6 Toxic Leadership Candidate Red Flags for Executive Search Firms

Executive search firms aim to pair their clients with leaders who will make a lasting impact on their organization and continue to push them forward. But what happens when a toxic candidate makes their way through the placement process?

A toxic leadership candidate can not only hurt the business where they have been hired, but the consequences can reflect back on the search firm that recommended them as well. That's why it's critical to ensure candidates are thoroughly evaluated for signs of toxic leadership before they are recommended.

How Does Recommending Toxic Leadership Candidates Hurt Search Firms?

A toxic leadership candidate who slips through the cracks during the search and hiring processes can significantly impact your client’s business. As a search firm, your first goal should be to make your clients happy and deliver high quality executive candidates, but a secondary goal is securing and protecting the reputation of your own search firm. In fact, recommending an unfit candidate can have significant and lasting repercussions, including:

  • Reputation Damage: Businesses turn to executive search firms for their expertise in selecting highly qualified leadership candidates. When even one toxic leader slips through the cracks, the results can be detrimental to the reputation of the search firm. Beyond that, a bad hire is known to cost a business about 30 percent of the employee’s initial earnings. When this kind of loss is tied back to a search firm, it may stand out when new clients look to them for their services. Reputation holds a lot of weight when it comes to new business opportunities, and a track record peppered with toxic leadership candidates will hold your team back.
  • Loss of Revenue: Each search firm is different, but depending on the agreement made between your team and your client, you might lose significant earnings as a result of a poor quality of hire. By recommending a toxic candidate, your client might request a refund for failing to meet their needs. If this becomes a common occurrence, revenue will continue to plummet and hinder the success of the business.
  • Lawsuits: It’s critical that search firms remain compliant with all legal requirements when conducting online screenings and background checks. While there may be lots of information about a candidate available, your search and due diligence processes must be conducted ethically and legally. As a result of any information which is wrongfully collected or violates a contract established with a client, there may be grounds for a lawsuit against the executive search company. That’s why it’s crucial to carefully conduct background and online screenings in a manner that is compliant with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).
  • Hinder Momentum: In the executive search space, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of matching clients with the perfect leadership candidate, especially when you keep accomplishing win after win. This forward momentum can come to a screeching halt as soon as one instance of workplace misconduct occurs as a result of a toxic hire. As stated previously, a toxic recommendation can hinder reputation, slowing down the positive momentum you were previously experiencing.

To stay mindful of the effects of recommending a toxic leadership candidate, the Fama Technologies blog is a great resource to keep you up-to-date on quality of hire concerns. And, as a gentle reminder why it’s so important, keep a lookout for monthly reports regarding workplace misconduct in the news.

6 Common Red Flags of Toxic Executive Candidates

As an executive search firm, it’s your responsibility to find candidates who will help your clients thrive. Thankfully, there are some common toxic leadership traits you can keep any eye out for. Whether these red flags appear in an online screening or a background check or even an interview, it’s critical to consider the impact of executive misconduct in the workplace before making your final recommendations.


The last thing any workplace needs is a bully. Bullying is often used as a mechanism to boost a person’s ego or cope with bad news. A leader who pushes others around is going to significantly impact workplace culture, leading to high turnover rates. No one wants to be ridiculed or made to feel uncomfortable, which can be avoided when leaders know how to control their emotions and not take things out on others around them

Signs of bullying can be discovered through online screening. In fact, social media screening is a great way to find out more information about the true colors of a candidate. How a person chooses to portray themselves online can reflect how they will behave or perform at work. As a search firm, you should keep an eye out for mean comments on social media profiles or general negative language being used on the internet. Someone who is frequently commenting hateful things on social media may continue this sort of negative behavior offline as well.


Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for internal biases to show themselves in the workplace. However, executive search firms should be looking for signs of past discrimination from leadership candidates. This might look like sharing intolerant or discriminator messages online, an inability to be inclusive with others in the workplace, or even discrimination lawsuits naming the candidate as a defendant.

