How To Spot A Zealot (And Why You Should Avoid Hiring Them)


Photo via Benjamin Child, UnsplashPhoto via Benjamin Child, Unsplash

Have you ever had a really competent, even brilliant employee who mouths off in a way that polarizes your office? Ever had a team member who makes their numbers, but then posts things on social media that ticks off nearly everyone along the way?

After the most expensive and divisive midterm elections in the nation’s history, I don’t want you to think I am pushing any political agenda. But I am pushing this agenda: the healthiest workplaces are consistently low on the drama meter, and they weed out loud-mouthed zealots. Consequently, I’m learning that building a great workplace means interviewing and intentionally hiring people who have a non-anxious, non-polarizing presence.

This lesson has hit home for me big time, as that sort of hiring and behavior is crucial in my work. At Vanderbloemen, we serve a lot of faith-based organizations like churches, schools, relief groups, and even faith-based businesses. Our clients are all over the place politically (and theologically). We’ve taken the approach that we would rather err on the side of serving too many different clients than too few, so we have built a company that serves a big tent of opinions.

That means it’s critical that our people are not people who are inclined to air their political grievances online, or take a singular position or agenda and shout it from the rooftops. Our team members have their opinions, and we encourage that. In fact, we have a pretty wide range within the company itself. But whatever their opinion is, we hope and expect that our team members only issue them privately, and not in an arena that would appear to represent the company.

We are living in a day when everyone has a megaphone, a publishing company, and a platform at their fingertips and in their pocket, 24/7. That means that for me (and for you), everyone on the team could easily become a confused version of sharing personal opinions, and spokesperson for your brand and mission at any given moment. Employers cannot legislate what their employees do on their personal platforms, but reckless posting by employees really can risk your brand and even your cause. It’s an unprecedented dilemma. Freedom of speech and representing a company’s brand have hit a collision course.

So if you can’t mandate what people post, how do you keep from having the great employee who is a big hot mess on social media?

Here’s six things I’m learning about spotting zealots.

1. Watch out for the “absolutes” in vocabulary.

I’ve started counting the number of times someone I’m interviewing says “always,” “never,” “absolutely,” “worst,” and the like. Linguists actually refer to using these words as “absolute language.” I understand that those running for office need to clearly state positions, and in turn, may have good reason to be absolute. But if you’re interviewing someone who is trying to join a team of people who are trying to get important work done together in an apolitical environment, watch out for absolute language. Instead of getting someone who “isn’t afraid to take a stand,” you might be getting a bully who will be a nightmare to work with.

2. Be on the lookout for victims.

Far too often, I sit through interviews where people tell me what “happened to them” or the reason that their last job’s failure was due to “outside circumstances.” The worst is when they throw a previous boss under the bus. I know that people really are victimized in life, and bad things often happen to good people. But I’m learning that a victim mentality in an interview (when you are supposed to be putting your best foot forward) is a clear predictor of what social media posts will look at in the wee hours of the morning (when few are at their best). Conversely, if you interview someone who is always talking about their “lessons learned” from mistakes, and what part of the problem they were in a situation, you are interviewing a rare individual. Take note (and seriously consider hiring them on the spot).

3. Avoid people who constantly speak of the good old days.

It’s a natural human tendency to idealize the past and complain about the present. I get it. I’m from a small town, and I recently took my wife Adrienne there to see that I did actually walk to Kindergarten uphill each day (maybe not both ways or in the snow…). But those who always live in the past are prone to bemoan the future in a way that’s unhealthy. Ask questions about what life was like growing up, about favorite seasons of life, about best accomplishments. Also, ask about their outlook on the future. If all of the memories are pictures of halcyon days, and if the future is bleak, don’t be surprised if you’re interviewing a zealot. But if you find that the candidate is learning from the past and looking forward to a bright future, that’s a really good sign.

4. Stay away from the dramatic.

Drama isn’t bad, but constant drama in the workplace is rarely helpful. As you interview, listen for the drama level in answers. Ask about times in life where stress was really high. If it sounds like the candidate needs a fainting couch, buy them one. But don’t hire them.

5. Do NOT ask political questions.

This column has nothing to do with how people vote. Neither does interviewing. If you choose to ask candidates their political views, be prepared at best to lose good candidates, and at worst to have to call your employment attorney.

6. DO run a social media background check.

We run these with all finalists for our internal searches and we’re such strong believers in them that we run background and social media checks for our clients’ final candidates, too. They are somewhere between helpful and frightening. Digital footprints live forever, and just like performance, the best predictor of future social media posting is past social media posting. 

Free speech is fantastic, and I love the value our country has placed on it since our beginning as a nation. And despite the bickering and nastiness of this year’s mid-term, I believe that we are in the greatest democratic system on the planet.

Outspoken zealots can quickly kill team culture, and they can damage your company’s mission like never before. While I love a country that celebrates freedom of speech, I’ve decided that I just cannot hire a person whose personal zeal jeopardizes our company’s mission.

Hire slowly. Hire thoroughly. Hire for low drama. You won’t regret it. 



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here