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How not to hire a narcissist

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: September 9, 2019
  • Published September 9, 2019

The candidate looked great on paper. “Michael” had held senior positions at two large companies and had an MBA. He dazzled you and the rest of the selection team during two rounds of interviews, answering every question succinctly, articulately and with a sense of humor.

When asked, "What puts you in the job market?" Michael gave the answer you hoped to hear. “My calling is turning around problem departments and companies. By the time they’re running smoothly, I’ve developed a successor and am ready for my next challenge." Your company urgently needs someone with that skill set.

It bothers you slightly that Michael doesn’t want you to check with his current boss. However, he gave you a reasonable explanation. "If you decide not to hire me, I’ll still need to work there. He’s the kind of man who feels betrayed when one of his team looks for a new job.” Also, he gave you two references from others in his current company, both individuals he had hired for prominent positions.

Unfortunately, you can't fully check references from Michael’s prior employer either, as the individual who supervised him had a heart attack and left the company. Michael’s former peers have also moved on, most during the same time period he departed.

You put your worries aside and hire Michael. Three months later, you realize you’ve hired a charismatic narcissist.

Narcissists see the world through a lens of “me,” yet easily land new jobs and then rapidly rise through organizational ranks because they excel at selling themselves.

If you hire them, you pay the price. They expect applause and react angrily when they don't get it. They manipulate others to get what they want. By the time you figure Michael out, he’s hired two incompetent sycophants for key positions, leaving you with two problem employees when you terminated him. You can’t believe how stupid you were to allow Michael to hire the two individuals who’d been his job references.

If you don’t want ever again to hire narcissist, you need to learn to recognize them. Here’s how:

Narcissists can’t take criticism. During your hiring interview, critique something on the applicant’s resume or mention a negative comment you’ve learned through your reference checking process and watch the narcissist’s guard slip.

Narcissists don’t like to give others credit. Ask the applicant to describe an accomplishment made by a team he served on and listen to how the applicant handles the questions. Chances are, you’ll hear how the applicant steered the entire process to victory.

Listen carefully to how your applicant describes his former employers and job situations. Narcissists often subtly disparage former employers or insist they’re on the job market because no challenges remain with their former employers. If the narcissist completely dazzles you, you may forget to ask the narcissist’s former employers about the challenges that remain – that the narcissist’s replacement now handles.

Create a three-interview process and allow at least one peer and one support staff to interview the applicant. Narcissist candidates expect to dazzle and to be hired after their first interview. While they may maintain patience through two interviews, the third interview sets their teeth on edge, particularly if someone they regard as a natural subordinate joins the interview team.

Finally, make your hiring offer conditional on what you learn from your post-offer reference check. If you’d done that with Michael, you might have gotten an earful that would have saved you from compounding your hiring mistake.