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To Avoid Sexual Harassers, Start with Hiring Process

With sexual harassment and other bullying behaviors receiving more attention, and with lawsuits increasing, employers have been busy updating or creating anti-harassment policies and training their employees.

Besides the fallout from having sexual harassment occur in your workplace, employers may be targeted in “negligent hiring” charges if victims of on-the-job harassment file suit. That’s why much of the conversation among human resources specialists and risk managers is avoiding hiring harassers, or potential harassers, in the first place.

But how do you identify a harasser during the hiring process, and how far can you go to make sure that you don’t employ one? Dr. John Sullivan, an HR pundit from Silicon Valley, recommends the following methods for screening out potential offenders, and that these checks should only be done for finalist candidates.

Develop a set of indicators – Dr. Sullivan recommends that you develop a set of indicators – or traits – of previous problem employees in the workplace, particularly their attitudes about certain subjects and workplace culture. Besides your own indicators, you can conduct your own research and learn from other companies and what they have found are signs that point to potential harassers.

Toxic-employee indicators

  • Professionals who are notably overconfident about their technical proficiencies are 43% more likely to engage in toxic behavior.
  • Self-proclaimed “rule followers” are 33% more likely to be problem employees.


Armed with this kind of data, you can formulate questions that will help you ascertain if a candidate is overconfident about their technical proficiency or claims they are a rule follower.

Source: Cornerstone OnDemand

Employee referrals – You should allow employees to refer candidates they have worked with in the past for open positions. Based on prior experience working with someone, your current employees will know what kind of person the prospect is in the workplace.

Conduct peer interviews – You may want to consider having finalist candidates be interviewed by their future colleagues, particularly the ones who will work closely with them. Those future colleagues probably have the most vested in identifying harassers, since they are likely the ones to be most affected if they turn out to be toxic.
You can help your employees by asking them to look for the aforementioned indicators that you have developed.

A new approach to calling references – Instead of calling an HR department for references, try instead to call the candidate’s former manager or co-workers. Dr. Sullivan recommends: “Ask them a direct question like, ‘Please help me protect my employees. I need to know if you have seen any indication of sexual harassment or other toxic behaviors in this individual? All I need is a yes or no answer.’

Create social interactions – Companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines try to put top candidates in social situations that they can observe. Zappos, for example, sets up social events like coffee sessions and after-work activities. Instead of hiring managers watching them, they have other employees observe the candidates in more buttoned-down situations when their guards are down.

Situational questions – For the most part during interviews you will have to finesse the process of trying to extract information. Dr. Sullivan recommends questions like: “In a situation where you yourself were actually witnessing sexual harassment, what would you do?”

Then you could look for things they didn’t mention, like “reporting the incident.”

Situational questions can reveal a lot about a person’s moral fiber.

Use behavioral and personality tests – Off-the-shelf behavioral and psychological tests aren’t specifically designed to weed out harassers, but they can be indicators of how job candidates treat others. These tests assess people on:

  • Civility
  • Integrity
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Values
  • Moral character
  • Ethics
  • Conscientiousness, and more


Some of these factors can indicate a problem employee.

The final step – after hiring

Dr. Sullivan recommends that you continue to assess new employees in the months after they are hired and still on probation. You can better evaluate them during their probation, when it’s easier to let someone go.

You can gauge them to see if they meet your behavior or value standards.



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