A thorough screening of a candidate can turn up previous instances of discrimination. Someone who has a history of discrimination can produce a highly toxic work environment, even for those who are not the intended target.

Take for example, Acitvision Blizzard, who has faced a large number of allegations of sexual assault and mistreatment of female employees over several years, according to Forbes. A 2021 lawsuit alleges that Activision Blizzard had established a “frat boy” culture in the office that frequently ignored sexual harassment complaints. In 2023, the business had to pay $35 million in order to resolve claims that it “lacked adequate measures to assess workplace misconduct reports.” In these instances, advanced online screening solutions could have helped to identify harmful and discriminatory actions before the situation grew out of hand.

Withholding Information

An honest employee will make great contributions to any organization. However, as soon as someone is caught lying, it might be difficult to learn to trust them again. Fortunately, background screening checks of online sources, subscription news services, and litigation databases can verify if the information a candidate has provided is accurate and true. This way, search teams can ensure that they are conducting a thorough investigation into the credibility of the leadership candidate.

Someone who has a tendency to lie can greatly impact the happiness of the other workers. For example, let’s say someone in a leadership position takes credit for an employee’s work. This is quite confusing for the employee, and can lead to distress while at work, all because a leader refused to attribute responsibility to the right person.

Plus, this leader will come across as unsupportive of their team. While this may seem small, this action repeated over and over again can result in a poor work culture and unhappy employees. Honest leaders will recognize their team for the work that they do and provide support where needed. And, they will ensure to provide the team and other organizational stakeholders with the right information they need at the right time – ensuring alignment, trust, and business success.


Nobody likes to be closely watched. The feeling of someone lurking over your shoulder or criticizing your work can be a huge hurdle to tackle in the workplace. Executive search firms should be mindful of signs of micromanaging from a candidate’s previous work performance.

It’s common for toxic leaders to believe they are always right or they can do a task better than anyone else can. This is often a sign of lack of trust in others and can slow down processes when that individual feels as though they need to re-do, or micromanage, the work of their employees.

A good leader trusts their employees to get their work done in a timely manner, even if their methods differ from their own. This kind of trust in others and open mindedness can make a strong positive impact in the workplace, as well as boosting morale of the employees.

Inability to Receive Criticism

When evaluating candidates, it’s important for executive search firms to be mindful of each applicant’s ability to receive feedback. Businesses are looking for leaders who are willing to learn. To do so, these businesses are turning to you as a trusted executive search partner to thoroughly evaluate candidates and look for previous instances of aggression or defensiveness after receiving feedback.

People who are unable to receive feedback in a positive manner are often set in their ways and difficult to work with. Other employees might feel as though they need to tip-toe around this person in order to move forward with their work, or face their aggressive tendencies. When this occurs, these actions can hold the rest of the team back instead of making strides toward their goals as a company.

Lack of Empathy

Emotional intelligence can make an employee feel comfortable at work. Without empathy, leaders will struggle to develop positive relationships with their employees. This can make it difficult to motivate team members and build a positive work environment.

Unfortunately, leaders who fail to show empathy are often the most memorable, but for the wrong reasons. It’s easy for employees to hold onto their negative experiences as they tend to hold more weight than positive ones. Overtime, as leaders continue to fail to show empathy, they may struggle to communicate efficiently with their team members and build trust in the workplace.

Find a Partner to Help You Improve Your Executive Search Efforts!

The unfortunate truth is that executive search firms who recommend toxic leadership candidates can face a range of negative impacts. Not only should search firms strive to perform well for their customers, but they need to hold up their own reputation and business as well. The good news is that placing qualified candidates is easy with third party screening tools.

Fama’s online screening tools are designed to spot many of the red flags we’ve discussed as well as misconduct like threats, violence, sexual misconduct, and more. This way, executive search firms can be confident in the candidates they recommend to their clients.  To learn more about our AI screening tools and how they can support your search firm, request a demo from the Fama team today!