciously, the current employer, sometimes being motivated to be rid of this person, trumps their moral obligation to do you any favours by not warning you off employing them. This is sometimes referred to as the candidate being ‘dressed up for export’.

Be even more cautious about the candidate who disallows you to contact their current employer. If you do make an offer have it be subject to detailed reference checking. Slow the whole recruitment process down if you have any concerns. Seek out employers deeper in their employment past. Ask drill questions about anything that doesn’t look or sound right. Test the veracity of their claimed accomplishments, their employment period, even the role they claimed to have had as it is not unheard of that stuff has been made up to sounds grander or more impressive than it really was. Often cracks or holes in their ‘story’ start showing up and it is the work colleague or manager from yesteryear, with less fear of consequence, that is more likely to give you an honest appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses.

What type of interview may reveal their HCP tendencies?


Most HCPs are pretty solid if not impressive at interview.
Their self-confidence, presentation and intensity can be compelling. They are generally pretty good at behavioural interviewing too, even if superficially. So how do you potentially expose their HCP tendencies? Ask questions that would invite a reasonable candidate to be humble, or demonstrate deep reflection and even vulnerability – most HCPs simply cannot do this with authenticity. On that point, listen for authenticity rather than

a performance. Trust your intuition rather than overly rely on logic. Push, probe, challenge anything that doesn’t sound right. Listen for them acknowledging shared accomplishments and demonstrating genuine humility – again this is unlikely with most HCPs.

Put them under pressure with a complex case study at interview and challenge their plan and reasoning. Why would you do this? Most HCPs have poor emotional intelligence and with that, self-regulation and emotional self-control. They don’t like being challenged or any suggestion their story doesn’t stack up or is falling short in some regard. Keep drilling them, okay, so what else? You’ve described it but I’m still not sure how/why you would propose to manage the situation? I’m not sure you’ve answered that fully, I come back to how/why would you do this? It doesn’t take too much challenging to trigger an excessively defensive response or even anger. A reasonable candidate will generally stay calm, professional, not get hooked in by your probing and are likely to be humble or show contrition in the face of questioning of this type.

Beware of candidates who seem to change whole industries or sectors more than would be typical. For some HCP candidates, they know they have to ‘move on’ from the last industry as they have a history they’d prefer doesn’t catch up with them. Sometimes there are logical reasons for frequent industry, geographic or even sector change but see it as a potential warning sign of someone escaping their sullied past. Remember too, if the candidate gets through the interview but things show up in the referee check, then get them back in for another interview and really test thoroughly all avenues you may have concerns about. This small investment of additional time may save you hundreds of hours of anguish by making a poor appointment.

Finally, if you do appoint them, be vigilant and act quickly on poor behaviour so you can review your options prior to the end of their probation period.

Sounds harsh? Importantly, often the honeymoon period is short with HCPs before cracks in their behaviour and performance start showing up. These can be overlooked or dismissed on the basis of it being “early days’ or giving the candidate the benefit of the doubt. This casual diminishing of these early warning signs can prove painful, even regretful, if you don’t act quickly enough. Talk to trusted employees working closely with the recently appointed individual as it is much more difficult to be rid of them post probation – and they rarely go quietly. You’ll soon learn they invariably know their rights, have walked this adversarial path all too often and are energised by a fight.

You just have to ask yourself, is it a fight worth having or is it better to call it early and avoid what has a high potential to be a regrettable appointment.


By Paul Gretton-Watson
Director Research and Innovation – Converge International


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