A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
We’ve all met them. The world’s out to get them. Every boss, coworker and subordinate is scheming to assure their demise. Setbacks are never their fault. They are a victim.
Victims are bad enough in our personal lives, but they can be especially disastrous at a startup because a small company’s culture can be disproportionately poisoned by a single bad hire.
“I am not a victim of emotional conflicts. I am human.”
American Actress, Marilyn Monroe
Some people are quite happy being unhappy. Marriage counselors advise young lovers to never marry someone with the intent of changing them. Follow this advice when recruiting.
Throughout their lives (personal, professional and otherwise), such folks are unable to internalize responsibility for their actions. Every time something goes wrong in their careers, it is always someone else’s ‘fault’, invariably someone who was ‘out to get them’.
Clearly, it is possible for anyone to occasionally become embroiled in a bad employment situation. Nearly everyone at some point in their professional career has been treated poorly in some way. However, if a candidate’s repeatedly negative comments make it clear that such ‘mistreatment’ is a recurring theme throughout their careers; the warning bells should sound and you should quickly cut bait. A normal person is occasionally slighted by their employer. Victims perpetually perceive such slights.
In such cases, the person either repeatedly exercised bad judgment that led them to accept jobs in unhealthy environments or (more likely) they lack the self-awareness to accept and share the responsibility for their career setbacks. Either way, you do not want their bad luck / bad judgment to taint your team.
Self-identified victims are fairly easily to identify during the recruitment process, if you are attuned to the signs.
- Externalize Failure — Healthy startups have a culture of accountability. Victims cannot be held accountable, because it is never their fault. There is always some other factor responsible for their failures. This mentality limits their ability to learn from their mistakes and fosters a culture of finger pointing and blame.
Effective employees internalize their failures and setbacks. They honesty assess what went wrong in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future. For instance, if a sale is lost to a competitor, self-aware employees examine what they could have done differently during the sales process, rather than deriding the lost customer as “stupid” or alleging that a competitor beat them using nefarious tactics.
Red Flags: “They never gave me the resources I needed to succeed.” Or “My team was weak. I could never hire good people because my boss wasn’t willing to pay market salaries.” “The Founders couldn’t raise the capital I needed to execute my strategic plans.”
- Single-handed Success — To the victim, success does not have “one hundred fathers.” Rather, it is the result of their intellect and hard work.
Victims overvalue their contributions and exaggerate the degree of their involvement in successful initiatives. Few successes are achieved by just one person. Self-aware candidates freely acknowledge the contributions of their teammates, bosses and other stakeholders.
Red Flags: Frequent use of “I and Me” instead of “Us and We” “I generated 53% of the company’s sales.” “My deals kept the company afloat.”
- Them & They — Victims describe their past coworkers as if they were never a member of the organization, using pronouns such as, “they” and “them.”
Red Flags: “I tried to tell them that their target market didn’t make sense, but they wouldn’t listen to me.”
- Everyone Is Clueless — Victims are the sole source of wisdom in their universe. Co-workers are clueless because they fail to appreciate the victim’s brilliance.
Red Flags: “My boss didn’t know what she was doing. She was totally clueless.” “The CEO and the investors didn’t have a clue, despite my repeated warnings that their strategy wouldn’t work.” “Marketing couldn’t generate decent leads and their collateral materials were terrible.”
- Past Is Prologue — Perpetual victims often seek retribution for their imagined injustices through third parties, such as government agencies and the courts. Fortunately, the typical victim’s lack of self-awareness makes it relatively easy to determine if they previously brought an action against any of their former employers. Just ask them.
The government and courts play an important role in balancing worker and employer rights. Thus, the simple fact that a candidate has previously been embroiled in a labor issue shouldn’t de facto disqualify them from further consideration. In fact, it is illegal to not offer someone employment solely on the basis of a prior employment lawsuit.
Understand if seeking retribution is a pattern of behavior or a one-time, justified action. Many such instances will be subject to confidentiality agreements. Fortunately, you don’t need to know the details of such disputes to appreciate the spirit in which they were initiated.
Red Flags: Understand the general facts behind any prior arbitration, governmental or legal dispute in which the candidate has been embroiled.
Victims Love Company
“If misery loves company, misery has company enough.”
American Author, Henry David Thoreau
Perpetually unhappy people are poisonous to your culture. If left unchecked, their vitriol can lead to an “us versus them” divide that will impact your organization’s productivity and morale.
You may feel empathy when interviewing a victim, but never allow your emotions to result in a bad hire. Once a victim, always a victim. No matter how much support or praise you heap on them, you are not going to change them.
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